Russian National Ballet’s performance of Sleeping Beauty

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[Image: Two dancers from the Russian National Ballet, performing on stage in full costume.]

The Russian National Ballet’s performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Ferguson Center was quite a sight to behold. It was a dazzling display of athleticism, talent and tights. However, there could have been more tutus.

I will freely admit that I know virtually nothing about ballet. I never took any form of dance as a child, I’m not sure what an arabesque or even what a pointe is. The most I can say I know about it is what I gleaned from watching documentaries and one season of Dance Academy on Netflix. So this review is by no means a statement on the art of dance or the ability of the performers. It’s really just more of my ramblings, this time about a ballet.

One tip I can give all ballet-goers is that you should always read the program notes before the performance. No matter how capable the dancers or how well-designed the choreography, there’s only so much that you can understand from body motion alone. When there is literally no dialogue, it’s very difficult to progress a plot. Hence why The Nutcracker’s entire second act is everyone just dancing to celebrate Clara and the Prince’s arrival. That’s it. That’s all that happens.

The prologue of this ballet takes place shortly after Princess Aurora’s birth. Everyone comes to celebrate and bestow gifts on the tiny girl. The dancing starts out with people that are in 16th century-esque clothing. The men are not dressed in traditional ballet garb (tights) and the ladies are wearing floor-length skirts. Dude, every single person on that stage was a trained dancer. Where are the tutus and the flying leaps?

Even the king and queen were fully clothed in things that you couldn’t leap around in. It was a bit anti-climatic for the beginning of the ballet. But then the fairies arrived and shit got real. Those girls were in tutus and had on tiaras. They came ready to do some dancing. The Lilac Fairy was in a brilliant purple outfit, holding a sprig of the flower that she was named after. During this scene, the fairies danced and all but the Lilac Fairy graced the princess with gifts. But then!

Caraboose, an evil fairy and this story’s villain, shows up… in a floor-length dress, flanked by four minions. I was extremely disappointed. I wanted to see a dance off. I wanted a Sharks versus Jets showdown. I wanted someone to get served. Caraboose’s dance mainly consisted of her fluttering her cape. And okay, so her character was played as a very old woman and maybe it would be in keeping with her character that she couldn’t dance like the other fairies, but still. I didn’t come to see ballerinas flapping fabric around.

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[Image: The fairies dancing around Caraboose, the evil queen.]

Anyway, Caraboose does what she does best and curses Aurora that she will prick her finger when she’s 16 and die. Everyone freaks the fuck out in ballet-style (more dancing). But, and this is all from the program notes, the Lilac Fairy tells the king and queen that she can’t break Caraboose’s spell, but she can ensure that Aurora won’t die but only sleep. Which I guess is good enough for everyone else as this scene ends on a high note.

Act II opens on Aurora’s 16th birthday. A troupe of peasant girls dance with young peasant lads. During this dance the epic song “Once Upon A Dream” plays from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The 1959 classic took some of their music directly from the ballet. Although, to be honest, this was the only song that I truly recognized. A lot sounded vaguely familiar, but I’ll be damned if I remember seeing that film. Anyway, the scene changes to the court where it’s Aurora’s birthday party.

She comes out in a light pink tutu and dances like someone that has all of the beauty privilege in the world would. Four princes have come to see her hand in marriage now that she’s 16 and ready to be married off and start popping out babies. The program notes then go off into some weird tangent. They read, “Aurora begins the adagio in with one leg raised and bent behind her, one curved arm raised overhead. Some have read in this “attitude” pose, which Aurora repeats often, a kind of gentle questioning or youthful uncertainty.”

I’m guessing that’s the part where it would help if I knew something about ballet, because that just sounds like reading entirely too much into shit to me. Anyway, Aurora dances the adagio with her suitors and everything is going really well until she sees an old woman in the crowd holding something. The old woman, okay, we all know it’s Caraboose at this point, holds out the object, a spindle, and Aurora takes it. She then dances with it as people try to stop her. No one manages to before she pricks her finger on it. I guess tackling someone mid-dance wouldn’t be very ballet-like.

