The Cage

Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Music: Igor Stravinsky

Premiere: New York City Ballet, 1951

Wendy Whelan/NYCB Video 

Laetitia Pujol/Paris Opera Ballet Video


In “Apollo’s Angels,” Jennifer Homans describes Jerome Robbins’ The Cage as one of “the ugliest and most disturbing ballets of all time…an orgy of savage female insects who stalk, kill and feed on male intruders with explicit sexual pleasure…as relentless and driving as Stravinsky’s score, and also as poignant…one of Robbins’ great ballets.” 

The story of this brief ballet follows a baby insect, The Novice, born into a tribe of violent, female predators. The Novice quickly learns the practices of her kind, winning the approval of her peers upon her first kill. Briefly, though, she falls in love with an unsuspecting male intruder. Their dance is sexual, animal. But when the tribe returns to the scene and the male thrusts The Novice toward them in disgust, they attack. The Novice, despite her crude feelings for the intruder, obeys her murderous instincts. The victorious tribe devours the male’s body.

Not surprisingly, the critical response to The Cage upon its 1951 premiere was one of shock and distaste. The Dutch government, as Homans mentions, at first banned it as “pornographic.” Robbins defended his creation, comparing it to the second act of Giselle. The Cage’s “Group” does in some way resemble the Wilis of Giselle. Even a contemporary viewer, however, must see the contrast between the loyal character of Giselle who loves Albrecht even in death, and the fickle nature of The Novice whose tribal instincts render her incapable of real love.

In “101,” Balanchine draws parallels between the women of The Cage and the many preceding stories of the predatory female, including Black Widow insects and even the legendary Amazon women. Is The Cage a commentary on female strength and self-sufficiency, or an indictment on its potential cruelty and viciousness? Perhaps it is both. It’s interesting that the piece was created just a decade prior to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, which did then and still does challenge society with the duality of these feminine traits. 


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Brahms Quintet

Choreography: Dennis Nahat

Music: Johannes Brahms   Listen to the score 

Premiere: American Ballet Theatre 1969

With no accessible videos on the Web and very little written about Dennis Nahat’s Brahms Quintet, I can report only on what Balanchine saw in the ballet and wrote of in “101.” Balanchine refers to the score as a “masterpiece,” which probably accounts for much of his praise of the ballet as Balanchine based his choreographic work always on his appreciation of music.  This abstract ballet featuring four pairs of soloists and nine supporting dancers, “uses the score for its narrative” but according to Washington Post critic Jean Battey Lewis, it “still celebrates the affection between the dancers.”

Nahat, an American dancer and choreographer, and co-founder of the Cleveland Ballet, choreographed Brahms Quintet “for ABT at a time when the American dancers were being upstaged by the influx of Russian talent” (Renee Renouf, May 2001). 

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Billy the Kid

Choreography: Eugene Loring

Music: Aaron Copland    Listen to the score

Premiere: Ballet Caravan 1938

Ballet Caravan, founded by Lincoln Kerstein in 1936, merged with Balanchine’s American Ballet in 1941. Later, the two men founded the New York City Ballet. In its brief, five-year existence, Ballet Caravan staged American-themed ballets for small groups of students. Today, Billy the Kid is the most famous of these.

Though it’s impossible to locate a video on the Web, Balanchine’s description in “101” is detailed enough to get a strong sense of the ballet’s aesthetic. In a stereotypical Wild West setting, Billy the Kid depicts a mostly fictional tale of the legend. The ballet begins with settlers venturing toward the frontier. Young Billy’s mother is accidentally killed and Billy takes immediate revenge. Billy makes a habit of murder and it finally catches up to him in the end. The tale is part Western, part psychological study.

More than the visual, however, it is Copland’s score, which builds upon fragments of “cowboy tunes and American folk songs” (Wikipedia), that seems to deserve most of the accolades. Copland “was instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, and is often referred to as “the Dean of American Composers”… The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are archetypical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit.” (Wikipedia)


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Napoli and the Royal Danish Ballet (plus: A Folk Tale)

Choreography: August Bournonville

Music:  Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann and Niels W. Gade

Debut: Royal Danish Ballet, 1854

View a prior staging of the entire ballet online (before it’s inevitably taken down)

I have just returned from a most unexpected evening of absolute pleasure at The Kennedy Center, where the Royal Danish Ballet performed a totally enchanting August Bournonville classic: Napoli.

