Category Archives: Performances

Reviews and articles around Ballet Austin’s yearly performances

Meet the Mad Men and Women of Hamlet

By Molly Morrow, HR & Accounting Associate

Famous for the skull, the bloodshed and those six little words “to be or not to be,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been revamped and re-imagined by countless artists over the centuries in a hundred different mediums, including dance.

Ballet Austin’s production is a gorgeous modern interpretation that uses the body to soliloquize and prefers the sound of water to the sound of words. We thought we’d give you a little background on the characters of Hamlet to help you translate Shakespeare into ballet this Labor Day weekend.

The Ghost

The Ghost played by Stephen Mills and Hamlet played by Paul Michael Bloodgood (Photo credit Tony Spielberg)

The Ghost played by Stephen Mills and Hamlet played by Paul Michael Bloodgood (Photo credit Tony Spielberg)

The Ghost sets the story in motion. As soon as the Ghost is alone with Hamlet, he drops a pretty heavy bomb on our leading man: he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius, who is now married to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Logically, the Ghost charges Hamlet with avenging his death.

Fun fact: It is frequently written that Shakespeare himself played the Ghost in the Globe’s productions of the play. Stephen Mills carries on that tradition and will play the Ghost in Ballet Austin’s production.

Hamlet

The poster child for Prozac in the Elizabethan age, the Prince is also a comedian: playful, clever and full of wit. In the text, Hamlet’s first line even contains a pun – “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” Less than kind is right: Hamlet proves Claudius’ guilt by reenacting the murder with a troupe of traveling actors, accidentally kills Ophelia’s father (maybe check behind the curtain next time,) eventually returns home to confess his undying love for the now-conveniently-dead Ophelia and murders Claudius.

In Ballet Austin’s production, Hamlet’s conflicting desires and descent into madness are expressed through three alternate Hamlets that appear to him as visions. Hamlet will be played by company dancers Frank Shott and Paul Michael Bloodgood, and Hamlet II-IV will be played by James Fuller, Oliver Greene-Cramer and Orlando Canova.

Both Hamlet and Ophelia casts in rehearsals. (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Both Hamlet and Ophelia casts in rehearsals. (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Claudius

Claudius is a man of pure and unspeakable evil. He murders Hamlet’s father, marries Hamlet’s mother, and then, like any good sociopath, convinces everyone that Hamlet himself is to blame for all the dying and suffering. Lucky for us, Shakespeare’s sense of justice and blood-lust is dead on, and Claudius ultimately gets what’s coming to him. Claudius is played by Ballet Austin company dancer Edward Carr.

Gertrude

Gerturde and Hamlet dance by Aara Krumpe and Paul Michael Bloodgood. (Photo credit Tony Spielberg)

Gerturde and Hamlet danced by Aara Krumpe and Paul Michael Bloodgood. (Photo credit Tony Spielberg)

The woman who brought Hamlet into this world is of course complex, heartbreaking and infuriating. Once married to Hamlet’s noble father, she chooses with inexplicable and breathtaking speed to marry her dead husband’s brother, who is also her dead husband’s murderer. Her failed attempt to explain herself and her actions to Hamlet inadvertently leads to Polonius’s murder. Gertrude dies, as does most everyone in this play, from being poisoned. She is played in this production by Aara Krumpe and Rebecca Johnson.

Ophelia

Ophelia is a doomed woman if ever there was one. In love with a man who is existentially preoccupied at best, and suicidal at worst, she is driven mad with grief from the news of her father’s death and drowns herself. Ophelia’s drowning is a scene of surprising beauty in Ballet Austin’s production, as Ophelia dances in a track of real water on stage. This fall she is played by Ashley Lynn Sherman and Jaime Lynn Witts.

Polonius

Brian Heil as Polonius and Frank Shott as Hamlet during rehearsals. (Photo credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Brian Heil as Polonius and Frank Shott as Hamlet during Hamlet rehearsals. (Photo credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Polonius is the pompous, long-winded armchair poet of this tragedy (there’s at least one in every Shakespeare play). Ironically, for all his advice on being true to one’s self and having a method to one’s madness, Polonius is a coward: he hides behind a curtain when Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude about her marriage to Claudius, thus sealing his own fate. Polonius is played by Ballet Austin II dancer Brian Heil.

