Thursday, 31 December 2015

December Round-up

Carlos Acosta
in A Classical Selection
Photo: Johan Persson
This month there are blogs about Carlos Acosta's A Classical Selection and Nutcracker on Ice at the Royal Albert Hall.

The latest instalment of the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores balancés.

Other writing:
An interview with Royal Ballet dancer Leticia Stock on Londondance
A feature article about London Studio Centre (p.TBC) in Dancing Times, January issue

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Nutcracker on Ice

The Nutcracker on Ice, Imperial Ice Stars, Royal Albert Hall - reviewed on 29th December

When the Imperial Ice Stars performed The Nutcracker on Ice in 2013, they were hampered by the small size of the London Palladium stage. Now at the much larger Royal Albert Hall, I expected bigger and better tricks, but whilst Tony Mercer's choreography has several brilliant moments, much of it fails to impress.

Movements seem to bear little connection with the music, performers are out of time with each other, and - with the notable exception of Nutcracker Prince Vladislav Lysoi - there's a lack of artistry and effective conveyance of character. Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score is also completely butchered, with the ordering completely altered and various segments repeated to excess.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy in The Nutcracker on Ice's duets and solos, with tricks including lifts, jumps and numerous pirouettes. The lyrical duet between Mariia Vygaloca and Lysoi at the end of Act I is really beautiful, Diana Malygina and Mariya Kayl wow with their Arabian aerial tricks performed 10 metres off the ground.

I'd prefer a more artistic and musical Nutcracker (such as Peter Wright's ballet at the Royal Opera House) but there's still a touch of magic and plenty of festive spirit in the Imperial Ice Stars' version. Yesterday evening's audience even gave the production a standing ovation.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Carlos Acosta's A Classical Selection

A Classical Selection, Carlos Acosta and friends, London Coliseum - reviewed on 8th December

A Classical Selection is Carlos Acosta's stylish swansong before he retires from the ballet world. In a diverse array of repertoire celebrating his remarkable career, he's accompanied by eight dancers from the Royal Ballet - including both well-known principals such as Zenaida Yanowsky and younger, rising corps de ballet members.

Marianela Nunez and Carlos Acosta 
in Diana and Actaeon pas de deux
Photo: Johan Persson
At 42, Acosta freely admits that he's "not doing the steps as brilliantly" as when he was younger. But he excels in the evening's bravura tricks, pirouetting and leaping spectacularly in a thoroughly sparkling Diana and Actaeon pas de deux alongside (an equally radiant) Marianela Nuñez. He also perfectly demonstrates what he describes as being "in a different artistic league" to his younger self. Ben Van Cauwenbergh's Les Bourgeois solo is a gala staple with its humorous drunkeness and dynamic jumps, but Acosta takes it to another level with crisp gestures conveying the choreography's narrative with real clarity.

Acosta's other performances are less memorable. An extract from George Balanchine's Agon is technically pleasing but doesn't inspire, and in the evening's finale - Georges Garcia's Majisimo - the eight-strong cast lacks synchronicity.

Repertoire by Acosta's Royal Ballet co-stars is generally strong, but it's Yuhui Choe who shines brightest. She's charming and delicate in the title role of La Sylphide (Act II pas de deux) and contrastingly striking and powerful in Van Cauwenbergh's Je ne regrette rien.

What is most interesting in A Classical Selection, however, is Acosta's inclusion of a dancer rest area - consisting of two sofas and a barre - at the back of the stage. Hidden by a curtain during performances, the area comes into view between repertoire and at the end of the show. We see dancers stretching, adjusting their costumes, changing shoes and drinking water in an intimate portrayal of life backstage.

It's as if Acosta wants to show the joy he experiences not only when performing but also in these quieter moments with his ballet dancing family. As he moves onto pastures new, it's clear that he'll be very much missed by both his colleagues and audiences alike.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Ballet Steps: Balancés

The latest instalment of the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores balancés.

Balancés are small ‘waltzing’ movements that involve three steps of the feet. In a balancé de côté (sideways), one leg steps out to the side – as widely as possible – onto a flat foot, with the other foot following with a step behind on demi-pointe (the ball of the foot). Staying on the spot, the movement is completed with a final flat-footed step on the front foot. All steps are en fondu (with bent knees). 

As well as sideways, balancés can be performed en avant (to the front) or en arrière (to the back). Regardless of the direction of the first step, the second foot always steps behind the front foot, although sometimes the step is taken on pointe rather than demi-pointe. A similar movement – the pas de valse or waltz step – is identical to a balancé except that the second leg steps in front of the first. Both balancés and waltz steps are usually performed in sequence – going side to side or backwards and forwards – and can also travel, typically backwards or en tournant (turning).

There are a wide variety of arm lines for balancés. When taken sideways, the arms are often placed in either 3rd or 4th, with the same arm as front leg out to the side (changing each time the balancé changes side). Alternatively, one hand may be placed on the hip with the other moving between demi-bras and 1st position. For balancés forward, arms are often in 1st arabesque, whilst for balancés backward, 3rd position is common.

Balancés and waltz steps are found in many classical ballets, such as The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Coppelia. Here’s the Friends dance from Sleeping Beauty, which includes balancés at 1.15:

Monday, 30 November 2015

November Round-up

A Laine Theatre Arts student
This month there's a blog about the Royal New Zealand Ballet's A Passing Cloud quadruple bill.

