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Orphée et Eurydice : a plot summary

P1070147An opera by Christoph Willibald Glück (1762)
Staged and choreographed by Pina Bausch (1975)
Sung in German, danced by the Paris Opera Ballet

Orpheus – a musician so gifted that the sound of his lyre and arc of his voice can make rivers change course, wild animals lie down to be petted, and rocks cry — dares to journey to the underworld in search of his beloved wife, Eurydice. This, one of the greatest love stories of ancient Roman mythology, provided the plot for not only the very first opera created in 1607 – Monteverdi’s Orfeo — but has inspired more than one hundred other operas or ballets.

Pina Bausch’s modern and expressive take on Glück’s richly emotional score solves the conundrum of how to return ballet to its rightful place in an operatic evening. Bausch took dance too seriously to provide mere divertissements. Here she blesses each singer with a danced double, as in Glück’s original version: bodies and voices interact and complete each other. This intricate coupling of song and movement creates a symbiosis that you could say resembles a great marriage. One that has, already, lasted much longer than the brief and tragic one of Orpheus and Eurydice…

PART ONE: (1 hour 20 minutes)

Her snowy wedding veil now a shroud, Eurydice had died from a serpent’s bite on her wedding day. In her motionless arms: red roses symbolizing her husband Orpheus’s passionate love. Orpheus, devastated by grief at the loss of his turtle-dove, refuses to be consoled by the nymphs and shepherds who mourn with him.

But Orpheus is the greatest singer on earth. Despite daring to speak of the cruelty of the gods, his cries of despair sound so beautiful that they soften the hearts of these very same gods. Love arrives with a message: Orpheus will be allowed into Hades. If his music can disarm the guardians of the gates of Eternity, then he might be able to do what no living being had ever done: bring his wife back from the realm of the dead.

But there is one condition. Should he succeed in wrenching his wife from the arms of death, Orpheus must not look at her – nor explain why — before they have returned to this earth.  Orpheus is suddenly worried for he has never lied, or been less than utterly honest, to Eurydice before.

Orpheus enters a horrible dark and smoky cave by the river Styx, where the waters of woe pour into those of lamentation… and soon dissolve into the stream of oblivion. His wife just beyond reach, Orpheus must confront the three-headed guardian of the Underworld, the hound Cerberus (three male dancers in leather butcher’s aprons) and a swarm of Furies. You may be surprised that these screeching female avengers destined to torment sinners move about more like merely nervous and tired souls yearning for rest. That is because in Ovid’s vivid description, Orpheus proves the only mortal to make the implacable Furies not only relent, but weep. So if at first sight the Furies scream “no!” they do finally allow Orpheus to pass, swayed by how his beautiful music embodies the power of such loving devotion.

Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in the Elysian Fields, that exquisite and peaceful meadow in paradise where “blessed spirits” enjoy an eternity free from those violent human emotions that make us suffer so in mortal life. (The French term for this place is Les Champs-Elysées). Having already taken a drink from the river of forgetfulness and feeling rather blissed out, Eurydice is startled by how Orpheus seems both panicked and utterly cold at the same time. Did he come all this way only to turn away from her? Why, then, should she abandon this new « life? »

INTERMISSION (20 minutes)

PART TWO: (30 minutes)

As she is being led back to earth Eurydice, unable to understand why Orpheus stubbornly refuses look at her, can only imagine that it must be because he no longer loves her. In that case, she would rather be dead. Her despair grows, and Orpheus struggles to maintain his self-control.

This situation always makes me think of a very long car ride, where you are stuck in the back and wind up wanting to strangle the driver, there, in the front, with his back to you, who has been feeding you monosyllables for hours. Even if that means wrecking the car in the middle of Idaho. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Now is the time for you to re-view Jean Cocteau’s dark-hearted film.