Having attended a dress rehearsal earlier this week for A Folk Tale, the company’s other program and another Bournonville creation, I was not primed for the sheer delight of Napoli. Despite several complimentary reviews of A Folk Tale online, I found the ballet, my first Bournonville, to be even more confusing and ridiculous than the average classical ballet. The sets were immaculate, taking me away to a troll-inhabited fantasy land, Danish style.  Current artistic director Nikolaj Hubbe is said to have toned down the religious aspects of the story but the overriding theme of Christian goodness still pervades – in overly simplistic, literal terms. Perhaps I should forgive in this respect, as the ballet is very much a product of the time and place in which it was created: 1854 Denmark. Bournonville called A Folk Tale, “The most complete and best of all my choreographic works.” However, the utterly silly plot (it’s too long and difficult to summarize here) and, moreover, the favoring of pantomime almost entirely over actual dancing had me questioning the greatness of this great choreographer and founder of the Danish school.

Hence, my surprise and delight at Napoli. Although the first ten minutes or so of the ballet were light on dancing, which is typical of the era in which Bournonville choreographed, the ballet suddenly gets balletic and never stops through the grand finale. The steps are the old-fashioned kind that we still practice in ballet class but rarely see onstage anymore. Petite allegro abounds; the Royal Danish cast executes each beat and jump – each jete, cabriole, ballone, brise – with alacrity and style. Every leg is turned out and every foot invariably stretched to a beautiful point, every face is serene and smiling, and every arm held roundly in place as both male and female dancers demonstrate their trademark quick, airy approach to some most difficult choreography. Contrary to many world class ballet companies today, the Danish seem to favor control over showmanship. Pirouettes rarely exceed a double but each is finished neatly and with an easy grace. It’s a refreshing style today.

As in A Folk Tale, the sets for Napoli were wonderful. Hubbe places the Italian town in the 1950s, cigarettes and high heels included. Also as in A Folk Tale, videography and non-orchestral sound was incorporated. However, the effect was a success in the latter ballet and not so much in the former. The Danish honor their 19th century roots, which means, for better (as in Napoli) or for worse (A Folk Tale), they tell stories through an overall setting of theatricality, with dance as one element. Audiences can expect not just pantomime but clapping and stomping, too, onstage. It’s an old-fashioned approach to story telling (prior audiences demanded humor, mime and more than just dancing from their ballets) that somehow feels a little avant-garde now.

Nowhere was the talent of the company to create real atmosphere more apparent or appreciated than in Act II. Set in an underwater grotto, this all too brief scene depicts hero Gennaro rescuing heroine Teresina from a destiny of Naiad-ism…which is like dryad-ism except under water. Gennaro’s love for Teresina overcomes the evil sea demon Golfo’s power over her and the lovers ascend toward light and life together. The entire scene was breathtaking from start to finish, thanks to both choreography and theatricality. Golfo was powerful and sympathetic, and the lovers tender and romantic. The fleeting scene was so majestic that I thought I’d like to skip Act III and simply see an encore instead.

However, the final act, despite its predictably charming peasants and the incongruity of the 1950s costuming combined with the traditional balletic dress of the soloists, was not in the least anticlimactic. The stellar cast performed a lively series of delightful divertissements with precision and color. As the curtain fell in the final moment, I was genuinely inspired to join in the well-deserved standing ovation.

I’m grateful for this week’s opportunity to finally experience the Danish school of ballet, which holds a unique and respected place in ballet history and today. The style is undoubtedly distinctive. I am intrigued and amused by the fable-inspired themes – and more than slightly confused by the cross-dressing characters appearing in both ballets (having arrived at the theatre direct from the Capitol Pride Parade, Napoli’s “drag queen” scene felt either playfully appropriate or uncomfortably mocking). But more than anything, I am entirely impressed by the quality of dancing and elaborate theatricality that combine at the Royal Danish Ballet, which make for some captivating story-telling.

Reading the story of Napoli in “101,” I recognize many changes and reductions to the original production, which was performed, according to Danish tradition, in exactly the same manner for well over a hundred years. Hubbe’s break with tradition is welcomed in my case.

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Don Quixote and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Choreography: Marius Petipa

Music: Ludwig Minkus

Debut: Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1869

View excerpts from Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 2008 Production

Loosely based on an episode from Cervantes’ great novel, Don Quixote is beloved around the world for its pseudo-Spanish zest, colorful costumes, gorgeous score and impressive technical stunts. In a ballet that culminates with a 32-fouette turn solo for the ballerina, it is bound to charm and excite. Indeed, Don Q. is a favorite classical ballet of mine. An excerpt from this ballet was one of the most challenging and most fun of the pieces I learned as a young dancer. I so enjoyed the hours spent working to capture the passion in the steps, which were both technically and emotionally demanding for me at age 14.

