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Completely Enveloped in an Atmosphere - Orlando Ballet's Casanova

June 07, 2024

On May 19, 2024 I saw the Orlando Ballet perform the US premier of Kenneth Tindall's Casanova, with a score by Kerry Muzzey.  


I very much enjoyed it and wanted to share some thoughts.

 

Casanova, being a relatively new ballet, has a rather light online footprint, so keep in mind this is from memory after one viewing and most of the background is either from the Orlando Ballet's program notes, the creators's websites, or the creators themselves.  (I have listened to the score several times but more on that later.)

 

Overview

 

Casanova is based on Ian Kelly's 2008 biography Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy.  You've undoubtedly heard the name Giacomo Casanova, an 18th Century Venetian writer and um, "prolific" lover so famous for his trysts that his name is now shorthand for "ladies man."
 

The ballet was created by Kenneth Tindall in 2016 for the Northern Ballet of Leeds, UK, where Tindall is the Resident Choreographer.  (Michael Pink was commissioned by the Northern Ballet to create Dracula, among other things.  Northern Ballet has a good eye for talent, apparently.) Tindall and Kelly worked together to come up with the story for the ballet and American composer Kerry Muzzey was commissioned to create Casanova's music.  The show premiered in 2017 and it was restaged for a Northern Ballet UK tour in 2022.

 

Casanova sort of defies easy summary (put a pin in that), but it's basically a life and times survey of Casanova's life, starting with him as a young man in the priesthood and following him through his first sexual encounters, his rising fortunes due to wealthy patrons, more sexual escapades, his run-in with the Inquisition, his escape to Paris, more sexual escapades, his two genuine loves Bellino and Henriette, his anguish after losing his loves, more sexual escapades, and his rescue from despair through writing.

 

I have not read Ian Kelly's biography and know almost nothing about the historical Casanova so I don't know how many of the events depicted in the ballet are from the book but given some of the granular detail I got from the program plot synopsis, I suspect most of them are directly from Kelly's biography.  

 

An Insultingly Short Review

 

I really liked this production and I do hope it becomes "a thing."  The choreography, even to a layman like myself, was really interesting and it was varied in a very purposeful way that took great advantage of ballet's unique ability to convey different emotionalities and relationships through movement. 

 

Also, as a person who knows way more about music than I do about dance, I was immediately hooked by the score which I thought was incredible throughout.  It was played live by actual musicians, too, which is always a bonus.  (And you can stream it, or better yet buy it here)

 

The performances by the Orlando Ballet company and the stagecraft itself were all really impressive.  This show definitely felt like a grand undertaking and one that succeeded, at that.  I'd say this is probably in my top 3 or 4 productions I've seen with Orlando Ballet.  (Going to be hard to dethrone Dracula, but Streetcar Named Desire and Giselle are ready to duke it out.)

I do have some light critiques, mainly of the story construction, that I'll get to later but overall I thought Casanova was both interesting and compelling.  So kudos to the creators and Orlando Ballet.

A Short Digression on Ballet

 

First, a quick sidebar about ballet in general. 

 

Ballet is maybe the most metaphorical of narrative art and it's so different than other storytelling mediums that it takes a little bit of getting used to.  Like any medium it has its own conventions and techniques and while there's some overlap with musicals and theater (i.e a score, live performers, sets etc) the absence of any, you know, words makes it an entirely different beast.

 

Ballet uses dancing and music to represent things non-literally.  Two characters dancing together could be courtship, friendship, intimacy, a fight, or whatever depending on how it's choreographed and what the music is doing.  The moves and the interplay reveals character and relationships; it's like the subtext is on display.  

 

It can be tempting to just lump all pas de deux as "two people dance" but that doesn't capture the flexibility of the art form any more than describing all screenplays as "they say words."  The way Dracula dances with Mina in Michael Pink's Dracula, hypnotically and predatorily, is very different than the celebratory wedding dance between Aurora and Desire in The Sleeping Beauty.  And the multiple styles that Casanova employs conveys a whole host of varied relationships throughout the work.
 

