Sunday, 21 April 2013

Raven Girl Insight

Raven Girl Insight Evening, Royal Ballet, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 16th April

"Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven" is the opening line of Audrey Niffenegger's new novel, written in collaboration with Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. Niffenegger is a well-known author, having published The Time Traveller's Wife and other bestselling books, but this is the first time she has written a fairy tale (or about ravens).
 
The book, which is not yet on sale, tells of the Postman and Raven meeting, falling in love and having a daughter. This Raven Girl comes out of an egg and squawks like a bird but has a human body. She spends her childhood wishing she could fly and lamenting her human arms, so when she meets a plastic surgeon who can replace these arms with wings, she immediately agrees. Once transformed, the Raven Girl meets a raven prince and as all fairy tales end, they live happily ever after.
 
McGregor and Niffenegger have been working together for several years, planning the project. It takes place in three stages - the book (pictured, to be published on 2 May), the ballet (premiering at the ROH on 24 May) and a film to be created in the future. McGregor was initially interested in Niffenegger's graphic novels, as he felt the lack of words left space for dance to fill in the gaps in the narrative. However, due to time constraints, Raven Girl has become an illustrated (rather than graphic) novel, as its 22 aquatint images were very time-consuming to make.
 
The book was originally about a Bird Girl, but Niffenegger thought this was too generic, so she researched different types of birds and their characters. She chose to make her novel about ravens because they are very clever, as well as being long-lived and monogamous.
 
Did Niffenegger try to write her novel in a way that was 'danceable'? McGregor answered: "You've heard the story - what do you think? No way!" But he had actually asked her not to make any concessions for him and to let her imagination run wild. Niffenegger began her work by exploring fairy tales and then creating a modern and more psychologically complex tale in the same format. "I wanted the characters to be bullet-proof but for the story to be pushed/pulled." Indeed, the choreographer's incarnation diverges from the novel, with certain characters missing and elements of the story changed.
 
Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
McGregor describes his main challenge as translating the images from Niffenegger's prose and pictures into movement. He particularly wants to create the effect of flying but without using wires; he is therefore planning to use huge industrial fans to give a sense of wind onstage.
 
At the insight evening, Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood demonstrated the ballet's final pas de deux. Having only been rehearsing for a week, it was in a draft stage, but in typical McGregor style with the notable addition of many complex lifts to indicate flight.
 
How does McGregor feel about creating his first narrative work at the ROH? He doesn't feel the pressure that everyone else seems to feel, as he has extensive experience choreographing in theatre and opera, where it is necessary for dance to tell a story. "Besides," he says, "ballet is inherently narrative."

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