Monday, 31 December 2012

Jubilation

Jubilation, The London Ballet Company, Bridewell Theatre – reviewed on 19th December

In the upstairs hall of the Bridewell Theatre, amidst fairy lights and Christmas decorations, The London Ballet Company performed a show celebrating all things 2012.

Taking inspiration from the traditional Nutcracker and using much of its music, Jubilation began with a young girl creeping downstairs on Christmas Eve, but instead of battling mice and being transported to the Kingdom of Sweets, she is “led upon a journey of remembrance” through the year’s events. She flies to London, observes the Olympics and even becomes the Queen and waves at boats in her Jubilee Pageant.

The London Ballet Company is still trying to find its unique style and attempting to make dance more relevant to modern audiences. Their vision was evident in 00 and his 7 but is less successful here. Some moments work well – coloured umbrellas cleverly stack to become the Olympic rings and a Chinese dance on pointe is charming and delicate. But much of the production feels disjointed and choreography is unfortunately weak.

What is abundantly clear is the talent of the dancers on display. All professionally trained, they deserve a larger audience. I believe this company has a niche – in lunchtime and corporate entertainment taking inspiration from current affairs – and I hope with its home now at the Bridewell Theatre, The London Ballet Company will continue along this avenue.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

ENB Nutcracker Delight

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 14th December
Snowflakes
Photo: Annabel Moeller
English National Ballet have presented a Nutcracker every Christmas for the last 60 years. Their current version, with choreography by former company director Wayne Eagling, was created amidst artistic fireworks captured in 2011 BBC documentary, ‘Agony and Ecstasy’. But in spite of these initial very publicly-aired hiccups, the production is now becoming a staple Christmas treat, filled with the charm and magic that every Nutcracker needs.
 
James Streeter as the Mouse King
Photo: Patrick Baldwin
The production is set traditionally in Edwardian times, but Eagling makes other changes to the story to give the ballet a contemporary twist. For example, the Mouse King (pictured) is undefeated in the Act I battle and it is Clara herself who becomes the jewel-studded Sugar Plum Fairy. Some of these touches are unsuccessful – Clara’s brother Freddie’s Act II reincarnation during a sado-masochistic Arabian dance is downright bizarre – but most make for a heart-warming and engaging narrative. The ballet is also filled with sweet moments. Dr Drosselmeyer (perhaps so titled because he has a PHD in magic?) peeps his head out from the grandfather clock to change the time to midnight, a giant mouse trap is used to catapult cheese during the battle and party children from Tring Park School bring a delightful sense of wide-eyed Christmas excitement.
 
The company is in excellent shape, with the corps de ballet (pictured in Snowflakes) superbly synchronised, no doubt due to the efforts of new Ballet Mistress, Hua Fang Zhang. Nancy Osbaldeston, Crystal Costa and Daniel Kraus make a fabulously exuberant Spanish trio and Ksenia Ovsyanick looks more assured than ever in her beautifully-performed Mirlitons. The orchestra also play Tchaikovsky’s score with distinction under the baton of Gavin Sutherland.
Daria Klimentova as Clara (with Junor Souza as the Nutcracker)
Photo: Annabel Moeller

But it is modern-day Fonteyn and Nureyev, Daria Klimentova (pictured) and Vadim Muntagirov, who steal the show. Both sparkle as brightly as their Swarovski crystal-studded costumes and make Eagling’s detailed and sometimes hurried choreography look easy. Deservedly promoted to Lead Principal on The Nutcracker’s opening night, Muntagirov displays exceptional classical technique, particularly in his incredible whirring pirouettes that stop dead before he kneels effortlessly into his finishing position. Klimentova seems to float in her solo, gliding across the floor with a poise and elegance that perfectly matches the accompanying celesta music.
 
As the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is sold-out, this production makes an enchanting alternative, especially if you can catch the spectacular Klimentova/Muntagirov partnership on 26 Dec (mat), 28 Dec (eve) and 5 Jan (eve).

Monday, 10 December 2012

Opera and Ballet Rehearsals Compared

Royal Ballet in Rehearsal, Clore Studio @ ROH - 28 November; La Boheme Insight Evening, Royal Opera, Clore Studio @ ROH - 6 December
La Boheme at the Royal Opera House
Picture courtesy of ROH
I recently attended my first opera insight evening at the Royal Opera House and found it so informative that I felt compelled to blog. Conductor Mark Elder rehearsed two Jette Parker Young Artists in Puccini's La Bohème.
 
Elder began by describing the work as a “Monday night opera”, ie. one that will draw a good audience even at the beginning of the week. Puccini was "masterful" and his music "falls beautifully on the ears". However, the way that La Bohème is written, with vocals arranged to resemble the spontaneous nature of normal speech, is a real challenge to performers.

Michel de Souza and Susana Gaspar took the roles of Marcello and Mimi and were given directions by Elder to alter the rhythm of their singing to match key orchestral instruments (as Tchaikovsky had desired), as well as to adjust breathing, accents and pronunciation of the Italian libretto. Elder also encouraged the singers to pause at certain moments as stated in his orchestral score – although these instructions confusingly differed from those in the vocal score.

Whilst clearly this is different to ballet rehearsals, I noticed more similarities than I would have imagined. To make a direct comparision, I refer to Lesley Collier and Jonathan Cope's rehearsal of The Nutcracker grand pas de deux with Fumi Kaneko and Nehemiah Kish.
 
