Wednesday, 31 December 2014

December Round-up

The Royal Danish Ballet's Femke Slot in Napoli
Photo: Costin Radu

The latest instalment of my ballet steps series explores développés.

I've also shared my top 10 dance highlights of 2014.
 
Other writing:

A review of ZooNation's Mad Hatter's Tea Party on Londonist
A feature about Ulrik Birkkjaer and the Royal Danish Ballet on Londondance

Sunday, 28 December 2014

English National Ballet's The Nutcracker

Photo: Photography by ASH
The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 23rd December
   
English National Ballet has performed The Nutcracker every Christmas for the last 65 years. Its current version, choreographed by former company director Wayne Eagling, is a seasonal delight, combining Edwardian traditionalism, a clear narrative and sparkling choreography.
 
Photo: Photography by ASH

The story commences with a family party on Christmas eve, in which young girl Clara is given a nutcracker doll. Later, she dreams the doll comes to life, battles an army of mice and travels with her to a life-size puppet theatre where there are dance performances from around the world. Cleverly, Eagling gives this dream sequence a clear context as Clara’s brother hides a toy mouse in her bedroom at the beginning of the ballet and the Act I party includes a puppet show.
     
English National Ballet is on excellent form this season, with great performances from all the cast. Cesar Corrales shines particularly in the Russian dance with his effortless spins and sky-high leaps. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Laurretta Summerscales looks serene and confident, demonstrating great acting ability during the battle scenes and some remarkably rapid fouetté turns. Recent company joiner Alejandro Virelles also excels with his jumps and secure partnering.
     
The Nutcracker is, for me, an essential part of Christmas, and English National Ballet’s production provides plenty of festive spirit.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Ballet Steps: Développé

Photo: Bill Cooper
In the latest instalment of my ballet steps series, I discuss développés, which involve a sustained unfolding action of the leg. Starting in a closed standing position (usually 5th), one leg is lifted upwards, with the toe maintaining contact with the supporting leg, into retiré position, before extending into the air.

Développés can be performed in all three directions (front, side and back) with a wide variety of arm positions and head alignments, but the working leg always goes through retiré position (with the toe by the side, in front of or behind the supporting knee, depending on the particular ballet style) before extending. The extended position may be either an attitude or fully stretched leg. In the latter case, développés to the back finish in arabesque position.

Développés are typically performed at the barre and in the centre as part of adage exercises. Whilst professional dancers may lift their legs above head height, young students should aim for a 45-90 degree angle, ensuring the développé action is fluid and that the leg is turned out. A typical basic développé exercise at the barre would involve développés in all three directions, each time followed by lowering the leg into tendu position and then closing back to a standing position. Royal Ballet dancer Romany Padjak demonstrates a slightly more advanced développé exercise below:
     

           
There are different schools of thought regarding the movement of the working hip during a développé. In English technique, the hip is usually kept down, as close to its starting position as possible. In other ballet styles, the working hip may be more noticeably lifted as the working leg is extended. Depending of the height of the leg, the alignment of the body may also have to adjust - either forwards or sideways depending on the développé direction - but such adjustment should be kept to a minimum.

Développés are performed in numerous ballets. In the grand pas de deux of The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy steps onto pointe, takes the Prince's hand and performs a développé to the front. Développés are also used in other dance styles. In Cats the musical, for example, Victoria (the white cat) has a développé to the side in her Act I solo.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

2014 Top 10 Dance

Dust
Photo: Patrick Balls
Here are my top 10 dance highlights for 2014:
  
Ashton’s choreography soared with Natalia Osipova as the unfulfilled housewife and Francesca Hayward as her lovesick teenage daughter.
  
Marianela Nunez in The Winter's Tale
Photo: Johan Persson
9. Shadows, part of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s mixed bill (November)
Christopher Bruce’s world premiere featured a fascinatingly claustrophobic family in which simmering emotions were left unexpressed under the need to conform to social convention.
  
Part of Sadler’s Sampled, two of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s reworked duets impressed with their innovativeness.
 
Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann's 1944 ballet powerfully conveyed its characters' self-loathing and desperation in the slums of Glasgow.
 
Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography brought Shakespeare’s play vividly to life, with great performances by dancers including Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson and Marianela Nuñez.
 