Laertes

Fencing rehearsal (Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Fencing rehearsal (Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Laertes is vengeance personified. His whole reason for being is to rain on Hamlet’s parade, just because Hamlet may or may not have killed his sister and his dad. Laertes also happens to be quite handy with a sword. Claudius poisons the sword, of course, and then – just for good measure – poisons a goblet of wine as a kind of Shakespearean Plan B, because you can never have enough poison. Ballet Austin brings the magnificent swordfight to life with a fencing match that dances across the stage, an unusual and distinctly inspired element of this ballet. Laertes is played by Christopher Swaim and Jordan Moser.

Purchase tickets today to see Stephen Mills’ modern interpretation of Hamlet, guaranteed to leave you thankful for your seemingly undramatic family drama.

Swan Lake: Then and Now

We’re all familiar with some version of Swan Lake. But there is so much more to this timeless ballet than the inner angst portrayed in the most recent pop-culture rendition, Black Swan. The Swan Lake that we all know and love, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, initially had a rough start. Let’s take a look at where it began how we arrived to the acclaimed ballet of today.

The World Premiere in 1877

The first premiere of Swan Lake was actually choreographed by Julius Reisinger, ballet master at the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre (now the Bolshoi Ballet.) “When the premiere of Swan Lake took place, it was a disappointment to everybody, especially its composer [Tchaikovsky].” famed choreographer George Balanchine comments. “The choreographer was a hack ballet master who possessed neither the talent nor the taste to choreograph a work to the music of a major composer.”

Anna Sobeshchanskaya

Anna Sobeshchanskaya

The Russian ballerina intended for the role of Odette, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, was replaced by Pauline Karpakova. “Karpakova was a run-of-the-mill dancer past her bloom, who insisted upon interpolating sure-fire ‘numbers’ from other ballets in her repertoire to replace some of Tchaikovsky’s music which she could not appreciate, understand or even count,” Balanchine continues.

It wasn’t until 18 years later when the famed choreography of today was pieced together.

The 1895 World Premiere

In November 1894 Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov agreed to work together to revive Swan Lake. Petipa choreographed the acts that took place in the castle and castle garden, and Ivanov choreographed the lakeside acts, including the corps de ballet of swans.

Ivanov was the first to base his choreography on the structure and emotional content of the music, rather than displaying how technically brilliant his lead dancers were. Ivanov also was one of the first to use the corps de ballet to its fullest potential and to help tell the story of the ballet. He excelled in making patterns and shapes on the stage with the corps as shown in the lakeside acts in Swan Lake, as well as the snowflakes’ dance in The Nutcracker.

The premiere of this new work took place at the Mariinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 17, 1895. Unlike the Moscow premiere in 1877, it was a huge success.

Pierina Legnani

Pierina Legnani

The occasion was also a testimonial gala for Pierina Legnani, who danced the double role of Odette/Odile and could not restrain herself from injecting her 32 fouettes from Cinderella, this time as the coda of her black swan pas de deux in the ballroom scene.

Swan Lake of Today

Since then, over 155 versions of Swan Lake have been performed by at least 115 companies based in 25 countries. Few other ballets from the 19th-century have had such lasting and widespread popularity.

The Petipa-Ivanov production has formed the basis of most subsequent stagings around the world. Most current versions of Swan Lake retain the core of what is considered the original Petipa-Ivanov choreography, though with some new choreography added.

Ballet Austin prepares to perform the famed ballet once again Mother’s Day Weekend, with the Austin Symphony Orchestra with live accompaniment. Join them as they close the 2014/15 season. Now is the time to check off that box on your “ballet bucket-list.”

Reference: Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1989. Print.

 

Ballet Austin Premieres Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project at the Acco Festival in Israel

The Light International Premier filled the auditorium and the energy and excitement were large. Our Austin delegation took up most of the entire 8throw, so we had a great vantage point for the performance. There were welcome addresses by Albert Ben-Shloosh, the Director of the Acco Festival; Raya Strauss, one of the leaders in the region and Steve Adler, a Ballet Austin Board member and a leader in Austin responsible for the arrival of the Light project at Acco.

Steve shared some background information on Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project and the importance of communities engaging in dialogue around hate, prejudice and bigotry. He also described the importance of both what is seen in the ballet, and what is not seen in the ballet. Artistic director Stephen Mills wrote a story based on the experience of Holocaust survivor and Houston, Texas resident Naomi Warren.

Albert presented Steve with the Guest of Honor Acco Festival trophy, given to one act at each Festival that represents a center point of the festival. It was quite an honor for the Light project.  Steve gave the trophy to Cookie Ruiz, and here’s a photo of her with it.

