The children don’t learn the comic ballet Don Quixote until September, however, our beloved San Francisco Ballet is putting this ballet on right now and if anyone has a chance to see it—or if they can’t—I’m blogging out a tiny primer on this, my personal favorite ballet of all time!
As a child, my parents gave me a VHS tape of Baryshnikiov’s production of the ballet with American Ballet Theater. It was remembered as his production not because he choreographed it (that’s usually why you credit someone with a production) but because he directed the video. And it was a very successful VHS, as ballet tapes go. By the grace of YouTube, you can see it in its entirely here! This is the version I dreamed to! Cynthia Harvey’s Kitri is the performance I judge everyone else against. Keep an eye out for Cupid in the second act; Cheryl Yeager’s leggy diety makes it easy to imagine a creature could compel you to love. And, of course, no jumps are as show stopping as Baryshnikov’s Basil! I hope you love it!
I adore Svetlana Zaharova and just recently directed you to watch her in Swan Lake. She’s one of those dancers who has absolutely transcended all technical challenges and her dancing verges on full body acting. Her Kitri is the only other that holds a candle to Harvey. Kitri’s job is to be a body of delight: Her father tries to marry her off to a rich landowner and her reaction (she runs away) has to appear youthful and ebullient instead of selfish. How do you do that through ballet? Watching Zaharova, you’ll ask that, too, and while you’re watching you won’t really have an answer. Zaharova is light as angels. Also, see that this version contains the introduction you’ll see at SF Ballet’s version. In it, Don Quixote falls asleep reading a chivalric book and wakes up when a theif (Sancho Panza) runs through his bedroom with stolen food. He confuses Sancho for a noblemen and set out to see his love Dulcinea, armed with a shaving basin on his head. See it here.
Natalia Osipova jumps like a bird and shouldn’t be ignored for her Kitri—even if I have my prejudices. Her dances are joyous! Also great in this production are the dances with the matador and partner—they’re more balletic than you might find in other versions, which emphasize the more ethnic aspects of the dance—but the way the matador duo get the crowd’s attention with passion is really rare and memorable. See her here.
The heir to the throne of Baryshnikov is a dancer named Sergei Polunin. This wunderkind rose the ranks so fast he told dance publications he was retiring to see what else he could conquer. Like Zaharova, Polunin a way of making you hang on his movements; he creates anticipation. See his variation at the 56 minute mark. He does a jump that takes him 3-4feet in the air and halfway on his side. You’ll hold your breath a moment. Erika Mikirtcheva’s Kitri is a delightful rival to his Basil: she giggles off every impossible hurdle he takes and it’s as if he’s sweating just to get that reaction. See the production here.
Part of what makes Don Quixote magical is the demand that the ballet has others don’t: this one requires the chemistry of dancers and what looks like interaction. It’s highly social in ways other ballets don’t seem to be. It’s a really great night out, even if you’re not a ballet nerd:-)
Tickets to SF Ballet’s last weekend with Don Quixote here!
Hansel and Gretel is a lesser produced ballet and so lesser known. The modern ballet music is hard to find—I, myself, couldn’t find the Edvard Grieg ballet music to download. (You can see a piece to that music in this link at the 35 minute mark.) So, when music is harder to get ballet schools or universities set their productions to the wrong music: like this production by the Lake Erie Ballet School that used music from La Fille Mal Gardee, or this National Youth Ensemble/National Ballet of Cuba production set to Arthur Fielder.
In my classes, I teach the older version of the ballet which uses the music of the German opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. I tell the children ‘long ago you could only see ballet at the opera’ and as opera developed ballet was less of a fixture in it. You can get a sense of what I’m describing from this Idaho Falls Opera production.
I’ve been most inspired by this Washington Ballet production of Hansel and Gretel. In it, you’ll hear the translated opera which acts as background music. Each production takes a little liberty with certain set pieces, and this one puts a lot into the witch and her relationship with the woodland creatures. It’s pretty spectacular.
The IBAM production follows the lead of the modern UK productions by presenting the witch as an angelic vision—they differ from the modern production by giving a lot of room to small children in the corps de ballet.
The more modern productions of the ballet came out of the UK. Celebrity choreographer Liam Scarlett choreographed a production with new music by Dan Jones. The Royal Ballet doesn’t allow their productions on YouTube but you can see videos about their productions via their channel. Here, Scarlett talks about his vision here, the production designer talks about creating the look of the ballet. The Scottish Ballet has a well publicized production and in their trailer you can get a sense of the dreamlike production design and the magical effect of their deceptively angelic witch. It makes the whole thing seem new again.
Stravinsky’s Firebird really piques the children’s imaginations. Do you remember the fad surrounding “Let it Go,” from Disney’s FROZEN? Somehow, their response to Firebird is a similar form of fascination. They play it on the playground! I just love how they get into it!
This 1977 production is my favorite of all those I’m linking you to! It begins with the “birth” of Katschei, which is really intriguing!
