Monday, 20 February 2012

De Valois Syllabus Day

De Valois Super Sunday, Royal Ballet School – reviewed on 19th February
Ninette de Valois, or Madam, began passing on her wisdom to ballet teachers in 1947 when there were no other forms of dance teacher training. The advanced syllabus, which she shared with students and teachers alike, was demonstrated by girls from the Royal Ballet School in April 2011 as part of the Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist conference. Yesterday, modern-day ballet teachers had the chance to learn the intricate and inspiring collection of 30 exercises from one of her first teacher training programme graduates, Denise Winmill.
The de Valois class commences with a reverence so that students can acknowledge each other and the pianist and say to the audience 'I am dancing for you'. At the barre, exercises begin with both arms in bras bas to ensure that students have correct posture with weight centred on both legs. De Valois was also resolute that students should master the early stages of technique before moving onto more advanced exercises. She advised teachers to “insist and insist until it was right”.
Winmill highlighted the importance of the eyes leading movements. Dancers should “look beyond the arm, drawing the audience in” and “smile with their eyes”. Madam also emphasised rigorous alignment and placement, particularly keeping the pelvis still and maintaining turn-out. Some of her exercises were designed to concentrate purely on technique whereas others focused more on beauty and expression. In the latter, she encouraged dancers to perform correctly and particularly always on the beat of the music, but also to develop their individual personality.
In the centre, Madam's exercises feature fast footwork which require absolutely secure weight placement and transfer. Anna Meadmore, Head of Academic Dance Studies at White Lodge, told me that dancers often described de Valois' classes and their rapid movements as “like knitting”. The exercises are composed of simple steps combined at speed with changing rhythms and directions adding complexity. And just when the tricky sequences were perfected, Madam would add further layers of difficulty by asking dancers to perform more quickly, in reverse or on demi-pointe.
A number of features of the de Valois training method stand out because of the way they differ from modern ballet education. Firstly, her exercises use a some delightful arm positions from classical repertoire that are often neglected in class, including the hands being placed behind the lower back like wings. Secondly, Madam’s syllabus is highly rhythmic, with complicated accents and sudden 'awkward moments' of stillness that challenge and develop students’ musicality to the high level required for professional choreography.
The day was punctuated by DVD extracts of the Royal Ballet School students performing the work. Winmill pointed out that even these very able dancers struggled with some of Madam's sequences. But while learning the syllabus they developed invaluable strength and precision.
Winmill described her own experience in de Valois' classes as wonderful but involving a lot of time crying through frustration, as she was often unable to perform the movements to the high standard demanded. “Madam was always so correct and I wanted to please her.”
Looking at the de Valois syllabus, it is clear to see how much we have to thank her for. The knotted footwork and detailed musicality that typify English ballet style are evident in abundance in her class. She gave students not only secure posture and positioning but also the ability to maintain these during high leg extensions, beated jumps and multiple pirouettes. And at the same time she encouraged dancers to use facial expression and engage the audience.
I reviewed the de Valois conference last year (see Madam: Evolution not Revolution) and described how it was Madam’s utter brilliance that secured the future of British ballet. De Valois’ legacy is clear in the Royal Ballet company and school, but it is fantastic to see that even 65 years after her initial work with ballet teachers, her training methods are still able to inspire dance educators.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ballet Black Insight

Insight evening: Ballet Black, Clore Studio @ ROH – reviewed on 16th February
11 years after the company's creation by Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black had its first insight evening at the Royal Opera House. Choreographer Christopher Hampson rehearsed dancers in his new ballet, Storyville, a narrative work set in the title red-light district of New Orleans, which was shut down in 1917.
He described New Orleans’ “rich and ethnically diverse past in which it had been pulled and exploited” and his decision to use the city’s personality in creating the ballet’s main character, Nola (short for New Orleans, Louisiana). Hampson also highlighted the inspiration he took from choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, with Storyville following the same rags to riches to rags story as ballet Manon.
Hampson rehearsed the opening scene, to music entitled 'Lost in the stars', where Nola (Cira Robinson) bleakly wanders around and stares at her surroundings. He encouraged Robinson not to fix her expression, but make sure it remained variable and believable. In a difficult lift, he suggested the men catch Robinson at the last moment, to give a feeling of excitement and danger.
Sarah Kundi and Jazmon Voss in Storyville
Photo courtesy of Ballet Black
He continued by rehearsing a pas de trois for Robinson with dancers Sarah Kundi and Jazmon Voss. Kundi is playing Lulu White, who was a real Storyville businesswoman in the late 19th and early 20th Century. A sinister and mysterious character, Hampson describes her whole life as being “like a dance act”.

In the trio, Lulu and her gangster boyfriend (Voss) try to persuade Nola to continuing working at Lulu's brothel. They give her a diamond bracelet which she displays provocatively (much reminiscent of Manon) in an exquisitely knotted and ultra-sexy tango-inspired dance. With rapid jumps, intricate lifts and contorted poses, the choreography seemed precariously complex. But Hampson stated: “It's better when dancers are about to fall because they've explored the edge of the movement”.
We then moved onto a duet between Robinson and Damien Johnson, in which the lead character faces a difficult dilemma between love and money. With Nola both passionately grabbing and contrastingly attempting to escape her lover’s clutches, the pas de deux beautifully expresses the character's desire both to stay in love and to be free from her feelings.
Pancho then sat down with Hampson, Robinson and Kundi to discuss the company and its current programme of work. Pancho set up Ballet Black after writing her college dissertation on the lack of black dancers in British ballet. Her vision was to provide black dancer role models while they are under-represented in larger ballet companies. But she described how Ballet Black has evolved into something more than that, where the focus is on its new choreographic works rather than the colour of the dancers.
Pancho stated: “It feels like we have so much to do... we haven't arrived yet”. There is still a major lack of black ballet dancers in the UK, especially women. “The situation is changing but very slowly. There are more black students but it takes a long time to train a dancer”.
The company struggles at times because of its small size and lack of regular money. Pancho described how finances were a constant worry although having private rather than public funding allows them to follow their own artistic vision. With only eight company dancers, there is no one to cover roles in case of illness of injury, but the small number of dancers does mean they work intimately with choreographers. The company's regular studio in Marylebone is so small that everyone even eats lunch together. When Hampson was last working with them, he used rest breaks to teach dancers how to knit!
Pancho is proud that Ballet Black has been able to collaborate with so many talented choreographers. Hampson enjoys working with the company but he has been so busy with other projects that he had to create Storyville last autumn. The time between then and now has, however, been beneficial as he has gained a sense of perspective on the piece and dancers have had the chance to settle into their roles.
Pancho considered her vision for the future of the company. “Our end goal is to not be necessary, but for now we want to keep making ballets, improve and show everyone what Ballet Black dancers are capable of.”