Divas on Pointe
Video: 4:3, colour and black-and-white
Audio: stereo and mono
Region code: 0 (playable all regions)
VAI DVD 4601 [76 mins]
Just like I was, you may have been attracted by the detailed list of the material on this DVD. There is, indeed, a great deal of fine dancing here that will delight both confirmed balletomanes and neophytes alike.
Nonetheless, you ought to be aware of a couple of issues that might give some slight pause for thought. The first is the fact that the included material is available on other VAI releases, so some or all of it may already be on your shelves. In my own case, I discovered that I already possessed eight of the thirteen tracks, so I’d certainly recommend double-checking that you’re not unnecessarily duplicating the performances.
The second is the technical quality of the source material. It is, after all, up to 74 years old and has not, as far as I’m aware, been professionally restored in any way. Remember, too, that much of it was originally filmed for TV broadcasts that were regarded as essentially ephemeral, with little if any consideration given to the idea that the performances might one day be of historic value. Such filmed ballet was only rarely accorded the best quality picture/sound available even at the time and often utilised cheaply constructed, minimally dressed and unattractive studio sets. Moreover, TV directors of the time generally had little if any specialist knowledge of the techniques required to showcase dancers to best effect. Performances, too, were usually broadcast live with no possibility of filming retakes subsequently to correct any glitches. It is also worth pointing out that some of these excerpts are in monochrome – and that even when colour was used it was sometimes poorly balanced or has simply faded terribly over the years (as, most notably here, in the Scotch symphony). All of them, by the way, require your TV set’s aspect to be adjusted to a 4:3 ratio in order to see the image in the correct proportions (if you leave it unadjusted, the ballerinas will have remarkably fat legs!) While such considerations of colour or screen ratios will probably not be important deterrents to most viewers, they may, perhaps, be an issue for some.
Having given fair warning of this disc’s drawbacks, I can confirm that it will nonetheless give the greatest pleasure to viewers who appreciate finely executed dancing. Just look, after all, at the roster of featured artists. While there remains no formal internationally-recognised procedure for awarding the essentially subjective status of prima ballerina assoluta (see here
this article for an interesting discussion of the issue), Galina Ulanova, Alicia Alonso, Maya Plisetskaya, Margot Fonteyn and Nina Ananiashvili were all widely accorded it, while none of the other dancers featured here is notably less accomplished.
Ms Plisetskaya exhibits an appropriately self-assured and aloof demeanour for Carmen’s entrance. This, of course, was one of her signature roles and, in spite of a rather unattractive colour palette of washed out yellows, it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off her as she dances her solo in a stylised bullring set. The director makes the justifiable choice to concentrate on Plisetskaya’s physicality by filming her in medium shot, but a welcome close-up at the very end of the sequence – in which her facial expression to the camera speaks volumes – makes one regret that a more sophisticated approach was not adopted.
I’ve always thought that scotch was a drink rather than a synonym of Scottish, but it turns out that the issue isn’t entirely cut and dried, so I’ll go along, on this occasion, with choreographer Balanchine’s decision to opt for the former in naming his ballet Scotch symphony. It’s a piece with nothing much to offer in the way of a story. Rather, it is an affectionate and atmospheric evocation of the ballets of the period 1830-1850, “a celebration of romantic and indeed Romantic Scottishness... [and] an evocation of Romantic themes, with ethereal dances for the ballerina…” (Zoë Anderson The Ballet Lover’s Companion [London, 2015], p. 169). More caustically, critic Alexandra Tomalonis has described it memorably as “Part La Sylphide, part Brigadoon” (quoted ibid). Its Adagio is executed, on this occasion, by the supremely elegant Maria Tallchief who adopts a convincingly detached and otherworldly persona that’s completely appropriate. She is well supported by her partner André Evlevsky and a somewhat menacing clan of eight be-kilted highlanders. Unfortunately, this extract is the one with the poorest colour reproduction. The predominant pink, along with a bit of black and tinges of green, is very washed out, inevitably reducing some of the pleasure in watching the performance.
