Putting the “Grand” in Grand Pas
It starts like this: once upon a time (okay, five minutes ago), I decided (G-d alone knows why) to break the First Law of the Innertubes and read the comments.
The comments in question were those on this lovely rendition of the Adagio movement of the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas, performed by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov of The Royal Ballet:
There were not, I should mention, any dick jokes. Or…well. If there were, I didn’t scroll that far.
But only because I got exactly far enough to discover a troubling undercurrent: an entire quorum of commenters who felt that, compared to the high drama of the musical score, the dancing was, in a word, boring.
Full disclosure: between the ages of, say, three and maybe twelve or so, I would’ve agreed completely, though presumably for different reasons. My reason was that I was, at least in that regard, the very stereotype of a little boy. Romance was GROSS, and also there were no big jumps or, like, explosions.
- Not tryna one-up anyone–but, y’all? MY COMPANY’S NUTCRACKER HAS ACTUAL EXPLOSIONS. Just, you know. Not during the Adagio bit of the Grand Pas.
I’m guessing the opinions of commenters old enough to have their own YouTube accounts are primarily based on less-childish criteria.
Now, I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to their own opinions.
First, that would be incredibly hypocritical, since you know as well as I do that I’m packed to the gills with opinions.
Second, it would be rude.
That said, I think there are probably quite a few people (maybe among these commenters, maybe not: I don’t know their individual ballet-commenting journeys, after all) who don’t actually know what the adagio movement is trying to accomplish, and who might be inclined to judge it by a metric that doesn’t fit.
The Nutcracker’s Grand Pas–and, in particular its adagio movement–is a bit of an anomaly.
It’s a subtle, exquisite gem set in a brash, flashy setting.
- The Snow Pas is sometimes played this way as well–one of the things I like most about our Nutcracker is the sweet tenderness of the Snow Pas).
The music is dramatic, of course: I mean, it’s Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky hid his subtlety amongst the broad, dramatic strokes. It’s part of why Tchaikovsky’s bombast works: when Tchaikovsky brings out the big guns, so to speak, he doesn’t neglect the battle as a whole.
- Listen to the horns calling back and forth at the beginning of “Capriccio Italien:” the opening fanfare is brassy, even brash, but the fanfare that echoes evokes one replying from a distant hillside. Now, listen to the music of the Adagio. In the most dramatic moments–usually while there’s some visually-impressive lift happening onstage–the highest woodwinds play a wild little descant in which you hear the wind and the snow and the wild spirit that is Sugarplum, who is choosing in this moment to be tame.
- Sorry, guys. This is the worst analogy. I mean, sure, it’s effective, but … battle? Couldn’t I think of something else?
The Royal Ballet’s version of the Adagio choreography, meanwhile, is very British. It’s deeply restrained, and its restraint lends it a specific kind of romance. The Grand Pas adagio isn’t always that restrained, but it’s almost never bombastic, even though at times the music is, perhaps, just a bit bombastic (I mean: it’s Tchaikovsky).
I will note that, perhaps, this particular performance could have been a bit more expressive even within the context of its restrained approach–but I don’t think that means the choreography itself is boring.
I think it means that this is Nutcracker, and that for all we know this particular upload might be video from a performance in which both artists had already done this show thirteen times that week, and fourteen times the week before that, and fourteen times the week before that.
In other words, it seems entirely possible that they were tired.
Dancers joke about hating Nutcracker, but what we mostly mean, as far as I can tell, is that OMFG IT’S EXHAUSTING. Most of us actually seem to either secretly or not-so-secretly love Nutcracker. We’re just also deeply traumatized by it ^-^’
Even in a small company with a relatively short Nutcracker run, three weeks of performing the same ballet 6+ times per week, with up to three performances per day, is physically and mentally taxing.
In a huge, world-class company like The Royal Ballet, Nutcracker is a sort of towering juggernaut; a gauntlet through which dancers must pass each year as if it was some kind of old-world rite of the Winter Solstice like:
WHO WILL MAKE IT THROUGH??? ONLY THE STRONG WILL SURVIVE!!!
So basically what I’m saying is that Nutcracker is a callback to our atavistic fear of the long dark of winter; a kind of sacrificial ritual.
Okay, so no: that’s not really my point at all, though heck, it sure is an interesting idea, and possibly worth revisiting?
But, anyway. My whole point was about the Grand Pas Adagio.
The adagio isn’t exciting in the usual way because it shouldn’t be exciting in that way.
“Adagio” derives from the Italian (wait for it) “ad agio“–literally, “at ease.”
(I’ll pause here so anyone who has ever, during a long adagio in class, wanted to die and then murder their teacher, but hasn’t been sure in which order to do so, can laugh uproariously. Like, “At ease! At ease??!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”)
L’Ancien likes to remind us that, musically speaking, this is understood to mean no stress–as in, no OOMPH. It’s not BOMP-chika-bomp. It’s aaaaaaaaahhh.
Adagio isn’t about grand allegro pyrotechnics. It’s about something far subtler. It is, more than any other part of a ballet, about acting.