We know what happens now. Aurora swoons, after showing the entire court her boo-boo. Then the Lilac Fairy gets off her ass and, instead of just letting Aurora sleep, puts everyone in the entire court to sleep. Which seems like overkill. I mean, who is going to rule this kingdom if all of the royalty and government are asleep? We pondered this as it went into intermission. Well, no one else I was with did, but I did. Oh yes, I did.

Act III starts off with a bunch of nearby royals taking part in a hunt. The nobility come out in dance-inappropriate outfits. And just when you think this is going to be another boring scene where nothing happens, He arrives. He, of course, is Prince Charming. And he is delicious. Although I’m totally not okay with hasty marriages between teenagers, I would so marry him and his yummy legs in a heartbeat. Seriously, he was a beautiful, beautiful man.

Anyway, he goes off on his own for a while and then the Lilac Fairy gives him a vision of Aurora and points a massive finger over to her castle with a big sign planted outside reading, “Hot young marriageable tail, thisaway”. The vision version of Aurora (which, come on, is really just Aurora) dances with the prince along with the Lilac Fairy and her fairy compatriots that are dressed in a lighter purple than she is. That’s right, dressed in tutus!

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[Image: Aurora and all of the fairies dancing at the end of the ballet.]

There’s then a short scene where they are resetting for court behind a curtain. It shows Caraboose and some of her minions being shooed away by the Lilac Fairy. Again, no dance off, no dance battle, no one gets served. Once the court is reset, Charming injects himself into the narrative by kissing Princess Aurora and waking her from the spell. No one demands to know why he’s going around kissing unconcious young women and everyone is just so happy to be alive that they embrace and start to celebrate. By the way, did I mention that it’s now 100 years later?

Imagine being woken up by some youngster young enough to be your grandson in your castle where none of your commoners have noticed that you were missing and no one really seemed to care? Yeah, this plot has some holes. But who cares about them when there’s dancing to be done! It’s time for the ball.

Now here’s the meat of this ballet. It’s down to everyone celebrating and dancing for Aurora and Charming’s wedding. They invite other fairytale characters, including Puss ‘n Boots, Bluebird [the program actually says it’s Bluebeard, which I thought was hilarious] and his wife, Goldilocks and a Bear and as well as Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Which, this court seems pretty fucking progressive, because if this was reality, people would be shocked today if Little Red Riding Hood showed up with a woman on her arm. Now she’s showing up with a dancing, anthropomorphic wolf and no one bats an eyelash.

Anyway, everyone dances, the Bluebirds dance and do something that the program tells me is really impressive, Aurora and Charming change into wedding garb (read: white clothes) and they dance, everyone dances! It’s a happy ending for everyone! Yay!

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the show and look forward to seeing more ballets in the future. I also feel that I should read up more about them, as I really don’t even grasps the basics of what I’m watching when I go to these shows. I just wish that A. Ballets weren’t so goddamn rare. The most I get to see is The Nutcracker on Christmas. B. They weren’t so goddamn expensive. I won’t tell you what was paid for the nosebleed seats we got. But it was way more than a regular play, musical, or any other kind of theatre performance that we have around here.

Regardless, this was a good performance, I enjoyed it and I hope to see more. Also, men in tights are deliriously yummy. I would go to ballets just to see them.

Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Cremorne Theatre

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Anytime you see a sign like this, you know you’re in for a good time.

I had always wanted to see Shakespeare Abridged. It had been playing somewhere in Williamsburg several years ago and for some reason no one could make it to any of the performances. But we did see The Complete History of America (Abridged) several years ago. It was cute, but not nearly as hilarious as I had been led to believe. I was a little skeptical of Shakespeare Abridged based on the previous performance, but also because this was not just Shakespeare, it was Shakespeare in Australian accents. I thought it might be a little strange. I was in for a surprise though.

