We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
Next, we meet Helen Alving from the 1881 three-act play Ghosts which premiered in Chicago, Illinois.
Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts was the subject of great controversy, especially because of its inclusion of sensitive topics including religion, infidelity, incest, and sexually transmitted disease. While Nora in A Doll’s House deals with breaking the standing moral code, Ghosts illuminates the tragic consequences of conforming.
You’ve journeyed a long way out of town to call upon Mrs. Alving (played by company dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger), and nothing about her home lends a sense of ease after your extended travels. There is a chill in the air and the cold rain soaks through your overcoat as you hurry down the path to the front door.
You’re welcomed in by Regina—the young maid and secret illegitimate half-sister of Mrs. Alving’s son, Oswald—and wait, shivering, until she enters. Helen appears wearier than your memory of her: The lines around her mouth are deeply creased and a droop interferes with the proud posture of her youth. She is the portrait of a woman who has spent years holding herself together.
She places a book in your hand (not the kind you would ever be caught reading).
“I admire your curiosity and thirst for information, Mrs. Alving, but really, I couldn’t possibly read a piece of literature that deals with—”
“Now, I know that Pastor Manders would never approve,” she interjects, “But I’ve found all sorts of information in this tome that I resonate with…”
She carries on talking about the radical novel, but you find yourself distracted by the smile dancing on her lips as she refers to Pastor Manders. It was rumored they were quite fond of each other and that she fled to him for refuge from her tumultuous marriage to the Captain, who is now deceased. But prior to his death, her son, Oswald (played by company dancer Isaac Aoki), was born and she and the Captain moved out here and the rumors were quelled.
“Oh! Oswald is doing beautifully!” She proclaims with a positivity that seems out of place in this dreary estate. “You should see the latest painting he’s been working on; it’s just wonder—”
She seems to have lost her voice, as well as her cheery air; Oswald is an artist who is suffering from syphilis inherited from his father.
“I have to tell you,” she whispers hoarsely. “Oswald is contaminated. He’s been so tired, listless, since he’s returned home from abroad. His doctor told him there is no chance of recovery. I tried so hard to save him, to keep him away from the influence of his degenerate father. I spent my life covering up my husbands’ infidelities and loose affairs. I had heard the talk of—was Nora her name?—the vile rumors about that woman who left her family. People would have spoken of me that way! I had to maintain order, uphold the law of my marriage, protect my son and our family’s reputation.”
“You chose nobility,” you offer, attempting to assuage her obvious distress.
“I chose cowardice,” Mrs. Alving refutes. “And now, now I must choose whether I can be brave and give my son his freedom.”
A silence falls between the two of you. You aren’t quite sure you understand her. You don’t know what to say.
“And now, I must ask you to take your leave. Regina will escort you back to town. Oswald, come say goodbye to our guest!”
Regina and Oswald appear at the staircase. For a moment, standing in the gloomy shadows of the hallway, their resemblance is striking. Regina steps out of the darkness with your jacket; she seems eager for you to leave.
“Goodbye Mrs. Alving, Oswald,” you nod to the mother and son who stand on the stoop, waving to you. You take one last look at the eerie estate, and when you turn back for a final wave the two have vanished.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
Now that we’ve met the author, Henrik Ibsen, let’s meet his famously strong female characters that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
First up is Nora Helmer (played by company dancer Yuka Oba) from his 1879 three-act play, A Doll’s House, which premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 21.
The play is significant for the way it deals with the fate of a married woman, who at the time in Norway lacked reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male-dominated world. It aroused a great sensation at the time, and caused a “storm of outraged controversy” that went beyond the theater to the world newspapers and society.[Wikipedia]
Nora invites you into her immaculate sitting room, not too expensively furnished, but neat and orderly. She appears on first glance as the ideal nineteenth-century wife: dainty and saccharine-sweet like the macaroons she offers you. However, as you chat longer, you notice something is amiss. The doll-like existence she lives doesn’t fully suit her; her husband, Torvald (played by company dancer Nathan Young), treats her delicately, as though she is a child, without any agency. He draws attention repeatedly to her beauty and talks endlessly about their happiness. Stealing bites of macaroon as he looks away seems to be the only way she exercises her own power.
As her husband leaves the room, Nora leans in closely in confidence. Her previous smiles have vanished and a fire burns behind her eyes. She confesses she has recently taken out a secret loan to help pay for her husband’s medical treatment. At this point in history, women can’t partake in such financial endeavors so she cunningly forged a signature and she’s dealing with the fallout of it: blackmail.
