REVIEW: Ballet Russe ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala, Aug 27 2011

by Julie Gervais

It was indeed a starry starry night in Ann Arbor on Saturday, when Ballet Russe/Russian Artists International presented the second ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala.

The concept of a gala performance is one of shameless indulgence. It can be likened to an entire menu of dessert courses – service of at least a dozen exquisite treats usually reserved for the end of the meal. (This metaphor holds true only for those with a sweet tooth.) But the ballet world is human too, and once in a while, it’s a very good idea to throw the rules out the window.

The success of a Gala depends entirely on the quality of the dancers. Aside from technical excellence, they must be accomplished artists who can, in just a few moments, draw an audience in – to the character, the setting, the whole world of a ballet that is normally developed over a period of hours. No one exemplified this better on Saturday night than Olga Pavlova.

Ms. Pavlova is a mensch. She’s a prima ballerina as well as a master teacher, and could easily direct everyone on the stage. (Full disclosure: I’ve watched her work in the studio and in rehearsals.) She first appeared on Saturday as Schéhérazade, dripping with a knowing sensuality. The intensity of her focus is gripping. Even someone who doesn’t know about ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ will be in no doubt about what this woman means to accomplish.Her next appearance, that of the already-deceased Giselle in that ballet’s Act II, is so solemnly sad and yet full of steely will and determination to save her love, Count Albrecht (Ludovico Pace) from a terrible fate, proving you can have strength of spirit even when you’re just a spirit. To conjure these characters out of thin air requires that every gesture, every step, and every glance be true, and Ms. Pavlova’s are.

Her Schéhérazade partner, Sergei Sidorski, is a welcome returning guest from last year’s Gala. Principal dancer of the National Ballet of Ukraine, he brings a commanding but refined power to everything he dances, and does so in an unassuming and gallant way. He had a busy night, also partnering the very young Patricia Zhou in the Swan Lake adagio, and in the evening’s final treat, dancing the firecracker Don Quixote pas de deux with Yana Salenko, Principal dancer of Staatsballet Berlin.

Ms. Zhou’s work shows remarkable maturity. She is in the category of “very tiny” ballerinas, and her upper body moves with a delicate fragility. Her Odette benefited from this quality and was set off beautifully with a strong and proud back. Her contemporary and fellow Detroiter, Haley Schwan, has a very American verve, now embedded in her polished classical training. In addition to her Corsaire Odalisque and solo part of the Don Quixote pas de deux, she got to dig into the most lighthearted fun of the evening in a contemporary piece called ‘Come Neve al Sole’, also with Ludovico Pace. Done in soft slippers, it was a great example of the sophistication brought to contemporary work by classically trained dancers.

Ms. Salenko was a delight, spinning her way slowly out of attitude tours in the Corsaire pas deux like a spider throwing a web, and holding remarkable balances. One of these, during the Don Q pas de deux, went on so long that it threatened to hold up the proceedings and produced an admiring smile from her partner.

Maria Kochetkova (San Francisco Ballet Principal) has an uncanny ability to color a step with what would seem to be conflicting characteristics – she can be razor sharp and velvety soft at the same time, to remarkable effect. She was partnered in the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux and in the Tchaikovsky pas de deux by Gennadi Nedvigin (also a SFB Principal) whose beautiful ballon and crisp tours en l’air were all of a piece with his perfect form.

Ana Sophia Scheller (New York City Ballet soloist) and Joseph Phillips (American Ballet Theatre) offered two pas de deux: Diana and Acteon, and Esmerelda. Perhaps the least well known of the pieces on the program (and therefore both slightly bigger challenges for an audience that is expecting all familiar crowd-pleasers), they nevertheless won hearts. (And the Esmerelda coda, musically, is an uphill battle. It fails to build momentum and just wanders aimlessly – a mashup of coda ideas.) Shinobu Takita (also a principal dancer in Ukraine) gracefully returned again this year and presented perhaps one of the most emotional Dying Swans in memory.Ukrainian native Simon Wexler bounded and rebounded through an authentic Ukrainian Gopak that fairly defined what it means to be young and ebullient.

At this point, people who saw the performance are wondering why I have left someone out. All right, so, Daniil Simkin was also there. Of course, he wasn’t just there. He electrified the house. If Hurricane Irene had taken a westward detour and knocked out power (to the Power Center!), this show would have gone on. With his every step, he made clear that his current position as ballet’s young prince is entirely based on merit

Simkin in 'Les Bourgeois'

Simkin in 'Les Bourgeois'

(well, plus charm). He turned superbly, he jumped effortlessly, he did things in the air that will require several slow motion replays to even understand. In addition to opening the show with Yana Salenko in the Corsaire pas de deux, he brought his signature ‘Bourgeois’ to life from fans’ (doubtless many) YouTube views. I think Jacques Brel would love it. The audience certainly did.

The ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala is the culminating event in a two-week Russian Ballet Festival that gives students the opportunity to study with many of these extraordinary artists at the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Novi. It was these students who were first out on the stage in the Sleeping Beauty waltz, demonstrating that the whole endeavor is, at its heart, an educational mission as well as a cultural one. Ann Arbor and Detroit metro are all the richer for this, and if there are some who feel regretful at having missed it, be advised: next year’s Gala is scheduled for August 18. Mark your calendars!

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Patricia Zhou of Canton, MI to Perform in ‘Stars of Russian Ballet Gala’

Patricia Zhou was born in Canada but raised in Canton, MI. She left home at age 13 to attend the renowned Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., beginning her serious ballet training so late, by ballet’s timetable, as to put a professional career out of reach to all but the most gifted of dancers. The swiftness of her progress is a testament to what can be achieved when extreme talent is met by unrelenting hard work. She has amassed a startling collection of awards in international ballet competitions, including at the Prix de Lausanne in 2011, the 2010 Beijing International Ballet Festival, and the Youth America Grand Prix. She has been featured in the national dance publications Pointe and DanceSpirit, and made her national television debut in May on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. She begins her professional career in the fall as an apprentice, with the title of Prix de Lausanne dancer, in London’s Royal Ballet. She will perform in Saturday’s Ann Arbor Gala in the Act II adagio from Swan Lake, a variation in the Don Q suite, and in one of the Odalisque variations from Le Corsaire.

 

dp: What was your dance training prior to leaving MI?

PZ: I started dancing when I was seven, very recreationally. I did tap/ballet combo, and slowly over the years i started doing jazz, lyrical, acro, etc. I competed as a lyrical dancer for a few years before I started really getting serious about dancing at 13, and considering a professional career in ballet.

 

dp: Then…

PZ: I then was introduced to the Kirov Academy. Knowing nothing about ballet, I just decided to audition and see if I could even get in. To my surprise, I got in with a 50% scholarship half-way through the audition. I decided as soon as I got out of the audition that I wanted to go there and study.

dp: What was it like there, both at first and once you got used to it?

PZ: At first, I was so in awe. All of the students were so proper and poised-very different than the teenagers I was used to seeing. I soon got used to the environment, and I feel it was a very good place to grow up. In ballet, I was always so nervous. I was in the lowest group, with all of the youngest students. I still had very little experience and it took me a while to learn all of the terms and pick up the combinations. After a few months, I was moved up a level, and I started to slowly get it more and more.

dp: How old were you when you made the decision to be a dancer? I mean, I know a lot of little girls get that idea, but mostly it fades away, while those that are serious eventually make an “informed” decision, i.e. when you really understood how much work it is and how tough the odds are.

PZ: I was 13 when I realized that I actually liked dancing and want to pursue a professional career. It was very surprising for my parents-even for me. It kind of came out of nowhere!! I didn’t really understand how competitive it was and how much hard work it took until quite recently when I got to work with and compete against dancers my own age from all over the world. Seeing what others have accomplished made me realize what I wanted, and needed, to accomplish in order to make it.

dp: Was the idea of leaving school and entering the professional world a bit scary at first?

PZ: Yes it was definitely very scary for me. I am still transitioning because working is definitely very different than studying. Most of the dancers have been with the company for a while so I am still trying to find my place in the company. I was very worried about not having a teacher hovering over my every move, making sure it was done correctly, but after a few days with the company, I am finding class very enjoyable, and I feel like my technique is still improving because now I am learning from watching the other dancers around me.

dp: How many dancers are in the Royal Ballet, and can you pick something that most exciting about being there?

PZ: There are about 90 dancers….[most exciting] dancing and working with such famous, world-class dancers, working at the Royal Opera House… It is so beautiful and grand!!

dp: Did you both know that you’d likely end up working outside the U.S.? And do you feel that the companies have kind of an international feel, so being a “foreigner” isn’t too big of a deal, or are there any issues that go with this?

PZ: I always wanted to dance in Europe. I feel like the dancers are treated better and more respected. I also like the repertoire of the European companies more, and they tend to do more full-length ballets. There are also dancers from all over the world, so I think it is more accepting to different cultures.

dp: . You’rejust starting out, and I know dancers are modest, so I’ll ask about short-term goals rather than long-term. What would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years? Do you have some dream roles you’d like to learn?