Alas, unable to stand it any longer, Orpheus suddenly turns to face Eurydice, to reassure and embrace her. At that very instant she falls dead, this time forever. Orpheus loses the will to live, even to move. In a poignant and emotionally raw final tableau, he allows death to take him too.


The opera’s libretto provides a happy end, where human frailty is forgiven and love conquers all. Bausch decided to cut Glück’s last two scenes. Her somber finale, with music from the lament we heard at the outset, is probably more suited to our pessimistic times, and rhymes well with the choreographer’s feral sensitivity to the complexity of life and love.  Her company in Wupperthal was/lives on as a coven of strong women who make big statements, most often in clad in those dresses that swish and swoop and make you move differently from normal – one way to signify the female in all her power.  Her men embrace extremes: clad in suits, or leather, or almost nothing at all.  They are either grindingly dominant or utterly fragile.  Bausch understood how, while we like to dream of love, too often we suffer from the urge to tear each other (and ourselves) apart. The Paris Opera Ballet is the only company outside Bausch’s own to have been deemed capable of doing justice to not just one but two of her masterpieces — the other being her pungent and loamy Rite of Spring, which will hopefully soon return to the repertoire.

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On Ballet and Pop Culture Part II: Occupy the Ballet, We Are the 2.5% (No, really, please buy a ticket)

The spike we explored in the last post comes at a very convenient time for ballet companies. The US is still in a recession which means fewer people are willing to shell out the cash to spend an evening watching ballet and even less willing to donate hard earned money that could be going towards things like rent and food. Less money coming in means that ballet companies, which are overwhelmingly dependent upon donations from their audiences to function, are desperately trying to increase their fan base. To make matters even more difficult, they need to increase their fan base among the young. According to The National Endowment for the Arts’ Arts 2008 Audience Participation Report, “Performing arts attendees are increasingly older than the average U.S. adult.  Since 1982 [when the study began], young adult (18–24-year-old) attendance rates have declined significantly for jazz, classical music, ballet, and non-musical plays “(NEA 5).  To be specific, in 2008 only 2.5% of young adults attended the ballet (down 36% from 1982, when 3.5% of adults in that category attended. EEK!)

This report is from 2008; BS premiered in 2010 and was nominated for 5 Oscars and started the pop culture spike we’ve just talked about. Compare this to The Turning Point, which came out in 1977 and earned 11 Oscars nominations. The age of the average ballet patron in 1977? 33  (NEA 17). To be fair, that number is well within the median age of the American population at the time, so it’s not as if The Turning Point actually caused a huge upswing in ballet attendance; the patrons were already there. The movie was a reaction to ballet’s existing popularity, but what made people pay attention in the first place? Russians.

In 1961 Rudolph Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union and made the world start paying attention. His partnership with Margot Fonteyn is legendary, but I’m not going to go into Nureyev’s dance career (you know it, and if you don’t, here), this is just a very quick sum up of his presence in pop culture. When he wasn’t busy dancing, he was known to socialize with Gore Vidal, Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol among others. In 1971, Nureyev appeared on episode 213 of The Muppet Show. Up to this point, the show had struggled to attract celebrity guests but after the success of Swine Lake among other sketches the show’s popularity skyrocketed. He also starred in the 1972 documentary I Am a Dancer.  It’s fair to think of Nureyev as ballet’s reigning bad boy of the era. So at this point (early 70s), the public at large is pretty interested in ballet, making the atmosphere ripe for another ballet phenomenon. With impeccable timing, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the USSR on June 29, 1974 while on tour in Canada.  After a brief stint with The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, he moved to ABT and was a principal dancer there until 1978 when he hopped across the plaza to NYCB. Box office sales soared, and his performances were consistently sold out.  Public fascination with Baryshnikov is well documented. On May 19, 1975 he was on the cover of Time Magazine, which dubbed him “Ballet’s new idol.” He parlayed this success into movies with The Turning Point (1977), White Nights (1985), and Dancers (1987) among others. Audiences that had never cared about ballet before suddenly wanted to see the star, and all they had to do was spend $30 on a ballet ticket.

