Simone Orlando Blurs It Sharply & God Talks To MeFriday, February 27, 2009
Last night's premiere of The Goldberg Variations – Side 2: Adam & Eve & Steve, by Ballet BC at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was a felicitous event. It was more so as my companion was not my granddaughter Rebecca who is suddenly eschewing all dance for the dressing up of celebrities at Stardoll. My companion was her mother, my daughter Hilary, who had not been to the ballet for some time. She greeted The Goldberg Variations and Jean Grand-Maître's Carmen with awe, delight, smiles and contented attacks on our stock of dark bitter chocolate. In short it was an evening that Hilary and I will not soon forget.
From the point of view of this amateur, Kudelka's work consists of an inner core of three dancers, Simone Orlando, Jones Henry and Shannon Smith and an outer frame (much like a beautiful and ornate gold leaf frame at an expensive gallery) of dancers, Marrianne Bauer-Grobbelaar, Alexis Fletcher, Maggie Forgeron, Shannon Ferguson, León Feizo-Gas, Connon Gnam, Peter Smida and Daniel da Silva. This frame of beautiful young boys in short shorts and girls in costumes so light in texture and in substance (designed by Nancy Bryant) revealed more well-formed and muscular thighs (the girls’, I mean, and I must point out that Alexis Fletcher has thighs and legs to compete with those of my idol-of-legs actress Alexis Smith) that I have ever seen in any ballet of memory. It was exotic eye candy with movements that were all classical ballet.
During the action I trained my eyes to blur them out a bit as I was transfixed by veteran dancer Jones Henry whom Kudelka has managed to elicit a performance that would suggest that as soon as Ballet BC secures funds they might have to raise his salary to keep him on! I found myself watching his face as well as Simone Orlando's and Shannon Smith's for the delicate expressions of confusion and doubt (Jones Henry) warmth and understanding (Simone Orlando) and perfect confidence (Shannon Smith). These three, used movements that were striking, in their almost anti-balletic look. They contrasted with the constant swerving and swirling of the outer Corps de Ballet. And I watched, and watched Simone Orlando and how her beautiful dress (for more read below) swished at Kudelka's beckoning much in the same way as so many years ago Lauri Stalling's hair had done so for his 15 Heterosexual Duets. All in all, The Goldberg Variations was an unsettling, pleasing and demanding work with substance in an age that unsettles, pleases with banalities and substance is absent.
I have been upset of late in the knowledge that both the strong Donald Sales and the tall and cool Edmond Kilpatrick are gone from Ballet BC. I feel better. I am a new fan of Australian Shannon Smith who was perfect in his contrast to the pathos of the confused (so wonderfully confused) Jones Henry whose face and a few small and calculated steps seemed to be a window into his soul.
Of Carmen I can only say that Hilary thinks that Shannon Smith is a most manly Don José. Jones Henry pulled all sorts of dazzling veronicas in spite of not having a matador's cape. Makailla Wallace's performance as Carmen's foil, Micaella (the last time around she played Carmen) had shades of that classical ballerina of a Ballet BC recent past, Andrea Hodge who is now the company's Ballet Mistress along with Beverley Bagg.
Of Marianne Bauer-Grobbelaar's Carmen, her red hair and that crooked smile brought me unsettling (the more unsettling for this old man of 66) responses in my nether parts as she reminded me of Vancouver's best ever exotic dancer Tarren Rae. Her performance was as spirited as that of a haughty mustang in heat. But her temper tantrums (only for me I vouch) did not convince me as much as that of the fiery ones of that real kitchen-plate-smasher and Ballet BC's first Carmen, Sandrine Cassini.
Of Simone Orlando's Photo Above, of Nancy Bryant's Wonderful Dress and James Kudelka's Instructions
Years ago when I started shooting variety shows at the CBC when it has just moved to its modern premises on Hamilton Street I had to compete with a few photographers for jobs. The jobs paid well so we all tried to out-compete each other. On of my competition was photographer David Cooper who pretty well shoots most of dance and theatre in Vancouver. Cooper has always looked ahead and he was one of the first to see the rapid preeminence of digital over film. Cooper went beyond even that and learned to make digital montages that were seamless in their perfection. He most certainly has earned his reputation of being the best not only in Vancouver but in the rest of Canada.
While I was wrapping my cameras in thick Argentine wool blankets ( a hole in front for the lens and a hole in the back to look through) to prevent the director from throwing me out for making clicking noises during the show tapings I noticed that Cooper had an expensive and well made Lucite blimp. This device (the best are made in California for professional golf photographers) envelops a camera but leaves room for the photographer's manual control. It was easy to see that Cooper finally abandoned the declining business of TV variety shows and shifted with his blimp to shooting theatre.
When I started shooting dance around 1995 for the Georgia Straight I had to make a decision. How was I going to shoot dancers? Would I try to out-Cooper Cooper and shoot dancers in the air in perfect and graceful poise looking as if they were indeed swans in flight? To begin with I did not have a large studio with a very high ceiling and a coved back wall to give the illusion of an infinite background. Since I have always been a portrait photographer I decided that I would shoot portraits of dancers at rest and I would even avoid dancerly poses.
This decision has served me well until last week when the Straight assigned me to photograph Simone Orlando in her part of the principal dancer of James Kudelka's The Goldberg Variations – Side 2: Adam & Eve & Steve. The shot would involve the only pre premiere look (Thursday) use of the specially designed dress by Nancy Bryant. Kudelka, a man of precision even sent me instructions on how to take the pictures via Ballet BC's most pleasant publicist Laura Murray. In private Ms Murray must have had reservations on how I would take being directed in a shoot considering that in most editorial photographic shoots the photographer must have independence over the organization to be photographed. Initially I was a bit put out but I then decided to rise up to the challenge and that I would try to please a man (I have yet to meet him.) who as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada would know more about what he wanted in a photograph of the principal female lead of his ballet than I. There was one problem. It seemed he wanted me to do Cooper.
For the first time in many years I was worried, not sure of what I was going to do. What kept me going was the realization that I would have Simone Orlando, all to myself in my studio. No matter how close you sit at a Ballet BC performance or how powerful your binoculars may be, having Orlando in front of you a foot or two away has no comparison. Orlando began to explain what the dance was all about. I had been denied the opportunity to watch a rehearsal. I had nothing to go on. Orlando told me that in this dance she was sort of a Fascist and her moves were un-ballet, quite rigid and soldier-like, but here is the catch, from the waist down her beautiful dark sequined skirt would swirl with the movement. I was to catch both. Then Orlando used a word I have never heard before, "The picture must not be balletic." I asked for clarification. It seemed that the image she had in mind (as well as Kudelka's mind) was a picture that did not show a dancer in graceful flight, all perfect form. I warmed to the idea immediately!
To take the picture you see here I exposed 10 frames of 120 Ektachrome 100G. I set my exposure at between f-11 and f-16 knowing that if I set my shutter at 1/2 second, the quartz modeling light of my 3x4 ft softbox would cast enough light to expose the film and blur the skirt. I put a piece of tape on the floor and Orlando moved to the position while I pressed the shutter. Just in case I shot a roll of colour negative which gives more allowance for exposure error. Orlando's favourite from that roll is here. The colour and the look is different from the slide.
I was not entirely alone with Simone Orlando in my studio. We had Ballet BC wardrobe manager, Kate Burrows who brought Orlando a new pair of shoes and did last minute alterations of that sequined dress. With the guidance of the two women I was bound to succeed. I managed to catch the elusive Kudelka backstage (God to many in the ballet world). God spoke, "Alex you got some movement in that photograph."