Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Covent Garden Christmas Classic

The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House – reviewed on 5th December
Photo:  Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
The Nutcracker is such a Christmas classic that it’s almost as clichéd as minced pies and Rudolph. There are four versions on show in London alone this year but its popularity remains high. In my summer ticket-booking spree, it seemed like such a good idea to see this festive delicacy again, yet as the date approached I wondered if I could bear to endure another two hours of present-opening and Kingdom of Sweets-finding merriment. Fortunately, the Royal Opera House’s heart-warming version, filled with magic, couldn’t fail to win me over and my Scrooge-like boredom with the ballet was quickly replaced with seasonal jollity.
Set on Christmas Eve, the ballet tells the story of Clara as she is given a Nutcracker doll gift by her godfather, Drosselmeyer. During the night the Nutcracker comes to life and he and Clara are transported through the snow to a magical kingdom where sweet treats dance in their honour. Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet is a traditional one, taking inspiration from the original 1892 version and adding the less common surrounding narrative that the Nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew and Clara’s love restores him to life.
Tchaikovsky’s shimmering score was played expertly by the Royal Opera House orchestra, conducted by Dominic Grier; dancers were similarly in fine form and performed the choreography with flair and vivacity. Elizabeth Harrod was a radiant and wide-eyed Clara with enough sugary goodness to carry the insubstantial storyline. Paul Kay as the Nutcracker was handsome; particularly pleasing were his barely audible jump landings.
In Act II, Laura McCulloch oozed with serene sensuality in the Arabian dance. Laura Morera was a sprightly, charming and perfectly classical Rose Fairy. As the leads, Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish made a tender and regal couple. Effervescent Nunez displayed fascinating musicality; at times, her movements were stretched to the last second, at others, she rushed ahead to find unexpected moments of stillness. This brought a playfulness to the Sugar Plum Fairy which combined with Nunez’ irrepressible glow made her both a wholesome princess and sexy temptress who would encourage you to gorge too many sugar plums.
I may have seen what seems like a thousand Nutcrackers, but it never fails to put me in the Christmas mood. The Royal Ballet's version is a timeless classic and I defy anyone not to enjoy its sparkling festive delights. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Asphodel Meadows triple bill

Asphodel Meadows/ Enigma Variations/ Gloria, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House – reviewed on 30th November

The Royal Ballet’s current triple bill combines the work of up-and-coming talent Liam Scarlett with defining 20th Century British choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

Enigma Variations uses music created by Edward Edgar in 1898, with short sections each portraying a different one of the composer’s acquaintances. Ashton’s choreography continues this theme, with light-hearted dances for numerous characters set at Edgar’s Victorian house. But the brief snippets of personality although charming and well-performed, especially by Roberta Marquez and Edward Watson, were frustratingly under-developed. The ballet remained, to me, an enigma.

MacMillan’s 1980 work Gloria is a lament on the lives lost in World War 1. Using Poulenc’s choral music, dancers perform a series of carefully-constructed shapes with eerie ghost-like presence.  It is similar to the choreographer’s earlier Requiem, also performed by the Royal Ballet this season, but lacks its exquisite ardour and silkiness.

Scarlett’s fresh and youthful Asphodel Meadows was first performed last year to great acclaim, and in its second run was sleeker than ever with interweaving bodies moving seamlessly from complex lifts to dramatic poses. Its title refers to the Ancient Greek underworld where asphodel flowers grow as food for dead souls, but no evidence of this sombre theme is visible in the choreography. Instead Scarlett plays with Poulenc’s music, making every movement a visual representation of the capricious orchestral sound.


Marianela Nunez and Rupert Pennefather in Asphodel Meadows
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
From lively, playful group dances to moody, impassioned duets, the piece is captivating and intimate.  Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather were particularly enticing to watch; their fluid bodies embraced and rippled with seductive passion and sensuality. The ballet’s only flaw is in its lacklustre designs, with dowdy-coloured costumes and bizarre columns of black scenery. But Scarlett’s creation enchants. In his mid-20s, the dancer is already demanding major attention for his choreography and deservedly so. I eagerly await his next work which premieres in April 2012.

Monday, 24 October 2011

La Fille Mal Gardée

La Fille Mal Gardée, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 22nd October

Frederick Ashton’s 1960 work La Fille Mal Gardée, or The Wayward Daughter, is a comic ballet which epitomises its choreographer’s style. Ashton loved romance, beauty, humour and fancy footwork and all are evident in abundance here. It tells the story of Lise as her mother attempts to marry her to a wealthy but ridiculous vineyard owner’s son. But the young daughter defies Widow Simone, determinedly seeing her poor but handsome boyfriend, Colas, until love finally triumphs.

From the opening cock and hens dance to the lyrical wedding pas de deux, Birmingham Royal Ballet performed with excellence. As the lead couple, Carol-Anne Millar and Joseph Caley were technically-adept and attractive. Both executed the choreography precisely with Millar shining particularly in her delightful Act III mime. James Barton made a pleasingly dry Widow Simone, presenting the famous clog dance with charm and avoiding slipping into a typical pantomimic interpretation of the role for cheap laughs.

But demanding most attention was Mathias Dingman as Alain, the foolish but rich umbrella-loving suitor. His interpretation of Ashton’s exaggerated movements invited a sympathy rarely commanded by the character. His Alain was not a village idiot, but instead an unfortunate young man desperate to find love and please his elders, deserving of affection rather than mockery.