Dancers Jonathan Goddard, Clemmie Sveaas, Gemma Nixon and Christopher Akrill excelled in a diverse and engaging programme including humour and dance-drama.


Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Facada
Photo: Doug Gifford
4. Sushi Tap Show (August)
Tap Do!’s heart-warming and comedic Edinburgh Fringe show had me shouting out ‘kero kero’ and other strange words.

3. DV8's John (November)
This verbatim physical theatre work compellingly conveyed the disturbing, abusive and very sexual real-life narrative of the title figure.   
      
2. Facada, part of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev’s Solo for Two (August)
Arthur Pita’s tale of a jilted bride perfectly showcased the versatility of its two stars, even culminating with an aggressive solo for Osipova on her groom’s grave.
  
1. Dust, part of English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget (April)
Akram Khan combined animalistic movements with tenderly entwined shapes to powerful effect in his World War One inspired choreography.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Cats

Cats, London Palladium - reviewed on 18th December
Nicole Scherzinger
Photo: Alastair Muir / REX
     
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical has a strange story – of cats gathering for an annual ball to decide which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. But this strangeness aside, Cats is a great musical with catchy songs and utterly brilliant choreography by Gillian Lynne.
   
The London cast – headed by pop star Nicole Scherzinger – is on good form, impressing particularly in group dance numbers. As the characters’ human-like personalities – from burglar Mungojerrie to former glamour cat Grisabella – are introduced, it’s hard not to warm to their feline charm, and I haven’t been able to stop humming ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘Jellicle Ball’ since.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Matthew Bourne at Danceworks

Matthew Bourne in Conversation, Danceworks - 15th December
  
How did Matthew Bourne, a boy from East London, become such a celebrated choreographer? “It was always there” answered Bourne, to this huge opening question at Danceworks’ In Conversation evening. “From the age of four or five I went to see Disney movies and then tried to recreate them at home with other kids. I was usually the star, and my brother was often dressed as a woman to be my leading lady!”
 
Matthew Bourne
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Bourne’s parents introduced him to musical theatre and film at a young age, but he didn’t discover ballet and contemporary dance until his late teens. After leaving school, he worked in a box office, as a theatre usher and in the National Theatre bookshop. His first experience of ballet was seeing Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake at the age of 18 or 19: “I was surprised at how the swans moved. I expected them to be ethereal but they moved very quickly. I thought it was odd and eccentric, but I loved the music. I wanted to see another Swan Lake as soon as possible, so I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s version later that week. It was eye-opening how different the same ballet could be in different productions.”
  
After that, Bourne started seeing ballet and dance several times a week, as well as reading widely about the subject. At the age of 22, he applied to train at Laban and believes he was offered a place not on the basis of his audition (as he had no practical dance experience) but because of his enthusiasm in the interview. He studied on Laban’s three year degree course, focusing on choreography and dance history, and then joined Laban’s touring company, Transitions, for a fourth year.
 
After graduating in 1987, Bourne set up a dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, with some fellow students. It was funded initially through an Arts Council Encouragement Grant and weekly government enterprise allowances for people setting up new businesses. The company still exists today, under a slightly different name, as Bourne’s hugely successful New Adventures.
  
Bourne currently spends most of his time reviving (and revising) his existing works and only creates new pieces every 3-4 years. He has lots of ideas but always likes to create something that can be summed up in one short sentence, such as ‘Cinderella during the Blitz’ or ‘Swan Lake with male swans’. He can’t choose his favourite choreography as his works are like his children and are all special for different reasons.
 
Other choreographers Bourne enjoys watching are Mark Morris, Pina Bausch and Frederick Ashton. About the latter, Bourne described: “His works touch me. I get in a lovely place when I watch them. I love the variety – abstract, narrative, humour, full-length, cabaret-style.”
  
Despite his own focus on narrative works, Bourne tends to appreciate the more abstract choreography of others. When he does watch narrative dance, he gets frustrated when the storyline isn’t clearly conveyed. “You should be able to see the story onstage without reading it beforehand. You wouldn’t read the synopsis of a movie before you went to the cinema."
 