Alicia Alonso was undoubtedly a supremely accomplished dancer, but her performance here of the Black swan pas de deux is not, I find, an especially memorable one. The role of Odile offers great opportunities for vivid characterisation but those are left unexplored on this occasion. Both in her dancing and her facial expression, Ms Alonso appears curiously detached – which might have been appropriate for the Scotch symphony’s sylph but certainly isn’t for the seductively conniving black swan. Appropriately enough for the Manichean duality of Swan Lake, this excerpt has been filmed in black-and-white. Unfortunately, however, the original film seems to have been of poor quality so that in practice the visual image emerges in varyingly murky shades of grey. Matters aren’t helped either when the dancers frequently move into areas of the set that are disappointingly shadowy.
The deficiencies of that Swan Lake film are clearly demonstrated by the succeeding performance which, although once again in monochrome, allows us to see Margot Fonteyn much more clearly. In the 1950s, before her late flowering in partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, Fonteyn could seem a somewhat cool and emotionless dancer. Princess Aurora was, though, one of her signature roles – and the Rose adagio one of her best-known calling cards – and here she seems to be entirely engaged. Meredith Daneman’s Margot Fonteyn (London, 2005) details how much effort in rehearsal went into achieving the impression of effortlessness and the cultivation of a carefully contrived facial expression: “she practised, for two extra-curricular hours at a stretch, her attitude balances in the Rose Adagio, teaching her line up of doughty Princes the art of daring not to approach her until she spoke loud, like a ventriloquist through her dauntless smile, the urgent word; ‘Now!’ [op. cit. p. 231]. Happy to steal the scene entirely, Fonteyn was, it seems, even known to hold her balance for so long after disengaging from the third prince that the fourth was left entirely unused on the sidelines. Alfred Rodrigues recalls that, in the hugely successful 1949 New York performances of Sleeping Beauty, “there was the incredible thing with the Rose Adagio when she just stood and lifted up her hand and smiled, and the audience screamed, and from that moment she was away…” [op. cit. p. 240]. The great thing about the excerpt on this VAI DVD is that we can see, six years later, exactly what drove that Metropolitan Opera House audience so wild. Unfortunately, while it might have been fun to see that spectacularly prolonged attitude, in this 1956 recording the fourth prince does get his moment in the spotlight – though rather weirdly, even though the DVD credits identify princes 1, 2 and 3, they don’t name him. In case you were wondering, however, the role of the fourth prince is here danced by Desmond Doyle.
Just like Balanchine’s Scotch symphony, Serge Lifar’s Romeo and Juliet set to Tchaikovsky’s familiar score isn’t often seen on stage nowadays. I like to think that’s because its relatively short length would require it to be part of a larger mixed programme, for there’s nothing wrong with it as a piece of choreography and it’s actually very enjoyable to watch in full (review). This thrillingly passionate performance from Violette Verdy and Scott Douglass could hardly, I think, be bettered. Of all the items on this disc, this excerpt is probably the best filmed. The director uses imaginative angles and close-ups to bring us closely into the drama and allow us to empathise with the characters’ emotions. Filmed in black-and-white in the same year as Alicia Alonso had been, this is technically miles ahead.
That higher standard of filming is also apparent in the next item – Galina Ulanova’s Balcony scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This is taken from the much-loved 1954 Soviet feature film that, in an attempt to make ballet more palatable to a mass audience, took the production beyond the theatre walls. Filmed in large part outdoors and utilising large numbers of extras to play the Verona hoi polloi, everything – apart from the substantially-abridged score – is on a grand scale. The Balcony scene, set amid a lavishly constructed ‘garden’, is a visual delight, though when the pas de deux gets properly under way a bit of camera trickery magics away the inconvenient vegetation to open up space for the dancing. And what dancing it is, with the feather-light Ulanova’s shy demeanour and slight build contrasting most attractively with Yuri Zhdanov’s vigorous muscularity. Danseur noble Zhdanov had, in fact, been Ulanova’s regular partner since 1951 and their comfortable working relationship helps generate a truly great and intensely moving performance.
Sadly, the following Juliet’s bedroom scene, danced in 1974 by Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev, proves to be not so interesting. This extract is a filmed record of a theatre performance and it seems as if not very much effort was put into modifying the staging to accommodate the requirements of, I assume, TV. The set is not only rather unattractively dressed but is simply too big – the dancing could have been confined to a smaller area of it – and the use, in particular, of a spotlight following the action around the vast stage may work for a theatre audience but looks very odd and artificial on television. While it might be argued that some of Galina Ulanova’s emoting had been over-the-top in the manner of a silent movie, an apparently unengaged Ms. Maximova really can’t be accused, on this occasion, of any sort of acting at all.