Ferdinand Hérold’s exquisite score was played exceptionally by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Gavin Sutherland’s expert baton. BRB’s only failing was in their use of Sadler’s Wells’ more than adequate stage space. With the production’s lavish scenery, it felt overcrowded and company dancers at times appeared uncomfortably squeezed in.

Originally created in the 18th Century, La Fille Mal Gardée is the oldest ballet still in regular performance today. Ashton’s version, with ribbons, dancing chickens and an adorable live pony is an ideal show for children. His Fille is a true English classic – beautiful, enchanting and tender – and just as enjoyable on the first viewing as on the hundredth.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Karlovac Dance Festival #3

4th September – 45o 29’ 12” Karlovac/ Hotel Korana/ so quite new a thing/ Duet #1

Created during the festival week, Avâtara Ayuso's 45o 29’ 12” Karlovac was a duet inspired by the Croatian city.

In silence two females faced front motionlessly before shaking their bodies with accelerating gusto. Then, using only a few simple dance movements – stamping, positioning the arms overhead, pelvic thrusts – the choreography was created through constant repetition with differing directions and speeds. As the dancers’ movements became more forceful and their breathlessness increasingly evident, the piece built its momentum up to an anticlimactic conclusion where the performers simply and abruptly walked offstage.

A second premiere was dance film Hotel Korana by Sebastian Rietz. To the sounds of ‘Shame’ by Herbst in Peking, Alejandra Baňo’s crumpled her petite figure with anguish amidst the war-torn architecture of the once-famous hotel. But eventually she triumphed and escaped her heartless enclosure, walking away, letting go and finding serene liberation from pain.

Ayuso's self-performed solo so quite new a thing was a disconcertingly sexy portrayal of female physicality. Commencing topless with her back to the audience, Ayuso wriggled and curled, with low lighting accenting the working of her every muscle. Then, with projected screen close ups of body parts, from a shoulder to toes, the dancer guardedly dressed herself before turning to the audience and proceeding downstage.

Avatara Ayuso
Photo: Karlovac Dance Festival
Ayuso articulated her feet, floated her hands like feathers and romped about the floor with such visceral sexual magnetism, I thought she might, at any moment, spontaneously reach orgasm. Exploring the body’s erotic potential, she seemed possessed by an intense carnal electricity which fuelled her movement and connected her to the audience. Inspired by a poem by E. E. Cummings, the choreography was accompanied by speech, notably the repetition of ‘flesh’ and ‘I like my body’. Ayuso is a delightful dancer, able to embody both elasticity and roughness with power and conviction; her so quite new a thing was irresistibly alluring.

The final live work was Duet #1, a collaboration between festival organiser Melita Spahic and Greece-based dancer and choreographer Rowan Thorpe.

Dancers appeared to be gripped by madness. Thorpe moved as if possessed by an imaginary but violently controlling force. At times, he seemed hallucinatory, acting out the personas of a rock star, boxer and John Travolta among others. Contrasting were Spahic’s restrained movements, which arched, coiled and rolled on the floor with a feeling of disorientation.

The sounds of unobtrusive mutterings and then a frustratingly broken Skype conversation added depth to the choreography. A background projection had performers sitting almost motionlessly as if waiting nervously for important medical results.

Unbelievably, Spahic and Thorpe put together the work via email, creating short segments at a time and sending them online to each other for feedback. Duet #1 was engaging, distressing and yet beautifully moving portrayal of two people’s inner mental turmoil.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Karlovac Dance Festival #2

1st September – Entry/ modulo4vortice/ Higikaria

The evening opened with Entry, a choreography by New Zealand-born Nadine MacLean and UK-based Hanna Tatham. Commencing without music, dancer Bianca Hopkins walked slowly along a central line of light. Eyes gazed downwards, she felt disconnected and troubled, as if seeking to find explanation for her existence in the silence. Then, accompanied by MacLean, the two dancers repeatedly curled and spiralled as the almost enchanting beat of Dominic Frasca's solo guitar began.

The performers' partnership was one of opposition, with Hopkins' earthiness contrasting MacLean's verticality. Alternating between intimidating, ignoring and encouraging each other, their shared dynamic was both interesting and powerful; more exploration of the complex relationship could have added to the piece. Entry was a charming and engaging creation which left me enticed and wanting more.

Spanish Avâtara Ayuso's self-performed modulo4vortice film used editing techniques to great effect to playfully contort the viewer's understanding of physical laws. With slow and fast motion and Ayuso appearing to defy gravity, the film was a fun experiment to challenge common sense.

Basque person Atxarte Lopez de Munain showed extracts from her 2008 work inspired by Jorge Oteiza's sculpture Par Móvil. In Higikaria (or 'Mobile behaviour'), two dancers, including Lz. de Munain, moved with suspension and resistance, counterbalancing each other as if inhabiting an imaginary sphere. Frequently reaching a point of near-falling, they appear to be testing the shape's capacity whilst alternately forming intimidating, angular positions. Alongside a mixed and sinister-feeling soundscape, with noises resembling water glugging, a snake hissing and the rumble of a distant thunderstorm, their every movement was restricted, suffering premature ending before completion. Later, with only barefooted steps on the dance floor proving rhythmical accompaniment, movements were able to unfold, broaden and conclude. The provocative implication was that the music was curbing the dancers' wingspans rather than the walls of their invisible globe.