Other writing:
An interview with English National Ballet dancer Madison Keesler on Londondance
A review of Elf the Musical on Londonist
A feature article about Laine Theatre Arts (p.TBC) in Dancing Times, December issue

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Royal New Zealand Ballet's A Passing Cloud

The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud/ Dear Horizon/ Passchendaele/ Selon Désir, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 17th November

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presented a disappointing quadruple bill at the Linbury Studio Theatre. I reviewed and really enjoyed the company at the Barbican in 2011, but was left sadly uninspired this time.

Mayu Tanigaito in Dear Horizon
Photo: Ellie Richards
In Javier de Frutos's The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud, 11 dancers commenced in a circle, bowing their heads in turn towards a central dancer. Then celebrating the culture of New Zealand, the piece moved through a series of varied but very episodic scenes accompanied by disjointed segments of local music - from singing by the Yandall Sisters to spoken word and Maori percussion. The most interesting choreography had a touch of humour, such as when a female dancer bounced up and down between two men as if on an invisible trampoline, and when another dancer giggled and stepped back just in time to avoid a fellow performer's kick jump.

The evening's two centrepieces were created for a programme commemorating the centenary of the Gallipoli landings earlier this year. Gareth Farr's commissioned score for Dear Horizon provided more interest than Andrew Simmons' classically-inspired choreography, though the moment when six men fell simultaneously backwards into their partners' arms stood out for its beauty. Neil Ieremia's Passchendaele was the bill's shortest piece (at just 11 minutes) and the most successful choreographically. In its emotive ending, female dancers embraced their male partners while they fell to the floor, before leaving their (dead) bodies motionless onstage as the final bars of music played.

The evening's conclusion - Selon Désir, which was originally created for the Ballet du Grande Théâtre de Genève - was my least favourite work. It featured a chaotic stream of rapidly swirling and leaping dancers (and their free-flowing hair) that was at odds with the accompanying Bach choral score, though it was performed with conviction and boundless energy by the company.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

October Round-up

Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nunez in Carmen
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
This month there are blogs about Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew BallFrancesca Hayward's debut in Romeo and Juliet and a quadruple Royal Ballet bill including Carlos Acosta's new Carmen.

The latest instalment in the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores turn out, the outward rotation of the legs from the hips that epitomises classical ballet technique.

Other writing:
A review of ZooNation's Into the Hoods on Londonist
A feature about Millennium Performing Arts (p.25) and reviews of Cas Public's Symphonie Dramatique (p.55), the Genee International Ballet Competition (p.101) and the National Youth Ballet's annual gala (p.103) in Dancing Times, November issue

Friday, 30 October 2015

Carmen Quadruple Bill

Viscera/ Afternoon of a Faun/ Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux/ Carmen, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 26th October

Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nuñez in Carmen
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
Carlos Acosta’s new Carmen is as sexy as it is rough around the edges. Work is needed on corps de ballet choreography, but principal duets exude passion and drama. The narrative is crystal clear, with moments of humour and interesting character development for Marianela Nuñez’s Carmen – from dominant with Acosta’s Don José to timid and feminine with Federico Bonelli’s Escamillo. Dancing is also enhanced by live singing from the Royal Opera Extra Chorus.

Carmen is accompanied by Liam Scarlett’s playful Viscera and Jerome Robbins’ narcissistic Afternoon of a Faun. Steven McRae excels in the firework leaps of George Balanchine’s virtuosic Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Romeo and Juliet (Francesca Hayward debut)

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Golding 
in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: ROH / Alice Pennefather
Romeo and Juliet, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 23rd October

Francesca Hayward made a youthful and sprightly Juliet on Friday. Paired with the fresh-faced timidity of Sander Blommaert as Paris, she was enthusiastic if tentative. It wasn't until faced with Matthew Golding's Romeo that she suddenly matured, tilting her head back in exultation at his every touch in the most exquisitely sexually-charged balcony pas de deux I've seen.

Hayward was heart-breaking when faced with her parents' wrath in Act III, but left me less moved in the final death scene. Nevertheless, it was an impressive and sensitively interpreted debut that will no doubt develop over time.

Superb acting also came from Kristen McNally as an unusually sympathetic Lady Capulet.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball

An afternoon with Royal Ballet dancers, Ivy House Music and Dance, JW3 - reviewed on 11th October

Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball in Onegin
Photo: Dave Morgan

In its plush new JW3 venue on Finchley Road, Ivy House Music and Dance presented an afternoon showing a much condensed 'day in the life' of two Royal Ballet dancers - first artist Matthew Ball, who joined the company in 2013. and soloist Yasmine Naghdi, who joined in 2010. The pair recently debuted in the leading roles in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, and last year gave excellent performances as Olga and Lensky in John Cranko's Onegin. Naghdi is also one of my favourite ballet dancers with her superb technique, thoughtful interpretations and radiant stage presence.

After an introduction by Gerald Dowler, the event commenced with an abridged ballet class taught by Ricardo Cervera, who described this part of a dancer's daily routine as a "very personal experience - everyone has a different body and a different pace and will prefer different teachers". What was surprising was how hands-on Cervera was, giving corrections to even these two extremely accomplished dancers. He focused particularly on lengthening the legs as much as possible, whether lowering from demi-pointe or performing a battlement tendu. He also reminded Ball to keep all five toes on the floor in his supporting leg - especially when preparing for pirouettes - and encouraged both dancers to lengthen the supporting side of the body during développés.

