Archive for September, 2011


Queen of the Wilis: A Conversation with Ai-Gul Gaisina

September 23, 2011

Guest Writer: Nao Kusuzaki, Soloist

White romantic tutus fill the studios at Houston Ballet Center for Dance, where the company and Houston Ballet II intensely prepare for Ai-Gul Gaisina’s staging of Giselle.

“more body forward.  The style is very, very important”, “Focus outward and downward”, Ai-Gul and Louise Lester instruct during one of the latest Wili rehearsals. Demanding yet warm, they are like our real life Queens of Wilis: checking each dancer’s slightest angling of the head, where the finger falls, the placement of the feet, how high the arabesque…  At this point, it’s all about details and about creating the atmosphere in Act II.

It’s been seven weeks since Ai-Gul’s arrival, and after a long day of coaching and rehearsals, I catch her for a conversation on Giselle, and to get to know just a bit more about her.

Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar


Do you have a special memory of Giselle?

When I was a student of Kirov ballet school, we were allowed to go see the performances without tickets, and we would sit with the gods, on the steps in balcony section. We never had seats.

I was 10 years old when I saw Giselle for the first time from there. Irina Kolpakova was Giselle.  For me, it was profoundly, deeply impressive.

My pink world of ballet–pink ballet shoes, pink tutus– started to disappear. I realized that ballet is a drama and a story as well.

It’s a complicated story to understand at that age, but because it was told and danced so beautifully, I could comprehend, and shed tears at the end.

And I remember, the second act was impressive, especially the work of the corps de ballet. Back in the 50’s, corps work of Kirov ballet was an absolute gem.

Giselle was first performed in 1841, and is one of the oldest ballet in the romantic style. Why do you think Giselle has survived for so long and it’s a favorite for so many? 

La Sylphide was the first romantic ballet and featured the famous ballerina, Marie Taglioni. Giselle has survived to this day because Giselle’s got everything required in a ballet. It gives dancers, not just Giselle and Albrecht, opportunities to express artistic qualities with technique. It also has human drama we can all relate to: emotions of love, betrayal, relationship with the mother, disappointments, joy…

In contrast, choreography in the second act is impossible to forget because of the spiritual and supernatural atmosphere it creates. In my research, I found that back in the day in Paris, this ballet was called Giselle: Les Wilis. The Wilis scene in the second act was a significant part of the ballet, and it still is.

In your staging, what did you pay particular attention to?  Did you intend to keep the tradition, or make updates?

The style and tradition-how it’s been done-are very important. it’s simple and beautiful, with no complications. Steps, by themselves, are like your class work. To it, I bring the Russian style, emphasizing the beauty of port de bras. Also, I want to allow each dancer to bring and create a particular character suited for them; I’m talking not just about Giselle and Albrecht, but also bringing Giselle’s mother more into focus.  I want my Bathilde to be young and beautiful. It creates even more tragedy that Albrecht betrays not only Giselle but also Bathilde.

In Act II, I paid particular attention to bringing lightness and beauty, not coldness. If you listen to the music, it’s very gentle.  I want all my Wilis to be beautiful and reflect that lightness in music. I want to preserve the image of dancing and beauty, the supernatural.   For example, when we have memories, even in the sad ones of someone passing away, you can still remember the beauty, and grieve with the spiritual lightness.

This is not your first time working with Houston Ballet dancers.  What is your impression of the company, and how was the process of working with them on the new staging?

I’m always very impressed with the company. Their work ethic is just amazing, as well as their attitude toward coaches, guest teachers, and generally through class and rehearsals. This company stands as an example.

This time, it’s a different experience, because I’m here working on a big production.  It has been a satisfying and a challenging process.   I suppose that challenge comes with the process of creating.  The company has been amazing, however.

You have been here in Houston for 7 weeks. Do you miss home?

I miss Melbourne. It’s spring now, and a beautiful time of the year. I miss friends and getting together for coffee or catching a movie.  Artistically, Melbourne is so rich. There is one festival after another, which is great for me. I love opera and musicals. I also like my own space and miss going to my library and reading for hours.

What do you like to do on your off time?

Abstract painting. I wasn’t always good with my hands, like sewing or crocheting. So when I retired, I challenged myself. It started out with finger painting, and now I have a tiny space in my flat in Melbourne. I use acrylic, and occasionally, lipstick and a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and let the emotions take over.

You’ll be surprised that I’ve even sold a few!

For me, when I look at abstract painting, it’s the color, the expression, the first impression of it that I take in. Some people will either like it or hate it.  But that’s okay. There are moments when you are ready for certain experiences, and that can happen later on in life.

Nao Kusuzaki & Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Nao Kusuzaki & Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar


Opening Night Excitement

September 22, 2011

It’s opening night of Giselle and Indigo! Aren’t the wilis gorgeous?