Shakespeare Abridged was a fun romp through Shakespearian drama with plenty of laughs, history, and fake vomiting. The style was great as it went through all of the plays in different formats. They acted out the key scenes in Romeo and Juliet. Then described Othello in rap form. Titus Andronicus was a cooking show. The comedies were all wrapped up together to form one master play using all of the conventions that Shakespeare used again and again for all of the plays.

Hamlet took up the entire second act. It was acted out using the key scenes, then acted out faster, then faster, then backwards. It was hilarious. After we left the show, my stomach ached from laughing so much. Also, the three men who comprised all of the various characters interacted with the audience. Australian audience are talkative and not afraid to talk to the actors. The three men intertwined jokes that they made with the audience into the show.

Overall, it was an excellent night at the theatre. I would definitely go see this show, or any of the other Abridged shows, again. I can only hope they have the same wit, excitement and energy that the three performers here had. In a different performance, the actors probably won’t have Australian accents, but no one’s perfect.

Wizard of Oz at Queensland University of Technology

I was excited to see a play at QUT. I always love seeing college performances. College students are enthusiastic performers with lots of passion for their work and a wonderful sense of exuberance. Also, their colleges usually fund them pretty well and they have plenty of practice time. I was also excited to see The Wizard of Oz because the last version I had seen of the story had been so awful that it made me want to bleed out of both eyes until I slowly lost consciousness.

Not to mention that I had invested in a ton of Wizard of Oz scrapbooking materials and didn’t want to devote it all to that performance. I had been to see Oz: The Great and Powerful earlier that  year, but that was hardly enough to use all of the pages and embellishments that I had gone overboard in purchasing. So I was glad that another Wizard of Oz related event happened for me to use my scrapbooking stash on.

When we walked in, the ticket taker told us to follow the yellow brick road, and sure enough, there was a yellow brick road! We had to walk through the set to get to our seats. On set, the cast of characters were dressed in Halloween-costume interpretations of the traditional outfits. They danced and romped around and horsed around and drank what looked like green punch. Each character was as cartoonish as their costume. Soon, the play started and the characters ran away backstage.

The plot of the story was complicated, intricate and very symbolic. I won’t explain too much for spoilers but also because there was so much going on that only viewing it once, it’s impossible to know every little thing said and meant. But goddamn was it good. The story is a frame story that begins with an older woman who is in her trailer while a tornado is coming. She refuses to go to the shelter but instead starts reading the original Wizard of Oz book.

Her trailer is swept away she emerges into Oz, to what she thinks will be her amazing journey, but discovers that instead of being Dorothy, she is now Toto. Dorothy is a fluffy young blonde woman who pretends not to understand “Toto’s” pleadings and continues about her journey with no concern for what “Toto” is trying to tell her. Also, the Wicked Witch of the West was a Lady Gaga-esque singer wearing amazing shoes.

There was so much going on in the play that it was impossible to take it all in within just one sitting. But every element was a treat. The music was loud and powerful, the lights were brilliant and well-staged, the actors were strange, playful, sympathetic, bizarre, and scary, occasionally all at the same time. The plot was so twisted and the timing moved along perfectly.

Also, there was swearing! Family-friendly dialogue was rotting my brain, when Toto screamed “Fuck!” the first time, I just wanted to weep for joy. The play finished with a shrieking climax. The entire cast threw themselves into their roles. And the props department threw themselves into clean up, after the play was finished. There was confetti, water, the Wicked Witch kicked down the walls of the trailer and there was other assorted mess.

Overall, the performance restored my love and passion for theatre. I had such an amazing time that I wanted to stay and watch the play all over again. If it had been a movie, I would have restarted it and watched it until some awful time in the morning. Instead, we went outside and looked around at some of the messages that had been sprawled on the tents in the courtyard. I wrote “Oz is living!” Because it was. The theatre was alive and so was the entire country. I was living just to see it.