Yasmine Naghdi with Johannes Stepanek in Infra
Photo: ROH
Next, Cervera rehearsed the pair in their Act I ballroom variations from Romeo and Juliet. Both solos are very important for character development as the audience gets a glimpse into Romeo's lyrical and romantic side and sees Juliet away from the shadow of the Nurse and Paris.

Cervera encouraged Naghdi to show the different movement dynamics of the choreography and bend her body to demonstrate Juliet's playfulness. For Ball, he suggested the movement needed to be freer, reminding him that a dancer's "life depends on the [security of] the supporting leg, but the audience pays for the other one!". Naghdi also gave a little bit of insight into why she's so captivating and joyful onstage: "I go into a ballet trance. I've rehearsed so much that I don't have to think. My body takes over and does what I love most in the world - that's why I always smile."

The afternoon finished with a performance of the two solos as well as the Romeo and Juliet Act III bedroom pas de deux, and Finchley Road seemed temporarily and gloriously transformed into the Royal Opera House stage.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Ballet Steps: Turn Out

The latest instalment of the ballet steps series explores turn out – the outward rotation of the legs from the hips. 

Alina Cojocaru and Alejandro Virelles
in Swan Lake
Photo: Photography by ASH
Whilst used to some extent in many other dance styles, turn out – especially to the degree that is expected of modern-day ballet dancers – is very particular and integral to classical ballet technique. It comes primarily from the outward rotation of the femur (upper leg bone) in the hip socket, which is made possible by several deep hip rotator muscles. A small degree of additional rotation is also possible in the knee and ankle. Turn out means that when the feet are on the ground (such as in the five ballet foot positions), the toes point outwards, and when the legs are lifted, there is greater freedom of movement in the hip and therefore the potential for greater leg height.

An ideal turn out – of 180 degrees – is extremely rare, but a high level of natural (untrained) turn out in the hips is a prerequisite for entering most elite classical ballet schools. The level of natural turn out can be ascertained by lying on the floor with heels together and the knees dropped out to the side – the closer the knees are to the floor, the greater the natural outward rotation in the hip. Up to the age of around 11, bone structure is malleable and ballet exercises, if correctly performed, can permanently increase the degree of outward rotation in the hip. Older dancers can increase their level of turn out (to a lesser extent) by gradually increasing the hip’s outward rotation over time.  

Vadim Muntagirov in Onegin
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
For young amateur dancers, turn out can very difficult to master and outward rotation is often lost as soon as one leg is lifted off the ground. Serious ballet students are more likely to force more turn out than they are capable of, such that the feet roll forwards, the torso and/or upper body posture is incorrectly adjusted to compensate, and the glute muscles are over-activated. This can cause serious damage to the knees and ankles, as these are the joints which bear the strain of over-forced rotation.

If turned out correctly, the knees will be in line with the toes and weight will be distributed evenly across both sides of the feet. Fortunately, less than perfect turn out can be ‘masked’ by a dancer who is able to maintain their maximum level of outward rotation and employs correct leg and body placement.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

September Round-up

Melissa Hamilton and Ed Watson
in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH
This month there's just one blog, about the Royal Ballet's 'do it yourself' Romeo and Juliet insight evening.

Other writing:
A Review of English National Ballet School's end of term show (p.103) in Dancing Times, October issue

Friday, 25 September 2015

Royal Ballet Do It Yourself

Insights: Do it yourself, Royal Ballet, Clore Studio @ ROH - 22nd September

Federico Bonelli, Alexander Campbell and
Dawid Trzensimiech in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: ROH / Bill Cooper
Earlier this week, I made my Royal Opera House debut, dancing Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. (Alas, it was in the Clore Studio as part of a 'do it yourself' insight event and not on the main stage alongside Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae who were also dancing that night.)

Former Royal Ballet soloist David Pickering guided a group of around 50 mixed ability adults through a basic warm-up and ballet barre, before teaching the infamous Dance of the Knights. The steps were simple enough but what I found most challenging was trying to walk like a 'normal' person - in other words, not in ballet pointed-toe-first style - whilst still maintaining the held upper body and elegance of the choreography. I've often heard it said that dancers struggle to play peasant and other non-typically classical roles 'naturally' without displaying their dancer nuances, and now I've experienced first-hand how difficult it is.

This aside, I'm sure the Royal Ballet artistic staff were watching and will be offering me a contract any moment... And if not, I had a really fun evening learning some of the Romeo and Juliet choreography that I've admired for many years.

Monday, 31 August 2015

August Round-up

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's
La Bayadere
Photo: Konstantin Tachkin
This month there are reviews of Crystal Ballet's amateur adult Swan Lake and St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s La Bayadere.

The latest instalment of the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores fouettés.

