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Ballet's Greatest Hits

A film presented by Youth America Grand Prix

reviewed by Jerry Hochman

March 31 , 2013 -- New York and theatres across the country

When I think of “Ballet’s Greatest Hits,” I think of the title of one or more CDs I used to see in seldom perused stacks at classical music emporiums, consisting of ballet music by 19th Century composers, primarily Tchaikovsky, ripped from more complete versions of the composers’ work. Ballet’s Greatest Hits, the film produced under the auspices of Youth America Grand Prix, which premiered at selected theaters on March 31, 2013, is similar in that it consists of excerpts from full length ballets. But, thankfully, it’s more than that. While not the best ballet film this viewer has seen, or the best collection of dances extracted from ballets, Ballet’s Greatest Hits does what it intends to do well, and is entertaining in the process.

According to the film’s host, Nigel Lythgoe (of TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”), dances that comprise Ballet’s Greatest Hits, the movie, were selected as exemplifying ballet’s ‘golden age’ (defined, as I recall, to the period from the mid-19th to mid-20th Centuries), and were more specifically limited to those representative of the expressions of love that are the focus of these ballets. The dances included in the film, and the dancers performing them, are the ‘White Swan Pas de Deux’ from Swan Lake, performed by Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes (both principals with American Ballet Theater); ‘The Grand Pas de Deux’ from The Nutcracker, danced by Hee Seo (ABT principal) and Alejandro Virelles (Boston Ballet soloist); the ‘Pas d’Action Pas de Deux’ and the ‘Bronze Idol’ solo from La Bayadere (performed respectively by ABT soloist Isabella Boylston and Matthew Golding, a principal with the Dutch National Ballet, and by Joseph Phillips, a member of the corps at ABT); the Pas de Deux from Flames of Paris, with Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ulbricht (principals with New York City Ballet); excerpts from Act II of Giselle, danced by Greta Hodgkinson, a principal with the National Ballet of Canada, Mr. Golding, and Stella Abrera, an ABT soloist; and ‘The Grand Pas de Deux’ from Don Quixote, performed by Maria Kochetkova and Taras Domitro, both principals with the San Francisco Ballet, and with Skylar Brandt, a member of the corps at ABT, as a featured Bridesmaid. While I may have made other choices, both in terms of the ballets selected and the excerpts from them, given the parameters as explained by Mr. Lythgoe, as well as what I see as the hybrid purpose of film, the performance part of it, which is its major component, works well.

Because these performing sequences were filmed from a multitude of different camera angles and with repeated changes of points of view, and also are likely to represent the best of a number of ‘takes’, this aspect of the film is difficult to fairly judge: I’m not sure that I’d be evaluating performances, or the skillful editing of performances. But it is what it is, and I’ll discuss the performances as they’ve been memorialized in the film later.

Of at least equal significance are the interviews with current and former dancers, and archive materials presented to illuminate the history behind the ballets from which the excerpts were chosen. It is in this respect that the film excels (while not without flaws), and shows what it may have been intended to be: It’s not a ballet movie, it’s a movie about ballet intended not only to entertain, but in large part to educate – which just happens to be what YAGP prides itself on doing. How else to explain Mr. Lythgoe’s somewhat overbearing cheerleading? Ballet’s Greatest Hits isn’t the latest installment of PBS’s “Great Performances”, it’s “So You Think You Know What Ballet Is.” It’s about showing ‘all of you out there who think that ballet is an outdated, hifalutin art form’ that ballet has a history, that each ballet has a context, and that ballet as an art form is accessible, relevant, shows incredible artistry and athleticism, and also can be thrilling to watch. Indeed, the implicit (and at times explicit) connection made in the film between ballet dancers and Olympic athletes is calculated to appeal to those who are already hooked on the Olympics, but haven’t a clue that ballet can be considered in the same breath.

In taking this combined entertainment/education approach, however, the film may have attempted to be too many things to too many audience types. Indeed, while making ballet accessible and appreciated seems to have been its mission, the film clearly walks a fine line between educating the broader community, for which too much information may be overkill, and at entertaining those already fluent in ballet, for whom the film’s low common denominator approach may be unsatisfactory. That the showing I saw in a Manhattan theater filled with viewers knowledgeable about ballet (including at least two dancers who are featured in the film) was not acknowledged with the applause that often follows such showings may be indicative of this problem.

Regardless, when the film is seen as a logical extension of what YAGP does, what there is in the film makes sense: the limited selections, necessary to maintain the audience’s attention; the presentation of lesser known dancers as well as already great ones; the evidence that the making of a great ballet dancer/artist is a growth process; and the rapid-fire, staccato, hyperactive presentation of archival material and interview footage to avoid loss of interest. Most importantly, the film’s use of unusual (and to me, visually exciting) camera angles and close-ups very intentionally show the effort required to make the performances look effortless. Short of using high-powered binoculars or sitting in the front row of the orchestra and seeing (and sometimes feeling) the sweat spray, this is the clearest presentation I can recall of the breathtaking athleticism, as well as the breathtaking artistry, that ballet requires.