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The lights dimmed and the performance began. Flawlessly done, the dancers danced the 5 acts of the ballet. As expected, it was powerful and moving. Words don’t describe the feeling this ballet gives the audience. The big question prior to the performance was how it would be received by an Israeli audience. The answer:  they loved it. In a country that deals with the issues of the Holocaust regularly, the combination of precisely executed dance elements by accomplished and professional dancers like those in the Austin Ballet and the subject material built into the story of the Light project was extremely well received by the Israeli audience. Even our tour guide, Dani, commented on how wonderful the performance was and how deep and thought provoking it was for him. But the confirming sign of success was the clapping at the end of the show. It started out as any audience, with wild applause, but very quickly the clapping morphed into a rhythmic, synchronized clapping that went on for several minutes. Our Austin delegation was somewhat surprised, not knowing what the synchronized clapping meant, but we were then told that it was a high form of praise and acceptance in Israel, and common after a successful performance.

Light Performance 1

After the show, Stephen Mills came onstage to answer questions from the audience. He was asked about the symbolism of some of the elements in the ballet, and he described what his vision was. He was asked about the story and he shared some of his experience with Naomi Warren. He also was asked about the ending, and he let the audience know that Naomi’s wishes were for a positive, survivor ending, since she was a survivor.

All in all, a fantastic (shabab) evening none of us are likely to forget.

– Keri Pearlson, a member of the Jewish Community Association of Austin (JCAA) Board of Directors.

(View Keri’s other blogs here)

Ballet Austin prepares for Opening Night

We had heard about the wonders of an Israeli breakfast. It comes with the price of the room. We went downstairs as usual to choose from yogurt, eggs, vegetables, hummus,  herring and a stunning assortment of bread looking things – pound cake, pita, rolls, etc.   We learned quickly that the shy go hungry in thionstages “buffet free for all.” As the dancers wandered in – slowly and a bit red eyed – they shared the stories of their evenings out.

It was a slow morning,  so we took a walk through the old city. The signage is in Arabic or Hebrew depending on the part of town. There are booths of everything you can  imagine including some inredibly fresh fish from the Mediterranean a few feet away. Most people know my mind goes blank when I am presented with too many options so I was unable to focus at all of the spices in burlap bags, clothing and toys that light up.

We walked the ancient tiny streets which were like the smallest Venice alleyways except,  there are cars everywhere. Acco has traffic circles instead of stop signs and lights. Pedestrians have the right of way but it takes a while to get comfortable with the near death experiences. Right of way does not mean that they won’t drive an inch away from you.

vip 1:00pm the dancers had their first chance to go inside the theater.  Bill Sheffield, the Ballet Austin crew and the local tech folks were working magic with the small space. I loved watching the spacing rehearsal. Listening to the strategies to make Light work in a new space is fascinating. It included Stephen’s vision with the collaboration of the company.We had coupons to eat dinner in the Acco entertainers garden.  We all walked over to the opening ceremonies where we were greeted by three rows of VIP seats marked with Ballet Austin signs. It is so odd. The only English in Acco are the words Ballet Austin. Albert has thought of every detail to make our stay amazing. We stayed for the concert as long as we could. Then we escaped early to go get some sleep.

 

– Barbara Shack

Ballet Austin with the KCDC

Today the company traveled to the home of Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC).

They live and work on a kibbutz (a rural communal settlement) in the region. Just like us, the company rehearses in their black box theater. Rami Be’er, Artistic Director and Raya Strauss, their benefactor greeted us. Stephen spoke and then KCDC performed.

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Stephen with RamiThe work was incredible!  And what an astounding group of dancers. My favorite response from our dancers was “Can we learn to do that?” I can’t describe the beauty of their fluidity and control.

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Next Ballet Austin danced. Yes, with jet lag and no real warm up, our dancers were still gorgeous. They performed an excerpt from Light. Honestly, I panicked a little when I thought about BA doing our version of a hora in Israel. But it worked! One of their dancers complimented the quality of our dancer’s movement (high praise from a dancer who had just blown my mind performing). Another added that he couldn’t believe that we could move with jet lag. As we all know our dancers can do anything (yes, I’m biased – and this trip has done nothing to change my mind).