Other writing:
A feature about Bird College (p.43) and reviews of the Ardani 25 Dance Gala (p.49) and Tring Park School's end of year show (p.75) in Dancing Times, September issue

Monday, 24 August 2015

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's La Bayadere

Photo: Andrei Klemeshev
La Bayadere, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, London Coliseum - reviewed on 22nd August

With one arm extended in front and one to the side, Irina Kolesnikova bows her head and bends her body forwards. Delicate movements ripple through her back to the soaring string sounds of Ludwig Minkus's score. This gorgeous moment (in Kolesnikova's Act I solo) was the undoubted highlight of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's La Bayadere.
Irina Kolesnikova
Photo: Konstantin Tachkin

Dancing was shaky during much of the rest of the ballet. The Act III Entrance of the Shades was the least syncronised I've seen with the leading female rushing ahead of the music and her 31 followers. Musicality and unison were equally lacking in most of the corps de ballet sections and dancers repeatedly looked sideways for clarification of poses and foot positions. (Whether they were under-rehearsed or just extremely tired - after a ten day run of Swan Lake - was unclear.)

In the leading roles, the Bolshoi Ballet's Denis Rodkin literally leapt into life during his dynamic and technically-challenging solos, but lacked charisma in the production's pas de deux and narrative sequences. Anna Samostrelova and Miho Naotsuko gave crisp and confident Shades variations, whilst Kolesnikova excelled in Acts I and II but seemed less suited to Act III's dreaminess.

Notable throughout was the beauty of La Bayadere's music, played by the St Petersburg Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Timur Gorkovenko. The orchestra pit's exquisite performance frequently outshone the action onstage.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Crystal Ballet Swan Lake

Swan Lake, Crystal Ballet Associates, Greenwood Theatre - reviewed on 2nd August

Crystal Ballet’s amateur adult dancers had the near-impossible task of trying to stage a full-length Swan Lake – a ballet typically lasting three hours – in just one week. With four acts of 10 minutes each, their version was much shorter than the original, but it made for an entertaining performance with all the key elements of the story covered.

Choreography was adapted to suit a very wide range of abilities and levels of experience, with highlights including the Act II swans and some excellent acting in Act III. Claire Alajooz stood out particularly as a confident and elegant Odette.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Ballet Steps: Fouettés

The latest installment of the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores fouettés, the technically-challenging pirouettes on one leg found in many ballets.
  
Alina Cojocaru and Alejandro Virelles
in Swan Lake
Photo: Photography by ASH
The word fouetté means 'whipped' and can be applied to a 'whipping' movement of the leg in various different ballet contexts. For example, a fouetté can involve one leg staying in the same position in space but shifting in terms of its relationship to the torso (such as from in front to arabesque) with the supporting foot pivoting or jumping to realign the rest of the body. Contrastingly, a battlement fouetté, which is usually performed at the barre, involves the working leg commencing lifted to the side and then striking the floor as the foot comes in to end pointed either in front of or behind the supporting leg. This blog, however, refers specifically to fouetté turns, or, to be more precise, fouettés ronds de jambe en tournant.
  
Fouettés are performed predominantly by female dancers and usually begin with a double pirouette (often commencing in plié in 4th position) as preparation. As the final preparatory spin is completed and the supporting heel returns to the floor with the knee bent, the working leg remains off the floor and performs the ‘whipping’ fouetté movement, by extending directly forward and then circling to the side. The working leg returns to pirouette position (bent, with the foot placed just below the opposite knee) as the supporting leg relevés and the dancer pirouettes again. This sequence can be completed multiple times with each pirouette landing forming the beginning of the next fouetté. A series of fouettés is usually finished with a final virtuosic pirouette – typically including three or more spins – to land with both feet on the floor.
   
An alternative way of performing fouettés involves extending the working leg directly to the side and straight back into pirouette position, rather than including the forward extension first. Dancers can also choose whether to perform single fouettés, where the body makes one 360o spin in between each ‘whipped’ movement of the working leg, or multiple (usually double) fouettés. The key feature is that after the preparatory pirouette, the working leg must stay off the floor. Ideally, dancers should also remain on the spot with the supporting leg landing in exactly the same position each time, although some choreography involves fouettés travelling forward.
  
Fouettés are often included in pas de deux coda (following a duet, male solo and female solo). There are the infamous 32 fouettés for Odile in Swan Lake (although contemporary dancers often include more than 32 spins within the music), and fouettés feature in numerous other ballets including Le Corsaire, Grand Pas Classique and Flames of Paris.
  
Here is Natalia Osipova performing the Don Quixote '32' fouettés twice in the same performance. She combines both single and double turns and spins much faster than most ballerinas:

Friday, 31 July 2015

July Round-up

Inala
Photo: Tristram Kempton
This month there are blogs about Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella and the Royal Ballet School's annual matinee.

Other writing:
A preview of New Art Club's Hercules on Londonist
A review of Inala: a Zulu ballet on Londonist
A feature about London Contemporary Dance School (p.31) and a review of Urdang Academy's Graduate Revue (p.66) in Dancing Times, August issue

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Royal Ballet School Annual Matinee 2015

Annual matinee, Royal Ballet School, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 12th July

The Royal Ballet School looked thoroughly professional in its annual matinee on the Royal Opera House main stage.

Young students opened the programme, performing the Mazurka des Enfants from Paquita with confidence and poise. A lengthy extract from La Bayadere followed, with upper school students impressing particularly in corps de ballet and small group choreography. In the principal roles, Chisato Katsura (who stood out in the school’s Raymonda last year and will shortly be joining the Royal Ballet company) gave a charming but uncharacteristically wobbly performance, whilst Francisco Serrano was technically excellent but lacking the artistic interpretation which Katsura showed in spades.