The pre-performance interviews with the dancers humanize them, and in the process serve – intentionally – to humanize the entire art form. They may be God’s athletes, as Mr. Lythgoe quotes Einstein as having said, but they’re also human, and being able to get behind the dancer/artist to see the person (even though the interview or the narrative may have been pre-programmed) is invaluable. Seeing the interaction between Mr. Gomes and Ms. Part was, to me, alone worth the price of admission. Listening to these discussions, and sometimes just hearing each dancer’s vocal narratives, serve the same function as the effort by many ballet companies to humanize their dancers [I’m familiar with the recent highly successful effort in this regard by New York City Ballet, but I’m certain there are others], and in the process to make them appear less like unapproachable gods and goddesses than like the dancers next door.

Also targeted to those who may know little about ballet are the insights into ballet history, including conversations with non-performing dancers and representative archival performance excerpts and images, which are intermingled with the performances. It is apparent that the producers, to avoid losing the film’s audience, refused to allow any portion of this background information -- the interviews, the historical references, or the plethora of images of former and current dancers that are flashed on screen in staccato, rapid-fire fashion as if controlled by a technician with his finger constantly on ‘next’ – to go on too long. To me, this is understandable, but unfortunate. Most of the interviews were reduced to being little more than sound bites. More critically, there are decisions that clearly were intentionally made that seem to make no sense: For example, there were inexplicable omissions (during the discussion of Giselle, I don’t recall seeing any images, much less performance excerpts, of Diana Vishneva or Gelsey Kirkland, as well as a multitude of other world-class current and former dancers; nor do I recall any references made to Bournonville (La Sylphide), Ashton (The Dream), or MacMillan (Romeo and Juliet); apparent oversights (some of the images flashed on screen identified the dancers pictured; some didn’t); and plain silliness (how can one discuss film excerpts from a performance of Flames of Paris, reference the amplification of the love story portrayed, identify Vladimir Vasiliev, and not include a reference to or identify Natalia Osipova, who was dancing next to him in some of the clips?). Also, based on the final curtain call for the YAGP-produced live performance at the David A. Straz Theater in Tampa at which the performances in the film were presented and filmed, and with which Ballet’s Greatest Hits concluded as well, it is evident that there were dancers who performed live but whose performances were not included in the film. This is not, and should have been, addressed – otherwise it just looks like they didn’t make the cut.

But the film deserves to be evaluated based on what’s in it, not on what may be missing from it.

Limited though they may be, the interviews and historical footage may just be sufficient to whet the appetite of an audience member unfamiliar with ballet and still be meaningful to viewers with greater ballet knowledge. For me, the old film clips of Tamara Karsavina and Natalia Makarova in which each explains certain movement qualities, even though they may have been previously available, provided extraordinary insights, and the snippets of interviews with, among others, Alexei Ratmansky, Benjamin Millepied, Denys and Mathieu Ganio, Susan Jaffe, Angel Corella, and Alesssandra Ferri, were most informative.

The film’s heart, however, are the performances that it captures. I will discuss them as if they were one-take performances, which some or all may have been, rather than edited ones.

Rightly or wrongly, the dancers who performed in the ballet excerpts that displayed the ‘wow!’ factor made the greatest impact. Consistent with that, to this viewer (and based on my built-in audience ‘applause meter’, to the live Tampa audience as well), the most prominent and exciting performances in the film were delivered by Ms. Bouder and Mr. Ulbricht (both of whom are familiar to me from their NYCB performances) in the pas de deux from Flames of Paris. They succeeded not only in their polished execution, but in putting on a performance so thrilling to watch and so magnetic that I felt I wasn’t watching a film: I was there.

In a ‘pre-performance’ interview, Ms. Bouder said that in order to appear on par with Mr. Ulbricht, who is justifiably renowned for his athleticism and artistic ingenuity, she needs to ‘bring her A game’ whenever she dances with him. She did. To this viewer, her performance in every respect was extraordinary. Mr. Ulbricht, who has a unique ability to combine the weightlessness of a soaring eagle with the compact density and precision of a bowling ball thrown for a strike, was his usual amazing performing self, but appeared just a bit tired (perhaps from multiple rehearsals and/or takes).

Equally thrilling, but in a different way, were Ms. Part and Mr. Gomes in the ‘White Swan Pas de Deux’ from Swan Lake that provided the film’s introduction to the world of classical Romantic ballet. Here it was the artistry provided by Ms. Part and Mr. Gomes, two of ABT’s ‘world-class’ dancers, that would appear to a casual viewer to dominate – until one sees the absolute physical control required, which the film deliberately enables the audience to see. The pas de deux is not particularly flashy to watch, but it’s not supposed to be – it’s supposed to be heartbreaking and beautiful. It was.