Hoping against hope that imported guest stars would continue to sell tickets when their own seem to flop, companies like American Ballet Theatre currently rely on a rotating panel of who’s who in the ballet world: Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova (Bolshoi, now both with the Mikhailovsky), Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru (Royal), and Polina Semionova (Berlin) were all guest stars at ABT last year, and all of them are returning this season. While this does attract patrons and I certainly love the idea of sharing dancers and international collaboration (Kings of the Dance, YES!), the system does absolutely nothing to get new audience members into the theater, and it damages the company in the long run by not supporting and promoting its own company members. Unless companies like ABT want to become totally dependent on foreign imports, they need to start nurturing the talent at home.

So if all you need to create a ballet mania are ballet stars and movies, why didn’t we have a surge in the early 2000’s when Center Stage and Save The Last Dance came out? Well for one, Baryshnikov and Nureyev were already celebrities in the ballet world thanks to their very public defections from the USSR. The movies, articles and TV appearances added to their fame, which in turn added to ballet’s general popularity, but simply making a movie about ballet isn’t necessarily going jump start a specific dancer’s career. Look at Amanda Schull: poor Jody Sawyer is doing McDonald’s commercials now! Sasha Radetsky is still stuck as a soloist at ABT (a crime against ballet) and Ethan Steifel is mostly known because he just accepted the artistic director position at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and those who don’t know that fact still think of him as Cooper Nielson. What those movies did cause is an upswing in dance movies like Save the Last Dance 2, Step Up, (and its three sequels) and, of course, a parody of all the ballet meets hip-hop movies, Dance Flick. The genre even got a mention on Family Guy (sorry for the terrible video quality on that one, but YouTube was not cooperating). So how could Black Swan avoid that trap and cause all this brouhaha? Well, Black Swan was critically acclaimed, had excellent actors, and a much hyped lesbian scene that convinced even guys who hated the very idea of a ballet movie to give it a chance. Center Stage, if we’re being honest, was a pretty cheesy movie (with some admittedly great one-liners).

Here’s why I think I’m right about all this: David Hallberg. If you watched that interview with Stephen Colbert that I posted earlier (and you really really should), then you know that Hallberg is the probably the biggest ballet star since Baryshnikov. He’s the first EVER westerner to be invited to join the Bolshoi, and having seen his performance as Rothbart in ABT’s Swan Lake, I can assure you that he is simply magnificent to behold. My jaw dropped. Literally. That combination of talent and work does exist in the US; all we need to do is support it. So really, please, go buy a ticket for the ballet this season and drag your friends along for the ride. You won’t be sorry!

Next time: Great, so now what do we do?

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On Ballet and Pop Culture Part I: Hello and How to Get Punched at the State Theater

Hello Everyone,

I haven’t posted my own critiques here yet, but you may recognize me from my grammatically atrocious comments left on those by Cléopold, James, and Fenella. I’m working on the grammar part, but in the meantime let me very briefly introduce myself. I’m 24 years old and currently living in New York working in an industry completely unrelated to the arts. To keep myself sane, I take lots of ballet classes and go to every performance I can. If I’m not at Alvin Ailey, I’m probably at Lincoln Center.

Since I haven’t had any performances to see since the winter ballet season, Cléopold suggested I write a little something on the state of ballet and pop music. Well, I tried, but somehow the idea blew up in my face and what I was left with was the monster that follows. For everything I write, please feel free to agree, disagree, add your own opinion, or call me an idiot in the comments. My schedule for the spring season is posted, so if you’re in NYC come hang out with me at the ballet!