As with all the ballets teach the children, I’ve simplified this some. Your children won’t recognize the “jealousy plot” that brews with Rhinehardt offers a flower to Coppelia (the doll). When we dance like Swanilde entering the Inventor’s studio I fail to mention she does so with friends. I also regularly forget the occult undertones of the Inventor’s work (I just say he’s “silly”). Yet, despite literal differences it’s likely the dancers won’t be too bothered with variation. This said, the ballets listed below are incredibly similar to each other so choosing which to watch is a matter of preference: watch a few moments from the middle and see which you prefer.
Peter and the Wolf is such a beloved story it’s inspired at least two major composers to render the story into song. In my class, we begin with the symphony Sergei Prokofiev composed to introduce children to the orchestra. I love the Little Long Playing Record Disney produced, I know I had one as a child. In the class, I use a recording Disney produced for the titular cartoon featuring narration by Boris Karloff. Here is the link to buy and the link to hear in entirety on YouTube. This was also a cartoon you might have seen in your childhood. It doesn’t appear in it’s entirety on youtube–so far as i can find–but there are so many foreign language cartoons of the story there, it’s remarkable! If you haven’t seen the Disney version, maybe you’ve seen this Mel-O-Toon from the 60s.
The ballet Cinderella is the most popular ballet for children (after Nutcracker, that is). The ballet’s composer, Sergei Prokofiev, was also responsible for Peter and the Wolf, which he designed as an child’s introduction to the orchestra. Despite Prokofiev’s evident interest in bringing children culture, the music of Cinderella doesn’t sound at all like children’s music. It’s moody and modern with patches of darkness that make the magic in the story seem little edgy. Don’t worry, it’s nothing the kids can’t handle. The choreography is cartoonish and loaded with pantomime and character steps for easy reading for any age. Below I’m providing links for three different production of Cinderella so that you might share the ballet with your tiny dancer!
Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is among the longest and most technically difficult ballets of the canon—and, as if understanding this, the companies who produce the ballet have the most glorious sets and costumes. The attention to detail is inspiring!
You should know the ballet is different in some ways to the movie—though Disney did use a few of the more prominent pieces of Tchaikovsky’s score for his movie. Most notably, he retooled the Sleeping Beauty Waltz for “Once Upon a Dream.” In addition to being a more familiar story than most ballets, you’ll recognize a lot of songs from Sleeping Beauty you’ve heard before in other places.
The two productions I want to direct you to are real treats! Traditionally, the hardest roles for men and women are in Sleeping Beauty: for women, it’s the title role. For men, it’s the role of the Bluebird (in the final act), which is also, often played by the same man who plays Carabosse. Among the most famous ballet dancers in history, Enrico Cecchetti, made the two male roles famous. Cecchetti is also responsible for one of the four principle ballet methods: Cecchetti, Vaganova, Bournonville and Royal Ballet.
When I talk about “Sizing Ballet Stories to Fit” preschool, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is always the first ballet people ask about. I feel it’s a really tidy example of how treating the actions of the ballet literally can answer the trickier aspects of retelling ballet stories to kids. At the end of most ballet productions of Swan Lake, Odette jumps off a cliff and Siegfried jumps after her. I tell the children what the dancers literally do: they jump. I also add that the sun rises and Odette becomes a magical swan again (which means she can fly) and Siegfried follows her into the sky. Ultimately my storytelling ends ambiguously but the couple are together and free of the villain. Tidy enough. I base my storytelling loosely on the San Francisco ballet production.
Nutcracker season is upon us! Tchaikovsky’s music is a soundtrack for the winter, Clara’s nutcracker reminds you how magical your favorite toys used to be, and her holiday party is a fantasy model for event planning! How rare for one story to contain so many touchstones—and so many of them known by your dancing preschoolers!
The Bay Area boasts a few local Nutcracker events and productions designed for kids and families. The family productions I mention below either star dance students or are abbreviated productions of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, condensed to favor kids with shorter attention spans. A few even offer teas or photo ops with the cast!
Dear Dancing Families,
In a future blog post, I’ll tell you about a few Nutcracker events coming up on our area to which you can bring your preschooler and family. Not all of those events will present the ballet in its entirety, so I thought I’d offer some online productions to either whet your family’s appetite for ballet’s “holiday confection” or help you decide your child’s love for dance ends in the classroom (for now).
The Bolshoi’s production from 1989 is a lovely one—Russian productions are typically lavish and rich with history—and you can see that here. One of the culturally unique aspects of the Russian productions of the Nutcracker is that it features no Sugar Plum Fairy—instead, Clara does the dance, usually earlier in the production, and in stead of a finale, the dancers dance for her on the wedding she shares with the Nutcracker Prince. A Mariinsky version can be seen below:
The New York City Ballet, never one to be outdone, made a production of the Nutcracker in 1993 with all the cinematic flair they could muster. It’s not my favorite but it can be engrossing, which is special. Also, in this production they’re following the lesser-known tradition of naming the main character “Marie.”
If you didn’t know yet, I left my heart in San Francisco, and SF Ballet’s production is my very favorite. They set the story in 1915 San Francisco and we get to see Droselmeyer’s Rube Goldberg-inspired toy shop. The second act is particularly impressive, and since that’s typically the act kids fall asleep in, you’ll notice a lot to keep your attention high and spirits bright.
I hope you love it all!!!!!