Graduating students excelled in Jiří Kylián’s Sechs Tänze, a rather bizarre 1986 work featuring humour, absurdity and a lot of faux violence. Its ten-strong cast could easily have been mistaken for a contemporary company which specialised in performing Kylián’s choreography.

Second years impressed in Frederick Ashton’s playful Les Rendezvous. Koho Yanagisawa was particularly exquisite, displaying near-perfect mastery of the choreographer’s musicality, deep body bends and fast footwork. Joseph Sissens also shone with his excellent technique, charming characterisation and solid partnering.

The Grand Défilé is always the matinee’s highlight, and this year was no exception. The school’s youngest students opened with simple and elegant steps, and final year boys completed the afternoon with dynamic leaps and pirouettes.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Cinderella, Dutch National Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 9th July
    
Photo: Angela Sterling
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella disappoints. There are charming elements, such as the seated thigh-slapping group of ladies waiting to try on Cinderella’s discarded shoe, and the group of four Fates who follow the heroine throughout. But weak pas de deux and an overcomplicated narrative – including scenes of the Prince as a child, romance for one of Cinderella's stepsisters and even dancing conkers – left me longing for Frederick Ashton’s version.

Cinderella shines most in Julian Crouch's designs, particularly the season-replacement Spirits with their vibrantly coloured outfits complete with matching wigs and lipstick.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

June Round-up

Crystal Costa and James Forbat in A Room in New York
Photo: ASH

The latest installment of the Dance Musings ballet steps series explores arm positions.

Other writing:

A 'talking point' about whether choreographers need editors (p.12), a feature about youth ballet companies (p.19) and a review of Tring Park School's Encore Dance Company (p.79) in Dancing Times, July issue

Monday, 22 June 2015

Traces

Traces, 7 Fingers, Peacock Theatre - reviewed on 21st June

Photo: Alexandre Galliez
The seven performers of 7 Fingers have plenty of talent, whether back-flipping, climbing up poles or even playing piano. Their show Traces, however, includes a lot of silliness and out-of-context humour that doesn't always showcase these talents, and tricks designed to wow aren't error-free.

Nevertheless, there is lots to enjoy. From skateboarding to Cyr wheel, the troupe's circus skills are engaging. But Traces’ highlight is undoubtedly its hoop-jumping finale, with performers leaping through an array of stacked-up metal rings – backwards, forwards, sideways, alone, in pairs, legs-first, head-first, and in many other ways.  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Choreographics

Choreographics, English National Ballet, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 19 June

Choreographics, English National Ballet's annual platform for works created its dancers, showed the company to be in excellent form. Not only were performances sleek and well-rehearsed, but choreographic ideas - inspired by post-war America - were the most thoughtful and cohesive that I've seen from the company.

Laurretta Summerscales and Junor Souza in Fractured Memory
Photo: ASH
Max Westwell's first publicly-performed work, Fractured Memory, showed plenty of promise in three emotional pas de deux. From the blissfully romantic Daniele Silingardi and Katja Khaniukova to the mournful and passionate Laurretta Summerscales and Junor Souza (by way of an angry and desperate Madison Keesler and Jinhao Zhang), Westwell's choreography was both vibrantly alive and beautifully dreamlike and distant.

Fabian Remair's traumA was the evening's most innovative piece. Its three puppet-like men (Ken Saruhashi, Barry Drummond and Shevelle Dynott) knelt in tunnels of light and repeatedly reached out and fell to the ground, as if constantly replaying the memory of a soldier's final moments.

In Stina Quagebeur's A Room in New York, bold arm gestures and body lines represented hostility and unspoken frustration in an aggressive and emotive duet inspired by the the life of Edward Hopper. 

James Streeter's A Touch for Eternity plus two works by external choreographers - Renato Paroni de Castro and Morgann Runacre-Temple - had many interesting ideas but didn't hold my attention as strongly as the evening's other offerings. English National Ballet School's Joshua Legge also showed Babel, his dynamic and high-energy choreographic competition winner.

Overall, this was an evening of well-prepared and well-performed modern ballet choreography. Put simply, there needs to be more platforms like this.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Emma Press Anthology of Dance

The Emma Press Anthology of Dance (book) - reviewed on 14th June

"Dance is present at every stage of human life," writes editor Emma Wright in The Emma Press Anthology of Dance's introduction. "From lessons to courtships to celebrations and moments when music just demands a response, dance is an essential part of our textured existence."

Illuminating this textured existence in verse, the anthology features 42 short poems ranging from the prosaic to the word-sparse but united by a (not always immediately obvious) focus on dance. There's drunken staggering on new year's eve, a man who was left at the altar and now repeatedly rehearses his wedding dance, a family with three generations of dancers, and many things in between.