It has always surprised me how parsable all of this subtext is in ballet, even for someone who, like me, doesn't know anything about dancing.  I don't know any of the terminology, but I can recognize movements that are stiff and formal, or cautious, or receptive, or ecstatic.  I can see in two characters' tentativeness that they aren't sure about each other and I understand that they are growing closer if their movements get more intimate.  The amount of interaction they have and the nature of that interaction reveals things about power dynamics and perceptions of each other.

 

It honestly just kind of makes sense instinctively as long as you don't get stuck on the unreality of it.  The most consumed media in our culture, for better and worse, is TV and movies, which are both generally very literal and explicit.  But approaching something as non-literal as a ballet with the same expectations we have for TV and film is asking for disappointment. 

 

An interesting thing about really metaphorical art is that it can actually be pretty dense with meaning as things can mean several things at once without any dialog to guide or narrow the interpretation.  I'm thinking more of the non-narrative ballets here, but it also can apply to the plot heavy ones.  

 

There's a wide spectrum of genres within the medium.  There's narrative stories with a conventional plot like Casanova or Swan Lake, vignettes and one acts, non-narrative shows exploring ideas like in Heath Gill's Memento, or just straight up celebrations of the physicality of the performers like George Balanchine's Tarantella.
 

Also because ballet is so non-literal there's a high suspension of disbelief baked in. The extra unreality lets you get away with things that would be weird in another medium.  The plot of The Sleeping Beauty resolves like two thirds of the way through and the last 40 minutes are basically "eh, screw it, look how awesome all these dancers are!" but it doesn't feel weird, because.... ballet.

 

All that to say, think about checking out a ballet sometime.  You can find one with a story or just sit back and watch really in shape people do really impressive things.  Just don't approach it like it's a movie.

 

Some Detailed Thoughts on Casanova

 

The Dancing

 

Given that this is billed as "Kenneth Tindall's Casanova" I suppose I should talk about the dancing first. And keep in mind this is definitely a layman's take.  An interested layman, but still a layman.  

 

As I briefly mentioned earlier there were a lot of different types of dancing and the changes and contrasts all felt very intentional.  The most obvious example of this is how the ballet handled Casanova's trysts.

 

His first sexual encounter with the two Savorgnan sisters started off tentative but soon became more assured.  And the way the three of them entwined together with a lot of tangled limbs didn't feel like some of the more formal and, for lack of a better word, "classical" dances I've seen before.  There were several places where Casanova was lifting both of them at the same time, with all three seemingly wrapped around each other.  (Also: God these people are strong.)

 

The later sex scenes had a similar physicality and often felt a little confined, not covering a lot of stage space and lacking dramatic leaps or spins, which gave the lifts and twists more a feeling of enthusiastic sex position changes.  It wasn't lewd or vulgar or anything but it was highly suggestive.  (Also, the ballet's about Casanova, if anyone is surprised or offended by any of this....look inward.)

 

Act 2 has some really great contrasting dances with Casanova's loves Bellino and Henriette.  These dances felt genuinely different conveying deep and tender love rather than the lust of the previous pairings.  (Or groupings, as it were.)  I don't really have the vocabulary to describe how Tindall's choreography achieved this, but everyone I talked to who'd seen Casanova immediately recognized it, too.  I guess the choreography got across that they were dancing with each other rather than pawing at each other.

 

The duet with Bellino in particular was really powerful and moving and one of the romantic highlights of the ballet.  The music was incredible.  It began with a callback to the opening of the Act 2, where Bellino's brother slowly binds her breasts so she can disguise herself as a man.  The later dance with Casanova begins with him slowly unwinding the wrapping.  The music here also reflects the binding scene, starting with similar instrumentation and the same tender atmosphere, with the piano taking up the foundational arpeggiated string part from the earlier scene before building a different melody on top.  After the unwrapping the music builds in both volume and emotion as Casanova and Bellino begin to dance.

 

Their dance was maybe the most conventional dance in the ballet, covering a lot of ground and having lots of lifts and jumps, but it never felt formal or stuffy.  The movements crescendoed along with the music.