In the same way that musical scores differ, so too do versions of Peter Wright's choreography (in fact, he changes it every year), such that some dancers and coaches do one thing and others do another. (As Kaneko was new to the Sugar Plum Fairy role, the most up-to-date choreographic version was rehearsed, which included Collier and Cope puzzling over how to perform a new lift. After one attempt, Collier even stated: "That just looks like the old one but gone wrong!") 

The Nutcracker pas de deux (Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae)
Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Dancing also needs to appear easy and natural although it is extremely challenging. Other corrections focused on musicality in the same way as the opera rehearsal, with coaches offering different views on the rhythms with which certain movements should be performed. Dancers were also encouraged to include stylistic elements such as bending the body and making port de bras appear "expensive", as this was Wright's intention (just like Tchaikovsky's musical intentions).

Cope worked particularly with Kish on the hand positions for partnering lifts and balances, suggesting he keep his thumbs pointed upwards so as not to "show the girl's knickers"! Whilst this bears no relation to opera, it was another fascinating insight into the backstage world of the Royal Opera House that shows why educational evenings are so thoroughly enjoyable and interesting.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ballet Cymru

Little Red Riding Hood/ The Three Little Pigs, Ballet Cymru, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre reviewed on 16th November
 
Nominated for a 2013 National Dance Award, Ballet Cymru describe themselves as a company who “like to do things a bit differently”. Their current tour covers 21 venues in just ten weeks with only a brief two-night stopover for London’s spoilt-for-choice dance crowd.
 
At the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, the company offers two dramatically different bills. The first uses Welsh-born writer Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and shows Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs in a light quite distinct from their original fairy tales. The second takes inspiration from leading Welsh artists and musicians with live vocals by Cerys Matthews. As the latter performance clashed with the Royal Ballet’s latest opening night, I was only able to see one incarnation of this Welsh company, but I was most impressed by its choreographic ingenuity and dancer prowess.
 
In the Dahl double bill, the stage is transformed into a magical forest inhabited by other-worldly creatures and creatively-costumed wolves who prowl and leap. Little Red Riding Hood strides onto stage, flexing her biceps and cartwheeling to display bright pink bloomers. A dancer narrates action via Dahl's clever verse and both choreography and story are funny and inventive throughout. As houses are blown down, masked pigs stamp their feet and girls whip pistols from their knickers, Ballet Cymru’s performance is a delightfully entertaining mix of humour and cunning. My only complaint is that it was over too soon.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bond-style Ballet

00 and His 7, The London Ballet Company, Bridewell Theatre – reviewed on 8th November

The London Ballet Company aims to “bring the highest quality of dance performances to intimate venues”, engaging with audiences who wouldn’t usually see ballet. Its latest James Bond-style show at the Bridewell Theatre uses the well-known and well-loved films to inspire a charming performance, with not only great dance but also truly mass appeal.

Opening with the sounds of a drum beat as black-hooded dancers roll across the floor pointing guns, this is not a typical ballet. Our suave hero (Fran Mangiacasale) becomes irresistibly camp as he runs Baywatch-style across the stage in tight swimming shorts to accept his mission. His task is to retrieve a diamond necklace stolen with equally delightful and ridiculous humour by a masked criminal who simply parts the jewellery’s Velcro fastening.

This is clearly not great art, but it is undoubtedly great fun. Dancers are all trained at professional schools and their technique is of an excellent standard. Choreography is similarly well-crafted and entertaining to watch, with a diverse mix of styles from musical theatre to classical ballet and contemporary included.

The London Ballet Company now have a home at the Bridewell Theatre and will be performing there for 12 weeks in 2013. Just off Fleet Street, the venue offers low-cost lunchtime performances where local workers can bring along sandwiches and break up the day with a show instead of a Starbucks.

This really is quality dance made appealing for all. I look forward to seeing what theme the London Ballet Company will tackle next to continue encouraging a new audience to enjoy dance.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Valentino Zucchetti Choreographic Afternoon

Valentino Zucchetti on Choreography, Ivy House Music and Dance, London Jewish Cultural Centre - 4th November

Leticia Stock (right) in Ballo della Regina
Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Valentino Zucchetti created a unique pas de deux for performance at the London Jewish Cultural Centre last weekend. Working with fellow Royal Ballet dancers, Leticia Stock (pictured) and Dawid Trezensimiech, he guided a small audience through creating a new work, including completing the duet's choreography live during the session. Observers were encouraged to ask questions and even offer suggestions to improve dancers' performance!

Zucchetti began by explaining how he approaches choreography. He typically plan what he wants before reaching the studio but his detailed visualisations often need to be compromised when translated into real life. He also takes inspiration from dancers particularly in terms of choreographing transitions between main movements.
 
The duet created for the afternoon, Misericordia, featured a choral score from Macnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach. Zucchetti has been listening to the music for three years and hopes eventually to choreograph for the whole piece. His vision for the pas de deux took inspiration from the score's lyricism and displayed a woman highly dependent on her partner for support through a series of lifts and poses. Zucchetti highlighted to dancers the importance of taking risks with Stock leaning on Trezensimiech as much as possible. 
 