I seldom read poetry and found some of the verses hard to understand and appreciate, but there are several poems that put the emotion of dance beautifully into words. Rachel Piercey's The corps describes the dichotomy for corps de ballet dancers between enjoying the belonging and unity of their position but also desperately "longing to be set apart". As a response to being told her feet were like kippers, Rosie Sandler's Breathing underwater uses interesting fish and sea-based metaphors for dance, while Catherine Smith's My Dancers depicts her teenage dreams of 'dancing' out of school, which were materialised as drawings of ballerinas on her maths homework.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Russian Ballet DVD Collection

Swan Lake/ Giselle/ Don Quixote/ The Nutcracker/ Spartacus (DVDs), Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Theatre - reviewed on 3rd June

Four recordings from the 1970s and one from 1991 form RussianTeleRadio Worldwide's Russian Ballet Collection box set. Featuring classic productions by Yuri Grigorovich – Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Spartacus – which have shaped the company's history and secured its reputation on the world stage, these important films have been digitally restored and remastered to HD quality on DVD.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the most recently filmed Giselle, the ballets don't provide an entirely seamless onscreen experience. Images occasionally go out of focus, audience coughing is clearly audible, and low lighting frequently makes it hard to see the dancers onstage. Nevertheless, there is still plenty to enjoy in these five Russian works performed by some of the Bolshoi's most famous dancers.

Don Quixote is a real ballet gem. Headed by the charming, effervescent and effortlessly virtuosic Nadezhda Pavlova and Vyacheslav Gordeyev, the production is utterly joyous and looks as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was filmed in 1978. From 1979, Spartacus is also gloriously performed. Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova are an impassioned leading couple, with their final pas de deux – to Khachaturian's gorgeous soaring score – impressing particularly.

The Nutcracker (from 1978) looks contrastingly dated with Vasiliev and Maximova's onstage chemistry (which is evident in abundance in Spartacus) failing to translate onto camera. A highly elegant Waltz of the Flowers - featuring a large cast of romantic tutu-clad women and candelabra-wielding men - is the production's highlight. Swan Lake (from 1976) is performed in typically Russian style with Maya Plisetskaya and Alexander Bogatyrev at the helm. The array of national dances in Act III, including the beautifully understated Danse Russe (which is often cut from British productions of the ballet), please especially.

The Bolshoi Ballet's 1991 Giselle rounds off the box set with a glorious performance in the title role by Nina Ananiashvili. Wide eyed and sprightly in Act I and effortlessly ethereal in Act II, she is partnered capably by an ardent Victor Barykin.

Whilst these DVDs are not perfect, they are a wonderful tribute to the Bolshoi Ballet, its historical legacy and some of its great 20th Century artists.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ballet Steps: Arm Positions

The latest instalment of the ballet steps series explores arm positions. 

Marianela Nunez and Ryoichi Hirano in Serenade
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
There are six main positions, plus a huge number of additional ones, and names vary according to the different schools and styles of ballet. I will cover the most commonly used positions and names according to the English style of training, as used in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabi. 

In most positions, the arms are curved, with a feeling of ‘lift’ in the elbow. Brasbas, the starting position for most ballet exercises, involves both arms curved downwards to form an oval shape either a couple of inches away from the torso or resting just above a tutu skirt. In 1st position, which is commonly used for pirouettes, the arms maintain the same oval shape but are lifted so that the middle fingers are opposite the belly button. In 5th position (shown by Marianela Nuñez above), the arms are raised further again such that the oval shape is overhead, framing the face.
  
Federico Bonelli
in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH
2nd position involves opening the arms out to the sides, so that the hands can be seen in the dancer’s peripheral vision and fingers are at approximately the same level as the waist. This position should be curved not only through the arm joints to form a half-oval shape on each side, but also downwards from shoulder to fingertips. The anatomical ideal in this position involves an inward rotation of the upper arm and an outward rotation of the lower arm, whilst keeping the shoulders down and the elbows gently lifted.
  
3rd position, which is often used for pirouette preparations, involves one arm in 2nd position and one arm in 1st position. 4th position has two variations – 4th open (usually simply referred to as 4th), with one arm in 2nd and one in 5th (as demonstrated by Federico Bonelli to the right), and 4th crossed, with one arm in 1st and one arm in 5th.
       
Shiori Kase in Swan Lake
Photo: Photography by ASH
Common corrections in these basic positions include dropping the elbow, over-flexing the wrists and losing postural alignment in the back and torso. Placement can also be problematic and young students often lift the arms too high in 1st or place them too far back in 2nd and 5th. For 5th position, it can be useful to teach it with the arms slightly forward, so that students (especially children) can imagine looking at a mirror in the palms of their hands.  
   
There are many variations on these positions, such as demi-2nd, where the arms are in a lower version of 2nd with the palms of the hands facing down. Open 5th involves extending the arms into a ‘V’ shape overhead instead of a curve, and open 4th similarly involves extended arm lines in 4th position.
  
There are also specific arabesque arm positions. 1st arabesque features the same arm as supporting leg held straight forward, with the other arm straight out to the side and slightly back. In 2nd arabesque, the arms are the same, but the front arm becomes the arm opposing the supporting leg. In 3rd arabesque, both arms are straight forward, with one slightly higher than the other.
   
There are numerous other arm variations – far too many to cover here. Some include crossed wrists (shown above left in Swan Lake), hands on hips (such as in Don Quixote) and arms held diagonally across the torso (such as in La Sylphide).

Sunday, 31 May 2015

May Round-up

Sylvie Guillem in Bye
Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Other writing:

A feature about Dance UK's The Future conference in Dancing Times, June issue (p.27)

Friday, 29 May 2015

Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Sylvie Guillem in Bye
Photo: Bill Cooper
Technê/ Duo/ Here and After/ Bye, Sylvie Guillem and friends, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 26 May

Sylvie Guillem’s farewell tour (Life in Progress) is a testament to her effortlessly exquisite technique, beautifully lean and pliable limbs, and captivating stage presence. At 50, she runs rings around most dancers half her age.