“Something glorious is about to happen,” she whispers. Her husband is about to learn she has been performing “tricks” with other men in an attempt to pay off the debt ensued for his health. She believes he will sacrifice his reputation to protect her. You nod slowly, not wanting to mar her optimism, but leave with a queasy feeling about the matter.
No word comes from Nora over the next few weeks until a neighbor asks if you’ve heard of the Helmer’s scandal. “She just left,” your gossiping neighbor whisper-yells. “Walked out on him and the children. Can you even begin to fathom….?”
But you can. You have seen the fire in her eyes, you know of her defiance. Her husband failed her expectations, sacrificing his devotion and integrity to the woman he has married for the public theater of happiness and dignity. She was done playing the role of the doll. As the scene ends with the slam of a door, you wonder if you will see her again, free in the wild world outside the doll’s house.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s next production, Extremely Close, includes Ibsen’s House, a ballet by Val Caniparoli (the choreographer of our production of The Nutcracker). This piece features a collection of literature’s most dramatic, complex, and emotive female characters including Nora from A Doll’s House, Hedda from Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West from Rosmersholm, Ellida from Lady from the Sea, and Mrs. Alving from Ghosts. But, before we meet these powerful women, we must meet the equally powerful playwright, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), himself.
Depending on what year you choose, you could encounter Henrik in Norway, Italy, or Germany. Born Norwegian, Ibsen’s controversial plays led him to self-exile in Italy and Germany from 1862-1891. However, he was welcomed in his home country as a literary hero upon his return.
Ibsen’s plays observe the human condition. Known as the “father of realism,” he wrote pieces of theater that pick apart societal norms and peer inside the perfect Victorian facades to reveal the human struggles, angst, and complication within the living rooms.
If you met him at a party you may try to engage with him on the topic of women’s rights. After all, he was the first male playwright to incorporate female characters that existed on their own merit, rather than as a foil for the male role. Ibsen’s women pursue their own desires and fight for self-realization. However, Ibsen would cringe if you called him a feminist.
“That is not my agenda,” he may respond. “I write with no agenda. I am no feminist, but believe in the individual and their right to live with their personal beliefs and truth. Call me an observer. A realist, if you must.”
Ibsen certainly did pinpoint the uncomfortable, hidden effects of accepted social practices and taboos of the time. He had no problem with controversy. In fact, if you met him on his death bed, you would hear his final words: “Tvertimod (To the contrary)!”
Extremely Close runs April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. Tickets are available at online or by calling 616.454.4771 x10.
The Nutcracker is simultaneously the most enjoyable and exhausting part of any professional dancer’s season. Growing up at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, I performed in The Nutcracker for a decade straight. Over those 10 years, I danced in two separate productions: those choreographed by Stowell & Sendak and George Balanchine. I remember performing in my first show and watching the more advanced students dance while I was in the prologue sharing a part with Cassidy Isaacson (now a company dancer at Grand Rapids Ballet). They danced to immensely powerful and joyous music; they got to dance in the Snow Scene! But Waltz of the Snowflakes was my favorite; just hearing the orchestra and the beautiful music was enough to set my eyes on ballet as a career. The violins being plucked, paper snowflakes gently falling, opera singers singing the sweet melody, and ballerinas twirling in frosty blue and white tutus never fail to raise goosebumps on my arms.
After my first experience with The Nutcracker, I set a goal for myself: I would dance the Waltz of the Snowflakes one day. Eight years of hard work later, I finally reached my goal during my second to final year at PNB School as part of the Professional Division program. I twirled in a frosty blue and white tutu and felt the snowflakes fall upon my crown-laden head while listening to the orchestra grow and swell to the sound of the iconic waltz. With stage lights illuminating the expensive stage and the audience still, holding their breath as the even beat of the waltz grew stronger and stronger. Let me tell you, it was awesome!
Waltz of the Snowflakes is hands down the most challenging part in The Nutcracker when it comes to pure stamina and mental strength. For instance, in Grand Rapids Ballet’s production choreographed by Val Caniparoli, I spend less than one minute offstage during the seven-minute run time of Waltz of the Snowflakes. Talk about your daily cardio: my Apple Watch tells me it is almost equivalent to a mile and a half run.