I’ve seen Don Q. performed over the years by various companies. The Bolshoi, which originated the ballet, is the definitive version in my mind. However, I was intrigued by last weekend’s production at The Kennedy Center, which was the first of any I’d seen by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the renowned company still directed by famed Cuban ballerina and 1948 founder Alicia Alonso.

As Alonso explains in the program notes, she undertook the staging of Don Q. in 1988 with great care and a little trepidation: “…it was very difficult to reconcile the depth of the Cervantes creation with the traditional ballet…along with the undeniable choreographic excellences and the richness of the Petipa style, I found musical incongruities with the dances of Spanish inspiration and, in some occasions, a lack of logical dramatic quality.” The result of Alonso’s thoughtful reinterpretation of Don Q. as a ballet is a unique version, “possibly the first professional version created by a company rooted in the Iberian language and culture.”

While it respects the Petipa tradition and incorporates elements of the later version by Alexander Gorsky, Ballet Cuba’s Don Q. successfully makes better sense of the plot, treats the character of Don Quixote with depth and sensitivity, links the folkloric dance elements with Minkus’ music and places technical virtuosity in the context of drama. But rest assured that these changes, while welcome, do little to diminish the ridiculousness of the ballet. Deluded Don Quixote and his drunken sidekick Sancho Panza intervene on behalf of Basil and Kitri, whose father wants her to marry a rich ponce rather than the poor barber with whom she is in love. One escape into the gypsy-laden woods, one dream of dryads and one faked suicide later, the couple is married and all is well. Cue the happy peasants, romantic pas de deux and virtuosic technical displays.

The highlight of the Ballet Cuba performance was Yanela Pinera’s Kitri, who danced with beauty and flair. Technically flawless, Pinera’s Kitri also had plenty of sugar and spice. Her partner’s long lines and multitudinous pirouettes could not compensate for a certain stiffness and immaturity that pervaded his performance. His poor Basilio could not match Kitri and, mostly, his partnering seemed to hinder rather than help her. A better match might have been Alfredo Ibanez, who danced the role of bullfighter admirably.

The corps de ballet shone, especially in Act II’s “white ballet” scene. Love, the dryads and their queen were a pristine vision of the feminine ideal. This scene began brilliantly and cleverly with Don Quixote rising up out of his body (played by a double) and entering the world of his dream.

If the production is more logical dramatically, it still lacks a pinch of the ole’ Bolshoi passion. There’s nothing like the way the Russians slam a lace fan to the floor and then dive into a deep backbend. Perhaps that interpretation of Latin passion is a bit over-the-top but then again so is classical ballet in general. Alonso’s ballet features a dance-packed few hours with very little posing and pantomime; even Don Quixote’s role involved more dancing than is typical for this ballet.

Alonso rearranged the plot elements quite a bit to accommodate a more logical progression of events and to show the Don Quixote character in a more sensitive light. In these ways, Alonso’s version is more akin to Balanchine’s 1965 interpretation, though certainly not as dark or serious as that. Balanchine’s version is completely separate from the traditional ballet. Set to a commissioned score by Nicolas Nabokov, it involves none of the antics of the original plot. Instead, it follows Don Quixote through a series of episodes and dreams, his visions of Dulcinea in the guises of other unattainable, ideal women, and to his deathbed. The subject is one with which Balanchine identified: “My interest in Don Quixote has always been in the hero’s finding an ideal, something to live for and sacrifice for and serve. Every man has a Don Quixote in him. Every man wants an inspiration. For the Don it was Dulcinea, a woman he sought in many guises. I myself think that the same is true in life, that everything a man does he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in that.”

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Bhakti and ballet accessibility, or lack thereof

Choreography: Maurice Béjart

Music: Hindu music

Debut: Ballet of the Twentieth Century, 1968

Watch video footage online from Bhakti:

Google “Bhakti + Béjart” and the results will include actual video footage – several versions! – of this ballet. Unfortunately, such access to ballet is rare. One of the unforeseen challenges I have in writing this blog, which was intended to capture my reflections on great ballets as I observe them, is accessing the actual ballets, live or on video. If I, an amateur dancer and dance lover actively searching for ballet, can find only rare glimpses of the work I seek, how can the uninitiated possibly discover it? I, perhaps naively, maintain hope that ballet companies will set aside intellectual property concerns and embrace the era of online video technology. Otherwise, Jennifer Homans’ conclusion that ballet has seen its last heyday may be sadly accurate. One need only to observe the drastic migration of music to inexpensive, easily downloaded digital formats to understand the critical role of the internet in attracting prospective new ballet audiences. 