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Photo: Bill Cooper
Bourne regularly receives CVs from dancers who want to join his company, but he only holds auditions once a year. “Anyone whose letter starts with ‘dear Sir’ goes straight onto the ‘no’ pile. I’m looking for dancers who want to work with me and perform my choreography. If a dancer says ‘I love your work’, they’re half way there!
 
“During auditions, I’m considering whether dancers can do the rep and if they show passion. Politeness also goes along way. I need dancers who can work well together as they’ll be rehearsing and touring for long periods. So I look at how dancers get along with each other.”
 
Bourne reads reviews of his work, but only pays attention to the critics who generally like his style of choreography. He finds, however, that positive reviews have a limited effect on box office success. In contrast, his company recently invited celebrities to attend and tweet about Edward Scissorhands, and ticket sales doubled the next day.
 
Bourne finished by speaking about his future plans for New Adventures. In 2015, the company is touring both nationally and internationally. Bourne is also starting to think about his next creation, which may be a version of the famous 1948 ballet film, The Red Shoes

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 14th December

Photo: Phil Conrad

“Pretend you’re a five year old” Arthur Pita recommended when I spoke to him before a performance of his latest work, The Little Match Girl. But such a young mindset was unnecessary. Whilst his choreography is evidently intended for children, there is plenty to like as an adult too.
   
In the intimacy of the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, five dancers and musicians excel in his adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story. In the freezing cold winter (powerfully conveyed by Pita’s movements and Yann Seabra’s sets), an impoverished young girl tries desperately to sell some matches, before being beaten up and having her shoes stolen by a rival seller. Colder than ever and taunted by three wealthy residents enjoying a luxurious feast, the Match Girl sets fire to their house and then runs away to curl up by her grandmother’s grave. As she dies, her grandmother appears and helps her climb to the moon where she uses her matches to light the night stars.
  
Photo: Phil Conrad
The piece is extremely well done, with a combination of dance, song and speech (in Italian) that perfectly expresses the characters’ personalities and the hardship of the Match Girl. That is, with the exception of one very surreal scene in which the Match Girl arrives on the moon and dances with an astronaut. This bizarre interlude ruined the beautiful and emotional moment preceding it, in which the Match Girl lay dead in the snow, and should undoubtedly be cut.
   
This aside, The Little Match Girl is an excellent work with brilliant performances by all of the cast but especially the sprightly Corey Claire Annand in the title role. It's a sad tale for the festive season but one that captivates.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Ballet Black Insight Evening

Ballet Black insight evening, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 10th December
 
At Ballet Black’s insight event in the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio, Mark Bruce guided dancers through The Second Coming, his creation for the company’s 2015 mixed programme. Having last worked with the dancers in July, Bruce spent most of the evening asking them to perform and then trying to recall his original thought processes, focusing on the transitions between steps.
Bruce and Ballet Black Artistic Director Cassa Pancho also chatted about The Second Coming. Pancho commissioned a 30-40 minute narrative piece after seeing Bruce’s Dracula on tour last year. “It’s a narrative ballet in the broadest possible terms,” explained Bruce. “There’s a narrative that you can follow but it’s my work, so it’s dark, surreal and strange.

“I’d been reading old myths and the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales and was interested in the idea of someone who’s crucified and comes back after 2000 years. He would be pretty annoyed. There’s a wicked king in charge – maybe he’s the devil – and imagery of Mary Magdalene. The person who comes back could be the king’s lost son. He falls in love and has to make a choice. If it’s the wrong choice, he turns into a monster.
“That doesn’t make any sense, does it? But the Grimm fairy tales don’t make any sense either. The ballet has a general narrative and a philosophical narrative and I don’t want to share too much.”

After this frustratingly cryptic introduction, it will be interesting to see if Bruce’s work makes more sense once it’s on the Linbury Studio Theatre stage in February.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ballet Cymru's Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast, Ballet Cymru, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 28th November
 
At the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre last week, Beauty and the Beast wasn't as successful as Ballet Cymru's other works - like Little Red Riding Hood and Romeo and Juliet - that have been programmed at the same venue. It commenced charmingly, with words appearing on the backdrop as movement patterns rippled through ten dancers onstage in front. "Children believe what we tell them" the audience was reminded, with further text encouraging us to use our imagination. "It always begins with a child's 'open sesame'. Once upon a time..."

