Posts tagged Joffrey Ballet

Ballet Tech Rehearsal with Margo

When Nancy and I met Margo Sappington to see the tech rehearsal of her ballet, we were ushered through back corridors in the belly of the Opera House.  Margo is a highly respected guest choreographer from the U.S. and has been working with the Kazakh ballet troupe for about four months.  She has a long resume of working with the Joffrey Ballet and travelling around the world promoting this art form of ballet.  Next Friday night will be the opening world premiere of Tlep and Sarykys.  


The orchestra was already in the pit practicing and dancers in their colorful practice leotards were warming up their bodies on stage.  We walked into a darkened hall draped with huge, white sheets over all the auditorium chairs and runners along all the walking corridors. You’d expect the hall would be cold with disuse, it was not. It did remind me something reminiscent from the “Phantom of the Opera” sans the gas lit lights or man in the mask, it felt eerie.


The set on stage was expansively dark as it had blue sheer cloth draped from the top 50 feet above all the way down while stars and a crescent moon twinkled behind the cloth.  The most prominent props on stage were an assortment of what looked like kettle drums, some a yard in diameter, the biggest one perhaps as big as 10 feet across looking like a solid, round trampoline.  The men ballet dancers were doing acrobatic jumps, the ballerinas were walking on their toes like pedestrians crossing a street.  Funny, you always see them gliding, jumping or running across stage but NEVER ambling like a normal person.  I got to thinking how these people have been trained from a young age to do things to their bodies that is classified as art simply because no one else would punish themselves the way they do.


Take for example what the principal dancer did on the biggest kettle drum that was about 3-4 feet off the ground.  He put himself into a spin with about 10 rotations and then appeared to have his equilibrium coming out of it as if he spins like a top all the time.  Normalna. We gasped in amazement at this feat but also how the other male dancers just kept jumping and dancing, staying vertical all the while.  The ballerinas had incredible poise and dignity as they made their intricate head, hand and arm movements.  Again we were in awe of how supple they were as they made all their effortless-appearing movements.  To see the identical moves done by 15 to 20 dancers simultaneously takes practice and they executed it nicely over and over again.  Ah, such grace!


However, this moment was cut short quickly as this was a tech rehearsal after all.  We were reminded of that fact when Margo halted the orchestra to do a number over again.  If only we knew the story line, we would have been able to follow why the girl was being carried six feet off the ground with a huge black, sheer cape streaming behind her to center stage.  Also, there was a beautiful man and woman duo, with dancers in the background, where the female lead was to eventually give her partner a coat on the big kettle drum. 


Later on a colorful coat did appear with a big dancing guy named Dimitry, he looked like a benevolent, huggable bear.  What was so amazing about Margo was that she knew the whole cast by name and I picked up this guy’s name from the commands Margo was giving him in particular.  Dimitry seemed older compared to his fellow dancers, out of breath and perhaps out of practice.  He had the poise of a dancer but he was not coordinated with the little dancer he was lifting.  I wondered, was he subbing for someone?  His delicate partner seemed nervous about being hoisted up six feet off the ground and looked relieved whenever she touched down on terra firma.


Another thing I marveled at was Margo’s ability to work with the orchestra conductor.  She at one point was yelling “stop, stop, stop” innumerable times from stage about 10 feet from him but he kept looking down at his conductor’s score.  Whatever the orchestra members knew of English, they would certainly know that Russian cognate of “stop!” However, they kept following the flailing arms of the conductor because he was THEIR leader.  Margo finally got his attention and he did finally stop, only then did the orchestra members stop playing.  She pointed out that one particular number was being played too slowly.  That was obvious to even me, the dancers were struggling to make their rehearsed moves coordinate with a slower rhythm.  Sometimes the music was going too quickly or too softly and the dancers didn’t hear their cues to start moving. 


One scene I particularly enjoyed watching was a sheer scarf that passed from one ballerina to another, it was like a game of tag.  Seeing who could hold on to it and pass it off as quickly as possible.  The first time the scarf seemed to land on the floor more often than being caught by the next dancer.  On the second take, the ballerinas seemed to keep it in the air like a balloon that was not to touch the floor. This playful scene was whimsical and lighthearted.  Again, I wished we knew what the plot was all about in order to make sense of the scenes we were watching.  Were the scenes we watched in order of the performance?  Where was the antagonist?  Will anyone die in the end?  Will the lovers be brought together or separated?  Seeing a tech rehearsal without notes raises more questions than answers.  We didn’t even know the title of the ballet, we hadn’t even thought to ask Margo before she went into high gear.


Margo seemed like a strict school master at times, asking about shoes that were off to the side, “get them off!” she’d shout or barking at those in the wings to be quiet!  She knew exactly when and where the props were to be moved.  I wasn’t sure if it would be ballet dancers that would unlock the legs to move the big kettle drums on the coaster wheels or if tech people would be doing it.  Perhaps without the curtains being closed and opened between scenes we saw everything too up close and personal.  Sometimes Margo would go on the stage to demonstrate how the dancers were to line up, all the while having someone who knew Russian to translate for her.


As an EFL teacher, I wondered how she could use English to achieve this monumental task of getting these high strung performers who know Russian or Kazakh to do the body movements she required of them.  Many, many hours of rehearsal went into what we witnessed last night of her drawing out the talent of these highly skilled dancers.  After this tech rehearsal, I want to witness the real performance in order to see how these dancers and musicians will pull this extravagant number off.  Kudos to Margo for all her dedicated, hard work, she is leaving Kazakhstan soon.  I hope next weekends shows go flawlessly for Margo.  Is it appropriate to say “break a leg” to ballerinas?

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