The ubiquitous Adagio from Khachaturian’s Spartacus also features the Maximova/Vasiliev partnership (they were husband and wife in real life). This 1970 performance – filmed this time in monochrome – is, I’m pleased to say, a far better example of their artistry and of the personal chemistry between them. Using every part of their bodies with suppleness and sinuous flexibility, they simply ooze sexual desire. Such overtly expressed raw sensuality does a great deal to explain why the Spartacus ballet enjoyed such immediate success and remains popular to this day.
I’ve never before come across the ballet derived from Prokofiev’s music for the film Lieutenant Kijé – best known, of course, from the familiar Suite. This is rare repertoire indeed and proves a worthwhile discovery, especially in Raisa Struchkova’s delightfully executed performance. Her outrageously coquettish facial expressions as she flirts with a trio of palace guards will bring a smile to your face. Fortunately, this excerpt exhibits a fine colour balance and very good picture quality.
In spite of its age, Irina Kolpakova’s superbly executed complete traversal of the title role in Glazunov’s Raymonda has often been the top choice for collectors of ballet performances on DVD. A most charismatic stage presence, Ms Kolpakova’s long legs (unless you failed to adjust the viewing ratio on your TV!) lend her a rare elegance that entirely fits the role of the troubled French princess. This is a treasurable performance, as well as being the only one on the disc that brings in the corps de ballet as anything more than decoratively placed observers around the edge of the stage.
Two excerpts from Minkus’s effervescent Don Quixote bring the DVD almost to its conclusion. First, we see Nadezhda Pavlova and Vyacheslav Gordeev – yet another set of regular stage partners who were married in real life – in a variation and dance. Ms Pavlova is a firecracker of a performer, so spontaneous and so bubbling with nervous energy that at one point she actually drops her fan – a vital prop in any ‘Spanish’ ballet – before elegantly bending to retrieve it. That uncorrected mishap would suggest that this is an unedited film of a live performance.
That brings us to Don Quixote’s celebrated Act 4 pas de deux – which, before the comparatively recent revival of interest in the full-length ballet, was probably best known as a stand-alone exhibition piece. Danced here by the charismatic Nina Ananiashvili and her regular partner Alexei Fadeyechev, it is the undoubted highlight of the disc. The leading role of Kitri was one of Ms Ananiashvili’s party pieces and, displaying the full range of her superlative technique, she gives here what may well be her finest recorded performance. At the climax, dancing like a veritable whirlwind, she remorselessly forces the conductor to accelerate repeatedly during a truly spectacular sequence of fouettés. This must be among the most thrilling moments of ballet ever captured on DVD. Thankfully, it has been very well filmed, with the camera getting in close to the action rather more than in most of the other excerpts on this disc.
The very last track is designated a “bonus” which, when you think about it, is, in this context, a label that makes nonsense of the English language. Nonetheless, on this occasion it’s certainly very worth watching. I suspect that only diehard balletomanes will be familiar with the name Victor Jessen but he really was one of the great heroes in the history of recording and preserving ballet performances. An obsessive fan of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo company of the 1940s and 1950s, Mr Jessen followed the company’s tours all over the USA. At each performance he’d smuggle in his home movie camera and, from his seat, shoot a couple of minutes footage at a time, before having to reload with new film. After several years he was able to edit the hundreds of individual clips – with many of the roles taken, over time, by more than one dancer – into a complete ‘performance’ set to a soundtrack that he’d recorded equally surreptitiously from the stalls. We thus have, thanks to him, a complete and invaluable record of what’s often regarded as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s signature ballet. The whole thing, along with a fascinating short film about Victor Jessen, is on VAI 4384. The brief extract featuring Alexandra Danilova that makes up the final track on this new release is especially valuable as comparatively little of her artistry has been preserved on film (her only performance of a complete ballet is of the short and inconsequential – though utterly delightful – Mademoiselle Fifi [review]).
