Tchaikovsky in Dance, American Contemporary Ballet

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By Christina Campodonico

At first glance, 19th century story ballets — about women trapped in swan bodies, a princess in a perpetual sleep, and a Nutcracker Prince transported to a Land of Sweets — may seem to bare no similarity to the modern plotless works of 20th century choreographer George Balanchine.

But to American Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director Lincoln Jones, the lineage between the two stretches across the centuries, united by the music of celebrated ballet composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Jones puts the classical ballet collaborations of choreographers Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Tchaikovsky side-by-side with Balanchine for the program “Tchaikovsky in Dance,” happening June 15 through 18 at The Bloc.

To show their kinship in a new light, Jones is turning back the clock on “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Nutcracker” by restaging excerpts from them according to early 20th century Stepanov dance notations — a musical and anatomically-based script developed by Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov to document the ballets of St. Petersburg’s Mariinksy Ballet — that are now preserved in Harvard’s Sergeyev Collection.

“These are the most well-known ballets in the world,” says Jones. “I think they deserve to be seen in their original form.”

Or as close to original as you can get, if you ask Stepanov notation expert Doug Fullington, who worked with American Contemporary Ballet earlier this season to reconstruct excerpts from these ballets for “Tchaikovsky in Dance”.

“Do I know if it reflects what was done in 1895, exactly? No, because it could be that this was written down eight years later. A few things may have changed, but I do think it’s about as close as we can get,” says Fullington. “We try to use all the information we can to present as accurate a picture as is possible. We look at this notation and we also look at early films of the ballet — anything that we have that we know was handed down by people connected to those early performances — so there always is an element of guesswork or an aspect that’s editorial.”

Even so, these documents may show a purer portrait of the original “Sleeping Beauty” (1890), “Nutcracker” (1892), or “Swan Lake” (1877, though most versions are based off the 1895 version) then contemporary renditions of these ballets.

Mate Szentes and Cara Hansvick in the Adagio from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo by Art Lessman.)

Unlike human bodies, paper isn’t as susceptible to stylistic changes in ballet training, aesthetic preferences for a particular body type, or choreographic liberties with the music, notes Fullington.

“We don’t feel that the people writing down the notation had any other motive than to try to accurately write down what was happening in the studio and on the stage,” he says. “So I have a lot of confidence in what’s written on the page.”

Fullington, who has consulted on ballet reconstructions with the Bolshoi Ballet, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, and Pacific Northwest Ballet (where he serves as Education Programs Manager and Assistant to the Artistic Director), not only brings his expertise, but also a recent discovery about “The Nutcracker” to ACB’s project.

Based on Stepanov notations from 1909, he believes that eight women actually danced the Prince’s second act solo variation, which is typically attributed to Ivanov. The reason? The then-soloist Pavel Gerdt’s age, he suspects.

“He was a really great partner and wonderful dancer, but by the time that ballets like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘The Nutcracker’ were being made in the 1890s, he was in his mid-40s and probably not performing solo dances anymore. With ‘Nutcracker,’ it seems that instead of Gerdt dancing his solo to the music Tchaikovsky wrote for that purpose, instead eight female students from the school, who were part of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s entourage, performed a dance to his music instead,” explains Fullington.

He also noticed that the solo shares the same musical timing as an untitled piece of notation with instructions for an eight-woman dance in the second act.

Ensemble of Elégié, choreographed by George Balanchine. © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo by Art Lessman.)

“[The notation] doesn’t say that it’s danced to his music, but it fits exactly,” says Fullington. “And we do know it was performed in the second act and the cast list shows us that there were eight students as part of this entourage, and we have the costume drawings. … After looking at the information, I deduced that this is probably a dance with eight women performed to the Prince’s solo music.”

And so American Contemporary Ballet will perform the work as an octet, rather than a solo.

“It’s a little bit unique, and I think kind of a first,” says Fullington.

The company will also perform reconstructed excerpts from Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” including the prologue to “Sleeping Beauty”’s first act that dates back to around 1903, and a scene between Swan Princess Odette and Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake” that’s from the first decade of the 20th century.

Both extracts — in contrast to their contemporary counterparts, notes Fullington — emphasize pantomime and storytelling to a greater extent.

“A lot of this pantomime is not used anymore. I think once we got into the 20th century, maybe into the 1930s and onward, it was felt [that] pantomime was maybe too archaic and that the real details of the story maybe weren’t as necessary to communicate and instead the emotion of the story could be expressed through dancing. In many productions, this pantomime has been changed to dance steps,” he says.

From his Stepanov studies, he’s also noticed that dancers’ movements have gotten bigger, slower, and more virtuosic over time.

Cara Hansvick in Balanchine’s Elégié. © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo by Art Lessman.)

“We see a big change, especially in men’s dancing. Whereas men used to perform many smaller scale steps or intricate steps, those are replaced by much larger-scale steps — big jumps,” says Fullington. “With women, extension of the legs and flexibility has really grown. It would have been considered vulgar to lift the legs too high during the late 19th century, especially with how the costumes were made, and now legs go much higher. That takes more time too, so sometimes the music tempo will slow down to accommodate what dancers do physically today, whereas in older times the music tempos were often pretty fast.”

Steps and jumps would have been smaller, quicker, and faster — and the ballerinas shorter and stockier — in order to keep up.

“Just aesthetically a sort of softer, rounder style was preferred. The dancers were I think a little tighter with regard to the turnout from the hips. They could move really fast,” says Fullington. “The dancers today have more turnout from their hips, greater flexibility.”

When asked what Petipa and Tchaikovsky would think of the evolution of their ballets and ballerinas, he offers this:

“Of course Tchaikovsky would recognize his music. I think Petipa in great part would recognize his ballets,” says Fullington,“but also be very aware of the differences.”

Where Fullington sees differences, Jones sees similarities between the ballets of old and Balanchine. To him, the reconstructions that ACB will stage actually have more in common with the works of the great 20th century choreographer than contemporary presentations of Petipa or Ivanov’s story ballets.

“It made much more sense seeing them in the original form,” says Jones. “It was really kind of startling to me, because it looks so much more like Balanchine than the ballets as they exist today do … These restaged versions that I saw were much more dance-like to me. The movement was quicker. It seemed like the step density was more continuous.”

That’s why he’s also putting selections from Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”, “Mozartiana”, and Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 on the program — to show the connection between Ivanov, Petipa, and their 20th century dance descendant.

“Balanchine credited so much of what he did to Petipa,” says Jones. “He said, ‘All I’m doing is Petipa. … So the idea is to say, ‘Here’s what the lineage might actually look like.’”

For Fullington, presenting reconstructions of old ballets actually opens the door to showing a diversity of ballet styles from across the ages.

“It sort of places ballets in context,” says Fullington. “Not everything needs to look the same. It’s okay if a ballet from the 1890s has more of a look from the 1890s, and that will differentiate it from a ballet made in the 1960s or a ballet made in 2015.”

For Jones, he hopes that by looking back at ballet’s past he’s able to help build its future in Los Angeles.

“They say if you don’t know history you’re doomed to repeat it. … LA doesn’t have a giant history with ballet — not as much as some other cities — and I think the better the audience knows the art form, I think the better the art form gets,” he says.

“It just becomes a very dynamic conversation between audience and artist.”


American Contemporary Ballet performs “Tchaikovsky in Dance” June 15 through 18 at The Bloc

Christina Campodonico

Christina Campodonico

Christina is an arts journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Argonaut, where she is a staff writer. She loves reading, writing and watching other people perform.