Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Night at the Ballet

(The above YouTube video features Italian prima ballerina Carla Fracci, who is considered to be one of the all-time greatest Giselle's. This particular performance took place in 1968 when she was dancing with the American Ballet Theater.)

Regular readers know that, not so deep down, I'm a sucker for warm, soft, cuddly TV shows. This goes a long way towards explaining why I adore the first half of Season 3 of Angel. I've often thought that the only thing wrong with "Waiting in the Wings" is that it's not my all-time favorite episode, "Couplet". Regardless, these two make great companion pieces as they chronicle the ups and downs of both Angel and Wesley as they tried valiantly to win their girls, only to have to suffer through the heartbreak of losing out to their rivals.

What makes "Waiting in the Wings" so special for me?

Joss Whedon's Labor of Love. I posted not too long ago that many episodes or scenes in Angel that really touch that special place in my heart seem to have Joss Whedon himself stamped all over them. Whedon both wrote and directed "Waiting in the Wings". According to his DVD commentary, shooting this episode represented the "the best time I ever had in my life". Whedon said he felt like he was under a spell the entire time, with the romantic storylines and with all of the actors being all gussied up in their tuxes and gowns. Unsure as to whether he was imagining things or not, Whedon called Alexis Denisof and asked, was there a "thing" going on with this episode, or was he just high? Alexis reportedly assured Joss that yes, filming the show was truly a magical experience for everyone.

A person can tell from watching "Waiting in the Wings" that it must have been produced by a genuine dance lover. In his commentary, Whedon explained that, although he was not a ballet lover going into this project, he did enjoy shooting school dance performances while he was in college. Joss also called himself a "dance wannabe". When he found out that Amy Acker had danced ballet for 15 years, he immediately knew that he had to create an episode that would showcase her talents. Joss also explained that he had also just finished shooting a musical before he produced "Waiting in the Wings", so he was very much in a music mode at the time.

The rest of his story is probably quite well-known by now, but it's certainly worth repeating. Whedon set out to create a show that revolved around a comedy sequence where Wesley fantasized about dancing a pas de deux with the girl of his dreams, Fred. Joss actually filmed the sequence, which was danced with much gusto and hilarity by both Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker. However, as soon as production wrapped up, Whedon immediately knew that what he produced was simply not going to work. The episode came in way too long, and the fantasy ballet sequence was interfering with the narrative. Producer Tim Minear told him something to the effect that "You know you're going to have to cut out that scene", which Whedon reluctantly agreed to do.

Joss then went on to say that the only lesson he ever learned in writing is that if you've produced something that is just not working, you have to cut out what you love the most. Once you do that, everything will fall into place. And, of course, that's exactly what happened with "Waiting in the Wings". Joss realized that the story was not so much about Wesley fantasizing about Fred, but about Angel and Cordelia being forced by magical circumstances to "express emotions that they were not in a position to tell each other about yet."

Ballet. I'm a huge ballet fan, and I've long ago gotten quite tired of ballet being depicted in popular culture as one huge farce. I appreciate the fact that the dance sequences were taken quite seriously within the episode, with Summer Glaus's dancing woven in as a leitmotif within the surrounding plot. Amy and Alexis' ballet scene would have put the the whole episode in danger of becoming just one more "let's make fun of ballet" type of show.

It was gratifying to see that most of the major characters were really enjoying themselves at the ballet. Cordelia was the lone exception. She liked to think that she was superior to others because of her moneyed upbringing, but she was hardly part of the cultural elite. Angel enjoyed ballet because, back in his day, ballet was a major form of entertainment! Wesley himself came from an erudite background and seemed quite at home at the ballet. I've mentioned in the past in my "The Last of Wes and Cordy" post just how easily Wes was able to "squire" his ritzy girlfriend Virginia Bryce around at Hollywood soirees, much to Cordelia's jealous displeasure. (This post also features a lot of my earlier thoughts on both "Waiting in the Wings" and "Couplet".)

For Fred, it was like a small-town girl finally getting a chance to play dress-up with the sophisticated big-city grownups. The whole evening functioned as an old-fashioned coming out party for her, with that camera shot of her 360-turn while gazing all wide-eyed at the architectural details of the beautiful Los Angeles Orpheum Theater being a particularly lovely moment within the show.

Charles had to make the obvious jokes about the men and their "packages", and also made a few grumpy noises about having to put on a tux. However, Fred's reassurances of how "pretty" he looked went a long way towards mollifying him. And once Gunn started watching the actual ballet performance, he became instantly hooked, just like so many unsuspecting males before him. This proved once and for all that ballet is not simply limited to the upper classes of society.

No one could even begin to pretend that the off-stage actions in "Waiting in the Wings" came close to mirroring the libretto to the featured ballet Giselle. However, Giselle does include the themes of love, hope, betrayal, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption, which is good enough for our purposes.