Most of the KCDC dancers came through their second company just like ours who came through Ballet Austin II. Yoni, thier touring director showed us the studios and explained the kibbutz concept… “It’s based on communist and socialist philosophy… not like the United States.” While it is gorgeous there – and I am getting more and more in touch with nature, I’m not so sure agriculture would be a good fit for me.
BA dancing

The dancers had the afternoon off. Eugene and I had meetings with Isi and with Claudio – the videographer.

I admit Eugene and I had reached the point of delirious exhaustion so we had a quiet dinner.  We deemed it a great success.  The food was wonderful and we stayed awake all the way through the meal.

– Barbara Shack

(photos by Nevo Photography)

Ballet Austin Arrives in Israel

Sept 18th at 11am and we’re leaving Austin, TX – all 32 of us which includes dancers, crew and staff.  After a 3 hour flight we land at Newark airport outside New York.  Our international flight was departing from a different terminal so we found the subtly marked hallway that led to an unimpressive stairway that led to the shuttle bus to terminal C – our home for the next 7 hours.  We ate lunch and walked around. We ate dinner and walked around.  It is a very big terminal and we saw it all.  It seemed wherever we walked there were Ballet Austin dancers wandering the halls in a different pattern from ours.  Eventually we joined the BA colony surrounding the battery and computer charging station near our gate.  Next we went through a second security checkpoint – special for passengers flying to Tel-Aviv.

airport

At 11pm we departed Newark for the 10+ hour flight to Tel-Aviv.  If there was any trepidation about the distance and time that separated us from our destination it was apparently relieved as evident by the sight of so many of the dancers interfacing with the touch screen of movies, television shows and music available at every seat.  United has lots of TV and movie options on the screens in the back of the seats.  Of course when presented with too many choices I was a bit paralyzed.  Finally, I chose a few episodes of “Elementary”.  We were served dinner and then breakfast.  It has been forever since I had airplane food.  It wasn’t bad – or maybe I was excited by the retro aspect of the compartmentalized food.  Most of us slept. It was very quiet – and dark.

When we landed I was prepared for drama with customs… Let’s say over prepared.   Our group seemed to be the only foreigners on the plane so there was no line.  Once the front folks (thank you Cookie, Orlando and Ashley) explained why we were coming to Israel the rest of us got questions like “What airline did you fly on?”  No one wanted to look at our luggage.  We were greeted by Lital (the logistical genius who made this trip possible) and Isi (Albert’s producer) with a sign with the Ballet Austin logo, a splendid way to arrive anywhere.

airport 2

We met Samir, our bus driver, and traveled one hour plus to the walled, medieval city of Akko.  Our hotel has a crusader era aqueduct running through the lobby leading to a cistern in the courtyard.

Aqueduct

Akko Hotel

We are in Old Akko with a recorded history reaching back 4,000 years.  It is a remarkably mixed city with signage in Hebrew , Arabic and a few in English for the tourists.

After check in and a bit of breathing time Samir drove us to Morganfeld’s restaurant to eat with the members of the western Galilee partnership. Albert Ben-Shloosh greeted us at the entrance.  It is unbelievable that Albert’s dream of bringing Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project to Akko is a reality and we are here.  The food was delicious! I now know I have never really had hummus.  But the most beautiful moment of the evening… was when they brought out a brazier of meat and Albert called over to Bill Sheffield to say that the steak was for him. We knew we were very well taken care of.

Dinner-Night 1

-Barbara Shack

Sneak Peek: The Taming of the Shrew

Just two and a half weeks until The Taming of the Shrew opens at the Long Center. In anticipation, enjoy this exclusive sneak peek of the production:

Would YOU take this woman? The Taming of the Shrew opens Oct 5-7. Get tickets today!

Romeo & Juliet by the Numbers

Romeo & Juliet marks the end of the 2011/12 season, and with elaborate sets and costumes it is certainly a grand production. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most interesting production stats. 

Costume and Set:

80 costumes and 25 head pieces are worn throughout the production, including period style handcrafted leather boots which cost around $450.

4 wardrobe crew members and special changing booths constructed backstage allow for the dancers’ quick costume changes.

So what is the production budget for all the costumes? Approximately $100,000 when Ballet Austin first acquired them. Replacement costs in today’s prices would range from $200,000 to $250,000.

Lady Capulet’s ballroom gown, worn by Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin, weighs 30 pounds.

The costumes were made from fabrics like silk chiffon, linen, wool and cotton to give them the realistic look and feel of the clothing worn during the Italian Renaissance.

Ironically, the first person to wear (and sweat in) the Romeo costume was not Romeo himself, but current Company Manager Eugene Alvarez!

