February 16, 2013

Opening Night at the Ballet

You know when I don't mind missing ballet class? When I get to see ballet performed live, on stage! Which is why I skipped class last night and headed instead to the premiere of The Finnish National Ballet's triple bill Bella Figura. Since I was at work until 18:00 hrs (the ballet starts at 19:00 hrs), I first had to do a quick dress change in our decidedly unglamourous back-office. I tossed my jeans and sweater (we are casual at work) and dressed up in my new LBD and vintage glass beads. Some make-up and hair-spray later, I was feeling elegant enough to mingle with the usual high society premiere crowd. Not that you can't come as you are. In Finland, even jeans are no faux-pas at the opera. But clothes and other finery aside, it's only the dance that really matters. And I was in for a Big Treat.

A girl's gotta have some bling for opening night ;)

It's been almost eighteen years to the day since I last saw Balanchine's Four Temperaments. That time around, Paris Opera Ballet was on tour in Helsinki and I was lucky to be in the audience. Although I don't remember that much - other than being very impressed by elongated lines, technical precision and beautiful dancers such as étoiles Isabelle Guérin, Monique Loudières, Nicholas Le Riche and Aurélie Dupont. Since then, I've only seen bits and pieces on youtube. The Balanchine Trust being overly protective, you only get to see full performances on stage. So I was very excited to finally see live Balanchine again. And I was not disappointed.

If you have seen all the neoclassical and contemporary ballets that came after 4T, you might think that you're seeing nothing new on stage. But look closely, and you will recognize bits of Forsythe and Wheeldon and many others who were strongly influenced by Balanchine's style: the ever-unfolding patterns of the corps, the off-balances, the hips thrusting out of square torsos, the angular lines and the way he stripped ballet of its narrative. The ballet is not easy on its dancers: there's the Balanchine style - which many say requires specific training early on - the kind you would get at SAB's school. Then there are the costumes: the ballerinas wear black leotards and white tights - which tend to add weight to even the most svelte dancers' legs. Actually, it makes ballerinas look more womanly - like us non-pro-dancers! Not that I could ever pull it off on stage..

Artists of the Finnish National Ballet in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet. Photographer Sakari Viika.

But never mind the technichal nor costume challenges -  the artists of The Finnish National Ballet looked assured and elegant on stage, and danced the most difficult steps with considerable aplomb. I was especially impressed with Eu-Jin Ha's performance - she has long lines (despite being tiny of size), the kind of technique that lets you sit back and enjoy the ride, and a glamorous presence to top it off. Linda Haakana (one of the few Finnish dancers) was perfectly cast as the choleric temperament. But 4T is really a company piece, and as such was well danced. And the orchestra (led by Ollitapio Lehtinen) played Paul Hindemith's music to perfection. But I have to admit that Four Temperaments is not my favorite Balanchine ballet. On that list goes Serenade, Jewels, Who Cares - and there are others that remain to be seen yet.

William Forsythe: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Dancers Eun-Ji Ha and Andrew Bowman.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika.

After sipping some complimentary bubbly during intermission, I was most eager to see Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This piece too was danced by POB on their Helsinki tour - but again I remember no details - other than being blown out of my seat. The same happened yesterday. Except about the memory loss. FNB's performance was superb, world-class, über-cool contemporary ballet. Really, I'm running out of superlatives here. Musically, spot on - and Thom Willem's music is far from easy to dance to. I know this by some personal experience, as our teacher Marie-Pierre rehearsed a In the Middle -inspired small piece with my pointe class last year.  She has danced both female leads herself, and trust me when I say that she still looks and dances the part. Of course, our choreography was considerably shorter and adapted to our abilities, but it was still different from anything else I have ever danced. It was oddly exhilarating hearing the music last night, and equally exciting that there were a few moves which I recognized from our own rehearsals. Made my muscles twitch!

As for FNB's dancers: Wow. One dancer especially stood out: Xiaoyu He. He's still very young, but already a technical virtuoso with a strong stage presence. Could not take my eyes off him. Although In the Middle is a company piece, and all dancers get to be on the forefront. The women rocked, with Eu-Jin Ha, in of the the female leads, impressing me yet again. I only wish that I could be so fearless in my dancing (and be as flexible and whatnot). Edita Rauserová was equally brill, with luscious extensions and precision attack. Andrew Bowman of the Royal Danish Ballet (he is guest-performing with FNB this spring) was rock solid in everything he did - both as a soloist and partner. By the way, he also happened to partner my teacher Marie-Pierre ten years ago (see photo above)! And he provided an interesting if unvoluntary visual effect: sprays of sweat glistening in the spotlight, with each turn and jump. Kathryn Bennets, who rehearsed the ballet, apparently told the dancers that "others too have survived (this)". I can see that In the Middle is the ultimate test for every ballet dancer - and a must-see for every ballet fan!

Jiri Kylian: Bella Figura. Dancer Emmi Pennanen.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika.

Another intermission, and more bubbly plus delicious pink macarons - you gotta love opening nights! The final pièce de résistance of the evening was Jiri Kylián's Bella Figura. This I had never seen before. But what little I've seen of Kylian's work, has always struck me as genius. In Bella Figura, he employs the curtains as ever changing frames and props for the dancers to wrap themselves into. When the first dancer (Emmi Pennanen) appeared behind the curtains, I was struck both by her vulnerability, physical beauty and strength. The topless-ness of the dancers (both female and male) may be what has given this piece its most fame, but the semi-nudity is never gratuitous. The human body is celebrated as such - in its purest form. Bella Figura made me tear up. Happy tears - for the dancers who get to perform such works of art, and for us viewers who get to share in the experience.


  1. Heheh, I saw Andrew Bowman in the RNZB's 'Giselle' last year (he's a New Zealander!) and yes, he certainly does a fair bit of 'glistening' . . gotta love it! ;)

  2. Yeah.. Forsythe's choreography demands such über-abilities and skill, that it's nice to know the dancers are human after all ;) But I was a bit worried he would dehydrate before the piece was over. Have you seen Bowman in the RDB's Etudes video? He's got amazing batterie!

  3. It's so much fun to dress up and go out to see the ballet :) Sounds like you had a great outfit and saw a great program. I also love Forsythe and Kylian ballets so I am envious! I have never seen Bella Figura but I liked your description/interpretation of the vulnerability portrayed.

    1. Thanks, Kaija! I'm thinking of stretching my budget and going again. Forsythe is so cool, and I love Kylian too. But next time I might just wear jeans with a nice top ;)

  4. I love ballet and dancing :) I think I would enjoy a lot this performance!!!! What a lucky woman ;)


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...