The afternoon finished with a beautiful performance of the then-finished pas de deux with dancers in simple costumes. The London Jewish Cultural Centre will host another dance event, with Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae, in April 2013.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Osipova and Balletic Brilliance

As a frequent theatre-goer and dance enthusiast, I see performances several times a week. I also have an MA in Ballet Studies and often write reviews and articles about dance, so I guess I’m somewhat of an expert. But I have often wished I could just be ignorant and enjoy the prettiness or prowess of a show without questioning.
 
I have seen so many different dancers, companies and works that it is seldom now that something seems truly new or exciting. But on the rare occasion that it is, I know that my dance knowledge enables me to appreciate it on a much deeper level than most people can. And it is these really moving and thrilling experiences that make me eager to return to the theatre each time.

Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake
Photo: Alice Pennefather, courtesy of ROH
This long introduction leads me to describe a recent performance that was so exquisitely beautiful it simply cannot go unmentioned. It was Natalia Osipova in the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake (on 25th October) and I confess I shed a tear during the Act II pas de deux. Osipova’s Odette was heartfelt and vulnerable with every step imbued with meaning. Instead of a ballerina executing technical movements, the choreography became evocative and powerful as a woman, trapped in the body of a swan, desperately and unsuccessfully tried to escape her fate.
 
Osipova has a number of features which make her White Swan so beautiful and emotionally intense. She has a waif-like figure with long arms and legs and seems able to balance endlessly. I have never really connected with the characters of Swan Lake before, but these ethereal qualities added to Osipova’s portrayal of Odette as helpless and trapped and made the ballet all the more moving and human.
 
It is always tricky to describe movement in words and I am far from doing justice to Osipova’s interpretation here. But this was certainly a performance that made me glad I can fully appreciate brilliance when I see it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

NeoBallet

New company, NeoBallet, performs its debut programme at The Place next week. Born in Argentina, artistic director Maria Clara Irisarri is much like the self-described ‘bloody-minded’ Tamara Rojo. With no funding, Irisarri is currently using her savings to run NeoBallet but has boundless determination and confidence. “I always wanted to choreograph, and I thought, what am I waiting for? I sometimes feel like I’m dying of a heart attack because of the finances… But I’m very ambitious – I’ll make it happen.”

NeoBallet’s debut show, LIFE!, has three acts encapsulating birth, life and death with film interludes in between dance and music segments. Exploring “a rollercoaster of emotions” through the eyes of a young girl, classical technique is combined with a diverse range of other dance styles and music in Irisarri’s choreography. With less than a week to go, the company is struggling mostly with costume malfunctions and a lack of time to change outfits between sections. But Irisarri remains positive: “If we don’t all make it onstage in time, someone can just do fouetté turns!” with the diversity of things, experiences, ideas, technologies and cultures we find in today’s world. The company utilizes the dynamics of classical ballet and takes them to a new dimension, a more athletic and daring way of movement and expression. As the world constantly evolves and changes, NeoBallet sees the need to change with it. The company finds its inspiration from everything and anything that exists or that doesn’t exist, from the mundane to the inexplicable and from the tangible to the imginary.

NeoBallet also aims to send the message that movement is directly related to a healthy lifestyle, and that the beauty of ballet technique is not restricted to a vastly underweight physique. The company’s choreographic style demonstrates that classically trained dancers are as fierce, strong and free and as they are graceful, elegant and precise.

Drawing from Maria Clara’s multifaceted background not only in the world of ballet but also in the media and arts, the company breaks the boundaries of the conventional experience of watching dance. Bringing visuals, movement, spacing, sound, fashion and design together in synergy, NeoBallet takes the audience through a shifting journey of senses and emotions.
 
For seven dancers, the ballet opens with robotic techno movements, evolving into passionate tango-inspired pas de deux and then confrontational and athletic contemporary dance. Although the ending symbolises death, Irisarri’s intention is to finish on a high note of release and optimism rather than sadness. “It’s about going back to raw feelings, letting go of petty arguments and realising that life goes on.”
 
Irisarri hopes that following performances the company will gain funding for a European tour. At the moment, she works part-time in an office as well as running the company; the dancers also have other jobs including teaching and modelling. They currently rehearse three times a week but Irisarri would like the company to run full-time eventually.
 
“I want ballet to be seen in a new way – fused with other arts and music to make it more commercial. I’d like NeoBallet dancers to model for fashion and sportswear brands and for the company to operate without arts funding, like Cirque de Soleil. I see us having a wider audience than just dance fans, including people who like film and live music. I want ballet to evolve into a more popular art form which people can relate to.

NeoBallet performs at The Place on 5th and 6th November.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Kenneth MacMillan

20 years ago today, British ballet genius Kenneth MacMillan died. He was a controversial choreographer who displayed the harsh realities of life in his works and frequently clashed with the ballet institution. But his works are compelling, emotive and powerful, and when performed with the passion and style he intended, are incredibly beautiful (and my favourites) to watch.

Edward Watson in Mayerling
Photo: Johan Persson
MacMillan is best-known for his full-length ballets, notably Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Mayerling (pictured), and dancers typically love the dramatic challenges they present. For example, Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling is a society misfit who rapes his wife on their wedding night and dies in a suicide pact with his mistress – a far cry from the classical prince roles of most ballets. Royal Ballet principal, Marianela Nuñez, describes forgetting about real life for three hours when she dances Juliet: “It’s amazing what you can feel doing a MacMillan role. You can use your own life experiences – his works are so real, so human. His ballets touch your soul and make you grow as an artist.” MacMillan also created a diverse range of one-act pieces – from the wit and playfulness of Elite Syncopations to the darkness and betrayal of The Judas Tree.
 
