Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

English National Ballet, Akram Khan’s Giselle, Sadler’s Wells, September 18

Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet
Tamara Rojo and the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet (photo: © Dasa Wharton)

Akram Khan created his transposition of Giselle for English National Ballet in 2016; this is its second return to a London stage since then. Giselle, as Jane Pritchard writes in a program essay, is the earliest (1841) of the ‘canon of ballets’ and one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. Set in an ‘idealised, picturesque arcadia’ it ‘tapped into the fashion for Romanticism with its emphasis on exoticism, irrationality, other worldliness and danger’. Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have updated the context of the ballet while allowing its historical timeframe to remain vague, somewhere in a colonial economic era with Giselle as a redundant garment worker in a closed factory (an ‘outcast’) and Albrecht as the scion of an overseer family (a ‘landlord’). Albrecht’s duplicity, Giselle’s naivety and Hilarion’s jealousy still drive the narrative, but Khan’s appropriation of the romantic ballet seems to get in the way of his overarching theme of migrant labour, landing his cast in a narrative no-man’s land undermined by a contrived dramaturgy and a choreographic language that fails to take advantage of the expressive strengths of either Khan’s kathak or ENB’s classical technique. 

As Khan’s dramaturg, Little is aware of the connections and correspondences at work in this creation and coherently disentangles the various references in a program essay. But on stage, where it counts, the coherence is unresolved. The first act follows the broad sweep of the original scenario but conjoins the love story with social inequality. The stage is divided horizontally by Tim Yip’s monumental, moveable wall that hinges like an overhead garage door, dividing a small number of landlords on one side from the outcasts on the other. The wall is not so much a background as an overpowering metaphor of uncompromising power and social separation that underlies Khan’s vision; the attempt to fit this vision to the story of Giselle becomes especially problematic in the tenuous link between the two acts. Little writes that the second act is set in a ‘ghost’ factory (which looks uncannily like the first act) where the Wilis have become ‘the female migrant workers of Act 1 [who] have laboured, and too many have died, victims not of betrayal in love, but of industrial accidents…’ The original Wilis, having died of broken hearts, were a natural advocacy group for Giselle who had suffered a similar fate. In Khan/Little’s version the Wilis’ revenge is aimed at the callous manipulation of the owner class rather than against dissembling men; love has been transposed — and sidelined — by socio-political sanctions. 

Khan’s choreographic vision is rooted in the collective and it is in the corps de ballet that his imagery is most successful, coinciding at times with Vincezo Lamagna’s high-decibel score to suggest repetitive, mechanical gestures and formations of migrant factory workers, while the feral quality of the company scampering on all fours across the stage signals the breakdown of humanity under brutal subjugation. Even Giselle’s madness and death at the end of Act 1 are overshadowed by the seething circle of outcasts who mill around her like a black hole into which she disappears. Despite the narrative fault line in Act 2, the Wilis form a powerful image of unified revenge with their bamboo sticks banging out the musical rhythm like devilish warriors. 

Khan is less successful in delineating the individuals. When a dancer of Tamara Rojo’s stature is unable to extract from her eponymous role a fully-fledged character who can surmount the storms around her and elicit our sympathy, it points to weak dramaturgy and suggests the gestural vocabulary on which her character is built is lacking. Like Natalia Osipova in Arthur Pita’s The Mother, Rojo’s classical form loses its emotional compass in contemporary choreography that fails to address the source of its power. James Streeter’s Albrecht is revealed as a one-dimensional figure who stands out from the crowd by his height, his inability to dress like the outcasts while wanting to hide amongst them and his execution of some technically demanding classical steps. It is Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion who benefits most from Khan’s transposition, giving Giselle’s cloying emotional manipulator a more prominent role as a spivvy factory floor manager who knows how to insinuate himself between the workers and their masters. His more integral role suggests Khan had in mind an alternative, darker polemic treatment of the narrative — which the visual aspect of Yip’s design and Mark Henderson’s choreographic lighting corroborate — than the romantic mould of Giselle could possibly provide. 


