From SAFARI to Prince Igor: Tour de Ballet

This season, I had the wonderful opportunity to return to The State Ballet of Rhode Island as Communications Intern and performer. As I’ve written about in previous blog posts, it’s been a wonderful experience, and I am so glad to be back. I’ve just come off a long weekend full of dress rehearsals and performances with The State Ballet of Rhode Island, the company I’m interning for (and also playing piano with). The performances this weekend have been fantastic, and I was so happy that things turned out as well as they did! This Saturday, I finally had the chance after turning in all my assignments and papers to actually sit in the audience and enjoy the performance.

Watching and performing this weekend’s run of “Tour de Ballet,” I couldn’t help but feel that a sense of tradition permeated this season’s performances. Each ballet fit a certain theme, with different ballets paying homage to the tradition to different countries’ music and dance. From SAFARI, with each movement inspired by a certain country, to Act 2 and 3’s ballets,  it was truly an around-the-world performance experience. At the same time, it wasn’t only the tradition from all the countries to which we “journeyed” that was important, but also the SBRI tradition of creation, presentation and preservation itself that factored into such an effective and successful performance. Here’s something I wrote for SBRI’s latest email:

From the use of beautiful costumes, the restaging of ballets performed in seasons past, and even to the creation of new ones, The State Ballet of Rhode Island has always been dedicated to honoring, preserving, and recreating a great tradition, one that was begun by the Marsdens and carried on these past fifty-two years to the present.

Dancers Melissa Sorkin and Elise Costello dancing the Spanish movement of SAFARI

This tradition was carried out through the performance, and it was evident that the audience felt this too.

SAFARI, Act I, was choreographed by Mia Nocera Godbout with live chamber music composed and performed by Christy Isles and members of the Rhode Island Modern Music Project. Each movement corresponded to a specific place: America, Ireland, Spain, Russia, France, and then back to America with an exact repeat of the first movement. This was the first time in SBRI’s history that we’ve had live music in I don’t know how long, not to mention a score that was specifically composed for this ballet. Live music brings with it some nervousness due to its unpredictable nature as well as all the coordination involved, but overall it turned out well, and the dancers and choreography were beautiful. I played the piano for this one, including a duet in the Spanish piece with the composer and a piano solo for the French piece.

The collaborative effort did not end there. We had the privilege of Maya Tavares from Bristol Looms, RI weaving a tapestry built around her impressions of the music and the score itself. There are six sections to the tapestry, each corresponding to each movement. Maya is incredibly talented and the tapestry was so beautiful. You can see in the picture to the right the lines that represent the musical staves. As a musician, I thought that was incredibly fascinating! The colors were well chosen: the orange in the first section represented the sunrise, the green and yellow of the second represented Ireland, the orange and red for Spanish, and so on and so forth. I would buy it myself if I could! Check out her website for her work here, and maybe buy a scarf (or two).

Act 2 contained several smaller ballets. After Act 1, my ear was all set up for the intersection of music and dance, so I paid special attention to the kind of music that was chosen for each ballet. The first was Ballet Ireland, choreographed by Ana Marsden Fox. The dancing and costumes resembled those for Irish step dancing, and the seven dancers were perfectly coordinated. The composer, Bill Whelan, has worked specifically with Irish traditional music, and I thought the music and movements went especially well together. This was one of my favorites. Following this was “A Night in Vienna.” What better music for this than the sweeping, romantic music of Waltz King Johann Strauss? The dancers wore long dresses and white gloves, and their steps likewise resembled traditional waltz steps.

Click to enlarge. Soloist Emily O’Heir in Tarantella

Tarantella, performed by Garabed Koosherian and soloists Adrienne Raheb and Emily O’Heir, was full of astounding displays of virtuosity. All the dancers had tambourines, and Adrienne and Emily would use these as an active part of the dancing, often kicking their legs so high that they would hit the tambourine with their foot. All three dancers had amazing stamina, and the whole dance did not let up once but seemed to proceed at breakneck speed, with each dancer having his or her “moment” to show off dizzying technical virtuosity, all executed perfectly with a smile on their faces. The Tarantella, from Italy, is traditionally a folk dance with a fast upbeat tempo, accompanied by tambourines. Wikipedia tells me that it was also a solo dance that was performed to sweat the delirium caused by the bite of a spider. Often it’s also performed as a game of one-upmanship, when the dancers try to prove to each other that they’re better through subsequent variations increasing in speed and movement, and there’s a little of this in this ballet too.