The choreographer once stated: “I have to do what I have to do, and I hope the public will like it. If I ever stopped to consider what people wanted, or what I thought they'd like, I'd never do a thing.” As MacMillan is remembered today, I want to thank him for putting his incredible vision into ballets that continue to inspire and delight.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Kevin O'Hare

Kevin O’Hare, Guest Speaker Series, Royal Academy of Dance – 4th October
 
Artistic Director Kevin O’Hare talked to the Royal Academy of Dance about his performing career and plans for the Royal Ballet company.
 
O’Hare’s early training was more theatrical that balletic and he was involved in a number of festivals and TV shows, including 1976 film Bugsy Malone. In 1977, he joined White Lodge and later the Royal Ballet Upper School. He describes having a variety of different teachers; some focused on repertoire, some highlighted the importance of technique and placement, and others encouraged characterisation and performance quality. O’Hare wants to commission a similar variety of teachers to work with the Royal Ballet company.
 
Marianela Nunez in Swan Lake
Photo:Alice Pennefather, courtesy of ROH
On graduating, O’Hare joined Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) and was promoted to Principal in 1990. He particularly remembers performing the opening night of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in an uncomfortably huge wig. For O’Hare, working with MacMillan was “a career highlight”.
 
In 2000, aged 35, O’Hare thought it was the right time to stop dancing. He was interested in arts management and took on a training position with the Royal Shakespeare Company. A year later, O’Hare returned to Birmingham Royal Ballet as Company Manager, taking on the same role at the Royal Ballet in 2004.
 
As artistic director, O'Hare is keen to nurture dancers through their career development post-retirement. O’Hare especially wants to encourage company members to use their expertise within the wider arts world. Indeed, the evening’s discussion opened with a film clip showing the diversity of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire; this was put together by current First Soloist Bennet Gartside who has recently discovered an interest in archiving and digital media.
 
O’Hare is also keen to use contemporary knowledge and technology to aid dancers in performance. He currently has a team of sports scientists working with the company in strength training.
 
The Royal Ballet has since opened its 2012/13 season with sell-out performances of Swan Lake (pictured). In November the company takes on modern works by Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, as well as a triple bill of MacMillan ballets.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Some Like it Hip Hop

Some Like it Hip Hop, ZooNation Dance Company, Peacock Theatre - reviewed on 25th September

Choreographer Kate Prince makes hip hop and street dance thoroughly accessible and engaging in ZooNation's Some Like it Hip Hop. After a popular run in 2011, the show described in The Guardian as “a belter” and The Evening Standard as “choreographically brilliant” returned even bigger and brighter to the Peacock Theatre stage this September.

Based on the classic film, Some Like it Hot (but with the sexes reversed), the piece tells the story of an all-powerful Governor ruling a land where books are banned and women are subservient to men. Unimpressed, Jo-Jo (Lizzie Gough) and Kerri (Teneisha Bonner) don suits and comedy moustaches in a contemporary and cross-dressing version of girl power. 

Tommy Franzen
Photo: ZooNation Dance Company
Against this background of gender politics, love and humour come to the forefront with hilarious male-imitation walks, silly character conflicts and even a laundry room date. Choreography fits the story cleverly and works seamlessly with the original musical score by DJ Walde and Josh Cohen. Most impressive is the sleep pods scene where six dancer silhouettes are seen moving in visually-impressive patterns.

Throughout, the cast display their incredible talent and level of energy across a range of dance styles including krumping, locking, funk, popping and house. But Gough and Marilyn Monroe-equivalent Tommy Franzén are undoubtedly the stars. Both finalists from the BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance, their movements are impeccably precise, well-timed and performed with supreme confidence and prowess.

The show has undoubtedly modern moves and music but the variety of people choosing to come and watch is diverse. In the final numbers, the whole crowd, from young children to retired ladies were on their feet amidst the buzz and energy of the cast.

Some people may like it hip hop before the show, but I have no doubt that all audience members will be hip hop converts after seeing such a superbly entertaining performance.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Tamara Rojo Press Launch

English National Ballet 2012/13 season launch, Corinthia Hotel - 24th September

This morning, Tamara Rojo announced her vision for English National Ballet and plans for the upcoming season. Aged 22, she joined the company as a dancer and now 15 years on is taking the role of artistic director. Her focus will be in balancing the need for classic ballets with the creation of new works.

Rojo in Machina with the Royal Ballet
Photo: Johan Persson
 
Rojo wants to "inspire, entertain, stimulate and challenge" old and new audiences alike, making ballet relevant and accessible to all. In the next few months, the company will perform Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, with Rojo dancing as Aurora in the season's opening performance. In 2013, they will take on two mixed bills at the London Coliseum, including a diverse range of works from Petrushka to Petite Mort, as well as performing Swan Lake again at the Royal Albert Hall.

Rojo is highly ambitious and wants to make English National Ballet one of the "most creative and most loved" companies in the world. She is keen to develop young choreographers and has appointed George Williamson as associate artist. He will create My First Cinderella for students of English National Ballet School in the new year. Rojo also intends for the company to collaborate extensively with other artforms.