Kelly Myernick in Giselle Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Kelly Myernick in Giselle Photo: Amitava Sarkar


What’s Principal Dancer Danielle Rowe listening to?

September 20, 2011

Guest Writer: Danielle Rowe, Principal Dancer

Danielle Rowe in company class Photo:Jim Caldwell

Music is an integral part of my every day life. As a ballet dancer it is my duty to enable the audience to not only hear the music but to also see the music through my movement.  When I am not performing or rehearsing, I listen to music for a number of different reasons- to relax, focus, feel energized or simply to escape. My taste is rather eclectic, ranging from Bach to the Black Eyed Peas.  I appreciate all types of music and marvel at it’s ability to transform my state of mind in a positive way.

Here are the first 10 songs that pop up on my iPod when I hit shuffle:
The Black Keys; “Tighten Up”
Ben Gibbard & Feist; “Train Song”
Emiliana Torrini; “Big Jumps”
Adele; “I’ll Be Waiting”
Jeff Buckley; “Last Goodbye”
Angus & Julia Stone; “Black Crow”
Lykke Li; “I’m Good, I’m Gone”
Bjork; “It’s Oh So Quiet”
Muse; “Uprising”
David Bowie; “Life On Mars?”

* You can see Danielle perform the role of Giselle on opening night: Thursday, September 22!


Last Chance

September 15, 2011

Return of the Masters offers the chance to see three ballets by some of the world’s most esteemed choreographers: Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Jerome Robbins.  Here are some beautiful photos of Houston Ballet dancers in each of the pieces. You still have time to come see Return of the Masters through September 18!

Joseph Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Sara Webb and Connor Walsh in Jerome Robbins's In the Night Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Danielle Rowe & Linnar Looris in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth Photo: Amitava Sarkar


Return of the Masters: A Wardrobe Perspective

September 13, 2011

Guest Writer: Laura Lynch, wardrobe manager

Photo by Leonel Nerio of Art Institute of Houston
Photo by Leonel Nerio of Art Institute of Houston North

As we open our 2011-2012 season, Wardrobe is just wrapping up a whirlwind Academy Summer Intensive and a partial build of costumes for Cincinnati Ballet’s new Nutcracker.

The new season begins with Wardrobe requesting fittings on the dancers’ first day back. Fittings determine the fit and function of the costume.  Return of the Masters consists of 3 ballets, all rentals from other ballet companies. Once Houston Ballet determines that we will use rented costumes for a particular production, Brian Walker, production manager, gets the ball rolling and secures the rental contract. Together we look at timelines and determine when we’ll need the costumes here to begin our process.

When the rental arrives the work begins for Wardrobe Assistant Barbara Joyce Evans. She opens up the boxes and inventories everything. Also included in most cases is a costume ‘bible’ (paperwork or book that has all the information needed to set up the show). The next step is to size the costumes for assignment to our dancers cast.

Communication is key in each phase of the process. Requesting fittings is the next step in the process and this is done through the Artistic Coordinator Daniel Morin. The dancers come to Wardrobe at the scheduled fitting date/time and are fit in all the costume pieces being worn for whatever role they are dancing. The number of costume pieces and/or roles each dancer has determines how long or how many fittings are necessary.

For all productions we like to include the choreographer/choreologist/designer in the process as early as possible to check details. We have a design meeting to discuss the costume head to toe, as well as hair and make-up needs. We never want surprises once we get on stage.

Costume Shop Supervisor Sara Seavey - Photo by Leonel Nerio of Art Institute of Houston North

Wardrobe Shop Supervisor Sara Seavey - Photo by Leonel Nerio of Art Institute of Houston North

Once the costumes are fit they are then turned over to Sara Seavey, wardrobe shop supervisor, who organizes the work to go into the workroom. The shop technicians are instructed  on the costume notes needed to get the costumes ready for stage. The physical work can be restoration, alteration, repairs and/or new construction. If ballet slippers or shoes need to be painted this happens during this part of the process.

Deadlines are the name of the game in all that Wardrobe does. Once the costume notes are completed the show is organized for the move to the theater for the tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals and performances. At the theater an entire new process begins in the journey, but that’s another story.

Return of the Masters runs until September 18, so there’s still time to see the beautiful dancing and costumes at Wortham Theater Center!

Photo by Mary Stephens of Art Institute of Houston North

Photo by Mary Stephens of Art Institute of Houston North




Ready to Start the Season!

September 8, 2011

Guest Writer: Andrew Edmonson, director of marketing and public relations

We are very excited to welcome four distinguished guest artists from all over the world to put the finishing touches on the three ballets in Return of the Masters, which opens our 2011-12 season tonight and runs  through September 18, and our new production of Giselle, running September 22 – October 2.