Interspersed with film clips of the original performance, the live dancing lost momentum each time it stopped and restarted, although performers were, with their vigour, able to gradually rebuild the drama. The piece reached a powerful end as Lz. de Munain took refuge in floor-bound movements, making a final weighty surrender to the ground.

2nd September – Voće & Povrće/ Patriot/ 1716 (broj/the number) Solo for Vera

Four students from Karlovac's dance school, Studio 23, commenced the programme with Voće & Povrće, a choreography by Vere Mitrović. Wearing brightly coloured pants over white body suits and appearing to strut along a catwalk, they seemed to question body image expectations in a media-obsessed society. Rolling their heads and shaking their hips with a forced prowess, they mocked the need to be conform before donning skirts, exchanging their daring for modesty and simultaneously shifting their movement to a more free-flowing style.

Dancers were highly energetic; they repeatedly jumped high and landed in awkward balances during a pacey routine that left little room to relax. Changing formation frequently and demonstrating good unison showed these students to be skilled young performers.

James Finnemore's self-performed Patriot investigated the mundane elements of life. With a voiceover expressing 'This is how he expects everything to be', and plunges into darkness, Finnemore navigated the stage with his shoulders drooped forwards, as if resigned to a less than satisfactory fate. Through army-like crawling, childish skipping and moments of utter stillness, the choreography studied the monotonies of daily trials with increasing exhaustion and frustration. Its abrupt end as the solo dancer walked precipitously offstage while music continued to sound left a puzzled feeling as to the choreographer's conclusion on his subject matter.

From the UK, Finnemore moved with extraordinary fluidity; every part of his body was co-ordinated as one and his frequent falls to the floor were made with such lightweight smoothness as to render them beautifully discreet.

Festival organiser Melita Spahic's collaboration with dancer Vere Mitrović explored the performer's personality and her long-held association with the number 23. (Specifically, her dance studio – Studio 23 – was opened 23 years ago when she was aged 23.)

In simple white dungarees, Mitrović commenced centre-stage, sanding an upturned table whilst also directly addressing the audience in Croatian. She then roamed the stage, walking and jogging, in circular patterns, continuing her monologue. Her athletic physique was apparent as she sauntered about the floor from staunch held plank positions to cobra-like back extensions. Musician Goral Ilić provided intermittent lyrical guitar accompaniment, as well as occasionally vocally interjecting to question the dancer. The choreography developed as Mitrović surrounded the table with newspapers and began to paint it – a reference to the career she would have liked in furniture-making were she not a performer. Whilst the number 23 was repeatedly mentioned, its influence on the choreography was indefinite. As lights went down, Ilić asked one final question in Croatian, to which Mitrović's answer received scores of amused chuckles. It was 'what is your favourite number?' to which she replied simply '11'.

3rd September – Refrakcije/ 3-adic

Refrakcije (or Refraction) had no clear beginning; one minute sitting on a large red beanbag and whispering to each other, the next the two performers were walking in circles and the piece seemed to have begun. With understatement they sang about women in colourful dresses who drink tea, work all night and wear silk stockings among other things, while creating rhythm through body slaps and clicks. Bruno Isaković then began a lengthy monologue in Croatian, operating rather like an eccentric inventor promoting his latest creation while Ana-Maria Bogdanović attempted to distract him through disturbingly violent attacks from kicking to aggressively launching herself at him and twisting his arm.

Refrakcije
Photo: Karlovac Dance Festival
 The metaphor for male-female relations was clear. She sought dominance and he resisted. It felt like we were caught up in an awkward marital confrontation normally kept behind closed doors. Later, the woman began her own whimsical mutterings, while the man endeavoured to gain attention; he danced and blew up numerous red balloons with irritating pushiness and then passed them to her to hold in between toes, under her neck and in other awkward places, thereby rendering her immobile. It felt like a task Supernanny Jo Frost would set on her television show to demonstrate the burden of wifely responsibilities.

Although the gender metaphor was overplayed, this bemusing piece was faithful to its title in the way it explored the refraction of human relationships. At the very least, it deserves praise for its highly original methods of expression.

Avâtara Ayuso's energetic trio took a more conventional approach to choreography. 3-adic investigated colour and shape with three females performing to the varying speeds of a forceful tick-tock beat. With athletic lifts, sharp head turns and dancer faces baring ferociously stern expressions, the piece felt confrontational and threatening.

Ayuso's choreography is exquisitely detailed and highly technically-challenging. Through high leg extensions, flexed feet and deep knee bends, she was able to explore a variety of contemporary forms but overall the piece felt a little stunted.

Karlovac Dance Festival #1

29th August – opening night improvisation

Karlovac Dance Festival's opening night took place in the beautiful tree-lined surrounds of an open-air bar beside the river. A film of a solo dancer switching on and off a low-hanging light and contorting herself formed the backdrop. From merry chatting at tables, the all female cast of eight took to the performing space, transforming themselves from light-hearted friends enjoying a sociable evening to almost robotic dancers with intimidatingly unwavering intention.

Improvising their movements, performers followed a set of unspoken rules. A poisonous grope of the neck caused a tumble to the floor; a soft kiss enabled the body to reawaken. The repetition of austere crucifix shapes followed by gentle embraces was captivating. The cast seemed to have a shared tacit understanding and focus, penetrable to no one but themselves.

A sudden end was reached as dancers stood still before silently returning to their seats and resuming their noisy muttering, feeling once again human, animated and carefree.


30th August - Refleksije Idola

Refleksije Idola was screened for the Festival's second evening. With choreography by Vere Mitrović, the piece included an eclectic mix of styles from lyrical to jazzy and tribal.