Whilst the ballet was well-performed, it has two main issues. The first is David Westcott's score, which is so melodic that it is completely at odds with the more dramatic passages of choreography. For example, When Belle enters the Beast's castle, music is almost lullaby-like in its lyricism, such that there is no sense of impending menace or the character's fear.

Secondly, Beauty and the Beast's narrative is difficult to follow. Darius James's  choreography gives a clear identity to the leading roles, but secondary characters are poorly-defined. The Beast also lacks impact in his movements, which are impaired by visually effective but choreographically restrictive stilt-like hooves.

The ballet has some lovely moments. As the Beast nears death and Belle rushes through the forest to see him, two female dancers are lifted in deep backbends to form an archway under which she travels. Projections work well to set each scene, and there's a delightful interaction between them and the live action onstage when a dancer seemingly uses a match to light the backdrop's fireplace. Beauty and the Beast also has a joyous finale, with streams of dancers leaping across the stage, although it's a shame there's isn't a final romantic pas de deux for the title characters.

Even though I was underwhelmed by this production, Ballet Cymru is still a company I greatly admire, and one that deserves to fly the metaphorical flag for high-quality ballet in Wales.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

November Round-up

Akram Khan in Torobaka
Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
 
The latest instalment of my ballet steps series explores grands battements.
    
Other writing:

A feature about Alicia Markova on Londondance
A review of Phoenix Dance Theatre's quadruple bill on Bachtrack
A review of Rambert's Triptych on Londonist

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Provisional Landscapes

Balikbayan/ Tokyo Tokyo/ OneSquareMeter/ Provisional Landscapes, Avatâra Ayuso Dance Company, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre - reviewed on 24th November

Estela Merlos in Balikbayan
 Photo: Arnau Stephenson
What comes across most strongly during Avatâra Ayuso’s quadruple bill is the choreographer’s attention to detail. There is not a moment where movement feels haphazard or time-filling; every step is carefully planned, has a clear dynamic and contributes to Ayuso’s wider intention for each work. Whilst its meaning isn’t always clear, choreography is undoubtedly captivating.

Balikbayan, a solo for former Rambert dancer Estela Merlos, opens the evening. Inspired by the migration experiences of Filipino women, Merlos commences upside down with a bright yellow skirt hiding her upper body as she flexes her feet and legs. Standing up, the dancer’s movements become increasingly frantic as a voiceover repeats foreign words. With a watery white paste on her hands, Merlos then grabs sections of skin, smearing the paste until she is covered in a blotchy mess that reflects her inner feelings of disorientation and alienation. The lights go down as Merlos stands in a warrior-like wide knee bend, roughly slapping her thighs as if preparing for battle.

Tokyo Tokyo, a dance film starring and directed by Ayuso, breaks the tension created in Balikbayan.  Only a few minutes long, it’s filled with surprises as three dancers in kimonos swing from industrial railings and pass around a mysterious wooden box. What stands out in particular is the vivid movement and colour of the dancers against the muted grey background of the title city.
 
A duet for Blair Tookey and Julie Ann Minaai, OneSquareMeter, explores the claustrophobia of living in overcrowded London. In a square pool of light, the dancers start standing and staring expressionlessly into the audience. Their first movements are minute vibrations which are gradually transformed into full-bodied swoops and stretches. As choreography develops, dancers travel between different wells of light around the stage, visibly relaxing, straightening their hair and massaging tight joints in the darkness. But each time they return to the linear confines of a lit square, they become spirited and animalistic again – both fighting for space and superiority but also seeking comfort and support from each other.
Avatâra Ayuso and Estela Merlos in Provisional Landscapes
Photo: Pau Ross

Provisional Landscapes (which also gives its name to the bill as a whole) completes the evening. To a looping eight bar section of music by Antonio Vivaldi, five masked dancers walk and roll around in varying patterns, repeatedly pausing as if suddenly frozen in time. Fluid solos, duets and group numbers are stilted by a sudden and invisible need to stop, with movements becoming increasingly aggravated as the score remains unrelenting.

As a first full-length evening of Ayuso’s choreography, Provisional Landscapes is exceptionally promising. The bill’s overall theme – which centres around travel and the frustration of human experience, whether staying in the same place or migrating – is strongly present and draws works together.
 