Rojo's only worry is the effect of decreasing arts funding in the UK. But if she is able to fundraise successfully and implement her vision, English National Ballet clearly has a bright future ahead.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Marianela Nuñez

Marianela Nuñez, Ballet Association meeting, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church - 5th September

Royal Ballet principal, Marianela Nuñez, spoke to the Ballet Association on Wednesday. Determined to be a ballerina from the age of 5, she spent her early years in Buenos Aires taking as many ballet lessons as possible alongside academic school. It was a busy and tiring schedule but she has no regrets: “I had the best childhood – doing what I loved every day”. At the age of 15, Nuñez moved to London to join the Royal Ballet School, and a year later was offered a place in the company. 

Nunez signing autographs
Photo: Laura Dodge
As delightful a person as she is onstage, Nuñez describes her career with the Royal Ballet as making her “so happy and so fulfilled”. She loves Balanchine works and was thrilled to be recently coached by Merill Ashley in Ballo della Regina. The work has so much speed and detail that it’s “like a full-length ballet in 20 minutes”. Balanchine technique has to be impeccable, but his ballets are “heaven if you want to feel like a ballerina… I could do the Diamonds pas de deux for breakfast.”

Nuñez also adores MacMillan choreography. She felt like “the luckiest girl in the world” to perform one of her dream roles, the Woman in Song of the Earth. MacMillan’s dramatic roles are similarly favourites; as Juliet, she forgets about everything for three hours and always cries afterwards. “It’s amazing what you can feel doing a MacMillan role. You can use your own life experiences – his works are so real, so human.”

Nuñez has enjoyed working with contemporary choreographers, including Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett. Every role she dances gives her new challenges and the chance to develop as a dancer. She is also currently working on documentary, All I am, which uses ballet to explore the relationship between her and husband Thiago Soares. Most memorably, filming included performing a pas de deux in her wedding dress on the freezing cold streets of Argentina.

What does Nuñez hope for in the future? Her ambition is simple: “I want to keep growing as an artist”.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

ENB Swan Lake

Swan Lake (rehearsal), English National Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 1st August

Daria Klimentová
Photo: Annabel Moeller
On the London Coliseum stage, English National Ballet dancers move about in an array of brightly coloured leg warmers, oversized jumpers and padded warm-up boots. They are preparing for the penultimate full run-through of Swan Lake before it opens on Friday. Familiar emerging dancer faces are hard at work; Nancy Osbalsden, in a pretty cream tutu, rehearses her steps; Ksenia Ovsyanick stretches her foot with a resistance band.

The curtain closes, the orchestra tunes up and rehearsal begins. Begoña Cao commences the dancing, being transformed into a swan by evil magician Rothbart against a background of dramatic lightning flashes. The rest of the company then rehearses the ballet's remaining choreography, with sweat dripping from dancers as company repetiteur Rosalyn Whitten calls out corrections from the auditorium.

Daria Klimentová, who dances the lead role of Odette/Odile in Sunday’s performance, stated: “The Tchaikovsky music is gorgeous. I like it more and more as I mature and grow into it. The Black Swan role is very exciting but I worry about the 32 fouettés. After the very tough controlled balances of Act II, there is the flashy pas de deux of Act III and just when you’re completely exhausted, there are 32 pirouettes to do and you have to make it look easy!”

Swan Lake is full of excitement. The mass of white swans moving in graceful unison are wonderful; Act III character dances from a tambourine-shaking Neapolitan couple to deep Spanish backbends are similarly great. But undoubtedly the ballet’s highlights are the pas de deux for Prince Siegfried and his Swan Queen Odette. The choreography’s beauty and lyricism combined with Tchaikovsky’s incredible score makes this an unmissable ballet.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Royal Ballet School

Annual Matinee, Royal Ballet School, Royal Opera House – reviewed on 15th July

Royal Ballet School students performed charmingly in their annual main stage performance at the Royal Opera House.

Year 9 students paraded the stage with sparkling technique, flawless pirouettes and neat group formations in opening work Jubilation. Brightly coloured costumes and exuberant choreography abounded in Alistair Marriott’s Simple Symphony, where three main couples and a supporting entourage created playful shapes to reflect the varied sounds of Benjamin Britten’s musical accompaniment. Dancers excelled in the unusual movements of Jiří Kylián’s Un Ballo from curled-up foetal positions to banging fists on the floor.

Other choreography didn’t allow the young dancers' talents to shine. Matthew Hart’s Olympic-inspired Games for Gods displayed a huge cast in repetitive Grecian poses and sport movement imitations. Contemporary work Uneven Ground included impressive lifts and jumps but was at odds with its lyrical guitar soundtrack. Choreography to Yondering by John Neumeier was like a tediously protracted barn dance.

Paquita was undoubtedly the afternoon’s highlight, with Mayara Magri, who joins the Royal Ballet company next season, seeming to hover in the air as lead dancer. Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Lachlan Monaghan also stood out with their musicality and vivacity, and the ten-strong corps de ballet was impressively uniform and poised.