English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

Posted: April 29th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

English National Ballet, My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty, Peacock, April 17

Illustration of My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty by Mark Ruffle

I attended the matinée of English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty at the Peacock Theatre with the daughter of a friend, Eva, who is studying ballet in Sussex; at 13 she appeared quite mature amongst the audience of little girls in tutus. When Sir Frederick Ashton first saw Anna Pavlova at the Teatro Municipal in Lima he was also 13. The experience of seeing Pavlova at that stage in his life, as he reminisced to John Selwyn Gilbert in 1971, ‘was the end of me. She injected me with her poison and from the end of that evening I wanted to dance.’ Pavlova did not distinguish between the ages of her audience; her indefatigable touring around the world gave anyone who wished the opportunity to experience the full extent of her artistry. 

In 1964 the Royal Ballet founded a touring group, Ballet For All, that was run by Peter Brinson as a means of introducing new audiences to ballet through a combination of history, analysis and performance. Developed from his lecture demonstrations, Brinson described the format as ‘presenting special programmes, called ballet-plays, which combine words with ballets, actors with dancers and musicians, to inform as well as entertain.’ The cast was made up of two actors, a pianist and six dancers from both the Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet companies. This group toured widely in small-scale venues, giving around 150 performances a year until the company closed in 1979. According to Jane Nicholas, a former Arts Council director, Ballet For All ‘became the most important proselytizing activity in the country in classical ballet.’

In devising the series of My First Ballet — to date there have been four productions based on Cinderella, Coppelia, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty — ENB is pitching classical ballet as an entertainment conceived for very young audiences. The series is a collaboration between the company and its school so it’s a pre-professional community outreach program by a major ballet company in this country. The format raises questions, however, on what is considered ‘entertainment’ and ‘educational’ at this target age. For example, although there is no artistic reason for doing so, the story has been adapted for easy viewing; the fairies Carabosse and Lilac are introduced as sisters casting spells on their dolls; Catalabutte is a court painter; the knitting needle becomes a rose, and Desiré and Bluebird are best friends. Ironing out the richness and imaginative scope of both the characters and the story — Lilac’s magical power turns her dolls into ballerinas while Carabosse’s can only create Dark Companions — is ironic given that Charles Perreault wrote his fairy tale with children (of all ages) in mind. And even in its simplified version this production overlooks why Lilac is not aware that her sister Carabosse has not been invited to Aurora’s christening. 

The production is hosted engagingly by Sebastian Charles, a master of ceremonies in contemporary dress who does a little bit of magic, narrates the story and translates the balletic mime into words, all of which are traditionally implicit in a full theatrical presentation. While the recorded extracts of Tchaikovsky’s score retain their customary importance, Charles’s intervention reduces the choreography and its interpretation by the dancers to a secondary role. In Ballet For All, even though the classics were abridged and danced to piano accompaniment, Brinson maintained the choreography of the full productions and his dancers were quite capable of performing it. ENB has eschewed both options; Antonio Castilla has arranged the choreography and the dancers are still in training. While this gives them a wonderful opportunity to gain stage experience and to hone their technique (though there were, as Eva remarked, some mistakes), they have not had time to acquire the faculty of taking an audience with them on their journey. Classical ballet is clearly so much more than the ability to execute steps and enchainements to music; the poison Ashton spoke of derived from the artistry of Pavlova herself and not from the works she danced that evening. 

So while the enthusiastic attendance confirms the quantitative success of My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty in fulfilling ENB’s goal to ‘bring classical ballet to a young audience’, the quality of the presentation suggests the imagination of a young audience is not ready for the sophistication of a mature production and the intoxication it may arouse. Nothing could be further from the truth. 


English National Ballet, She Persisted

Posted: April 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet, She Persisted

English National Ballet, She Persisted, Sadler’s Wells, April 12

She Persisted
Katja Khaniukova and her feminine spirits in Broken Wings (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

The title of English National Ballet’s second program celebrating female choreographers, ‘She Persisted’, may have derived, as Sarah Crompton writes in the program, from a 2017 statement by US Senator Mitch McConnell, but it also neatly references the company’s first program from two years ago, She Said. One of those works reappears here — Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings — alongside Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) that ENB acquired in 2016. Although the program only partially addresses the persistently unanswered question of why there are not more new female choreographers in classical ballet, the one new work by company dancer Stina Quagebeur, Nora (after the character in Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House on which it is based), marks the arrival of a distinctive, independent voice. 