And, there, both Nuñez and Muntagirov perform, if not flawlessly, then beautifully. There are some moments that they could, perhaps, be a bit more expressive. Those moments generally happen to coincide with doing things that are, in terms of technique, not so easy. Or lifts. It can be hard to look tender AF when you’re lifting another adult human, no matter how sylphlike they are.
- This is one of the things I admired about C, who danced with us last year. Not only was his technique superb and lovely and clean, but he almost always managed to look sweet and tender and loving or however else he was supposed to look while lifting other adult persons.
Ultimately, Nuñez and Muntagirov’s performance treats the Adagio exactly as it should be treated: gently, deftly.
As an audience, though, many of us aren’t used to that. We’re used to TRANSMOGRIFIERS: END OF THE UNIVERSE!!!
(Which … don’t get me wrong. That stuff is fun, too.)
Even our less-explosive fare tends to be terribly unsubtle (Remember the Twilight series? Subtle as a chainsaw -.-).
So maybe we’re just not sure what to think when we find ourselves hard against the Adagio, in the middle of what might be the Most Bombastic Ballet Ever if it weren’t for Swan Lake, which is what American movies would create if they created a ballet (and which, btw, is also one of my very favorite ballets).
- Okay, so … there’s also Spartacus. Which is even more bombastic, but I always forget about it because I’ve never seen the whole thing. Also Troy Games, hwich I Haven’t seen, but since it’s basically Men’s Technique: The Ballet, I’m assuming it’s probably got actual explosions and the audience probably has to sign a waiver. I’ve never seen any part of Troy Game (Y’ALL! I FOUND IT!!! And, um, it’s funny AF in parts), but I can state with conviction that I would LOVE a role in that ballet.
The grandeur in the adagio movement of Nutcracker’s Grand Pas derives not from virtuoso technical shenanigans, but from the power of the dancers to evoke emotion–in short, from their acting ability. Without that, there’s nothing to keep the audience hooked.
If what an audience expects from a ballet performance is a lot of virtuosic tricks, the Grand Pas Adagio will almost always be a bit of a letdown–as will some entire ballets, like Neumeier’s La Dame Aux Camelias (this will take you to Act I, but the whole thing is out there), which depend more on the dancers’ acting ability than on the (metaphorical) pyrotechnics we all know and love.
This, by the way, is what worries me a bit about audiences trying to make the leap straight from So You Think You Can Dance to full-scale ballet performances. SYTYCD and its kin have helped bring dance to audiences who, in the past, might never have seen it, either because they lacked access or because they didn’t think it was for them.
But, at the same time, because most of the dance-contest shows skew towards short performances built to please the general public, tricks are thick on the ground (and in the air), and subtle, expressive dance is almost unheard of. Same goes for Insta posts (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone): if you want to post video in your regular Insta feed, you get one minute, which really means like 58 seconds. Are you going to post 58 seconds of you staring fervently into your partner’s eyes, or are you going to post that hella cool manege?
Maybe I should swallow my own medicine and start posting the 58 seconds of staring into my partner’s eyes. Or, well, something like that. 58 seconds of nothing but staring could get weird.
Anyway. Watching ballet is like anything else: it’s a skill. When I watch American football, I basically haven’t the foggiest idea what’s happening (beyond the fact that our costumer would MURDER ME, s l o w l y , if I ever got my performance gear that dirty ^-^.
That doesn’t mean I’m an uncultured dolt; it just means I didn’t grow up watching football (my sis, on the other hand, has become an avid fan because someone mentioned to her that football is basically chess with big athletic dudes and she LOVES chess, so now she knows everything about football, too).
By way of a clearer analogy: I grew up on classical music and jazz, with a bit of the more obscure species of pop and folk thrown in here and there. The first time I heard classic rock, I was like, “Huh?”
In short, I didn’t speak the music language. But over time I heard it more and more, because my Stepdad is into classic rock, and I learned to speak its language and came to like it (a lot of it, anyway: there are dog farts in every genre–ballet probably has some, but since ballet is already pretty obscure, they probably don’t make it too far from the offending dog).
And while I usually use this analogy to explain why people often think they don’t like classical music, and then slowly evolve to like it, it works for ballet, too.
Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to dislike this specific Grand Pas adagio even if you’re a balletomane or a dancer. Maybe you just don’t like Muntagirov because he looks kind of like a deer who became a human but on some level is still a deer. I mean, I like that about him, but it might weird some people out. Maybe you like a different version of the choreography (there are a couple I do like better in that regard, though they overlap considerably with this one).
But if you simply think the choreography is boring in relation to the music, I invite you to watch like 25 different versions (as I have, G-d help me, bc I’m formally learning this pas de deux right now) as a means of learning the language.
You may find, of course, that watching 25 Grand Pas Adagios in a row really just makes you want to come to my house and demand that hour and a half or so of your life back, in which case, I cannot offer you a refund, but I’ll be happy to make you some tea?
On the other hand, you may begin to see the subtle shadings that make adagio so powerful when it’s done well.