In 2008, when I performed in my first Nutcracker at PNB, I had only one part and performed in just over half of the 45 scheduled shows. As I matured in age and experience, I performed in most of the shows doing multiple parts. My most current tally over thirteen years? Over 500 shows, three different productions, 15 parts, and countless hours of rehearsal.
All of this sounds wonderful and joyous right? And it is. But putting The Nutcracker on stage also includes seven-day work weeks and long nights in the theater. December is the holiday season for most, but for dancers it also includes sewing countless pointe shoes, trying to catch your breath after running the Snow Scene for the third time that day, and eating dinner while icing your feet and nursing your sore muscles. But, the joy that is brought to young children and their families alike in the holiday season makes it all worth it.
The experience of dancing in The Nutcracker remains just as magical to me as it was as a young ballet student. And now, as one of the “big kids,” I strive to make every audience member’s experience as transformative as my own.
Val Caniparoli’s The Nutcracker would not be possible without YOUR support! Become a season subscriber or donate today to help us continue doing what we love. Until next year, happy holidays and thank you for supporting Grand Rapids Ballet!
The countless intricate details in The Nutcracker all come together seamlessly every December to create West Michigan’s favorite family holiday tradition seen by over 50,000 people since its premiere in 2014.
• In each performance, there are 68 Grand Rapids Ballet School students and approximately 40 company dancers—most of whom are doing multiple roles. In fact, any company dancer can do up to five separate roles per show!
• There are 149 original costumes with 58 of those being tutus which require over 5,000 yards of tulle.
• There are three Sugar Plum Fairy tutus, five Marzipan Castle scene tutus, 19 snow scene tutus, 15 Waltz of the Flower tutus, two Spanish tutus, 10 harlequin tutus, and two Dream Clara tutus.
• It takes seven full-size semi-trucks to move the entire production to DeVos Performance Hall.
• It takes seven days to assemble the Broadway-quality sets designed by Tony Award winner Eugene Lee based on the illustrations of The Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg.
• There are 15 toy soldiers and seven mice in each fight scene including one infamous Mouse King.
• There are 12 individual snowflakes in the snow scene and 12 pink flowers twirl with one Sugar Plum Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers.
• In each performance, 30+ crowns and tiaras are worn: 12 snow scene crowns, 1 Dream Clara tiara, two Sugar Plum Fairy tiaras, and three Marzipan Castle crowns. Talk about glamour!
• Clara’s Nutcracker Party is attended by 400 happy children, parents, and grandparents.
• The company and school both spend at least two months rehearsing Val Caniparoli’s gorgeous choreography including two dress rehearsals.
All of this adds up to one spectacular show that you and your family won’t want to miss. Tickets are available at 616.454.4771 x10 or on our website.
The Grand Rapids Ballet welcomed accomplished dancer, choreographer and artistic entrepreneur James Sofranko as its new artistic director on July 1. In this capacity, Sofranko is responsible for all artistic direction and planning for the GR Ballet.
Sofranko, a Cincinnati native, received dance training at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, and The Juilliard School in New York City, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance. After graduating in 2000, Sofranko joined the San Francisco Ballet, where he was promoted to soloist in 2007. His final performance as a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet was this May.
Grand Rapids Magazine: Proudest moment?
JS: My proudest moment was probably when I was hired into San Francisco Ballet straight after graduating from Juilliard. Juilliard sometimes has a reputation of being a school for only modern dancers, and I am very proud that I was able to show that my training in the modern techniques of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Jose Limon did not exclude classical ballet from my future.
I love all styles of dance and I believe that training in one style can inform another. Dancers today must be versatile and able to do so much more than just classical ballet. My versatility was one of my strengths at San Francisco Ballet and I’m very proud that I was able to dance in such a large variety of styles during my career.
Grand Rapids Magazine: Biggest career break?
JS: There is a role designed for a short man in Kenneth Macmillan’s “Elite Syncopations,” a ballet we did at San Francisco Ballet early in my career, set to Scott Joplin rags. A few of the shorter principals were cast in the role, but through injury or other circumstance, I ended up first cast in this role that required a lot of comedy and physicality.
I found myself, as a new corps member, dancing with long time principal (and the very tall) Muriel Maffre in this pas de deux with her legs constantly going over my head. I remember thinking to myself, “Whatever you do, just don’t drop her!” I was nervous, of course, but the comedy kept me on my toes and in the moment. To this day, audience members still come up to me and remind me of that duet and how that was the first time they remember knowing who I was.