PZ: I would love to dance special parts and soloist roles. That would be amazing, especially performing at the beautiful Royal Opera House alongside such incredible dancers. I would love to dance “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet” someday as well as Forsythe’s “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated”. I would also enjoy learning Balanchine repertoire and working on new contemporary works.

dp: What is the most fun thing, or your favorite thing, you’ve done so far as a dancer?

PZ: My favorite thing about being a dancer is when you go on stage and just forget everything and dance. It has only truly happened a few times, but it feels incredible: like your body is dancing on its own, and all you have to do is enjoy the feeling of being onstage.

dp: Is there something you’d like to say to a young student who may be considering the same path?

PZ: My only advice is to work hard and never give up. If your mind is truly set on becoming a dancer, it’s necessary to understand that it will be incredibly difficult-physically, but even more so mentally. Dancing can be very discouraging and at times it may look hopeless, but those are the times you have to keep pushing yourself and just believe that you can achieve anything you’ve set your mind upon.

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Haley Schwan of Howell, MI to Perform in ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala

Haley Schwan is from Howell, MI and became a member of the Corps de Ballet, Staatsballet Berlin in 2010. On her way to Berlin, she spent two years as a full-time student at the legendary Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Founded in 1738, the Academy and the training method that bears its name have given to the dance world most of its superstars. To say it is extremely selective is an understatement. Among the thousands of children that audition for a place in the beginning class, approximately 60 are selected each year. Only recently have they begun to admit a few foreign students. Look for Haley on Saturday night in a variation from Don Quixote, and in the contemporary work ‘Come Neve al Sole’, choreographed by Rolando d’Alesio, which she will dance with Ludovico Pace.

 

dp: Where did you study dance prior to leaving MI?

HS: I studied primarily at Glenn’s School of Dance in Howell, Michigan. And actually, ballet was my least favorite class until Sergey [Rayevskiy, of the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Novi, MI] started teaching classes at Glenn’s.

dp: Then where did you go?

HS: Looking for a way to improve my technique for jazz, I went to a summer program at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and after about a week into the intensive I fell in love with ballet. The following September (2004) I began my first year [there as a full-time student], and I stayed until 2008. In September 2008, I went to St. Petersburg, Russia to study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. After studying there for two years, I graduated and moved on to work for Staatsballet Berlin in August 2010.

dp:What was it like there, both at first and once you got used to it?

HS: The Kirov Academy became a second home to me over the four years I was there. I was quite an outgoing kid, so leaving home at 12 years old, I’m not sure I fully understood what a big step I was really taking, it was more like an adventure. But by the end of my time there, the people of the staff were like aunts and uncles, classmates like brothers and sisters. Moving to Russia was a huge shock at first, it was definitely the most challenging experience I’ve ever had. But I grew up a LOT as a person and as a dancer from going through it – In such a situation you can realistically fathom how important dance is to you. When you’re living unbelievably far away from home, almost no one speaks English, and you’re being yelled at and worked to the bone everyday…. You’ve got to either love dance or be a masochist. And so there is where i really understood how much I want this, and luckily I was in the absolute best place to nurture that. Not being able to understand the people or the culture was something that obviously took time, but I would say that by the beginning of my second year I was comfortable there.

dp: How old were you when you made the decision to be a dancer? A lot of little girls get that idea, but mostly it fades away, while those that are serious eventually make an “informed” decision, when you really understood how much work it is and how tough the odds are.

HS: I kind of got ahead of myself in the previous question about this, but I would say I was 16 – when I moved to Russia. It was there that I really saw how much goes into succeeding in the dance world. I’ve always been quite a hard worker in class, but there are so many things that you need to do outside of the studio to keep your body in shape. It really is a full time job.

dp: Was the idea of leaving school and entering the professional world a bit scary at first? HS: At first, yes it was scary….but I was more scared before I started to audition places. I didn’t feel ready to begin working and there were still a lot of things I wanted to work on before becoming a professional. But then I went to my first audition, in Berlin (which was actually a company that I had wanted to go to), and they offered me a contract. From that day on, I was honestly just really excited to start working and have more time on stage, which is what I’d been working for! :)

dp:How big is SB, and can you pick something that is most exciting about being there:

HS: About 90 people. I am not sure what the most exciting thing is….but I love working with choreographers on a new creation. You have long days in the studio just trying different movements and piecing them together until you’re dead – then you come back the next day and keep going! Starting from raw movements and watching as it all comes together bit by bit is exciting, it’s like you also grow with the piece and your name will always be there as the original cast. Kinda cool :) I also love just being on stage. In school you were always working for months and months at a time for one weekend of performances twice a year. It was just never enough! The thrill of being able to perform so often keeps me on my toes (literally) and excited to come to work the next day.

dp:Did you know that you’d likely end up working outside the U.S.? And do you feel that the companies have kind of an international feel, so being a “foreigner” isn’t too big of a deal, or are there any issues that go with this?