It is immediately clear at the opening of Nora that Quagebeur has a choreographic imagination and the lighting of Trui Malten enhances it. Between them they introduce Nora (Erina Takahashi) engulfed in black walking though a door of light followed by five ‘voices’ (Alice Bellini, Angela Wood, James Forbat, Francisco Bosch and Rentaro Nakaaki) whose turbulent gestures form a constant expressionist chorus of Nora’s state of mind. Louie Whitemore’s isometric set with its tubular frame and suspended beams provides just enough volume to contain the storm of emotions the choreography unleashes. Quagebeur, however, hasn’t yet evolved a vocabulary that fully matches her imagination; the narrative tends to pull her in one direction and the pressure to devise steps in another. When Henry Dowden as the banker, Krogstad, first appears it’s easy to mistake him for Nora’s husband, Torvald, and she gives Joseph Caley as Torvald too much convoluted movement to arrive at a single expressive gesture. The subtlety and eloquence with which Antony Tudor pared back his choreography to transform narrative into gesture may serve as a useful guide for her next (much anticipated) work. 

Broken Wings has not been repaired since its first outing three years ago. It has vivid colour and a rich score but it seems — in contrast to the lives portrayed — choreographically quite thin. Ideas like the gender-fluid array of men and the dancing skeletons are brilliantly conceived but outshine their narrative importance; Broken Wings is all about Frida Kahlo and yet she barely manages to emerge from her own story. The stage is dominated by Dieuweke van Reij’s mobile cube that serves as Kahlo’s home, hospital and tomb and its manipulation by the skeletons from one manifestation to the next interrupts rather than informs the narrative. Lopez-Ochoa has clearly built her choreography on the relationship between Khalo and Diego Rivera and although their intense love and fiery intellectual bond appears too much as the stereotype of boy meets girl, the impassioned performances of Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov give the broken wings an opportunity to fly. 

When it was announced that English National Ballet had obtained the rights to perform Pina Bausch’s Sacre du printemps it was a major coup, adding another level of prestige to the company’s profile under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. The challenges of performing the work at ENB, however, differ from those in Tanztheater Wuppertal; there the dancers are attuned to Bausch’s way of working whereas ENB’s broad repertory demands of its dancers a constant readjustment to its rigours. Bausch’s Sacre du printemps never was, nor can it ever be a trophy work. It marries savagery with lyricism to an extent the two qualities live within each other; there is no respite as one emerges from the other. Josephine Ann Endicott, who staged it for ENB, was one of the work’s original dancers. She describes the movements to Crompton as feeling ‘masculine and not pretty, but at other moments they are extremely soft, sensual and feminine. You run with your heart and forget all you have learnt before and just come out and be yourself. It has to be real. If you are not exhausted at the end, you haven’t danced it properly.’ This evening there are moments among the men — noticeably in the transitions to partnering the women — when this kind of commitment is missing, when the mechanics of performing a phrase get in the way of expressing it. The energy and focus of the women, however, continues to feed each other until Emily Suzuki takes on the mantle of the chosen one and pushes the limits of her endurance to a level of artistry the work demands. 


English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

Posted: January 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

English National Ballet, Manon, London Coliseum, January 19

ENB Manon
The Second Act of ENB’s Manon in Mia Stensgaard’s design (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

In 2013, the first full year of Tamara Rojo’s artistic direction, I saw English National Ballet’s Alison McWhinney and Ken Saruhashi in the Emerging Dancer Award. Almost six years later to see McWhinney take on the title role of Manon in ENB’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s work with Saruhashi as her brother Lescaut is one of the many privileges of seeing and writing about dance over a number of years. Although it was Nancy Osbaldeston who won the award that year, I wrote at the time that ‘My heart went out to Alison McWhinney, whose ethereal tenderness in Giselle — she will save many a young man from an early death and will make them all eternally repentant — and her lovely line and poise in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique are a joy to watch.’ The arc of McWhinney’s artistic sensitivity arguably extends to the final act of Manon where having played all her demi-monde cards Manon finds herself in a redemptive endgame with the ever-faithful Des Grieux (Francesco Gabriele Frola). McWhinney casts aside all risks in this demanding duet and receives from Frola the unbridled passion and devotion of an equally liberated partner. It is utterly thrilling and deservedly brings the house down.