Commencing on a dark stage, the white-costumed cast of 11 appeared like otherworldly creatures. Filmed from a distance, the individual identity of dancers was lost, and instead their alien-like shapes created a haunting, faraway image.

To tribal beats, dancers threw themselves around the stage with raw, animalistic passion, contrasting energetic elevation with weighty stamps and spinal twists. Later, performers appeared to be experiencing a religious epiphany, moving with serene elasticity to throaty vocals resembling a call to prayer.

The choreography lacked significance as a whole, but as a showcase for student dancers, it demonstrated excellently the young Croatians' great versatility and vivacity.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Roland Petit triple bill

Roland Petit’s Carmen with Le Jeune Homme et La Mort and L’Arlésienne, English National Ballet, London Coliseum – reviewed on 22nd July

English National Ballet’s night of works by Roland Petit has proved sadly timely following the Frenchman’s death just two weeks ago. Known for focusing on male torment and mortality, the choreographer uses simple but powerful movements to convey darkly dramatic stories.

In L’Arlésienne, a young man (Esteban Berlanga) is driven mad by his unrequited love for an unseen woman, despite his fiancée’s (Erina Takahashi) desperate attempts to gratify him. To beautifully grand music by Georges Bizet and a mountainous Van Gogh backdrop, the dancers were able to imbue Petit’s minute movements (holding hands, tapping the toe) with all of their intended meaning. Berlanga was unwavering and yearning, Takahashi was despairing and vulnerable; together their awkward, jerky movements and contrasting typical ballet pas de deux suited perfectly the impenetrability of the characters’ circumstances. The corps, frequently acting as puppeteers to manipulate the lead couple’s bodies, moved with exceptional synchronicity and conviction. This utterly engaging ballet was taken to its striking conclusion with the most untiring momentum and tenacity.

For one performance of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort only, Bolshoi dancer Ivan Vasiliev joined the company to pay personal tribute to Petit. Famously performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1980s movie White Nights, the Young Man role in the ballet is an acrobatically difficult one, but can only be convincing when the dancer has the passion to back up its athletic choreography. Vasiliev attacked the role with compelling dynamism, leaping furiously around his apartment in persuasively desperate anticipation of his lover’s arrival. Jia Zhang, debuting in the role of the Girl, was unreservedly cruel and sexy – in a yellow dress and black gloves, she mesmerised the poor man and dared him to take his own life. Totally under her spell, Vasiliev hanged himself centre-stage in a disturbingly haunting and yet exquisite image.

The main billing of the evening, Carmen, was the weakest of the three but still hugely enjoyable. In this exuberant ballet, Begoňa Cao as the title role was attractive and seductive, but at times lacked the character’s vigour. Fabian Reimair was a technically-adept and ardent Don José and James Streeter excelled in the supporting role of the Torreador. Again the corps dancers were superbly co-ordinated and charismatic. Overall, this programme was ENB at its very best and a fitting tribute to the unforgettable Petit.

From Here To There


From Here to There, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Barbican Theatre – reviewed on 16th July

Seven years since their last visit to the UK, the Royal New Zealand Ballet made a triumphant return with their latest triple bill at the Barbican.

Jorma Elo’s Plan to A opened the programme with the company showing technical competence but the choreography lacking cohesion and vitality. The second piece by former company member Andrew Simmons, A Song in the Dark, was simply choreographed with dancers appearing to try out shapes and movements as if in a ballet studio. The six couples rippled and glided, testing the body’s point of balance and suspension. If Simmons’ intention was to create an elegant and uncomplicated ballet with clean lines and beautiful music (by Philip Glass), his vision was well-executed. But it was Jordan Tuinman’s lighting design that elevated the piece into something more satisfying. Through the primarily dark stage and select spotlights, dancer shadows and silhouettes enlivened the plain backdrop and added an appealing depth to the choreography.

The final work, Banderillero (taking its name from the bullfighter that torments the bull) by Javier De Frutos, was the evening’s high point. Combining tribal movement with classical ballet, ten dancers swirled and twisted across the stage. Swathed in flesh-coloured fabric and with bare feet, the performers made balletic poses interesting with sharpened edges and threw their bodies with weight and power. Accentuated by dancers’ breathing and occasional vocal intrusions, the varied sounds of Chinese percussion by Yim Hok-Man complemented the dancing agreeably. The pace repeatedly built up and slowed down, with charming and surprising moments including spectacular lifts and even a passionate lesbian kiss. It was too long to sustain momentum throughout and needs major editing, but showed huge choreographic promise from De Frutos. More importantly, it enabled company dancers to display their superb capabilities and zeal to British audiences after such a long wait.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, London Coliseum – reviewed on 13th July

Bolshoi superstars and real-life lovers Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev took on London last week with Denmark-based Peter Schauffuss Ballet. Performing the rarely seen Romeo and Juliet by Frederick Ashton, their neat Russian technique combined with abundant passion for each other in a memorable run of nine performances.

Many areas of the production were sadly lacking. The sparse modern set of cylindrical lights and odd background projections (most notably of an English-style rooftop for the balcony scene) were unable to match the intensity of the narrative. The corps de ballet of just eight dancers disappointingly did not create the feeling of crowds and warring families, but did at least complement Ashton’s choreographic focus on the lead couple rather than the rest of Shakespeare’s play.