Viewings of Bhakti online reveal several colorful interpretations, all of which reflect a decidedly Twentieth Century approach to dance. Created in late 1960s, Bhakti is an experiment in eastern influenced art, a successful blend of classical steps with eastern traditions. Its three-part “plot” in some ways echoes another important Twentieth Century ballet: Balanchine’s classically inspired but altogether modern Apollo. Bhakti introduces not just one, but three gods or incarnations of gods – Rama, Krishna and Shiva – who, like Apollo, dance with the women who are at times their wives, lovers, muses and students.

Béjart said, “Ballet is popular art of the twentieth century…But for the large public, ballet must change as much as music and painting have.” Surely the choreographer would be proud to see so much of his work available widely online today – and would support efforts by others to make more ballet accessible to the “large public.”


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La Bayadere

Choreography: Marius Petipa

Music: Ludwig Minkus

Debut: Marynsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia 1877

View video clips from the 2002 Marynsky revival of Petipa’s 1900 version

La Bayadere is a typical example of classical ballet containing every requisite cliché. Set in an unspecified era of a “long-ago” version of India as imagined by 19th century eastern Europeans, the story features the bayadere (temple dancer) Nikiya whose pure, committed love for the warrior Solor is met with betrayal. Loyal Nikiya is thrown over for a rich and beautiful princess (Gamzatti) who then kills her via snakebite. Nikiya takes awhile to die, dancing fiercely before collapsing to the floor. Realizing his fickle behavior has brought about his true love’s demise, Solor is deeply regretful. He smokes some opium and hallucinates all of Act III.

Act III, the “white” act, is one of the most famous classical ballet excerpts and is often performed independently as a full-length ballet. Solor has a vision of Nikiya in The Kingdom of the Shades. Petipa’s iconic procession of 32 shades (spirits) as they gradually enter the stage in a zig-zag pattern is an all-time great moment in ballet history. The repeated series of steps is brief and simple, like a classroom combination. It is passed on – through the line of dancers, from one to the next – just as ballet tradition itself is passed on through the generations, from one dancer to the next.

The final action takes place at Solor and Gamzatti’s wedding, where the gods avenge Nikiya’s murder by burning the entire temple down, killing everyone within. Despite his recently unheroic behavior, Solor is joined with Nikiya in death.

Along the way are plentiful variations by cheerful, dedicated slaves and townspeople. Most offensive are the dancers, usually children, who appear in blackface to portray natives at the nuptial celebrations. A golden idol appears for a virtuosic show of the male danceur’s skill. The royal couple performs a joyful pas de deux in Act II, as though half the action of the ballet were not yet left to occur. And, of course, Gamzatti does an impressive series of fouetté turns – a must in any classical ballet!

I have seen La Bayadere in several live performances but rented a copy of the 2008 Kirov (Mariinsky) production for the purposes of this post. This interpretation cuts the final act, closing the curtain on Solor still in his Kingdom of the Shades hallucination. Bayadere is a long ballet and features several beautiful dances. Highlights include the variations at the betrothal ceremony, as well as Nikiya’s writhing, tortured dance that immediately follows. The golden idol is always a big hit and, of course, the exquisite precision of Act III, which conjures the other-worldly atmosphere of Solor’s dreamlike state.

Although Petipa defined in many ways the aesthetic of modern ballet, a large part of the storytelling in his model relies on an elaborate vocabulary of pantomime, which dominates Act I. Unlike many of today’s ballets, more abstract in nature, Petipa ballets require an accompanying synopsis. Otherwise, the plot would be almost entirely lost on most viewers.

The plot represents much of what I love and hate about classical ballet. It makes very little sense and is heavy on the ridiculous. Setting is unrealistic in the senses of both time and place. Justice, throughout, is highly questionable. After all, the torment of the lovers overshadows the needless suffering of the slaves and natives, as well as that of the wedding attendees who end up being collateral damage. The ballerina represents everything pure and good. She remains elusive to the hero, who is attributed with honor but who is weak and fickle.

Would this scenario work in a contemporary setting? Our innocent young heroine goes away to college and falls in love. He loves her, too, but gets drunk and associates himself with sorority girl at a mixer one night. Tragedy ensues…

Perhaps the themes of Bayadere and other ballets of its kind – love, loyalty, betrayal and death – are better portrayed in a more ethereal setting, where they are felt in a loftier manner. Still, I can’t help but long for a relevance in ballet that is achieved in other art forms today such as music and film.

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