Dancers will go through roughly 80 pairs of pointe shoes during Romeo & Juliet rehearsals and performances.

The tomb scene once used live candles. Due to fire codes this is no longer allowed, and now 360 lighting instruments illuminate the stage throughout the production.

3 truss spot operators are suspended over the stage during the performances. Truss spots are follow spotlights manned by operators on a rig above the stage.

Dancer:

Romeo & Juliet has 45 characters, which means some of the dancers play multiple roles and require many costume changes.

Romeo (Paul Michael Bloodgood) is actually married to Juliet’s friend (Anne Marie Melendez).

In real life, Friar Lawrence is a Pilates instructor, Lord Capulet is a theater dance instructor, and Benvolio is a Harvard grad.

Romeo from the other cast (Frank Shott) is a massage therapist when he’s not dueling, and helped choreograph the fencing scene.

2006 was the last time Ballet Austin performed Romeo & Juliet. Prior to that, the world premiere of Stephen Mills‘ version of the ballet was in 2001.

From the dancers to the stage crew, everyone’s hard work goes into making the production a success. See the magic come to life this Mother’s Day Weekend, May 11-13, at the Long Center.

Reserve your seats today.

Stephen Mills on Finding Inspiration

When we began talking internally about Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project, Artistic Director Stephen Mills walked us through the inception of the ballet. Read below to see how he found inspiration for his work – or in this case, how it found him.
In the life of an artist one is always searching. The search for a narrative, music, new movement language, or simply a kernel of an idea is constant and ongoing. An artist has to remain open to possibilities. Ideas rarely come while sitting behind a desk or computer. Very often the best work comes from years of collecting seemingly disparate ideas. I keep files of tear sheets from magazines of images that are interesting or provocative. Art and fashion magazines as well as newspapers contain great source material. I store away unusual colors I find from various sources. Even paint chips can become part of my hoarding. I find music I like and put it back until I find a project it might be right for. I even collect titles for dances that might not be created for years, if ever. I hold all this information in files, on my computer or iPhone, and in my mind simultaneously. For me, the idea for a dance might happen over the course of years because all the visual and aural information I’ve gathered needs one unifying, ‘ah ha’ moment to bring it together. At that point it becomes like a puzzle where I can see all the pieces, and I go about assembling them. Why it happens like that, I don’t understand.

In my full-length ballet Hamlet, the dance is divided into two acts. Act II is set in a completely white environment with two very large ski slope like structures upstage. These ‘scoops’ serve a couple of purposes: Besides being aesthetically beautiful, the structures allow for the white of the floor to carry up onto the back wall, which visually elongates the floor. Secondly, they become the ground in which the character Ophelia is buried after her death. The idea for this device came to me at the end of a flight when I noticed structures such as this at the end of the runway. I believe that in an emergency they prevent the planes from over-shooting the runway. Originally designed as safety devices, they now find themselves in a ballet. This image, photos of red flowers and plexiglass tubes came together to create that ‘ah ha’ moment; the aesthetic of the work became inevitable.

And though artists are always in search of new projects, sometimes the project seeks out the artist. Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project is an example of a work in search of an artist. In the creation of this piece I used images from my files – all of which were unrelated to the Holocaust. In developing this dance I used all the devices I’ve mentioned but brought one more element to my process of brainstorming: Memory. I spent an entire year researching the historical narrative of the Holocaust, and brought from Europe many photographs and books. Studying the ways in which the Holocaust has been represented in the past was very informative, and the ways in which loss and absence has been illuminated became important.

I have had the good fortune to spend time with many Holocaust survivors. Hearing firsthand accounts of the pain and loss people endured during this catastrophic event has left an indelible mark on my psyche. I am forever changed by this knowledge, as well as by the generosity of those who shared this intimate information. But there is no art – no enduring art – without inspiration. For me, the inspiration for this work came from Naomi Warren. A survivor of three of the most notorious death camps in history, Naomi lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust. Naomi is inspiring because of her tenacious and resilient nature, and her positive perspective in the face of unimaginably negative knowledge is awesome. Creating this work was difficult, emotionally challenging, eye-opening and fulfilling. I have had the most profound experience of my dance making career because the inspiration for creating it came from a very spiritually connected place. I believe Naomi served the role of medium between that place and me, and obviously it will be nearly impossible to access that place again. I am no more certain of where inspiration comes from than before this project, but I now know to expect the unexpected and appreciate the opportunities when they arise.