The Grand Défilé which always concludes the show gives every student from across the school the chance to dance onstage. With an impressively large number of young performers displaying superb technique and clean lines, it is clear to see why the Royal Ballet School deserves its international reputation for excellence.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Dance Holland Park

Dance Holland Park: emerging choreographers’ showcase, Opera Holland Park – reviewed on 7th July
English National Ballet commenced Big Dance week 2012 with a showcase of five new works by emerging choreographers from West London companies. In gorgeous park surrounds and with live string quartet accompaniment, a diverse programme inspired by the current season of Opera Holland Park was presented.
Arcadie Rusu of the Romanian Cultural Institute choreographed contemporary dance work, Hunted Devotion. Inspired by Falstaff, Rusu used the opera’s title character to explore the “dramatic truth” behind comic figures.
Kali Chandrasegaram & Khavita Kaur in This Wicked Desire
Photo: James Jenkins
To original music from Cosí fan tutte, Katie Ryan’s The Wicked Desire used bharata natyam movements to depict two dancers’ struggle to choose between desire and virtue. Costumes represented a similar conflict with glamorous and modern corsets contrasting traditional trousers and red painted fingers and toes.
Buoso, by Naomi Deira of Union Dance Company, showed two male and two female dancers swathed in black lace, swirling, collapsing and unfolding their bodies to dramatic percussive sounds.
Combination Dance Company’s Lucia took the most literal inspiration from its opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. With short scenes portraying the title character through romance, family manipulation and descent into madness, Anne-Marie Smalldon’s choreography showed three females representing the same role and being showered with, tormented by and left morbidly lying in flower petals, in this absorbing piece.
English National Ballet dancer James Streeter’s duel-like duet took inspiration from Yevgeny Onegin. To a commissioned score by Janine Forrester, two men dramatically circled each other, performing acrobatic leg extensions and lifts in ContraVersus. Alternating between tender counter-balances and more aggressive movements, the work made a powerful conclusion to the Dance Holland Park performance.
Whilst not all the choreography was successful, the opportunity to create for a major stage and work with live musicians gave these five young artists a fantastic chance to experiment. Such opportunities are what make Big Dance so wonderful and should be heartily encouraged.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Birthday Offering Triple

Birthday Offering/ A Month in the Country/ Les Noces, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House – reviewed on 3rd July
Birthday Offering was created in 1956 to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 25th anniversary. This year it commemorates not a birthday but the end of Monica Mason’s ten-year term as company artistic director. Originally designed to highlight the company’s talent, it features complex solos for seven leading ballerinas, a lyrical pas de deux and grand Russian-style group sections. More than 50 years later, it is frequently revived for celebrations and remains in sparkling form.

To Alexander Glazunov’s triumphant score, Frederick Ashton’s choreography feels zingy and fresh. A stellar cast of top company members take the lead roles; Yuhui Choe playfully flicks her wrists, Roberta Marquez jumps explosively and Marianela Nuñez moves her feet with a rapid precision that matches perfectly the delicate string sounds. Nuñez’ pas de deux with real-life partner Thiago Soares is delightfully understated with the couple executing extended balances with ease. Birthday Offering is a truly joyful ballet and one in which the Royal Ballet excels.

Second Ashton work, A Month in the Country, is performed with equal flair. In an 1850 Russian country house, stifled housewife Natalia finds desire and exhilaration in the form of her son’s tutor, Beliaev. Lead Alina Cojocaru displays her character’s every minute emotion, powerfully evoking the audience’s sympathy and making the ballet’s final moments utterly heart-breaking. Her lover, Federico Bonelli, dances with poetic softness and a modestly-displayed but clearly fervent passion. An excellent supporting cast complete the picture, with Iohna Loots as charming and naïve ward Vera deserving particular praise.
The Royal Ballet in Les Noces
Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtesy of ROH
Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces, originally created for the Ballets Russes, ended the evening with a bang. To Igor Stravinsky’s masterful vocal score, it depicts wedding rituals as Bride (Kristen McNally) marries Bridegroom (Valeri Hristov). The corps de ballet take the most integral roles here, with bold and tribal choreography based on simple sequences of predominantly walking and jumping performed en masse. Although the cast didn’t have the absolute unison required to make the boldest statement, the ballet does not fail to haunt with its brown-clad figures forming elaborately interweaved and striking group poses (see image above).

This was another marvellous triple bill by the Royal Ballet, intelligently put together by Monica Mason. New director, Kevin O’Hare, has a lot to live up to.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Monica Mason Insight

Insight evening: In conversation with Monica Mason, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 11th June
Dame Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, was interviewed last week in advance of her retirement at the end of this season. Mason has worked with the Royal Ballet for 54 years, joining the corps de ballet aged just 16 and progressing to principal in 1968. Following her career as a dancer, she became répétiteur, assistant director and finally director in 2002. She is the only person who has worked with every previous director of the company, from Ninette de Valois to Ross Stretton, and has had a huge impact on the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and reputation during her ten year period in charge.
Mason was interviewed by TV presenter and gardener, Alan Tichmarsh, who although seemingly an unlikely choice, has been coming to see ballet for 40 years and is married to a dancer. He began by asking Mason why she hadn’t become a choreographer. “Because I have absolutely no talent!” Mason attempted to choreograph once during her training in South Africa; her teacher wasn’t impressed with her work and said she shouldn’t bother trying to choreograph again.
Monica Mason with Rudolf Nureyev in Hamlet
Photo: Donald Southern, courtesy of ROH Collections
What does Mason think makes a good teacher? It is the ability to communicate successfully and empathise with dancers as well as having strong background training and performing experience. She tried to teach her younger sister ballet as a child, but the little girl was unconvinced, asking Mason: “Who do you think you are? Miss Pavlova?”