The “Don Quixote Pas de Deux,” performed by Kimberly Najjar and Derek Kunz, provided a romantic breather after the Tarantella, and took the audience back to Spain. The pas de deux was intricately designed. The lifts in this one were extremely difficult, yet were executed effortlessly (there was a moment where Kimmie has to somehow get up on Derek’s shoulder and he has to carry her around like that…) It was beautiful.

The second act was concluded by “The Can-Can.” Originating in the music hall of France, it was traditionally supposed to be a provocative yet playful dance. Grove Music Online says,

A lively dance, developed from the quadrille, usually performed by a troupe of women in flouncy dresses, its acrobatic steps, high kicks, and splits, revealing the upper thigh. It became very popular in the music halls of mid-19th-century Paris, and was given a degree of respectability by the French operetta composers, notably Offenbach, who used it most effectively in his Orphée aux enfers (1858).

Sure enough, this fast-moving ballet abounded in plenty of kicks and splits and cartwheels. The costumes with their flouncy skirts were so much fun as well, and in the picture below, you can see the Cocodettes with their boas and multi-colored ruffly skirts. Check out those feathered headpieces, too! I think these were some of the most elaborate costumes I’ve seen in terms of the amount of stuff that has to put on: fishnet stockings, ruffled skirts, boas, headpieces, special underwear, dyed shoes, etc. It has to be easy to dance in as well, so kudos to the costume people! Elise Costello was also fantastic as the Baroness. The dancers here really captured the high energy and cheekiness of the dance perfectly. It was cute and funny and sexy overall.

Melissa Sorkin as Chief’s Favorite

The third act featured the Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. From what I know about Borodin, he was one of the Mighty Five, a group of Russian composers dedicated to creating and preserving a specifically Russian kind of classical music almost in opposition to Western classical forms. (Mussorgsky of “Pictures from an Exhibition” was one of these.) Some of the ways to do this included highlighting Russian historical characters in operas, setting the scenes to those distinctly Russian, and using a Russian folk or Slavic idiom in their music. In this ballet, for instance, the setting is a Polovtsian encampment with warriors returning on a raid on a hostile kingdom. As the encampment awakes in anticipation of the warriors’ return, both music and dance at the outset are magnificently savage with a lively, fast-paced theme in 16th notes, carried by the flutes. When the Chief Warrior returns with the captive maidens, a more lyrical, song-like theme is introduced (in other versions it actually is sung. Original lyrics are here). I’ve always felt that this theme is heartbreakingly beautiful and expresses perfectly the nostalgia and homesickness these captive maidens feel for their native land. This lyrical theme contrasts with the warriors’ more savage theme. Both themes are shown below. Musicians will notice that both themes use modal scales rather than traditional scales and are exemplary of a Slavic idiom rather than a specifically Western one.

In the scene, the Chief Warrior brings the captive maidens and commands them to dance. The Chief’s Favorite, played by Melissa Sorkin, is jealous and dances to attract him. You can see the contrast in the styles of dancing: Peg Chobanian as the slave girl has a more liquid style of dancing in contrast with Melissa’s ferocity. The dancing is in a Tartar folk idiom, and you can see from the costumes that they too have a Slavic influence. Further emphasizing the sense of tradition, the costume Melissa wore was the very same costume Herci Marsden wore years and years ago.

The scene builds up to a point where everyone joins in. Here you see Borodin’s mastery of themes. As both groups join in the dancing, the captive maiden theme and the more ferocious theme are layered on top of each other. It builds up to a point where the ballet and the show ends on a “note of wild exuberance.”

Over all, a lovely range of ballets that showcased the styles of different countries, from present with Mia and Christy’s SAFARI, to past with Polovtsian Dances. I am so glad that things worked out so that I was able to play an active role in the performance. Last year, at this same time after watching the spring show, I never dreamed that I would be able to participate to such a degree and I am fortunate that SBRI has given me that opportunity.

2 Responses to “From SAFARI to Prince Igor: Tour de Ballet”
  1. Mia Godbout says:

    Abby- your writing is exquisite! We were so fortunate to have such a talented musician such as yourself in our show. Thank you for taking part even though you were so busy wrapping things up for the semester and performing in your own concerts. We were honored you took part in “Tour de Ballet”.

  2. Abby, As executive director of State Ballet, I know all about the ballet’s performed this past weekend. After reading your blog, you reminded me of many things I had forgotten. I truly enjoyed reading your impressions. You Got It. You Got It All !

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