For Frola this final act of Manon follows a fine thread of characterization — and its technical counterpart — throughout the ballet. He takes the elegance of MacMillan’s choreography and makes his character and reasoning grow naturally out of it; the coherence of his interpretation remains as lucid as the line of his arabesque. It is McWhinney who in those first two acts does not entirely enter into the complexities of Manon’s character, which in turn hampers the freedom with which she approaches her interpretation of the choreography. The final act shows what she can do when the emotional line is clear, but she has not yet embodied the mercurial changes in circumstance Manon faces — and their inherent contradictions — between the prospect of a nunnery, Des Grieux’s love and Monsieur GM’s cloying wealth. 

At the same Emerging Dancer Award in 2013, I noted that ‘Saruhashi has prodigious technical ability but wears his emotions close to the skin, giving an impeccable if somewhat inscrutable rendering of Don Quixote and unwinding only slightly in the all-too-brief Patrice Bart solo, Verdiana.’ It is interesting to see these qualities persist in his interpretation of Lescaut. Dressed in black he stands out as someone already deeply inured in the demi-monde and cynical enough to pimp his own sister. He is sharp and calculating, drawing in his power like a sword but when it comes to his drunken cavorting solo he can’t unwind enough to blur the edges of his technique; he approaches it with too much…calculation. It may be invidious to suggest a comparison but Irek Mukhamedov’s interpretation of this solo — seen online in rehearsal — illustrates just how a prodigious technique with fine comic and musical timing can be married to drunken intent.

Among some fine character roles like Michael Coleman as the Old Man and Fabien Reimair as the Gaoler, there is another interpretation that illustrates Stanislavsky’s maxim that there are no small parts. Francesca Velicu (a finalist in the 2018 Emerging Dancer Award) is one of the courtesans at Madame’s house of ill repute in the second act. It is a stage awhirl in pastel colour and racy activity, but Velicu’s inspired antics among her peers attract attention throughout the melée like light on a filigree pattern, drawing us away momentarily from the main characters before we focus once again on their primary narrative. This is exactly how anyone in the room at the time (and we are all there) would experience the breadth of the moment.

While the choreography in this revival of Manon is all MacMillan (rehearsed by some of the luminaries with whom he worked), the sets and costumes belong to the Royal Danish Ballet’s production designed by Mia Stensgaard. While one had the sense that Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets were performing alongside the cast, Stensgaard has a more subtle approach, abstracting the scenes with gently moving panels that furnish just the right amount of period suggestion to go with her elegant wigs and finely tailored, colourful costumes. It’s a stylishly minimal production that frames the dancing beautifully while Mikki Kunttu’s cinematic lighting makes the space of each successive scene almost palpable.

The English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Orlando Jopling make listening to Martin Yates’ arrangements of Jules Massenet’s music as much a pleasure as watching the ballet.


English National Ballet, Le Jeune Homme et La Mort and La Sylphide

Posted: January 23rd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet, Le Jeune Homme et La Mort and La Sylphide

English National Ballet, Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, and La Sylphide, London Colisseum, January 20

Publicity photo for English National Ballet’s double bill (photo: Jason Bell)

There are several elements that link Roland Petit’s 1946 creation, Le Jeune Homme et La Mort and August Bournonville’s 1836 creation, La Sylphide that English National Ballet presented at the Colisseum. Both are set in the past, both treat the fragile nature of life and death, and both exteriorize the anguish of the principal characters (the unnamed young man in his Parisian garret and James in his Scottish baronial hall) in the figure of a femme fatale who exists largely in the imagination of the men but manifests in ethereal or earthly form on stage. These can be thought of as contemporary human sensations conveyed within a historical setting, but the historical setting — its sets, lighting and costume — however beautifully conceived, is never enough to convince an audience of the authenticity of the re-staging.