Mason described her experience auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. It was on a Saturday at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and she was terribly worried she would get ill as her sister had measles. On the morning, she felt awful but went to the audition anyway and “danced like a dog”. She remembers nothing else until the Tuesday after when lying in bed with measles, her mum came and told her she hadn’t been accepted for the school. She insisted she would try again when she was better and at her second audition she was offered a place.

At the time, the school shared a building with the company. Students had to “turn into wallpaper” when company dancers went past. The first time Mason saw Margot Fonteyn in the corridor, she thought she would faint.
Titchmarsh asked, how early can you spot a star? “You can spot talent, but there aren’t any rules.” Physical attributes are important, as is co-ordination and musicality. The best dancers are those who are able to do it naturally and easily. A dancer’s life it tough so you also need to be driven, ambitious, selfish and prepared to sacrifice.
On her first day in the company, Mason was put into Ondine rehearsals with Frederick Ashton. “It was mind-blowing.” But as she progressed in the company, she was rarely selected to dance Ashton works. “He always chose other people. He liked lyrical dancers and I was not.” In his later years, Mason remembers visiting Ashton and he said that she was one of only two people who always sent him a Christmas card. “And a fat lot of good it’s done me!” was her response.
Mason then discussed her relationship with choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, who created a number of roles on her. “I owe him so much. Not only as a dancer but also later in being given the chance to assist him. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I retired from dancing, and being his assistant répétiteur was the next step.”
Mason also worked with Rudolf Nureyev and describes his partnership with Fonteyn as having “a palpable electricity”. He was a wonderful teacher who “never gave up on you” but a challenging partner for pas de deux. “You had to balance yourself. He would tell you if he was expending extra energy holding you.” Mason remembers once performing a pirouette where Nureyev had to catch her. As she started to spin, he was looking out at the audience so she worried she wouldn’t get caught in time. On another occasion, Nureyev wasn’t happy with his shoes and spent ages putting on a new pair, missing his and Mason’s entrance. Other company members were looking at her and she felt anxious, not knowing what to do, but he loved creating such drama. It was always exhilarating to perform with him.
Mason was fascinated by how to improve the recovery of dancers with injuries. In 1972, she broke her foot while dancing the role of Queen of the Willis in Giselle. At that time, there was no one to help in getting back to fitness. Injured dancers were more or less sent away to get better with no support from the company and sometimes a six week time limit for recovery or the threat of losing their job. The first dancer Mason helped was Michael Corder, who had a knee injury in the 1960s. She used common sense and anatomy books as reference material. Corder has a knee replacement now, but Mason insists she isn’t responsible!
Mason became acting director of the Royal Ballet in 2001 after Ross Stretton left the company. She had been assistant director before and was used to a small office, but a member of the board told her she needed to move into the big director’s office now. Once there she thought, “I rather like it here!” In 2002, she was officially given the position, which she describes as “an enormous privilege and honour... it was astonishing.”
Monica Mason rehearsing Ed Watson in The Rite of Spring
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
Mason has pictures of de Valois, Ashton and MacMillan on her office walls so she can remember the great figures she is following. She asked Madam for her opinion on the employment of Wayne McGregor as Royal Ballet resident choreographer, and de Valois must have approved as her picture didn’t fall off the wall! McGregor has been “an enormous departure” for the company but has been of huge benefit in its development.
What does Mason enjoy most about her role? Her first experience of seeing ballet was watching triple bills in South Africa, and she loves programming one-act works for the Royal Opera House. She uses a diverse range of music, designs and dance styles and particularly likes choreography that is accompanied by vocals, such as Song of the Earth. Mason is incredibly passionate about dance: “I love ballet. I just love it. I especially love going to see other companies perform because I’m not responsible for anything!” The hardest part of her job is giving dancers bad news, like telling them when it’s time to leave the company. She has also sometimes struggled with the tightness of the Royal Ballet’s budget.
Next season, Mason will continue working with the company under new director Kevin O’Hare, coaching dancers in Las Hermanas, Manon, Mayerling and The Firebird. What does she think the Royal Ballet needs to do in the next few years?  “What will ballet become? I don’t know. We need the finest teachers to make great classical dancers. Ballet has to keep reinventing itself and go bravely into the future.”

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Ballo and Sylphide

Ballo della Regina/ La Sylphide, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House – reviewed on 26th May
The Royal Ballet in Ballo della Regina
Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Fiendishly difficult choreography and the joyous music of Guiseppe Verde (from opera Don Carlos) combine in the sublime Ballo della Regina. George Balanchine’s 1978 work is ideally suited to the Royal Ballet and their performance effervesces. Yuhui Choe hovers in the air and Beatriz Stix-Brunell exudes warmth and radiance. But it is leads Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish who make this ballet really sparkle. They perform the choreography with such ease, for a moment I think I could do it. Even Nuñez’s jumps onto pointe are serenely effortless. Ballo is simply a joy from start to finish; it’s as close to abstract ballet perfection as you’re likely to get.