In Mats Ek's Bye, Guillem kicks off her shoes and dances like a child, her movements abundantly joyous but also tinged with sadness and longing. Leg extensions and head stands are mixed with creeping walks and hunched shoulders to create a quirky but compelling character which she embodies to perfection. She's thoroughly engaging too in the insect-like choreography of Akram Khan's Technê. Guillem’s presence onstage will be much missed.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Taking the Royal Ballet on Tour

Taking the Royal Ballet on tour (insight evening), Clore Studio @ ROH - 18th May

As well as performing at the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet tours internationally every summer. In advance of the company's trip to the USA in June, an insight evening explored what goes into taking the UK's leading ballet company overseas.

Marianela Nunez in Don Quixote
Photo: Johan Persson
For Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare, "it's very important to be seen in other countries. The company made its name through international touring. Wherever we go, we're flying the flag for Britain." In choosing locations, he tries to find a balance between visiting places where there are existing ballet audiences and new locations where people are less familiar with the art form, although "who invites us" is a key factor.

O'Hare programmes touring repertoire that shows both the company's heritage and its newer and more innovative choreography. This year, Carlos Acosta's Don Quixote is being taken to Chicago and Washington, whilst two mixed bills - The Dream / Song of the Earth and Infra / various pas de deux and solos / The Age of Anxiety - will compete with American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake in New York. O'Hare describes the tour as "exciting" for company dancers. "It's a little 'lift' at the end of the season. And it's challenging - dancers have to prove themselves abroad as they're not known so well."

Planning for a tour begins two years in advance. There are 150-170 people in the Royal Ballet's 'touring party' and company manager Andrew Hurst spends a lot of time arranging visas and travel itineraries. He also creates a red book 'bible' which includes daily schedules and useful local information such as restaurant recommendations. (The Japan tour 'bible' even included taxi driver directions in Japanese from the hotel to the theatre!) In first artist Nathalie Harrison's words, "Andrew makes it idiot proof".

The company brings much of its own equipment - from sets and costumes (including three skip loads of pointe shoes) to lighting rigs and tumble dryers. All items have to be packed, listed for customs purposes and shipped well in advance. Technical and costume staff then fly out ahead of the dancers to ensure everything is ready for their arrival. As the Royal Ballet doesn't tour with its in-house orchestra, the company's conductor also travels out in advance to rehearse with local musicians.

For Harrison, touring is one of the highlights of being a Royal Ballet dancer, although it requires a lot of preparation. "There's always a rush with sewing shoes to get them ready in time for shipping! We also have to prepare everything artistically before we leave, especially understudy roles as people are more likely to get poorly on tour."

All this the hard work behind the scenes allows the Royal Ballet to make a huge impact across the world. O'Hare's touring highlight was when the company brought the first full-length ballet to Bombay and reached households across India through a live TV broadcast. For Hurst, visiting Cuba in 2009 was his favourite touring moment. "People just love ballet there, and our tickets were really cheap - under £1 - so literally anyone could come and see us. It was amazing."

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Urban Village Fete

Urban Village Fete, Greenwich Peninsula - reviewed on 10th May

Greenwich Peninsula's Urban Village Fete expectedly included children's activities and stalls selling local products, but what was less expected was the inclusion of a variety of excellent dance performances and workshops. Swing Patrol gave charleston and jive demonstrations, whilst Folk Dance Remixed showcased their unique blend of hip hop and traditional maypole dancing. Both companies also offered fun and informal opportunities for audience members - from toddlers to older adults - to join in.
Beren D’Amico and Louis Gift in Bromance

The fete's highlight was Barely Methodical Troupe's Bromance (a 20 minute excerpt of the full show which I reviewed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year). In spite of the less-than-ideal stone floor covered in tiny pieces of gravel, performers Beren D’Amico, Charlie Wheeller and Louis Gift excelled in a delightful combination of male awkwardness, dance and impressive circus skills.

The fete also included a stall offering 'takeaway poems'. I placed an order for something about ballet and received the following bespoke verse:
Tutus, pointe shoes, ballet is for me
Tutus, pointe shoes, effortless and extraordinary
Tutus, pointe shoes, my favourite - I can't name one
Tutus, pointe shoes, it's amazing - you should come!

Bravo to the Urban Village Fete for programming such vibrant dance activities and making then accessible for all.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Elves and the Shoemaker

Elves and the Shoemaker, Northern Ballet (TV version) - CBeebies, 5pm, 6 April

Filippo Di Vilio and Kiara Flavin
Photo: Brian Slater
Northern Ballet's Elves and the Shoemaker provides another delightful and accessible introduction to ballet for children. Shown on CBeebies during Easter weekend, with the channel's Mr Bloom (Ben Faulks) presenting, it no doubt captivated its young viewers – both dance fans and those unfamiliar with the art form alike.