HS: Honestly, I have always wanted to end up in Europe. I find that ballet is much more appreciated outside of the U.S., and the repertoire tends to be a bit more my style. I have also always found Europe more appealing as a place to live because it’s so inspiring and charming. There is a different feel to ballet when it’s in an original opera house, or when you walk on your way to work you see beautiful historical architecture. There is so much to learn from other forms of art and Europe is just like a walking museum. In the company I don’t feel like a foreigner at all because there are actually only 3 or 4 Germans! Even though we are in Germany, all the classes and rehearsals are given in English, but of course outside of the studio some people tend to hang out with other people who speak their native language. But I don’t mind because it’s a good opportunity for me to keep up with my Russian and learn other new languages!

dp: You’re just starting out, and I know dancers are modest, so I’ll ask about short-term goals rather than long-term: what would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years? Are there some dream roles you’d like to learn?

HS: I would have to say that some of my short term goals would be for this next season to be able to dance the roles that I was given the opportunity to rehearse last season, but didn’t dance. This includes things like 11 couples in Caravaggio (Mauro Bigonzetti), 4 friends in La Esmeralda, etc. Other than that, I would just say that my goals would be to keep working and improving my technique and hope that brings some exciting roles to work for! As far as dream roles…I would say Tatjana from Onegin (John Cranko), Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, death in Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (Roland Petit) and be able to work with choreographers such as Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe.

dp: What is the most fun thing, or your favorite thing, you’ve done so far as a dancer?

HS: I think that as a dancer you have a lot of opportunities to have a good time. Of course work is work, but when you are at work surrounded by people like you everyday, things can be really fun. Everyone always says that dancers are really their own kind of people – we’re artsy people and so on stage there almost always seems to be a little joke or even a change of your character that keeps things entertaining. But one thing that no one can ever take away from me, are the moments I had on the Mariinsky stage. Having the opportunity to dance on such a historical stage was exhilarating and gave me this amazing feeling of success.

dp: Is there something you’d like to say to a young student who may be considering the same path?
HS: Work until you feel like there is nothing more you could possibly do, but make time in your day to relax and take care of yourself – there has to be a balance in your body. Always be respectful and listen to your teachers, but don’t ever let someone discourage you – If you want something, nothing should be able to get in your way.

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Samantha Shelton, Faculty, ABT Detroit Summer Intensive

Samantha Shelton

Samantha Shelton

 

SAMANTHA SHELTON is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Alma College in the Theatre and Dance Department, where she also co-directs the Alma College Dance Company. She received her professional training from the Joffrey Ballet and the David Howard Dance Center in New York and in Michigan with Rose Marie Floyd. She has also trained in London with Anita Young, former soloist with the Royal Ballet and at the Cecchetti Summer Program in Chichester, England. For the past fifteen years, she has been on the ballet faculty for American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive, teaching, setting ABT repertoire and choreographing new ballets for the final performance at the Detroit Opera House. She has also taught and choreographed for the professional ballet program at the Walnut Hill School in Boston, directed by former ABT principal, Michael Owen and was on faculty at the Interlochen Arts Academy for three summers. Recently, she was invited to choreograph a new ballet for Wayne State University and to set her ballet “Two Seasons” on the dancers at Grand Valley State University. She has performed extensively in both classical and contemporary ballets, including the Grand Pas from Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, also principal roles in Giselle and Raymonda. She had been on the ballet faculties at Wayne State University and the Detroit Opera House, where she was the artistic director for the Detroit Opera House’s Civic Dance Ensemble. Samantha holds an M.F.A in Dance from the University of Michigan, where she was awarded a Rackham Thesis grant, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. She has also done graduate work at New York University in Performing Arts Administration with internships in development and marketing at Carnegie Hall and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Recently, she was elected to the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance Alumni Society Board of Governors and the Executive Board of the Michigan Dance Council. She is certified through the American Ballet Theatre National Curriculum Training Program.

dp: Congratulations on another ABT Detroit Summer Intensive! How many years has the program been running? How many students participate each year, and how many levels do you divide them into? Is the structure of the Detroit program quite similar to the NYC program, and to the others around the country?