The double bill is completed by Romantic ballet La Sylphide. Despite its age, the theme of whether to conform or seek something more magical remains universal. Steven McRae is an ideal James, who must decide between a conventional wife and the beguiling charms of sylph Roberta Marquez.  His dramatic passion and bewilderment are as powerful as his scissor-like feet that cut through the knotty choreography. Marquez is a tempting sylph; unearthly in movement but playful in spirit.

The programme is a feast of vivacity, desire and superb technique.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Prince Insight

Insight evening: The Prince of the Pagodas, Clore Studio @ ROH – reviewed on 23rd May

The Prince of the Pagodas was first choreographed in 1957 by John Cranko. Kenneth MacMillan created another version in 1989 with Darcey Bussell taking the lead role to critical acclaim.

Barry Wordsworth, Music Director of the Royal Ballet, described Benjamin Britten’s Prince score as full of “joie de vivre” and a “kaleidoscope of emotions and contrasts”. Chairman of the Britten Estate, Colin Matthews, stated: “Britten was used to writing for opera. Here he was free of the need to balance the music with vocalists so the score is full of life and energy.”

For the Royal Ballet’s 2012 production, the music has been revised, with changes in the running order and some cuts, designed to make the story clearer. Wordsworth stated “it’s nothing like the cuts that were made to Swan Lake to make it good!”

Wordsworth then highlighted the ways in which Britten was able to build a character through music, with Robert Clark playing extracts on the piano. For example, there are four variations for four kings and each shows a different personality; the King of the East’s music is exotic and moody.

Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in Prince of the Pagodas
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
Britten found it particularly difficult to write Act 2, but a trip to Bali inspired him. He created a version of Indonesian Gamelan music (which heavily features tuned percussion) using Western instruments.

Jonathan Cope then rehearsed Ryoichi Hirano and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in the Act 3 pas de deux, a duet involving enormous lifts and difficult musical timing. Cope himself danced the Prince in MacMillan’s version of the ballet. He loved using classical shapes but putting a twist on them with unusual grips and positioning. It was very difficult then, but dancers find it easy now as they are so used to performing in different styles. Cope especially enjoyed dancing the salamander solo as it involves a lot of floor work, which makes it more interesting that most other Prince roles. In his coaching, the most important thing for Cope is to allow dancers to find their own personalities in the choreography, so that the ballet develops over time.

The Royal Ballet’s new production premieres on 2nd June at the Royal Opera House with Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish taking the lead roles.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ballo Rehearsal

Insight evening: Ballo Della Regina, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH – reviewed on 10th May

Another fascinating insight evening took place last week at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre. Principal dancers Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish rehearsed Balanchine’s 1978 Ballo della Regina under the watchful eye of original cast member Merill Ashley.

Across solos and duets, dancers were repeatedly reminded to use their back muscles to hold the choreography’s twisted poses and maintain strength during rapid footwork. Ballo is also full of sudden changes of direction, moments of surprise and off-balance positions which Ashley was keen to highlight to dancers.

Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in Ballo della Regina
Photo: Bill Cooper
Nuñez showed her perfectionism, stating that her performance of one solo was “rubbish” and repeating it multiple times in a quest for mastery. It looked (even to my rather critical eye) gorgeous from the outset, but Ashley encouraged Nuñez not to anticipate the music but to respond instead, and to ensure each arm movement dynamic was clear.
Kish’s solos were well-polished but a lifted neckline gave jumps a freer, more joyful feeling. Ashley also reminded Kish of the importance of using the metatarsals to ensure soft, well-controlled landings.

In the pas de deux, Ashley asked Nuñez to look at the audience instead of to the sky, as if “saying a prayer: I hope this goes well!” She also aided the couple with timing, advising which sections should be speeded up and which slowed down.

This was a proper working rehearsal where dancers really endeavoured to improve their performance of Balanchine’s choreography and the observing audience was virtually forgotten. It was another enticing and inspiring glimpse into the life of the hard-working dancers of the Royal Ballet.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Rite of Spring Workshop

Workshop: The Rite of Spring, English National Ballet, London Coliseum – reviewed on 24th March

On the London Coliseum stage, ten participants were guided through a workshop inspired by Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring. English National Ballet learning officer, Danielle Jones, incorporated elements of the tribal choreography into the typical exercises of a ballet technique class. To gorgeous piano music from Rite’s score, movements included stomach contractions, splayed fingers and turned-in feet alongside pliés, sautés and grands battements.

Danielle encouraged participants to feel their bodies being pulled simultaneously in different directions and to perform jumps with the heavy, pounding-into-the-floor feeling of the choreography. “The Rite of Spring is not pretty in any way – it’s angry and aggressive.” Ballet-trained participants struggled to master the tricky style but were kept thoroughly amused throughout class as they attempted to transform themselves into a sacrificial tribe.

ENB are performing the 1962 ballet as part of their Beyond Ballets Russes season. To bring it up to date, the piece has been redesigned with black and red bodysuits replacing the original autumnal colours and giving the choreography a darker and more menacing feel. Workshop participants had the chance to look at these costumes alongside outfits for other ballets in the programme including Firebird and Suite en Blanc. The morning’s activities were completed with a chance to watch company dancers in class as they prepared for the day’s performances.

MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring is a fabulous ballet that challenges the classical lexicon with its hostility and drama. It is a hugely powerful work and I wish more people had been able to come and explore its choreography under the expert guidance of English National Ballet’s learning department.