Grand Rapids Magazine: What talent would you like to possess?
JS: I would love to be able to draw or paint. Unfortunately, I can barely do a stick figure.
Grand Rapids Magazine: Favorite movie of all time?
JS: Oh, so hard to choose! My wife and I could watch “When Harry Met Sally” forever. We know all the lines, but it’s still one of our “go-to” movies when we just want to relax and laugh. Also, “Bullets over Broadway” and “Meet the Parents” rank pretty high for comedy.
For more serious fare, I like “V for Vendetta” or anything written by Charlie Kaufman, and “West Side Story” is my favorite musical.
Grand Rapids Magazine: Morning or night person?
JS: Morning, although I can stay up late too… but I’m my best in the morning.
Grand Rapids Magazine: What are you most passionate about?
JS: I’m most passionate about showing people the value of art in their life and society. Without art, we lose sight of the beauty that humans are capable of. Without art, we lose a form of expression that speaks beyond language.
Grand Rapids Magazine: What makes you laugh?
JS: My two sons, Jack and Aiden!
Grand Rapids Magazine: Favorite getaway?
JS: In California, we love taking a drive to wine country; it’s like having Italy in your backyard.
Grand Rapids Magazine: Your best or worst habit?
JS: One (bad or good depending how you look at it) habit I have is doing too much and saying yes to too many projects! There’s just so much to do and not enough time!
Grand Rapids Magazine: How do you unwind?
JS: A walk on the beach with the family is always therapeutic.
Yuka Oba in George Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, photo by Isaac Aoki
A Closer Look at Wild Sweet Love
by Jade Butler
For his inaugural Grand Rapids Ballet rep (short for repertory:a production inwhichacompanypresentsseveral different works in one show), new artistic director James Sofranko thoughtfully selected vastly different masterpieces. Three will be Grand Rapids premieres: Allegro Brilliante by modern master George Balanchine; Ghost Light by our choreographer-in-residence and Princess Grace Award winner, Penny Saunders; and Wild Sweet Love by internationally acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntrye; and a fourth will be a world premiere work choreographed by Sofranko himself. This tour de force is a fantastic way to showcase our versatile, multi-faceted dancers and to open our exciting new season with fresh perspective.
Allegro Brilliante is a classic “lights and tights” ballet centered around a principal couple, supported by four corps couples. The ballet is set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.3 (listen to it here), originally created from a unique composition intended to be part of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. Choreographed in 1956, Allegro Brilliante is still performed regularly by New York City Balletand other ballet companies worldwide. The demanding choreography paired with a quick tempo is a classic Balanchine trademark everyone has come to love. You can truly “see the music [and] hear the dance” with this brilliant work; it is a thrilling and delightful addition to this diverse mixed bill.
Penny Saunders’ Ghost Light is an alluringly haunting work inspired by the singular light that is often left on stage when unoccupied. Popular superstition holds that it is put out to appease any possible cohabiting spirits in the theater, hence the term “ghost light.” Similar notions are the light provide opportunities for ghosts in the theater to perform onstage. The ghost light in this work magically draws the dancers out of the shadows with masterful light design by Scott Bolman. This is the fifth work by Saunders to be added to our repertoire.
Wild Sweet Love
Trey McIntrye‘sWild Sweet Love is set to hit songs by popular artists such as Queen, Lou Reed, The Partridge Family, and Roberta Flack, with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March thrown in for good measure. Originally created at Sacramento Ballet in 2007, Grand Rapids Ballet is the third company to add Wild Sweet Love into its repertoire. Delightfully quirky and athletic, Wild Sweet Love measures up to be just as brilliant as Allegro Brilliante and just as captivating as Ghost Light.
“Like Balanchine, McIntyre builds an excitingly modern dance upon a very classic foundation. Wild Sweet Love is both wild and sweet. And very, very good.”
—The Sacramento Bee
Get Your Tickets!
This is the perfect show to kick-off our exciting new 2018-19 season—the first under the artistic direction of James Sofranko. It has something for everyone and will showcase your favorite dancers (and introduce you to some new ones, too).
Single tickets don’t go on sale to the public on Monday, June 18 (mark your calendars), but you can purchase season subscriptions now. To do so, call our box office manager, Kelly, at 616.454.4771, x10, email her, or visit our website today.