It was Osipova’s exceptional acting ability and grace which saved this production. Arguably the best female dancer in the world today, she performed the tough choreography to perfection. Through each sequence of rapid jumps on pointe and lyrical bending of her upper body, she appeared elegant, charming and naively youthful. Juliet’s every emotion from rapture to despair was expressed in each tiny inch of her body and she alone carried the drama and emotion of the tragic story.

Vasiliev as Romeo was technically adept, but not able to convey the depth of passion required in such a role. Dances with Mercutio and Benvolio were delightful feats of virtuosity, with leaps and spins of impressive power and dynamism. Alban Lendorf, principal with the Royal Danish Ballet, in particular, showed remarkable strength and demonstrated the clearest character sentiment of the male dancers.

Prokoviev’s delicious score, although heavily cut, was played beautifully by the English National Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Graham Bond. This eagerly awaited Romeo and Juliet had its flaws, but nothing could take away from Osipova’s brilliance and the pleasure to be found in watching her dance.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Royal Ballet School

Royal Ballet School, Linbury Studio Theatre – reviewed on 1st July

Every summer, the Royal Ballet School takes over the main Opera House stage as well as the smaller Linbury Studio Theatre for a series of performances showcasing its young prodigies.  This year the quality of technique and performance remained high, but dancers were let down by mediocre choreography.

Year 8 students were the cream of the lower school, performing the simple balletic Dance Bohémienne with poise and precision. The winning piece from the 2011 Ninette de Valois Junior Choreographic Award, by Year 8 students Lana Antoniou and Nadia Mullova-Barley, was equally impressive. With patterns, changing directions and simple pas de deux it was like a miniature Balanchine work.

A selection of folk and character dances were shown, the highlight being the Irish style arranged by Donna Phillips. Year 8’s Little Jig and Year 9’s Real Reel were so well-executed with formations and rhythms they looked like Riverdance. Morris and character dancing also abounded and was entertaining.

Older students performed classical repertoire. Luca Acri danced Franz’s solo from Coppélia with effortless spins and neat, well-executed jumps. Year 11 showed the charming David Bintley choreography En Bateau with vibrancy and a bravura head-first jump by Fiona McGee into her partners’ arms. Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker lacked performance quality to connect with the audience but was technically neat.

The evening’s highlight was the Don Quixote pas de deux shown to perfection by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Joan Zamora. Looking every inch the professional ballerina, O’Sullivan was seductive, charming and able to hit awkward balances with remarkable accuracy. Zamora performed his fiendish solo with ease, leaping with firework-like dynamism. Together, they demonstrated the proud and vivacious style of the duet with an infectious attraction.

Other pieces including Encuentro and Spring and Fall were repetitive and uninispiring. They lacked the animated choreography that the Royal Ballet School dancers brought so well to life in other sections of the performance.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

White Lodge Open Day

Royal Ballet School Open Day, White Lodge – reviewed on 11th June

Once every two years, the gorgeous home of the Royal Ballet lower school and Grade 1 listed building White Lodge opens its doors to the public. A fun day out for the whole family, there are stalls selling food and merchandise and tours around the school and its ballet museum. But of course the highlight is the students performing in the gardens.

Junior Associates showed a suite of 17th Century English dances. Just 8-10 years old, they danced simple steps (mainly walks) but in impressively complicated patterns. With plenty of confidence and excellent posture, they seemed assured and capable young dancers.

Year 7 school students performed the party dance from The Nutcracker with precision and charm. The ballroom scene from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet by Year 10 was superb. Students had mastered the elegant, regal feeling of the choreography to perfection and seemed to glide across the floor. The Swan Lake peasant dance shown by Year 11 was more like aerobics in terms of the level of energy required. However, it was performed with technical accuracy as well as the pleasant, relaxed-looking faces of any professional corps de ballet.

The Royal Ballet School’s folk and national dancing displays were exemplary. Year 8 performed an Irish reel with outstanding understanding of the upright and still upper body combined with vigorously-moving legs that typify its style. Boys in Year 10 showed the highly energetic morris ‘rapper’ dance, holding long metal swords as they weaved around each other. Alexander Bird and John Rhys Halliwell from Year 11 demonstrated the clog dance, moving their feet in a precise and speedy fashion, similar to tap. Years 7-10 performed various styles of character dance; the Year 8 Tarantella with its fun and liveliness and the vibrant Year 10 Hungarian proved to be particular highlights.

The performance’s only weakness was the Year 11 demonstration of contemporary dance. The piece, entitled Momentum, lacked the dynamics its name implied and was performed by students in an all-too balletic and exacting manner. It lacked the feelings of suspension, weight and flight that such choreography requires.

All in all, the students demonstrated sound classical technique and superb folk and national dancing skills. Clearly, the Royal Ballet School is providing an exemplary training for these young dancers, and it is wonderful to be able to enjoy and admire their hard work.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Lady of the Camellias

Lady of the Camellias, American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House – reviewed on 4th June

Alexandre Dumas' novel has inspired numerous artistic works, including films, ballets, musicals and most notably the Verdi opera La Traviata. ABT’s latest production uses John Neumeier's 1978 choreography, which shows clear characterisation and narrative but lacks the punch of other interpretations.

It tells the tale of courtesan Maguerite Gautier as she falls in love with Armand and tries to start a new, straightforward life. But her scandalous past is close behind and she ends up sick and alone. Neumeir chooses to parallel the story with that of the ballet Manon. We first meet Marguerite as she is in a theatre audience watching it, and Manon mirrors the main character’s behaviour and motivations throughout. It is an interesting concept which translates well in terms of narrative overlap, but proves an unnecessary distraction from the primary action.