This DVD is, in conclusion, something of a mixed bag, though its deficiencies are undeniably technical rather than artistic. It is likely, I suspect, to tempt many buyers into exploring the other VAI issues from which its material has been excerpted – and, as long as they can accept the quality of the source material, few of them will, I think, be disappointed.
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Carmen suite (after Bizet) – Carmen’s entrance (1967; choreographed by Alberto Alonso, 1967) [2:29]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Scotch symphony – Adagio (1842; choreographed by George Balanchine, 1952) [8:45]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan lake – Black swan pas de deux (1877; choreographed by Marius Petipa, 1895) [4:59]
The sleeping beauty – Aurora’s entrance and Rose Adagio (1889; choreographed by Frederick Ashton, 1946) [5:59]
Romeo and Juliet – excerpt (1870, rev. 1880; choreographed by Serge Lifar, 1955) [7:56]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet – Balcony scene (1935; choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, 1940) [5:15]
Romeo and Juliet – Juliet’s bedroom (1935; choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, 1940) [5:44]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Spartacus – Adagio (1954; choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, 1968) [4:53]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-19530
Lieutenant Kijé – The lady in waiting and the lieutenants (1934; choreographed by Olga Tarasova and Alexander Lapauri, 1963) [4:29]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Raymonda – Act 1, scene 2 (1898; choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev, after Marius Petipa, 1948) [5:58]
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote – Kitri’s variation and Dance of Basil and Kitri (1869; choreographed by Alexander Gorsky, after Marius Petipa, 1900) [4:53]
Don Quixote – Act 4 Grand pas de deux (abridged) (1869; choreographed by Alexander Gorsky, after Marius Petipa, 1900)
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880), orch. Manuel ROSENTHAL (1904-2003)
Gaîté Parisienne (1938; choreographed by Leonid Massine, 1938) [1:48]
Maya Plisetskaya [Carmen suite]
Maria Tallchief (with André Eglevsky) [Scotch symphony]
Alicia Alonso (with Igor Youskevitch) [Swan lake]
Margot Fonteyn (with John Hart, John Field, David Blair and Desmond Doyle) [The sleeping beauty]
Violette Verdy (with Scott Douglas) [Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet]
Galina Ulanova (with Yuri Zhdanov) [Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Balcony scene]
Ekaterina Maximova (with Vladimir Vasiliev) [Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Juliet’s bedroom and Spartacus]
Raisa Struchkova [Lieutenant Kijé]
Irina Kolpakova [Raymonda]
Nadezhda Pavlova (with Vyacheslav Gordeev) [Don Quixote – variation and dance]
Nina Ananiashvili (with Alexei Fadeyechev) [Don Quixote – Grand pas de deux]
Alexandra Danilova [Gaîté Parisienne]
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky [Carmen suite]
Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra/Donald Voorhees [Scotch symphony]
Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Jean Beaudet [Swan lake]
Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Orchestra/Robert Irving [The sleeping beauty]
Orchestre de Radio-Canada/Jacques Beaudry [Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet]
Unspecified orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky [Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Balcony scene]
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Algis Zhuraitis [Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Juliet’s bedroom]
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Algis Zhuraitis [Spartacus]
Unspecified orchestra/Algis Zhuraitis [Lieutenant Kijé]
Ballet and orchestra of the Kirov Theatre/Viktor Shirokov [Raymonda]
Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet and Shinsei Nihon Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sotnikov [Don Quixote – Grand pas de deux]
Orchestra of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo/unspecified conductors (Gaîté Parisienne)
rec. various theatres (composite recording), 1944-1954 (Gaîté Parisienne); unspecified venue, 1954 (Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Scene); unspecified venue, 12 December 1955 (The sleeping beauty); unspecified venue, 23 October 1958 (Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet); unspecified venue, 4 December 1958 (Swan lake); unspecified venue, 9 April 1959 (Scotch symphony); unspecified venues, 1969 (Carmen suite and Lieutenant Kijé); Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1970 (Spartacus); unspecified venue, 1974 (Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Juliet’s bedroom); Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1978 (Don Quixote – variation and dance); Kirov Theatre, Leningrad, 1980 (Raymonda); and NHK Hall, Tokyo, 20 September 1992 (Don Quixote – Grand pas de deux)