 

One last thing I wanted to point out was the final sex scene just before the end of the show.  Casanova has fallen into despair after losing Bellino and Henriette and indulges in a masked orgy with a group of black clad figures.  The music is thunderous, frightening, almost apocalyptic, and the knot of dancers around Casanova could have been Furies or spirits of madness tearing at him rather than partners.  It goes back to the density and multiplicity of meanings that non-literal art can have.  They were simultaneously all of those things I mentioned and that kind of effect is something I think ballet is uniquely suited to.  It probably could have been done in another medium, but I'm not entirely sure how and it was a fantastic example of playing to ballet's strengths.

 

The Music

 

The music in Casanova was phenomenal and grabbed me and got in my head probably more than any other ballet I've seen. (And I saw a Tchaikovsky ballet earlier this year.)  It was very powerful and complemented and amplified the action on stage.  It was by turns ominous, tender, fun, emotional, intense and always in the appropriate places.  (Appropriateness can't always be taken as a given; see my piece on Lucia di Lammermoor.) The transitions between the different modes of the score never felt jarring, either.  One small thing i really appreciated was during the Act 1 wedding celebration that Casanova crashes, the music shifted into a period appropriate Baroque dance self-consciously styled to be evocative of Vivaldi, himself a Venetian. It was a a nice touch. 

 

I traded emails with composer Kerry Muzzey a few days after the show and he was kind enough to tell me a bit about its creation and answer a few questions I had.  He also pointed me to a Behind the Scenes video which was a really interesting watch.

reference

In the theater. one of my first impressions was that the music sounded like a really good film score, and after watching the Behind the Scenes video, I found out that was intentional.  

 

There were also parts that made me think that maybe Muzzey may have been influenced by Philip Glass, particularly "Casanova Brings Bragadin Back to Life" and "Cubic Geometry."  (I've listened to Akhenaten like 100 times and just saw The Juniper Tree so Glass is fresh on my mind.)

 

There's some great leitmotif work, like the Bellino wrapping/unwrapping I mentioned earlier, or the despairing orgy scene starting off with the same horn blasts as the inquisition torture scene from Act 1. 

In the Behind the scenes video Kenneth Tindall says he connected with Kerry Muzzey after googling around for music and stumbling on his "The Architect" album and then basically just cold calling him. Which is kind of awesome.

In the Behind the Scenes, Muzzey says his response to Tindall asking him to score Casanova was "But I've never written a ballet before!" to which Tindall replied "I haven't either, and won't it be amazing!"  That exchange makes Casanova even more impressive to me.

 

I bought the symphonic recording of the score the next day and I highly recommend it, even as a standalone.  It's on streaming on Apple, Amazon, and Spotify, or you can buy it here.

 

Definitely check out at least "Bellino," referenced earlier, as it is one of the most striking, emotional, and beautiful pieces of music in the entire work.  I'm sure that's not exactly a daring take but my favorite dinosaur is Tyrannosaurus Rex, so I can be very basic.

(FYI: Kerry Muzzey releases music under his own name and as "The Candlepark Stars."  Check him out. )

The Staging

 

Casanova was probably the most intricate and grandiose Orlando Ballet production I've seen.  The only other one in the running was maybe The Great Gatsby in 2022 but this was still in another league.  It wasn't just that the set pieces were impressive, though they were, but the way different elements were used in different scenes.

 

One scene in particular I want to highlight is the Torture at il Piombi where Inquisitors torture Father Balbi to find out who he gave his red book to.   A feature with two bars parallel to the stage and at about a 120 degree angle descended from the ceiling, and lights inside it blasted down to the floor in an otherwise darkened stage. Smoke machines blew in from the wings, but they way the smoke hit the lights under the feature made it look very much like the light shining down were doors that fog was wafting through.   Balbi lay on the floor under it and the scene suggested torture by the Inquisitors thrusting their hands through the "doors" in time with deep horn stabs in the music which "caused" Balbi to writhe in pain.  It was a really striking and frightening scene.