Neumeir’s choreography is at times exquisitely understated, with minute hand gestures providing detailed insight into characters’ states of mind. At others, the dancing seems exaggerated and overdramatic, with Armand (Marcelo Gomes) falling on the floor melodramatically in his passion. Diana Vishneva saved some of the poorer choreography with her fabulous acting. She made Marguerite alluring and powerful whilst still credible and well-deserving of sympathy.

The score, mainly played on the piano, was beautiful but overly repetitive and lacking attention-grabbing highlights. Costumes were made of delightfully sumptuous velvets and satins, all detailed elaborately. Sets were contrastingly and frustratingly sparse; few items of furniture on an empty stage feebly represented luxurious apartments.

The ballet’s main failing was in its excessive length. The second and third acts dragged with endless ballroom scenes and a lack of pace in the narrative. A fall and several missed jumps also suggested dancers were under-rehearsed.

Lady of the Camellias was generally well-performed by ABT but music and choreography lacked the drama to bring the exquisitely heartbreaking story fully to life.

NYCB Triple

Divertimento No. 15/ 2 & 3 Part Inventions/ Mercurial Manoeuvres, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Centre – reviewed on 1st June

New York City Ballet’s triple bill of abstract works showed superb technique but lacked vivacity.

In Jerome Robbins’ 2 & 3 Part Inventions, dancers performed in simple practice clothes, their movements following the moods of the music from quiet and reflective to playful and energetic. Originally created for students of the School of American Ballet, the piece was simply choreographed, and lacked the dynamism of a professional company work. Robbins’ style felt formulaic – using very classical movements with occasional modern adjustments (like rotating the back or walking on pointe with bent knees). Typical ballet plus a couple of contemporary twists equals, in this case, a pleasant but hardly thrilling ballet.

Mercurial Manoeuvres, Christopher Wheeldon’s 2000 work, was equally unremarkable. Dressed like air hostesses, women twirled, unfolded and weaved. Men, in all-in-one red bodysuits leapt and spun. A nice ballet performed with technical excellence, but nothing extraordinary.

Fortunately, George Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15 was much more entertaining. Six lead females performed in blue, sparkly tutus and each showed a technically-proficient solo of typical Balanchine-style rapid changes of position and direction. Andrew Veyette danced elegantly with impressive elevation in his fiendishly difficult jumps. Megan Fairchild performed exceptionally, making her movements look light and effortless. In her tiny beats and lightning-quick steps, she found moments of breath and stillness. The rest of the cast was satisfactory and technically adept, but it was only Fairchild who managed to express the fun and sentiment of Balanchine’s choreography.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Dance for Parkinson's

ENB Learning: Dance for Parkinson's Open Sharing Afternoon, Markova House - reviewed on 28th May

Since October 2010, English National Ballet has hosted a dance project for people with Parkinson’s at their home in Kensington. On Saturday 28th May I joined participants in its last class. Feeling tired and a little apprehensive, I wasn't sure what to expect. But when I arrived, the atmosphere was fantastic; everyone was warm and welcoming and the ballet studio was buzzing with excitement. And so, in this inspiring and imposing setting, with mirrors, dance posters and photos lining the walls, we sat on chairs in a circle ready to begin.

Led by English National Ballet Dance Artists, the class started with setting up the body’s posture. We woke up our feet and legs, pushing the toes and heels into the floor. Then taking some deep breaths, we began using our voices, making sounds of whoosh and mmm to activate the diaphragm and larynx.

We moved on to typical dance class exercises. We did isolations of the head and shoulders and extended the arms overhead in port de bras. We tap-danced, making rhythms through stamping our feet and clapping our hands. We twisted our backs and held our arms in ballroom dance poses. Imagery was used to make the movements more understandable – creating an oval frame around the face, reaching into a pocket, moving the feet like machine guns.

Later, the chairs were moved away and we danced the tango – stepping forward, back and side opposite a partner. We also travelled across the floor in different pathways, using marching and jazzy heel-toe walks. We even performed a Mexican wave of arm movements rippling across the whole group.

Inspired by English National Ballet’s upcoming production of Strictly Gershwin, the session was accompanied by its fabulous music. We sang ‘lady be good’ and 'strike up the band', using the emphatic gestures of Broadway singers. Its vivacious rhythms added fun, energy and dynamism to the movements.

This session was the culmination of a five-week extension project based on Strictly Gershwin and funded by City of Westminster. The original 12-week course was based on the themes and characters from the ballet Romeo & Juliet. Roehampton University researchers Ashley McGill and Dr. Sara Houston followed participants through these 12 weeks and found the dance classes gave numerous benefits to the Parkinson's sufferers. The final part of the sharing afternoon gave guests and participants the opportunity to hear the results of the research.

Typically restricted to slow, rigid movement, after the English National Ballet course, participants were able to perform flowing and continuous movements. They increased the length of their stride, developed better balance and showed more co-ordination between arms and legs. Spinal mobility was improved and reach distance increased. All of this made general day to day activities easier.

Participants described the course as 'uplifting' and 'joyous' and such pleasure was evident in their facial expressions. It was an opportunity to meet up and socialise with other people with Parkinson's, reducing feelings of isolation. Conversation before and after classes ranged from coping with the disease to what was on TV. Imagination and creativity was stimulated, and participants came together with each other, feeling determined to perform the dance movements. Participants also had the chance to see English National Ballet in rehearsal and performance. This was enjoyable, interesting and made participants feel connected to the company and its work.