SS: Thanks! This year was our 15th Intensive here in Detroit. This year we had 140 students; it hovers around there but has been as high as 165. We run for 4 weeks (the programs in CA, TX & AL are 3 weeks and NYC is 5), and we group the students into four levels now. It used to be five but we eliminated the youngest level, although we still do accept some 12-year olds and even a couple of 11-year olds, but they tend to be a little more advanced for their age. In Detroit the upper age limit is 18.

dp: In 2007 ABT announced the development of the National Training Curriculum. Who are the principal architects, and what was the genesis of it?What is the basic structure?

SS: Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens developed the curriculum with the help of several others. Alaine Haubert, the Artistic Coordinator for the DSI, and Melissa Ann Bowman who now coordinates all the ABT intensives, both worked on it, and there is an advisory council whose members contributed too.I think there was a feeling that it was time for an American training method. Both men have thorough knowledge of all of the major world methods, and I think their goal was to sort out the various influences and come up with a guideline for American training in the 21st century. They use the Italian arm positions, body positions, and arabesques, but they incorporate information from both the Russian and French methods. It lays out the steps to be covered at each level of training and is very clear and age-appropriate, but does not specify how the teacher should combine steps, and it leaves plenty of room for teachers’ discretion about how to structure the material. It’s not a syllabus, but a set of elements to be taught and mastered at each level. And it does consider the technical evolution of ballet and how things have changed, but one thing that’s really interesting is that they include steps, mostly at the advanced levels, that are kind of rarely seen anymore, things that may have been in danger of being forgotten.

dp: Are there exams?

SS: There are. It is not mandatory, but schools can elect to bring an ABT examiner to their location.

dp: I understand that there is also information in the NTC that goes beyond steps. Tell me about this.

SS: Yes, the Advisory Board includes professionals from multiple disciplines and they have all contributed to the NTC: physical therapists, psychologists, sports medicine specialists, orthopedists. There’s a section on the psychological development of dancers, helping teachers to understand stages of development and how to best support the learning experience at different stages. For example, kids around age 5 respond really well to mimicry; they tune in to that. They also address physical stages of development, and the hazards of doing too much too soon. There’s nutrition information, and injury prevention. So it’s really well-rounded. In fact the title of the Teacher Training manual is ‘Training the Whole Dancer’.

dp: And all of the ABT intensives incorporate the NTC?

SS: Yes, all of the faculty has to be trained in the curriculum. And I think this is great for the students, because we all reference the concepts, there’s a lot of reinforcement. For example there are 10 Training Principles, and they support the work in the classroom, kind of tie it together. It makes for a really cohesive experience.

dp: Tell me about the teacher training

SS: They offer the training in sections every summer in NYC, and also in February. There are three sections: two weeks for the first one, classes 9-5 everyday including weekends. Then the second two sections of, I think, ten days each. You don’t take it all at once, you have to come back separately for the last section. There were maybe a hundred in our group, and the interest level seems really high. A few of us were already ABT intensive teachers, some were former ABT dancers, but mostly it was just teachers from all over the world who wanted to learn the method. Many were already certified in other training methods. There’s a lot of great detail work: for example, how to build the skills needed to execute a good assemblee – what exercises can you give to prepare a young dancer to learn that step. How to strengthen the legs, the feet in preparation for that…what are the components of it. Of course every teacher develops these ideas through experience too, but it’s great to have it all documented; it’s an incredible resource. Raymond Lukens taught most of our classes, and he has so much knowledge about all the steps, their various versions, and historical information about them, and it blends seamlessly; it’s really fascinating. Also, in the development phase they consulted with so many people, did research, integrated ideas, so it’s really rich.

dp: Is there an idea of establishing nationally-known standards, because in the US we’ve never really had our own?

SS: I think so. I think that one of the goals is to increase the general awareness of this training so that the public will recognize it as a valid credential, and its significance. By no means do I want to minimize the credentials and standards of those who teach the Cecchetti method, the Vaganova method, etc. It’s all valid. I think the goal with this work is to reach out to a broad base, make this accessible to everyone.

dp: Is there a revisions process, for periodic review etc., or it pretty much set?

SS: It’s open to that. It’s part of the reason they didn’t put together set combinations; they want it to be useful without being too rigid, so it can evolve.

dp: do you feel that the training has changed your teaching, and if so how?

SS: I think – I hope – that it has made me more thorough, and given me new insights about how to approach certain things. I really appreciated the affirmation of the importance of not rushing the training. Sometimes there’s such a push to do so much with kids, and the NTC is straightforward about this, about how it’s ok to just work for a long time to establish a good passé before working on a pirouette. And this is integrated with the data about physical development, so it’s very clear why there are some things that are inappropriate for, say, an 8-year old, things that could injure them. It’s really kind of a brave voice too, because they’re taking a stand on some controversial stuff.

dp: Thanks so much for taking the time to share this information

SS: Happy to!

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