At times it’s hard to understand the emotional intention of Ayuso’s choreography, but there’s no doubt a meaning is present in her beautifully crafted steps. Ayuso’s work is more well-considered, more dynamic and more engaging than many contemporary dance creators, and she deserves more opportunities to shine.

Monday, 24 November 2014

GFest Mythical Dance

S(He)-dom: freedom versus he-or-she-dom/ Mohini: god becomes enchantress, RADA Studios - reviewed on 20th November
 
Kali Chandrasegaram in
 S(He)-dom: freedom
versus he-or-she-dom
South Asian dance may seem like an unusual choice for a gay festival, but Kali Chandrasegaram’s S(He)-dom: freedom versus he-or-she-dom explored several important issues for the LGBT community. Commencing in silhouette behind a screen, Chandrasegaram’s hands and body fluttered through a range of traditional South Asian postures and gestures. Emerging into full light, the dancer’s traditionalism then became more questionable as his eclectic costume – draped sari-like fabric combined with a fitted faux leather corset – became visible.
 
“Clothes don’t define whether you’re a man or a woman” he stated, directly addressing the audience. “Why are female toilets represented by the symbol of someone wearing a skirt?” questioned his (unnamed) dance partner.
 
Whilst these key ideas about gender and the perception of masculinity and femininity represented the warm heart of the work, its execution was severely lacking. Dancers stuttered over their speeches, the rap band Ajah UK’s lyrics were inaudible and danced sequences appeared under-rehearsed. It was clear that both creators and performers had not had enough time to make S(He)-dom’s interesting concept into the engaging and challenging piece that it could have been.
 
Completing the evening, Justin McCarthy’s Mohini: god becomes enchantress was a much slicker affair. Performed by its choreographer, traditional dance sections were interspersed with textual and image-based slides telling ancient Indian stories. McCarthy's movements were effortless but I lacked the necessary South Asian dance knowledge to understand the meaning behind them.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

John

John, DV8 Physical Theatre, National Theatre - reviewed on 13th November
 
In DV8’s John, the audience is launched head-first into the disturbing real-life narrative of the title figure. As the stage revolves to reveal numerous scenes, we are guided through John’s abusive early years to his adulthood of drug-taking, crime and casual sex.

Through a combination of speech and movement, choreographer Lloyd Newson creates a work that blurs the lines between reality and art. There are moments of humour, but the overriding feeling is one of raw, tortured emotion, of pain that will not go away. John is as compelling as it is confrontational. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

In Memory of Hollie

In Memory of Hollie, Royal Ballet School - reviewed on 13th November

It would be easy to respond to death – and particularly to a death as tragic as that of Hollie Gazzard, who was murdered aged just 20 by her ex-boyfriend – with sadness and anger alone. But Brogan McKelvey, Royal Ballet School second year student and friend of Gazzard, has decided instead to raise money for a trust in her name which increases awareness of domestic violence.
 
At the Royal Ballet School last week, two classical routines choreographed by McKelvey were performed, along with an understated plea to donate to the Hollie Gazzard Trust. Fellow second year student Joseph Sissens also danced a self-choreographed tap number to one of Gazzard’s favourite songs.
 
The programme was completed with impressive performances of the Waltz of the Flowers from Rudolf Nureyev’s The Nutcracker by Royal Ballet School first years, and the Act I waltz from Swan Lake by second years. Graduate year students Chisato Katsura and Gareth Haw also showed Kenneth MacMillan’s Chanson pas de deux.
 
The brief performance was a not only a wonderful tribute to Hollie Gazzard, but also a great demonstration of the talent, determination and tenacity of Royal Ballet School students.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Age of Anxiety Triple Bill

Bennet Gartside, Steven McRae, Laura Morera and Tristan Dyer in The Age of Anxiety
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH

Ceremony of Innocence/ Age of Anxiety/ Aeternum, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 7th November

The Royal Ballet's latest triple bill combines a world premiere, a London premiere and a revival, all loosely tied together by the fact that they use music created during the 1930s and 1940s.

Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety forms the centrepiece. Both its choreography and accompanying score (by Leonard Bernstein) are inspired by W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem of the same name. Three men (Steven McRae, Bennet Gartside and Tristan Dyer) and one woman (Laura Morera) form an unlikely friendship around bar stools and bottles of beer, continuing to socialise until early the next morning in the woman's apartment.

The four characters are enticingly portrayed across a range of emotions from despair to lust. Towards the end, the ballet starts to feel repetitive, but a gay subplot provides renewed interest in the final moments. The Age of Anxiety is a testament to Scarlett’s ability to create both effective narrative and interesting classical choreography onstage.

Kim Brandstrup’s Ceremony of Innocence explores lost youth. Its hints of storyline are unclear, but choreography is expressive and Jordan Tuinman’s remarkably versatile lighting design provides a fascinating backdrop. Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum closes the bill in style with beautiful neo-classical shapes performed effortlessly by Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Nehemiah Kish.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Forbidden Broadway

Forbidden Broadway, Vaudeville Theatre - reviewed on 5th November
 
Photo: Alastair Muir
Four very talented performers mock an array of popular musicals and stage stars in Forbidden Broadway. Singing the shows’ songs with revised lyrics – complaining of virtually everything from neck pain caused by heavy headdresses to child exploitation – the result is laugh-out-loud funny.

I enjoyed imitations of Once (pictured), Wicked, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and many other shows.  But some sections, particularly those based on individual performers, went over my head as I had no frame of reference for the originals.

If you like humour and musical theatre, Forbidden Broadway is a fun way to enjoy both, though only the most devoted fans will follow the show in its entirety.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cassandra

Cassandra, Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 1st November
 
Olivia Cowley
Photo: ROH / Andrej Uspenski
Cassandra poses several interesting questions about mental illness: What is it? How does it occur? Does treatment actually help?

Unfortunately, Ludovic Ondiviela’s choreography doesn’t provide the answers. Whilst his captivating opening number includes dancers rapidly changing places and leaning on tables to form interesting shapes, other moments lack both innovation and expressiveness.
  
As Cassandra (Olivia Cowley) experiences visions and goes into hospital, the choreography shows her (and her family’s) discomfort, but doesn’t explain her feelings or what is going on in her head. The title character’s relationship to her ancient namesake, singer Ana Silvera, is also unclear.
  
Cassandra’s subject matter is interesting but the choreography leaves too many issues unresolved.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Torobaka

Torobaka, Akram Khan and Israel Galván, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 3rd November
  
Akram Khan and Israel Galván in Torobaka
Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
In Torobaka, Akram Khan and Israel Galván combine their respective dance styles of kathak and flamenco. Whilst the show is a clear demonstration of both dancers’ skills, its choreography is hard to connect with.
  
On a bare stage with only a large circle of coloured flooring centre stage, Torobaka starts in silence as Khan and Galván battle for rhythmic superiority. Five musicians punctuate their key movements with vocalisations and drum beats, although without the precise timing required for maximum impact. As choreography develops, the similarities between kathak and flamenco become apparent, as both include rhythmical stamping and expressive arm and hand gestures.
   
Through the rest of the 80 minute show, the two dancers perform alone and together (with musician-only interludes in between), but action becomes increasingly difficult to engage with. A hand-over-mouth motif is repeated as performers try to drown out each others’ vocals. Other movements either demand easy laughs or feel introverted and uninviting. The show seems more like an experimental exercise for those onstage rather than a performance designed for an audience.
   
Khan and Galván are extremely talented performers but their combined choreography for Torobaka left me underwhelmed.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Ballet Steps: Grand Battement

In the 13th edition of my ballet steps series, I explore grands battements. These involve a throwing action of the leg and are typically performed as the last exercise at the barre, just before dancers move into the centre. Royal Ballet dancer Romany Pajdak demonstates below (note that she turns away from the barre which is a particularly complex alignment):
 

Grand battements are performed to the front, side and back, and have the impetus of a strong kick, but the positioning of the leg needs to be precise and controlled. Feet commence in 1st or 5th position and then one - usually the foot furthest from the barre - moves along along the floor until it is pointed (like a battement tendu) before lifting upwards. The action is completed in reverse to return to a standing position on two feet. Both knees stay straight throughout and the hips should remain level.
 