Donald MacLeary, a former principal dancer and ballet master with London’s Royal Ballet, is here polishing Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth.  MacLeary worked closely with Sir Kenneth throughout his career, and performed the leading male role in Song of the Earth in 1966, the first time that the Royal Ballet performed the work.  MacLeary created roles in several ballets by choreographers  John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan from the 1950s to the 1970s, including the MacMillan ballets Solitaire (1956), The Burrow (1958), Baiser de la fee (1960), Diversions (1961), Symphony (1963), Images of Love (1964), Checkpoint (1970), and Elite Syncopations (1974). He also partnered many of the Royal Ballet’s greatest ballerinas during the 1960s and 1970s, including Dame Margot Fonteyn.

Houston Ballet is the only American company to have Song of the Earth in its repertoire, and we particularly excited to perform it in honor of the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death.

Hilary Cartwright, a former soloist with The Royal Ballet, is putting the finishing touches on Sir Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, a charming ensemble work about a group of skaters on a public pond in the nineteenth century, which kicks off our season Sept 8 – 18.  In addition to being a wonderful coach of Ashton’s works, Hilary has developed Yoga For Dancers, which she has been teaching for the past twenty years after co-founding White Cloud Studio in New York with Juliu Horvath.  She has lead yoga classes for Houston Ballet’s dancers, which were a big hit.

Anita Paciotti, principal character dancer with San Francisco Ballet, has returned to conduct stage rehearsals of Jerome Robbins’s wonderfully romantic In the Night, a work for three couples set to Chopin’s Piano Nocturnes which opens Thursday night, Sept 8.   She has danced with San Francisco Ballet for 43 years, and works on that company’s artistic staff, coaching works by Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, David Bintley and August Bournonville among others.

Russian coach Ai-Gul Gaisina, who is staging the company’s new production of Giselle, September 22 – October 2 has charmed both dancers and artistic staff.  She is busy preparing three dancers — principals Danielle Rowe and Sara Webb along with soloist Karina Gonzalez – to dance the title role in Giselle.  Ms. Gaisina trained at Leningrad’s famed Kirov Ballet School before joining the Stanislavsky Ballet Theatre in Moscow. In 1973, Ms. Gaisina left Russia and joined The Australian Ballet. In 1983 Ms. Gaisina joined The Australian Ballet School where she taught for 10 years before joining The Australian Ballet once more as a guest teacher and coach.  Her star pupils included  artistic director Stanton Welch and ballet master Steven Woodgate!


Return of the Masters: A Musical Perspective

September 6, 2011

Guest Writer: Rick Reeves, orchestra manager

Houston Ballet Orchestra looks forward to performances of Mahler’s expansive Das Lied von der Erde, or Song of the Earth in the Return of the Masters program (Sept. 8-18). It is rare that any ballet company has the opportunity to present a musical work of this magnitude. It is written for a large orchestra which uses additional woodwinds, a second harp, a mandolin and special guest artists mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer and tenor Russell Thomas.

While the orchestral forces are large, there are only a few occasions when the entire group is playing at the same time. Mahler’s choice of instrumentation (the compliment of musicians) make the orchestra sound like a small chamber group or a large symphony orchestra. But the orchestral writing is not just about supporting the text of the song. Das Lied is a combination of musical forms. It’s part song cycle and part symphony. The symphonic moments act as interludes to tie the six songs together. Mahler made use of singers in several of his symphonies. Das Lied might represent the continued evolution in his compositional style;  a musical culmination of his symphonies and his songs.

Ermanno Florio conducting (photo by-Geoff Winningham)

Music Director Ermanno Florio conducting the Houston Ballet Orchestra photo:Geoff Winningham

Mahler, like several other composers of his day, was concerned about writing a ninth symphony. At that time it seemed that whenever a notable composer wrote his ninth symphony he died. Mahler started his tenth symphony before he finished the ninth symphony. I believe he died shortly after completing the ninth symphony and Das Lied. The first performances were given posthumously. The tenth symphony was not completed.

Susanne Mentzer is a Houston favorite having appeared with Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony Orchestra, as well as most all of the other major opera venues in the world. She is a gifted musician known for her expressive singing. This will be our first opportunity to work with her. Joining Susanne is Russell Thomas. Russell has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and with the Boston Symphony as well as many other organizations. We look forward to hearing this powerful tenor with the orchestra.

On the same program is In the Night which will feature our solo pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, playing Nocturnes by Chopin. She has an in-depth knowledge of the choreography and knows how it relates to the music. Notice the video monitor on her piano. She watches the dancers as she plays so that her musical accompaniment is perfectly matched to the choreography.

Check out this video for more insight on Song of the Earth from Music Director Ermanno Florio.


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