Happy Reading,

Mini Naila

Ballet is something of a cult. For dancers, it’s an art form that requires more than just hard work in the classroom and onstage, it demands devotion bordering on obsession. Teachers can command as much respect from their students as religious leaders, and stars have their own crews of besotted fans that will viciously defend their favorite if challenged. Walk into The State Theater (and no, I will not call it by its other name) on a performance night and mention that you think Sarah Mearns is awful. I dare you. Heck, ballet was founded in France by Louis XIV: a man who wanted his subjects to see him as Apollo (the sun GOD… cultish much?). Chances are, if you’re reading this you probably see yourself in one or more of these categories. For all this, though, it’s easy to forget that the ballet world is a pretty small one. As of the writing of this article Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with New York City Ballet, has 4,807 followers on Twitter (more on that later), David Hallberg (the ‘it’ dancer of the moment) has only 2,999, Pointe Magazine has slightly less than 12,000, while Kim Kardashian has 13,958,170. I say this not out of a sense of disgust (although, yes, that is pretty gross) but to illustrate that ballet probably wouldn’t be considered “mainstream” culture by your average Joe.

Lately, though, there has been an increase in attention from sources that would definitely qualify as mainstream, which I would argue began with the premiere of Black Swan. Before you jump down my throat, I am very aware that Center Stage came out in 2000, but it only grossed $16,401,324 in the US and received exactly 0 Oscar nominations, making it more a ballet cult favorite and guilty pleasure. Since the really noticeable spike has happened only in the past few years, I’m starting with Black Swan. Feel free to yell at me in the comments about why I’m wrong should you so desire.

Remember when Black Swan came out? I don’t know about you, but after about a week everyone I talked to was a ballet expert. “Oh, you take ballet? Have you seen Black Swan? Natalie Portman is such an amazing dancer!” Worse than ballet experts, they were advocates for the poor mistreated ballerinas… all of whom suddenly had an eating disorder and/or mental stability issues. (Incidentally, when Sarah Lane, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, had the audacity to mention that no, you can’t become a ballerina in a year and that she had done all the actual dancing, everyone was outraged.) I’m sure you, as someone who reads a ballet blog, were slightly annoyed to explain that Black Swan, or BS for short (hah!), isn’t quite a documentary about company life. However, there was an amazing result from all of this: people were talking about ballet! Friends who normally could not care less were suddenly asking questions about Swan Lake! Why did the director use certain pieces of music when he did? What was the deal with all the competition? Do dancers really sleep with company directors for parts? It actually made people curious! So, what always follows after a major success? Satire of course! First came Saturday Night Live’s version starring Jim Carey which, I must admit, is pretty funny. There are a ton of parodies out there, but I think the absolute best has to be Sassy Gay Friend’s take on the movie. After making fun of the movie got old, advertisers caught on (as they always do). The two most recent examples of this are Levis and Adidas but there was also AT&T, Chloé, and Methodist Hospital in Houston, all of which premiered after 2010. My personal favorite cannot be a result of the Black Swan push as it came out in 2006, but I’m including it anyway because it’s hilarious: Isenbeck beer (take a minute of your day to watch that, you won’t be sorry). Recently, the ballet craze has jumped to prime time: ABC Family is currently putting together a new show starring Broadway’s Sutton Foster, Bunheads, about life working in a small town dance studio. In book news, Sophie Flack, a former NYCB dancer, just published a young adult novel, also called Bunheads about being a ballet dancer in the super-competitive Manhattan Ballet Company (hmm, wonder which real life company that could be about?). Go back to movies and you’ll find the new short film Prima which is premiering this year at the Tribeca Film Festival and last year’s documentary First Position. If you really want to see the ballet takeover, look no further than Oprah herself who interviewed NYCB principal, Jennifer Ringer. Saving the very best and most popular among the young adult demographic for last, who can forget Stephen Colbert’s interview with David Hallberg? (And who knew Colbert could do a tour en l’air?! Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch both of those. ) Have I made my point yet? I could go on. If you have a favorite that I’ve missed please post it in the comments because I would really love to see it!

To be continued: What’s happening now, and why in God’s name, why?

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