Finally, a few words about the ballet performance itself. The Bilenikoff (sp?) Ballet was obviously based on Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which came out of Russia in 1909 some 19 years after Angel originally saw the original Bilenikoff Ballet performance. Many ballet fans are quite knowledgeable, and, logically, someone should have raised the alarm that it was impossible to have the same performers dance for over 100 years. Non-state supported ballet companies themselves don't even last 100 years! However, I'm always struck by the number of couples who surround my husband and I at performances who spend a couple hundred bucks on tickets, don't know anything about ballet, and complain the entire evening about how much they hate ballet. These people would have had no idea that the performers on stage should have been dead for over 60 years!

Cordelia - Not Quite Gone Yet. The character of Fred was obviously being pushed out front and center by this part of Season 3. It was also obvious that Joss Whedon was quite smitten with actress Amy Acker, calling her "the single most beautiful thing I've ever filmed"! However, terrific actors that they were, Charisma Carpenter and David Boreanaz were not quite ready to be shoved aside, and proved that they belonged on center stage by putting in magical and romantic performances of their own in the backstage dressing room. (Here, here, here and here.) Charisma and David were hot, romantic, tender, vulnerable and funny as they performed their scenes. Whedon said that David was quite sensitive with Charisma as they performed some of their sexier sequences on the enclosed set. As I hinted at above, Joss knew while he was filming their scenes that that he would need to re-build the story around the two of them rather than around Alexis and Amy.

Summer Glau. "Waiting in the Wings" was Glau's first real TV acting job, although Joss Whedon indicated that he thought she had done a few commercials. She did a wonderful job with both her dancing and her acting. The speech where she recounted her tale of woe, ending with her plea "Please - can you make it stop?" was right up a chivalric Angel's alley. At the end of the day, Joss said that everyone was so impressed with Glau's performances, both the crew and the extras gave her a standing ovation, much to her surprise.

Mystical Hot Spots. I've noticed that a lot of the mystical possessions within the Whedonverse, be they mystical hot spots, demonic curses, demonic possessions, etc., seem to bring out the innermost secrets of the characters being possessed. This really is a wonderful device to open up everyone's feelings and speed the plotlines along. Think of how horrified Wesley was when demon Billy's touch brought out some of his latent misogynistic tendencies. When Angel and Cordy were possessed, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that they were acting out their true emotions that they felt for each other. Likewise, when Wesley was possessed by the spurned Count Kurskov, we could easily imagine him acting out his devastation at losing Fred to Charles Gunn in a similar manner even if he wasn't possessed. I was particularly impressed with how Wesley had to force himself to pull himself back together to act as the leader during a critical moment in the show.

Potpourri. Joss rightfully praised Rob Kral for the original music that he composed for the episode. I don't have the music for Giselle memorized, particularly since Giselle was composed by someone who is considered to be somewhat of a hack. (Adolphe Adam). In Adam's defense, back in his day, ballet music was considered to be somewhat lowbrow, with the music ordered up according to the specific instructions of the choreographer. I remember at one point thinking, "I don't remember the music for Giselle sounding quite this good". In his DVD commentary, Joss confirmed that there were moments where the music we heard was written by Kral rather than Adam.

Whedon also meted out a lot of deserved praise to director of photography Ross Berryman and his crew for all of the great lighting and camerawork. I always refer to the "warm glow" of this particular stretch of Season 3 episodes, which I directly attribute to Berryman.

"Waiting in the Wings" also provided Alexis Denisof with a great opportunity to showcase his sword-fighting talents, which he apparently developed through several years of stage work in London. He also reportedly did a lot of fight choreography during those same years. I've heard in Season 2 DVD commentary (director Fred Keller in "Over the Rainbow"?) that Alexis is extremely athletic and performed a lot of his on-screen fight work (although he did have his own stuntman), as opposed to David Boreanaz who relied heavily on stunt coordinator Mike Massa. In David's defense, he reportedly would have liked to have performed a lot more of his own stunts, which was impossible since the producers couldn't risk having the star of the show getting injured.

Both Angel and Wesley had their own moments of "Waiting in the Wings" as they waited for the right times to profess their feelings for their ladies-in-waiting. Whedon spoke of how our hearts naturally went out to these two guys who were so unlucky in love. During his commentary, he abruptly stopped speaking during a particularly poignant scene toward the end of the episode, where Angel was trying to give voice to his feelings for Cordelia. Joss wisely let the action speak for itself when Angel almost uttered the right words to Cordy just before Groo appeared, and while Fred told Wesley of her surprise that Angel and Cordelia didn't get together. Wesley's look of utter heartbreak dissolving into his continued unbroken love for Fred came as a fitting end to a truly remarkable episode.

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