Arms are variable but often they are placed in 5th, 2nd and arabesque for the three directions - front, side and back respectively - of grands battements. The upper body needs to have a feeling of ease and remains still for grands battements to the front and side. The spine needs to adjust by tilting slightly forwards for grands battements derrière (to the back).

Northern Ballet dancers Filippo Di Vilio and Dominique Larose
Photo: Martin Bell
The height of a grand battement can range from below 90o for a young student, to 180o for more experienced dancers.  It is important when learning the movement to start with a much slower action, emphasising the use of the floor as the foot moves into battement tendu position and paying close attention to posture and positioning as the leg lifts.

Common technical problems in grands battements include raising the working hip, bending either leg, losing turn-out, over-tilting the upper body and not going through the tendu position. Grands battements to the side are particularly tricky as a strong rotational action is required in the hip to maintain turn-out. The leg should travel upwards from the tendu position to reflect the pelvic range of motion, which is usually in a diagonal direction between front and side. Only a dancer with 'flat' turn-out will be able to raise the leg absolutely sideways with the correct technique and positioning.
 
Grands battements may be performed in the centre as well as at the barre. Another variation is grands battements en cloche, which swing from front to back, moving through 1st position instead of closing.

When correctly performed, grands battements provide excellent training for the leg lifts required in ballet choreography. My dance teacher would always tell me to try and "hit my nose" with my foot in grands battements to the front. While this would have been by no means desirable, it did encourage me to raise my leg as high as possible!

Friday, 31 October 2014

October Round-up

Yasmine Naghdi, Vadim Muntagirov,
Marianela Nunez and Yuhui Choe
 in Symphonic Variations
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
This month I have written blogs on Deaf Men Dancing, The Five & the Prophecy of Prana, Shadows of War, the ROH Ashton bill and the ROH MacMillan Wikipedia editathon.

The latest instalment of my ballet steps series considers foot positions.
    
Other writing:

A review of Beauty and the Beast for Londonist

A feature on Tring Park School for the Performing Arts (p.23) and review of the National Youth Ballet (p.73) in Dancing Times, November issue

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

MacMillan Wikipedia Editathon

MacMillan Wikipedia Editathon, Royal Opera House - 25th October

Federico Bonelli, Christopher Saunders & Marianela Nuñez in Manon
Photo: Alice Pennefather / ROH

On Saturday morning, Royal Ballet staff, dance lovers and Wikipedia enthusiasts gathered in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre restaurant to update information about Kenneth MacMillan on Wikipedia.
  
I added background information and open night casting to the entry about Manon, but the editathon highlight was hearing from Monica Mason, who created many MacMillan roles, and Jann Parry, who wrote the choreographer’s biography. 
  
Parry highlighted the key themes in MacMillan’s choreography, including claustrophobic family life, loss of innocence, physical infatuation and being a social outcast. Mason described MacMillan’s passion for new interpretations, repeating his words that ballets need to be “recreated rather than repeated” and emphasising his warmth and genius.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ballet Steps: Foot Positions

1st position
In the latest instalment of my ballet steps series, I look at the basic ballet positions of the feet, which are fundamental both for technique and choreography.
 
In 1st position, the heels are placed together with the toes pointing outwards, usually forming a ‘v’ shape. If a dancer has particularly good turn out, the feet may be in a straight line, but this should not be forced unless the hips can maintain the position without overly stressing the rest of the legs. In certain ballet styles, the heels may be placed slightly apart, especially if the dancer has swayback knees.
  
Marianela Nunez in Apollo
 (4th position on pointe)
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
2nd position is like a wide 1st position with feet apart. To form 2nd, the dancer needs to stand in 1st, point one foot to the side, and then lower the heel of the pointed foot. This gives the correct distance between the feet for most uses of 2nd position, although a slightly smaller gap is common when doing pointe work. The distance is approximately one and a half times the length of the dancer's foot.

4th position also involves feet that are apart, but this time with one in front of the other. There are two variations – open 4th, where the edge of the front heel is in alignment with the edge of the back heel (appearing like 1st position from the front), and closed 4th, where the front heel is in alignment with the toe of the back foot (appearing like 5th position from the front). Grand pliés change according to whether the open or closed position is used – the heels stay on the floor in the former, but lift in the latter. The gap between the feet is also typically smaller - equivalent to the length of one of the dancer's feet - in closed 4th. The picture to the left shows a very wide 4th position on pointe.   
   