Ali Allen’s designs – including an array of beautiful shoes – bring the story vibrantly to life with Daniel de Andrade's choreography providing both narrative clarity and plenty of magic. The whole cast is excellent but Filippo Di Vilio and Kiara Flavin stand out particularly as the fairy tale's sprightly elves.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

April Round-up

Diana Vishneva in Woman in a Room (part of On the Edge)
Photo: Gene Schiavone

This month I have written blogs about Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire, the Royal Ballet's La Fille Mal Gardée, An American in Paris on Broadway and Dance UK's debate about whether ballet is a museum or creative powerhouse.

The latest installment of my ballet steps series explores assemblés.

Other writing:

A review of Diana Vishneva's On the Edge for Londonist
A feature about adult amateur ballet companies in Dancing Times, May issue (p.23)

Saturday, 25 April 2015

La Fille Mal Gardée

La Fille Mal Gardée, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 23rd April

Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
Frederick Ashton's rom-com ballet La Fille Mal Gardée brings a joyous dose of spring sunshine to the Royal Opera House. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae make an adorable principal couple, dancing with real tenderness and affection (despite misbehaving ribbons!).

Osipova is radiant and captivating in her debut as Lise, although – perhaps due to first-night nerves – a few steps feel overly forceful. McRae is perfection as Colas, impressing particularly with immaculate pirouettes, enormous leaps and detailed characterisation. In the supporting cast, Paul Kay delights as a humorous but loveable Alain and Michael Stojko is an expert lead for the ballet’s charming band of hens.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

An American in Paris

An American in Paris, Palace Theatre (Broadway) - reviewed on 17th April
    
Photo: Angela Sterling
Two Brits - choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Royal Ballet dancer Leanne Cope - make their Broadway debuts in a theatrical version of the 1951 Gene Kelly film, An American in Paris. Whilst dancing is expectedly superb, it’s the singing and acting talents of Cope and New York City Ballet star Robbie Fairchild that bring the story’s romance and drama captivatingly to life.   

Wheeldon's direction makes everything a dance, with even set changes becoming a leaping, pirouetting delight. Combined with George Gershwin's glorious score and Bob Crowley's vibrant designs, this is a joyous five star production.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Ballet: a Museum or Creative Powerhouse?

Ballet: a museum or creative powerhouse? (debate), Dance UK industry-wide conference, Trinity Laban - 11th April

The panel: Kevin O'Hare, Christopher Hampson,
Assis Carreiro, Adolphe Binder and Ismene Brown
As part of the UK’s first ever industry-wide dance conference, a panel - chaired by dance critic Ismene Brown - discussed the state of ballet in 2015. Is it a museum or a creative powerhouse (as per the session’s title), in a good state or in need of reinvention, a success or a failure?
  
Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare argued that while describing ballet as a museum conjures up images of something outdated and old-fashioned, the preservation and performance of older works is vital:  “The Royal Ballet is custodian of an important classical ballet heritage – the works that grew the company into what it is today…  It’s a balancing act between tradition and innovation.”
   
Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson said “I love a good museum! But we need to recalibrate our definitions of classical ballet. The current definition is of ballet pre-1950s, but some newer works are now classics.”
  
For conference creative producer Assis Carreiro, the session’s title was designed to be “a provocation”. When she was director of the Royal ballet of Flanders between 2012 and 2014, she had to balance “performing works that made sense for the company and also filling a big theatre, creating classics of the future and not just asking dancers to reinterpret old works”. For her, companies don’t need to define themselves as ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ but simply as ballet companies. “Ballet is a technique and it’s what you do with this technique.”
   
Hampson described being "nervous" when Scottish Ballet performed Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling, as it was the first ballet company to take on one of Bourne’s creations. But choreographer, dancers and audiences loved the result: “Classical technique brings a new flavour – a language – to the work. It’s something different.”
  
In Inverness, one of Scottish Ballet’s main touring cities, the average audience journey time to see the company is 90 minutes, with many people travelling from further afield and staying overnight. “The weight of responsibility [to provide a work that will please audiences] is huge,” stated Hampson. As Scottish Ballet is Scotland’s national dance company, it has to “cater to public taste” but is also a well-trusted and highly regarded brand. “We’re creating opportunities for audiences with new works.”
  
Marianela Nunez in Aeternum
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
For O’Hare, “it’s heartening that people are embracing the new but that we can also balance this with our heritage. New works take an extra push in marketing but they do sell out”. In 2013-14, the Royal Ballet sold 98% of tickets, and O’Hare believes “dancers are stronger in Sleeping Beauty [and other classical ballets] for having worked with Wayne McGregor and other modern choreographers”.
    
Another of ballet’s key priorities is in reaching new audiences. O’Hare described the Royal Ballet's cinema programme as serving to “build up the whole dance sector”, developing interest in the art form and inspiring people to visit local theatres and see other ballet/dance companies. In terms of offering value for money for the public subsidy it receives, O’Hare asked people to “look at the audiences we’re reaching… Come and see us at Thurrock with the Chance to Dance programme. Go to Northampton and see us in the cinema. And then come and see us at the Royal Opera House in the slips!”
   
So is ballet a museum or a creative powerhouse? Whilst the panel made no conclusion, it’s clear that it is both. Ballet needs to balance the conservation of heritage works – which can’t simply be ‘stored’, as they only exist in performance – with the creation of new choreography for the 21st Century. And perhaps it also needs to be less concerned with labels, and focus simply on engaging audiences - old and new alike - with the diversity of ballet as a modern art form.