 

And the way the show conveyed Balbi giving up Casanova by having random characters walk in front of Balbi while he shook his head and then having Casanova walk onto stage while Balbi points at him was a really interesting use of stagecraft to portray something definitionally verbal with absolutely no words.  There also was a nifty scene transition as the stage went completely dark except for a small spotlight on Casanova has he distractedly wandered from stage left to stage right.  By the time he made it to stage right the lights had come up again and the scenery had been swapped out in the dark.

 

A nice touch later was during the scene in a Paris casino when Casanova relates how he escaped prison and the same prison feature descended, this time with all the stage lighting on, and it created some faint shadows over him that sort of looked like prison bars.

 

Casanova has a lot of locations in it but I think they were all visually distinct enough that it wasn't confusing as to whether the action had moved somewhere else.

Also the set features meant to evoke Versailles, the tall facades of glass and mirrors, really did feel like the Hall of Mirrors in the real Versailles when the spotlights hit them and the entire space lit up.  It was a very cool effect and quite a transformation from earlier, when these same features were used to evoke cathedral pillars. 

 

There were a lot of other good small staging decisions throughout, like signaling that a character is a musician by having them hold a violin bow while they danced.  It was evocative of a musician without literally having an instrument onstage

 

This looked like a tough show to put on and there were often a lot of people onstage.  One small result of this was that I had a hell of a time finding Manon Balletti, a cellist and one of Casanova's lovers, when she was onstage.  As a musician she usually had a bow in her hand but she was usually one of several musicians on stage and dressed very similarly, sometimes wearing a masquerade mask.  My friend Sarah told me later that her shoes were the giveaway as she was the only female musician and had pointe shoes on.  I wish I had thought to look for that.  Manon is not a huge part and she's not, like, critical to understanding Casanova or anything but not being able to find her reveals the interesting technical challenges in staging a complicated show with a lot of characters.  
 

The Story (And Some Critique)

 

Probably the most obvious thing of note, and something that Kerry Muzzey told me was both "oft-criticized' and "understandable" is that the story details are really complicated and they are sort of incomprehensible without the program synopsis.  I think it's a valid critique and I thought the same thing when I was watching it, but all told I think it's not that big of a deal.

 

After all, Act 2 of Swan Lake where Odette explains to Siegfried that she's been cursed by a sorcerer to turn into a swan during the daytime and she needs to be loved by one who has never loved before to break the curse is also not parsable without the meta text.  And Swan Lake is one of the most popular ballets ever. so... shrug?  

 

And note I said "plot details."  The scenes themselves are still completely legible on a emotional level. The lack of clarity is more along the lines of "what, specifically in the literal plot led him here" rather than "what the hell is happening right now." 

 

So for example, take the plot thing about Casanova receiving a note from someone named MM giving him instructions to meet her at Cardinal de Bernie's apartment, since she is Bernis's mistress and he likes to watch (and more as it turns out).  If I did not read the synopsis beforehand, I would not be able to surmise any of that scene back story.  But at the end of the day, the mechanics of how he got there just aren't very important and the scene is really great and would work even if MM was just another random tryst.  In this context, in this medium, not knowing literally who she is doesn't really matter.  

 

Without the synopsis, I would have no idea why Bellino is pretending to be a man.  (It's so she can be a singer, btw). But again, the point of the unwrapping scene and her dance with Casanova is about him discovering the real her, his genuine love for her, and a kind of liberation that comes with that.  All of that is absolutely conveyed.

 

The same goes for the other historical figures.  You might miss that Casanova's fancy Act 2 benefactor is the historical Madame de Pampadour.  But their scenes still work without that name attached and I would hazard a guess that not everyone in the crowd even knew who Madame de Pompadour was.  From their perspective, she might as well have been made up for the ballet.  
 

Like I said, the summary-less comprehensibility is valid, but I wouldn't want to miss the forest for the trees and give primacy to what is essentially lore details over the important stuff.

 

But, speaking of the forest, there are some bigger things that I think could have made it a tighter and stronger story.  I think for me it boils down to a reduction in complexity and more of a through line.  As it stands, the show is more like a series of vignettes about Casanova's life and in that context it's really good and effective but personally, especially given the narrative potential the show dips its toes in, I think a more unified story and theme would have strengthened it.

