I don’t like the room to be quiet when I’m writing, but there are only certain types of non-quiet that don’t distract me. For example, when I’m writing for work, or just reviewing and approving websites for a directory I help maintain, I can play DVDs of familiar TV shows or movies – generally those that have snappy dialogue (Pretty much anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City, and a good portion of Joss Whedon’s creations.)
When I’m writing something that requires actual thought, however, I prefer to have music playing, but there I run into trouble, because if the music has lyrics I want to get up and sing instead of staying in my chair and writing. At times, if I’m writing something that fits with it, I can listen to French pop-jazz – artists like Sanseverino. Often I listen to jazz and blues, but that can make me moody, and even without lyrics, there’s enough story in that type of music that I can’t just have it on as background music.
As the final days of summer spiral away, and my mailbox begins to fill with ticket offers for various Christmas concerts and performances of The Nutcracker, however, I find myself listening to the soundtracks – scores, really – of various ballets. I like the old classical ones because they’re full symphonies and generally pretty long, with enough variation that I don’t get bored but a unity of tone that gives just enough story to keep writing, but no so much that I want to go watch every single dance film on Netflix.
The practical upshot of all this? My Thursday 13 this week is a list of the ballets I particularly love:
- The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky): Yes, it’s a Christmas story, but the music is so familiar and infectious I can’t not love it, and it really brings E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales to life. Also? Duke Ellington’s album Three Suites features jazzed up versions of many of the more familiar elements of The Nutcracker. I’ve seen it live in San Francisco and Denver, and never miss the ABT (American Ballet Theater) version from the 70s (Baryshnikov/Kirkland) when it’s aired on PBS every December.
- Cinderella (Prokofiev): I worked props for the Fresno Ballet production of Cinderella all through high school, and grew to love the music. To this day, when I hear certain phrases, I can see the prancing ponies in my head.
- Giselle (Adam): How can you not love a ballet that was partly inspired by Victor Hugo’s novels, and partly inspired by St. Vitus’ dance. It’s haunting and creepy and completely wonderful. Incidentally, the title role in Giselle is probably the most coveted in all of ballet. The movie Dancers from sometime in the 80s (I think) starring Baryshnikov, was about a dance company doing a touring production of Giselle. The plot was absurd, but the dancing was breathtaking.
- Coppelia (Delibes): Like The Nutcracker, Coppelia was inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories, particularly “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”), but it’s also special because it marked the first use of automatons and marionettes in ballet. Because it is a fairly light story, this ballet is often used to introduce children to the art form.
- Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) Yes, it’s the ballet version of Shakespeare’s play. Yes, it’s an iconic ballet. The modern version still retains much of the mood and story from the version Prokofiev composed for the Kirov Ballet in 1936.
- Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky): There were actually several other ballets based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty (which, itself, has a dual source of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm), but Tchaikovsky’s has become the standard. It premiered in 1890 in St. Petersburg, Russia, but a later production served to introduce ballet fans worldwide to Rudolph Nureyev. A very young George Balanchine made his own ballet debut in a production of Sleeping Beauty.
- Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) This was the composer’s first ballet, and its initial reception was actually not that great, but today it’s probably the first ballet most people think of. My first introduction to it was via a music box I was given as a child, and I met it again as a slightly older child when my ballet teacher in Georgetown, CO, (David something. He had amazing thighs.) taught us all the “swan curtsey.” If your first introduction to Swan Lake was through the movie The Black Swan, you have my sympathy. Please wash your eyes and brain out with a double feature of The Turning Point (which was made in the 1970s and featured a recently-defected Mikhail Baryshnikov) and The Company, starring Neve Campbell (who actually had some real dance experience) and members of the Joffrey Ballet.
- Don Quixote (Minkus): This is one of those great ballets that came out of the Bolshoi in the late 1800’s, and has gone through many incarnations. Yes, it’s based on the same novel by Cervantes that inspired the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, and both are fantastic in their own ways, but the ballet is something truly special, especially when you have really strong male dancers.
- La Sylphide (Løvenskiold): There are actually several versions of this ballet about a Scottish farmer who falls in love with a Sylph, and the original, staged by Taglioni, even used different music, but it’s the Løvenskiold music that I’m most familiar with (and, in fact, am listening to as I write this). Btw, there’s another ballet called Les Sylphides that also involves a man falling in love with a forest spirit, but it’s got completely different music and choreography, and is staged as a short ballet.
- The Firebird (Stravinsky): Like many ballets this is based on fairy tale, but this time it involves thirteen princesses (making it appropriate for a T-13 inclusion, yes?), forbidden love, and a stolen egg. Jerome Robbins choreographed the best-known version of this ballet when he was at NYCB (New York City Ballet).
- The Red Shoes (Easdale): Okay, technically, The Red Shoes is a movie about a ballet called The Red Shoes, which ballet was created just for the movie. But, honestly, does anyone watch this for the plot? Of course not, we watch it for the dancing (and more than one ballet company has staged the ballet itself, since the movie came out in 1948). By the way, the ballet within the movie was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story entitled – you guessed it – “The Red Shoes.”
- Fancy Free (Bernstein): This is another Jerome Robbins piece, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, and it’s a ballet about three American sailors on leave in New York City. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the musical On the Town was actually inspired by the ballet. If you’re like me, you saw the movie version of On the Town (starring Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, et al) first, and thought the movie inspired the ballet. (I was fourteen when I asked my dance teacher, who was staging it at his ballet company, for the real story.)
- The Hard Nut (Tchaikovsky): If you begin a list with The Nutcracker, it only makes sense to end it with The Hard Nut, the sexy, dark, irreverent version of the same story (one that’s actually more in line with Hoffmann’s original tale). Yes, the music is the same, but this time it’s set in the 50’s, and the toy soldiers are actually an army of G. I. Joe dolls. This version was choreographed by Mark Morris, and features men en pointe as well as some subtle homosexual themes.