5th position involves placing one foot in front of the other, such that the legs are ‘crossed’ with the heel of one foot in line with the toe of the other foot. It’s a particularly useful position because the body weight is centralised, such that the centre of gravity does not have to be shifted when one leg is lifted.
   
3rd and 5th positions
3rd position is rarely used in professional ballet and is instead a training position for young students. It is like 5th position, but the front heel is aligned with the arch – rather than toe – of the back foot. 
    
There are several potential problems in all positions of the feet. Weight is often incorrectly placed, such that it is not distributed evenly between and across the feet. Forcing the feet to turn out excessively is problematic and results in misalignment in the knees as well as ‘rolling’, where the feet rock forward rather than staying flat on the floor. In the wide positions (4th and 2nd), it can also be tricky to get the distance between the feet correct.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

ROH Ashton Bill

Helen Crawford in Five Brahms Waltzes
 in the manner of Isadora Duncan
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
Scènes de Ballet/ Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan/ Symphonic Variations / A Month in the Country, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 22nd October
 
The Royal Ballet’s Frederick Ashton quadruple bill is mixed in quality. The rapid footwork and geometric shapes of Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations feel under rehearsed, but the evening’s other two works delight.
  
In Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, Romany Pajdak gives a confident and engaging performance as the title dancer. But it is the beautiful choreography, evocative Chopin music and well-considered interpretations of A Month in the Country that please most. Natalia Osipova excels as the unfulfilled housewife, dancing an exquisite duet with lover Federico Bonelli. Francesca Hayward also impresses as Osipova’s daughter. It’s heart-breaking that the characters don’t get a happy ending.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Shadows of War

La Fin du Jour/ Miracle in the Gorbals/ Flowers of the Forest, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th October
  
Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond in
La Fin du Jour
Photo: Roy Smiljanic
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War is a real contrast to its fairy tale Beauty and the Beast performed earlier in the week. The triple bill’s links to war are tenuous, but its range of emotion – from elation to despair – is captivating.
  
Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour opens the evening. Bursting in through a door at the back of the stage, a group of enthusiastic young people enjoy swimming, flirting and dancing. Set to a score by Maurice Ravel and led by Yvette Knight, Tyrone Singleton, Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence, the ballet is filled with joy and exuberance. Only right at the end does the impending war become clear when the onstage door is closed and dancers freeze as the lights go down.
  
The bill’s weakest work, David Bintley’s Scottish-themed Flowers of the Forest, ends the performance. Commencing with a playful and humorous section for four dancers in tartan, the ballet quickly becomes tiresome in the later, more sombre group numbers.
 
Sandwiched between these two works is Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann's 1944 Miracle in the Gorbals. Set in the slums of Glasgow and with evocative designs (including high windows with skeletal figures looking out) by Adam Wiltshire (after Edward Burra), the ballet’s setting and narrative bear more than a passing resemblance to MacMillan’s The Judas Tree.
   
Amidst the busy crowds of lovers, shopkeepers and beggars, a girl – performed beautifully by Delia Matthews – dances a desperate solo before deciding to commit suicide. As her body is brought up from the river, desolate crowds gather until a mysterious Stranger (César Morales) emerges and is able – miraculously – to bring her back to life. Horrified at being outshone, the Minister (Iain Mackay) attempts unsuccessfully to humiliate the Stranger and finally – through the actions of a local gang – kills him.

Delia Mathews and Iain Mackay in Miracle in the Gorbals
Photo: Roy Smiljanic

What struck me most about the ballet was how well it was able to convey its characters’ self-loathing. Both the Suicide and the Minister are driven to violence by their self-hatred and lack of others’ approval. I was also impressed by the way in which the very simple choreography was performed by BRB’s dancers to create such a clear and compelling narrative. 
  
Miracle in the Gorbals is a real gem, and it’s wonderful that Gillian Lynne has brought it back to life (just as the Stranger does with the Suicide). It was certainly the highlight of the Shadows of War bill and is a testament to the talents of Birmingham Royal Ballet – not only in performing it so effectively onstage but also in commissioning and realising its reincarnation.