The overwhelming message of this project was that through art, not only can debilitating disease symptoms be improved, but feelings of well-being can be gained. The simple pleasures of moving, music, being with other people and feeling part of a major ballet company make this a wonderful and fun project which is clearly invaluable to its participants.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Insight: Scènes and Rite

Insight evening: Scènes de Ballet/ The Rite of Spring, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH – reviewed on 18th May

Ballet master Christopher Carr began by rehearsing Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet with dancers Lauren Cuthbertson, Sergei Polunin and others. Carr described the importance of geometric shapes in the ballet, with lots of angles and straight lines. When he danced it, he felt like he would explode because it was so tiring – not only physically but also mentally as the musical counts are so complicated. The ballet was one of Ashton’s favourites and the choreography he felt most satisfied with. It still has freshness today despite being choreographed more than 60 years ago.

Cutherbertson performed her two solos. The first was firework-like with rapid jumps and changes of direction; the second, a sexy and elegant sequence of shoulder and hip-shaking. As well as her exquisite technique, we saw her joy of dancing and sense of humour as she tried to master the Ashton winding arms under Carr’s guidance. Polunin leapt into his numerous double tours with vigour, managing to master the complicated timing.

Then Gavin Plumley, music writer, spoke about Stravinsky, persuading the audience not to be afraid of his scores, which appear to be (but are not really) impossibly complicated. Using the analogy of lego, he explained how Stravinsky used the building blocks of Tchaikovsky’s earlier ballet music and changed the order of basic melodic bricks to make his works sound different and interesting. In The Rite of Spring, a simple 2/4 rhythm is sometimes used but with variable accents on top, the music sounds deceptively complex.

Finally, Monica Mason spoke about Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite. She created the lead role in 1962 after MacMillan was inspired by both her Zulu background and seeing her dancing wildly at a Royal Ballet party. Mason was told to come to the studio ‘prepared for anything’ and immediately loved the ballet’s style, as there was no need to worry about beauty, turn out or pointed feet. The focus was all on music, rhythm and pushing the body to its limits of energy. All involved had great fun in creating it. This season she has also taken the interesting decision to cast male dancers Edward Watson and Steven McRae as the Chosen One, where females are typically seen.

Mason coached Valentino Zucchetti – he’s covering the role and danced it with plenty of energy and exuberance. Mason directed him through the unusual and aptly-named ‘rabbit jump’, ‘heart attack’ and ‘hiccup’ movements. She highlighted the important details of finger and hand positions and praised Zucchetti for learning the choreography so well from the back of the studio.

The insight evening was as fun and informative as ever and I’m now looking forward to seeing the upcoming triple bill in performance even more.



Cleopatra

Cleopatra, Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th May

Based in Leeds, Northern Ballet is best-known for its creation of innovative story ballets which are toured around the UK. Its vision is highly commendable; producing a regular stream of new and colourful ballets from Wuthering Heights to Madame Butterfly and Hamlet and bringing them to mass audiences is no small accomplishment.
Martha Leebolt as Cleopatra
Photo: Bill Cooper

Their latest offering, the tale of Ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, is flashy but enjoyable. The complicated story of love, sex and murder is told succinctly and effectively.  From Cleopatra’s marriage to her brother, through to her romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, the unremitting and dramatic action flows smoothly. Martha Leebolt was passionate and emblematic as the lead. Fresh from her award for Outstanding Classical Female Performance, she danced radiantly and was enticing to watch. Kenneth Tindall as Wadjet, the serpent-like god of pharaohs who guides Cleopatra through her destiny, sinuously and captivatingly slithered about the stage. The rest of the company also performed well – the army men were particularly unified and striking.

Choreographer and company director David Nixon uses a multiplicity of dance techniques – classical ballet and contemporary dance merge seamlessly into more surprising musical theatre style. His vision for the ballet is artistic and well-executed. Cleopatra and Caesar roll erotically in a length of white fabric, which when bundled, becomes a baby. Every gesture is imbued with meaning and dancers repeatedly strike powerful symbolic poses. Focus is on hands and wrists, which constantly meander and twine to make beautiful patterns.

The brand new score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, composer of Les Misérables and Miss Saïgon, was a joy to listen to. Its grandeur and boldness contrasted with moments of quiet lyricism and perfectly suited the ballet’s dancing and story. Costumes by Christopher Giles were equally praiseworthy, evoking the Egyptian setting with glamour and style but still allowing dancers freedom of movement.

All in all, Cleopatra is a lovely ballet, suitable for both seasoned ballet-goers as well as newcomers. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is well-danced, uncomplicated and fun – and certainly worth a pleasant evening’s viewing.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Triple Tremendous

Ballo Della Regina/ Live Fire Exercise/ Danse a Grande Vitesse, the Royal Ballet –reviewed on 13th May

Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, a virtuosic showcase set to music from Verdi’s Don Carlo, has the instant drama of a bright blue backdrop and costumes shimmered with glitter. With lightning-quick jumps combined with poise, exuberance and charm, Marianela Nuñez looked as if the steps had been created for her. She danced with a sense of fun, showing off her immaculate technique and timing as she made complicated patterns with her feet and jumped with perfect balance onto pointe. Sergei Polunin jumped explosively, leaping high into the air continuously without tiring. Four short solos were also well-performed, especially by Yuhui Choe who danced playfully, making her movements look deceptively simple and light. The work is a wonderful addition to the Royal Ballet repertoire and a great chance for dancers to entertainingly show off their technical prowess.