 

There's a lot of ideas in play, here.  There's the stuff about the inquisitors trying to suppress books and regulate behavior, there's lust versus love, there's writing as salvation, there's coming to terms with your own past, there's Casanova trying to be seen as more than just a libertine, there's hedonism as an unhealthy coping mechanism that doesn't even make you feel better, there's your past being important even if the players are all gone.  These ideas are all present, but there isn't much of a thread woven throughout the work.

 

And I just list those out off the cuff to indicate how much fodder there is here, I'm absolutely not saying "explore all of these at once."  

 

The ballet is strangely bifurcated.  Balbi's red book and the inquisitors after it loom so large over all of Act 1 but are basically absent in Act 2.  The most striking thing in Act 2 is Casanova's true love with Bellino and Henriette and the build to the emotional climax of the show (Casanova's despair after losing Henriette) is completely confined to Act 2.   

 

I know it's thorny decision when adapting a real person's life whether to choose historical fidelity or drama but I think the show would have been strengthened by combining Henriette and Bellino into one character.  All the great Bellino stuff, just shift it to Henriette.  Henriette's motivation for dressing like a man and leaving her former life behind (i.e. an abusive husband) can be portrayed visually in a dialog-less medium way more easily than Bellino's (i.e. wanting to be a singer).  And the same goes for the reason Casanova loses her.  Henriette is forced to leave by her husband, which we literally see happen on stage.  Bellino leaves because...... eh?   

 

In the grand scheme of the ballet, Casanova's dances with Bellino and Henriette happen really  late in the runtime which contributes to the minor sense of imbalance I felt. 

 

I think the really powerful ending, with Casanova seeing all the people from his life handing him a page of his story and inspiring him to write would have hit even harder had the writing element been more prominent throughout.  The synopsis of Act 2 describes two scenes where Casanova sits down to write or shows his work to someone but I didn't really register the significance of it either time and I asked around and at least one other person missed it too.  I guess you could make the argument that the scenes do establish the writing so it doesn't come out of nowhere at the end, but I think it didn't get enough relative weight, both visually and emotionally, in the two scenes.

 

The synopsis and the Symphonic Recording tracklist mention him showing his ideas of Cubic Geometry to Voltaire.  Was the idea that he was focused on scientific knowledge and the end resolution was him realizing he should be writing his own story?  That's a super difficult concept to portray visually.  Am I overthinking this?  (I mean, yeah, probably.)

 

And I can't articulate this very well, but it seems to me that the idea of books as subversive and important, which was the driving force of Act 1, should have tied in to Casanova's salvation via writing at end.  And, man, it feels like it almost does.  A book nearly condemns him in Act 1 but saves him in Act 2.  And the story of his life would absolutely be the kind of subversive text that that would piss off the long absent Inquisitors, just like Balbi's book did. in Act 1. Maybe that parallel was the intent, but if so I don't think it really landed. 

 

It's interesting to me that the show doesn't really comment one way or the other about all of Casanova's flings, save for the orgy at the end which is definitely framed as "not ideal."  I'm kind of glad it didn't moralize one way or the other but it's an interesting thought experiment to consider the possibilities of what could be done given the show's contrasting portrayal's of love and lust.

 

Another thought experiment would be to imagine if the story had a framing device.  Like it starts with Casanova after Henirette has left him and he's sorting back through his life? That way you could introduce Henriette earlier.  Maybe he could still have Balbi's book in the framing narrative and the decision to write becomes his eureka moment, rather than a thing he was already doing but now he's doing it... more.  

 

I dunno. 

Conclusion

 

Casanova was great and the more I think about it, the more I like it, even given some of the story complexity and thematic looseness I just critiqued. 

 

It was both technically and emotionally interesting, ambitious, and affecting.  And I've been listening to the score on repeat for the past week.  Everyone involved should be proud.

 

In the video Behind the Scenes video, Kenneth Tindall said this:

 

"The really wonderful thing about this work is that it continues to evolve and the wonderful thing about working with living, breathing collaborators is that you always get to revisit it anytime you're lucky enough to have a work restaged."

 

Hopefully Casanova will continue to have good luck.

 

-m

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