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!