Wayne McGregor’s latest work, Live Fire Exercise, attempted to highlight the links between ballet training and military drills. Against a background projection by John Gerrard, showing trucks and cranes driving across a bleak landscape, dancers marched onto stage in darkness. An explosion ensued on the screen, followed by typical McGregor choreography of swirling, contorting and rippling bodies. However, despite the captivating movement, the piece felt underwhelming; its theme didn’t make cohesive sense or provide the emotional drama intended. The projection was more innovative and attention-grabbing than the choreography.

Inspired by the speedy French TVG, Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse creates the dynamic feeling of a train and its people in motion. With excellent lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood made simple arm movements defined and enticing, moving their bodies in waves. Melissa Hamilton glided with the sleekness of a cat from knotted poses to high leg extensions and lifts. The corps provided a backdrop to the four main duets, travelling in group undulations across the stage. With beautifully orchestrated music by Michael Nyman and awe-inspiring dancing, this was a superb finish to the evening.

The programme’s main weakness was the fact that it was almost 50% interval. If only the ROH could rethink their scheduling (or offer free interval drinks!), it would be as near to a perfect triple as could be hoped for.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Choreographics

Choreographics, English National Ballet - reviewed on 11th May

Conformity
Photo: Laurent Liotardo
ENB’s annual evening of experimental works showcased creations by six company dancers and two guest choreographers.

The highlight was Stina Quagebeur’s Conformity. For three males and three females, the work investigated gender inequality. It commenced with men standing side by side, forming a ‘wall’ of masculinity, which the women behind attempted to break though, each time being thrust back. The males held the females and manipulated them, swinging their legs from side to side like pendulums, asserting their control and male dominance. The women were left frustrated and desperate to be free, but at the same time totally dependent on their male partners for support and protection. Crystal Costa turned desperately to each man in turn, every time being thrown and spun like a helpless ragdoll. The piece ended powerfully as she walked away with her partner but then turned back, unsure whether to conform or keep fighting for her independence.

Zhanat Atymtayev’s choreographic work had dancers moving in wave patterns, one after another, forming attractive, rippling shapes. Van Le Ngoc, fresh from his success at the Coliseum with Vue de l’autre, displayed Black Gold – a piece moving between intimidating tribal movements and haunting and precise contemporary dance. The high point was a duet between Kei Akahoshi and Yonah Acosta of grasping, reaching and folding splendour.

F.I.S.H. by Daniel Paul Jones was performed to an interestingly eclectic mix of music – from bagpipes to rock to the sounds of kittens meowing. However, the dancing felt disjointed, and the piece lacked a coherent theme running through it. James Streeter’s A triangle without a shape used interestingly uncomfortable movements to create abstract patterns. The final work by a company dancer (Yat-Sen Chang) evoked a ballroom atmosphere with dancers dressed smartly and swirling their partners across the dance floor in a simple and enjoyable manner.

Guest choreographer Daniela Cardim created Inertia. With fabulous performances by dancers including Begoña Cao, Inertia’s movement reached break-neck speed, before suddenly dropping to a requisite moment of tranquillity. In Jennifer Jackson’s Time Chant, the nine female dancers appeared like other-worldly zombies, performing strange and unnatural movements accompanied by frighteningly imposing music.

Wayne Eagling introduced and closed the evening, rightfully praising the choreographers for their bravery in exposing works to an audience. Seeing the talents continue to develop over the next few years will no doubt be both captivating and rewarding.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Draft Works

Draft Works, the Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH – reviewed on 26th April

In the words of Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Draft Works "provides a unique opportunity for dancers to create new work, and/or to experiment and risk-take with short choreographic sketches". Such opportunities are rare and most welcome considering the lack of successful British ballets produced in the last 15-20 years. This season, eight dancers took part in the programme, all daring to put their creations in front of a discerning public. Lots of interesting work with potential was shown, but my highlights were:

Sian Murphy’s Hold it Down – a pas de deux created to music the choreographer likes to listen and dance to when she’s not at her usual ballerina work. Her first choreography, she used ballroom and ballet inspired movements in a fun and funky way, bringing them up to date alongside the repeated beat of the lyrics ‘hip hop’.

Vanessa Fenton’s And I Always Will – a solo danced on a small onstage platform and performed by Fenton herself. Accompanied by excellent live singing and guitar by Lynne Jackaman and Ivor Sims, Fenton kept her eye focus down and her back to the audience. Wearing a baggy shirt, she placed her foot out and in from her body and rolled down her sleeves, grabbing the flesh underneath. Fenton seemed to be investigating her body as if hating it, feeling constantly embarrassed and disgusted by its form. And I Always Will was intense, emotional and beautiful.

Ludovic Ondiviela’s untitled piece – an ensemble for five dancers full of surprising, jerky and unnatural movements. Knees buckled and arms flapped with each twitch a pleasingly sharp contrast to the smooth flow of the rest of the dancing. Olivia Cowley’s role was particularly fascinating; she appeared like a disturbed mental patient, rolling on the floor, convulsing her head and extending and retracting her fingers.

Other choreographers Natalie Harrison, Alexander Whitley, Erico Montes, Samantha Raine and Valentino Zucchetti also deserved high praise. With such talent on display, let’s hope the next few years will bring plenty more British dance to look forward to.