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Letter from New York, 12-13: Hello, I Must be Snowing
Between Winter Flowers and a Stormy Boulevard, KNUA Toe Picks
By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2006 Sandra Aberkalns
NEW YORK -- No, this is not a Flash from the Archive -- I am back in the saddle again after a long absence. Some of you may recognize my name from Flashes posted in 2000-2001. The rest of you may think that you don't know me, but if I tell you I make my living as a Labanotator that may spark images of rehearsals past with me sitting in the front of the studio scribbling away and possibly asking you some very strange questions at the end of the day. So with that said, on to what you really want to read about.
On December 5 I attended a performance of the Korean National University of the Arts (KNUA) at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. It was an uneven evening to say the least. Maybe the quality of the performances at the Juilliard School (a comparable educational institution to KNUA, which is based in Seoul, South Korea) has spoiled me, and maybe it is unfair to judge KNUA by another school's standards, but how can you not when the press packet includes a page and a half listing of prizes awarded to KNUA at various international competitions? The bar, therefore, was set very high, and based on the performance I saw I'm not sure KNUA would have taken the bronze.
The evening started with a lovely work, "Observing an Ume Flower," choreographed by Kim Hyun Ja. I'm not familiar with traditional Korean dance so I can't even begin to address the issue of whether the movement was authentic or not, but the music was traditional and the costumes -- in beautiful shades of pink, cream, and sea-foam green -- seemed, to me, in the traditional style. I did learn that ume blossoms are more a symbol for winter than a harbinger of spring. It is precisely for this reason that the blossoms are so beloved, because they bloom most vibrantly amidst the winter snow while all other flowers have long since succumbed to the cold and died.
The ladies truly embodied the spirit of the ume flower -- it was as though we were allowed to observe, at our leisure, individual blossoms on a single branch. They were delicate, yet one could sense an inner strength; in the unison work they moved and breathed as one and yet each woman retained her uniqueness by being coquettish, shy, bold, reserved, and everything in between; their movements were precise without being mechanical. The dresses also provided lasting impressions: a flirtatious lift of the hem that revealed a previously hidden foot; or a dress wafting, on small springing jumps, as though blossoms were opening and closing. Their upper bodies were extremely expressive and the movement syncopations were delightful, as they would happen at the most unexpected moments with an unexpected body part such as a wrist, a shoulder, or the head. The ending was a bit of a surprise. One moment the ladies were spinning like dervishes in warm lighting and the next a woman was lying alone on the floor in cool winter moonlight. As do all things in life, even the ume flower, which defies all odds to thrive in the coldest time of the year, also dies.
I was still basking in the warmth of the ume when I was literally forced into the world of Diana and Acteon. The brusque transition between these two works, and also later between "Diana and Acteon" and "Allegro Brilliante," was very jarring and unnecessary -- I'm really curious to know whether it was KNUA's or the venue's decision to not bring house lights up to half to let people quickly peruse their programs and gently transition into the next work.
The two ballets, which comprised the middle portion of the concert, were the weakest link of the evening. It's always a gamble not traveling with your own floor and being dependent on what is available at the venue. A floor that is perfect for bare-footed dancers can be like ice when pointe work is involved. I also pondered two other questions: were the dancers given a proper warm-up class, and should the company consider changing pointe shoe brands?
Now, back to "Diana and Acteon pas de deux," choreographed by Marius Petipa and directed by Kim Hae Shik. In mythology, Diana is the patroness of hunting, so in this pas de deux she carries her bow. In the myth of Diana and Acteon (or Actaeon), he is a prince who sees her bathing naked. She therefore transforms Acteon into a stag and sends his own hunting dogs to kill him.
I would have liked to send in the dogs after KNUA's production team. In this day and age there is absolutely no reason that anyone should be using an analog recording that is so scratchy, choppy, and unbearable to listen to. With the technology available today one can clean up an old recording or, if that's not possible, buy a new one and slow it down or speed it up as the case may be.
In this "Diana and Acteon" (excerpted from the ballet "Esmeralda"), the young woman was so passive/aggressive in her movement it was difficult to watch (and which is what made me wonder if there was a stage or shoe problem). It also didn't help that there wasn't any chemistry between the dancers and that "Diana" kept looking up into a non-existent dress circle as though begging Zeus to come save her. This is an extremely difficult pas de deux and my heart goes out to these kids. One has to remember that they are only students, and are still learning their craft.
Balanchine's "Allegro Brilliant" was also problematic in more ways than one. The title should actually be "Allegro Brilliante," which always gives the work that little extra je ne sais quoi. The leads were lovely, but the stage was too small and one could see that the performers were holding back so everything was more difficult than it had to be. What made me wonder whether the dancers were still cold -- and had not had a warm-up class -- was that in the opening corps section there was a young woman who couldn't even get off the floor for a cabriole, but by the end she seemed fine. The corps men were so dour and pedestrian in retrieving the women (especially when the ladies were weaving through the lead man) that all I could focus on was whether ballet has become to dance what figures are to ice skating -- something simply to be endured?
The energy level was amped up considerably for the last work of the evening, Yoo Mina's "Boulevard." Just as the ladies started the evening, the men got to close it. The dour expressions were gone and they were having a good time, finally. One summer at the American Dance Festival I had the opportunity to ask Talley Beatty why in "The Road of the Phoebe Snow" the transitions were so dramatic -- going from ballet to jazz to Graham within 24 counts -- and he told me, "Because black dancers had to prove they could do it all." Today, the standard seems to be Forsythe, martial arts, break-dancing, contact improv, hip-hop, and who knows what else. These men could do it all and they did a great job.
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