The pas de deux from Don Quixote (or ‘Don Q’, which Mr. Lythgoe revealed – sotto voce as if he was disclosing a ballet-community secret – is what the ballet is called by those ‘in the know’) never fails to bring down the house, and the performances by Ms. Kochetkova and Mr. Domitro did the same. I’d never seen either of them before, and I found them to be quite impressive dancers. Ms. Kochetkova, who to me looks like a cross between Gelsey Kirkland and Irina Dvorovenko, was a delightful, as well as accomplished, coquette. Mr. Domitro does not quite have the talent to match his outsized ego, but considering that his ego is as large as the San Francisco Bay, that’s not surprising. To this viewer, he came across as a good, attentive partner, with abundant athletic ability, who knows when to push himself and when to hold back. I look forward to seeing both of them again.

[Part of my unease with Mr. Domitro’s performance was the result of the character of Basilio being taken out of context. I prefer the portrayal to be as a likeable ne’er do well, a lovable rogue, rather than as an egocentric rock star, but the pas de deux alone provided no opportunity for Mr. Dimitro to develop a character. I also found it annoying that in the pre-performance discussion of alternative versions of Kitri’s variation, only two (described, as I recall, as Russian and ‘not-Russian’) were referenced. The version that features pas de cheval hops en pointe was never mentioned. The pas de cheval serves both to display the dancer’s technical prowess, but also to reflect and enhance Kitri’s seductive quality, and to this viewer is a better alternative for those Kitris of small physical stature, like Ms. Kochetkova, although she was splendid in the version she danced in the film.]

Skylar Brandt is one of ABT’s promising members of the corps, who has shined in the featured opportunities that she’s been given. Her Bridesmaid variation was very nicely executed. But in the context of the film, the variation looked like it had been inserted into the pas de deux for no reason, and could have been performed (or taped) independent of the performances by Ms. Kochetkova and Mr. Domitro.

Sandwiched in between these dances were the ‘Grand Pas de Deux’ from The Nutcracker, and excerpts from La Bayadere and Giselle.

Of the three, the excerpts from Act II of Giselle worked best. The performances overall were a little choppy, but that was more a product of the patchwork quilt of excerpts. Stella Abrera, one of many under-utilized ABT soloists, has gradually transformed her portrayal of Myrtha from dragon lady to one of strength and complexity. She’s one of the best Myrthas around, and although the role would have been better displayed in context, the film did a good job of showing her off. Ms. Hodgkinson and Mr. Golding, whom I had not previously seen, danced a sincere Giselle and Albrecht, but Ms. Hodgkinson looked disturbingly gaunt (she didn’t look that way in the accompanying rehearsal clips, so perhaps it was the make-up or the camera angle) and Mr. Golding not particularly noble. Nevertheless, and although it lacked the finesse and Romantic detail of other interpretations that this viewer has seen, theirs was a fine performance, sufficient to convey the essence of the ballet.

Ms. Seo, recently promoted to principal with ABT, has a quality of porcelain delicacy that is usually enchanting, and when combined with the inner strength she displays in dramatic roles can transmit a unique presentation of tragic vulnerability. In the film’s Nutcracker pas de deux, however, her delicacy came across a lack of confidence either in her own ability or in the ability of Mr. Virelles, with whom she had never previously danced. I thought her execution, particularly when she danced on her own, was well done, but the close-ups allowed the viewer to see her tension as well as her effort. Mr. Virelles is a tall and engaging dancer who tries very hard to be attentive to his ballerina; I never had the sense that he was promoting himself. Although his partnering is not yet completely accomplished, he has considerable potential.

The excerpts from La Bayadere, to me, were the most problematic of the film. The lack of context here was particularly detrimental, but the selected excerpts also didn’t fit within the limited representational ‘theme’ of the film. Mr. Phillips, who has been laboring in ABT’s corps too long, did a fine job with the ‘Bronze Idol’ solo, but it didn’t look anywhere near as good as it could have if there had been some semblance of a context (and if there had been at least makeshift temple steps). [Particularly interesting was the process of putting on the requisite full-body make-up, which the film details, as well as the insight provided by Mr. Phillips that the role is particularly difficult to execute because there is no warm up: The character dances nothing else during the performance and is suddenly ‘shot out of a cannon’.] The excerpts from the ‘Pas d’Action’ danced by Ms. Boylston and Mr. Golding looked disembodied and meaningless, with no sense at all of the ‘jealous love’ that Mr. Lythgoe said was being portrayed – because the selected excerpt had nothing to do with that. The performances by Ms. Boylston and Mr. Golding were somewhat wooden, but their execution of the steps was competently done, and the excerpt didn’t call for more than that.

Ballet’s Greatest Hits is an unfortunate title for the film, both because it creates expectations that no one film could fulfill, but also because, as previously noted, the film is more than that. [But I concede that I can’t think of a better title: ‘So You Think…’ would have been just a little off-putting.] Seeing the dancers outside of the performance context as well as the talent and effort close-up in performance, and learning something about the chosen ballets and ballet history, were, to this viewer, more important than whether the dances presented really are ‘ballet’s greatest hits’. Whether the film will ever get beyond preaching to the choir, or reach the audience that would benefit most from seeing it will depend on where YAGP takes it from here. YAGP has been very good at combining entertainment with education, and in successfully marketing both aspects of what it does. I suspect that YAGP will find a way to do the same with Ballet’s Greatest Hits.

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