Along with opera I am a great fan of ballet. I tend to favour the classical repertoire, though I have seen a small number of pieces from what are often termed dance theatre companies. Unlike opera, classical ballet has a pretty limited number of key works and they mostly all have a pronounced Russian flavour, at least as far as the music goes. Most ballet productions tend to stick pretty closely to the original, with the addition of new choreography now and again. Unlike opera, which attracts directors from all kinds of backgrounds and where there are all kinds of radical innovations. I rarely manage to see ballet live on stage, though I have seen three of Scottish Ballet’s recent productions, and enjoyed them all. I rely on TV and the occasional DVD. As with opera, on the whole I like my ballets to have a strong storyline, even if it is a bit on the fairy tale side. Here are some of my favourites.
Swan Lake is definitely one of my all time favourites. Tchaikovsky has composed the music for three ballets, all of them wonderful, but Swan Lake is for me the best. The story is a bit on the fanciful side to say the least, but the music and the dance sequences are just breathtaking. I’ve never seen this ballet performed live on stage, but have seen quite a few on TV and I own a version on DVD. This is 1998 performance from the Ballet of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. Directed by Patrice Bart and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Very good production too with Steffi Scherzer as Odette/Odile and Oliver Matz as the Prince. Swan Lake is one of the ballets that has seen a few radical innovations. Mathew Bourne’s version sticks to the main story line, but uses male dancers for the swans including the Odette/Odile role. He also changed the period to the early1990s in London, where the court is a none too thinly disguised take-off of our current Royal Family. Works well as a strong story though the dance sequences are not as rich or varied as the original. The other alternative that I’ve seen is John Neumeier’s Illusions LIke Swan Lake, which changes the story completely and instead bases the ballet on the real life story of King Ludwig 11 of Bavaria. Very good production and well worth seeing if you haven’t already.
Another of my favourite ballets is Romeo and Juliet. This ballet does have a strong story line and very moving and powerful music by Prokofiev. It also features some great action dances and one of the all time great romantic dance sequences. This is also one of the ballets have I have seen performed live on stage. This was the 2008 version by Scottish Ballet. Claire Robertson and Tama Barry were the star crossed lovers in a new production by Polish choreographer Krzystof Pastor. This was a very powerful production as Pastor set the scenes in different decades of 20th century Italy, starting in the 1930s, then the 1950s and ending in the 1990s. Not sure that any of this added that much to the ballet.
I also love Coppélia, which is a much more light hearted ballet, as is reflected in the lovely music by Léo Delibes. My favourite version is a 1993 production by the Kirov Ballet, with new choreography by Oleg Vinogradov. This features a wonderful performance by Irina Shapchits as Swanilda, the heroine of the tale. Shapchits plays her as a bit of a tomboy. I have tried to find other ballets that feature Shapchits, but she seems to have disappeared from the ballet world.
Another lesser know ballet which I love is Le Corsaire, which is loosely base on the poem by Lord Byron, with music by Adolphe Adam. It has a very disjointed story line, which makes it difficult to stage. Though it does have some show stopping passages, which are often performed on their own. American Ballet Theatre produced a very witty and ironic production which was filmed in 1999, with Julie Kent as an enchanting Medora.
My final pick is Pulcinella. This short ballet was devised and choreographed by Heinz Spoerli as a comic ballet in 1980 for the Basler Ballett. Just like Stravinsky’s music this ballet is full of verve, lightness and colour. 35 minutes or so of pure joy.