VSF: The Turn of the Screw

So the last production for the 2013 season of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival was a stage adaptation of the Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw. I had read the story about a million years ago in high school and my recollection of it was very dim. I knew there were ghosts involved and something about the governess going crazy from sexual repression. So I walked into the production not sure what to expect, but with the hope that the production would be as enjoyable as the rest of the VSF season.

I always thought that an unwritten convention in art that as soon as someone tells you not to do something and starts making rules about what you can and can’t do, someone will come along and break all of those conventions and make it work. This play is one of those times. When I was taught playwriting, back in the dark ages, we were taught that there are certain things that you have to have.

For example, I was taught that you have to have constant movement on stage. You have to have props and costume changes to keep the audience interested. You have to have impressive lighting and wonderful sets. You have to have a variety of characters doing a variety of things while on stage. The play version of The Turn of the Screw took all of these conventions said, “eh” and tossed them aside. But the play still works.

What really held it together though were the actors. There are only two actors in the entire play and they both remained on the simple set the entire time. There was a young woman playing the Governess and an older man whose character was called The Man, who provided sound effects and played several different characters including the child, Miles, and the housekeeper. It might sound confusing for one person to be many characters without changing costume, but the actor playing The Man gave each of his characters their own posture, mannerisms and voice. There was no confusion as he went from one character to another.

The play was only an hour and a half with no intermission, but during that time, the audience was transported to the world of the country estate where there either live dastardly ghosts or a mentally unstable governess. I utterly enjoyed the production and thought the acting lends itself particularly well to the story. I’m sad for this to be the end of the 2013 VSF season, but I must say, they went out with a bang.

Richard III at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival

Richard III was a show that I was definitely looking forward to. I had studied this play in college, but still hadn’t seen it performed lived. I saw an ancient black and white version, many moons ago, and also rented the Ian McKellen movie version a few years back. Naturally, a film version of a Shakespeare play can never quite do it justice. So I was ready to see this epic history play on stage.

The first thing I liked about it was the set. It was minimalist and utilized gray panels of fabric that they used lighting tricks on to show different scenes and add to the eeriness of the play. The performance was played straight with period costumes and set pieces. Richard was portrayed as a hunchback with a gimpy hand, even though new evidence has shown that this is not accurate. Nevertheless, the play itself describes Richard’s deformities, to the actor’s limping and crab walking makes sense in the context.

Richard himself was a fully, fleshed out character. The actor was completely committed to Richard’s physical limitations and didn’t once break character. His speeches were captivating, his manipulation was earnest to the point of laughter, his pretended sorrow at the death of someone standing in his way to the throne was as heartfelt as a sociopath could muster. There were a few flubbed lines here and there, but considering the amount of words Richard has to say, this is pretty understandable.

The only thing I found disappointing about the play was the Battle of Bosworth field. The stage directions in the original text read “Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain.”  That is the entire, climatic Battle of Bosworth field. So directors can do whatever they wish with it. This director, however, took it to a place I have never seen a history play go: slow motion. I must confess that I abhor slow motion on stage. It never looks good. It always looks stilted and strange. This time was no exception.

Unfortunately, most of the battle was in this horrific slow mo. It simply went on and on. I started to wonder if the actors were nervous about fight choreography and the director came up with a way to have warfare on stage, but with less chance of anyone accidentally being hurt. Thankfully, the slow motion nonsense stops when Richard fights Richmond. During this scene, the various people that Richard has had murdered appear on the field and scare the crap out of him, assisting Richmond in winning the fight. I thought this was nicely done with the murder victims stepping out from behind the grey panels of fabric, scaring Richard, then disappearing again.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the show. It was amazing to see Richard III on stage. Aside from a few minor hiccups and the slow-motion battle scene, the show is definitely something to see. The last performance now is Turn of the Screw. I downloaded the free Kindle version, so I’m hoping to finish the book before we see the play.