Le Jeune Homme et La Mort was created in Paris one year after the end of the second world war when most of the audience and performers would have experienced five years of either fighting, losses, German occupation or all three. That kind of experience is impossible to recreate, but it can be translated. Walter Benjamin makes a case in his essay The Task of the Translator, that transmitting information (in this case, the choreographic and visual elements) is to transmit the inessential. The essential is contained in what is additional to the information, the original emotional force of the work. In Le Jeune Homme et La Mort there is no chemistry between Isaac Hernandez and Begoñia Cao which gives Hernandez nothing to rage against. He rages against gravity, but not against his inner turmoil and Cao plays her role so outside his existential head that in showing him the noose she could be a member of cabin crew demonstrating safety procedures before takeoff.

In La Sylphide, despite the impeccable qualifications of Frank Andersen, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schluter who have brought the production from its home at The Royal Danish Ballet, the performers lack the emotional sensitivity to astonish. Here the story is not so far removed from contemporary experience — unrequited love, the illusion of attraction and the despondency of having made the wrong decisions — but these need to be expressed in the context of romanticism whose principal aspects, as Jane Pritchard writes in the program, are ‘the dual fascination with the supernatural and the customs of remote exotic countries.’ It’s difficult today to conceive of Scotland as exotic, but the supernatural still has its allure. As the Sylph, Jurgita Dronina dances with all the technical precision one could want but there is something hard-edged about her interpretation that cannot be compared to what Théophile Gautier wrote of Fanny Elssler in a production of the original La Sylphide in 1838, that she ‘appeared and vanished like an impalpable vision, now here, now there’. Similarly, both Aaron Robison as James and Daniel Kraus as Gurn are convincing in their translation of the Bournonville style but Robison has difficulty differentiating between the presence of Dronina and the illusion of the Sylph, which leads to him expressing his feelings with contemporary shorthand gestures like snapping his hand and head as if to say ‘Damn, I missed her again.’ Kraus doesn’t have the same difficulty because Effie is flesh and bone in the form of Crystal Costa, a last-minute substitution for Connie Vowles. But Costa’s costume gives her the perplexing appearance of a school girl which withholds all belief in her betrothal to either James or Gurn, and Sarah Kundi’s mime as Madge may be accurate in terms of text, but lacks the conviction to convey the darkness and savage predictability of internal fate. By contrast, the two older men, Bimse and Bumse (James Streeter and Fabian Reimair) feeling the aches and pains from being pushed hither and thither, are entirely successful in imparting to the audience their condition.

If the older ballets are not stories that belong exclusively to the era of their creation but have what Benjamin called the essential element of ‘translatability’ then the question is how to translate them so as to make them relevant to the performers (for it is the performers who ultimately translate a ballet). Perhaps in the quest for technical brilliance the development of the psychological and emotional aspects of a character might be seen as secondary. Looking from today’s perspective at extracts of Jean Babilée in the original production of Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, his technique is dated but his muscular conviction translated into the steps defies time. The language of the feet, as Gautier wrote, may be universal and everywhere understood, but something in this double bill has been lost in translation.


English National Ballet’s She Said

Posted: April 19th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s She Said

English National Ballet, She Said, Sadler’s Wells, April 16

Grayson Perry's front cloth for She Said

Grayson Perry’s front cloth for She Said

“Dance in its purest form is without gender.” – Ohad Naharin

On message, English National Ballet has fashioned an evening of dance celebrating the female choreographer. She Said brings together Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Aszure Barton from North America and Yabin Wang from China to each create a work for the company. She Said does not set out to compare their works with the male-dominated canon (reflected in its many iconographic forms in Grayson Perry’s delightful mandala-like front cloth) but to respond to the current criticism that we don’t hear enough of the female choreographic voice in contemporary classical work. One can’t argue with that, and even if the qualities of that voice resist clear identification, the experience of watching the three works in She Said is decidedly refreshing. Along with news that English National Ballet has been granted permission by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch to perform Bausch’s Rite of Spring, it seems the initiatives of artistic director Tamara Rojo have an uncanny ability to fill unwarranted gaps in the repertoire while keeping an astute eye on public relations. The profile of the company keeps growing.

Given She Said invokes the gender question, it is perhaps worth noting not all the creative input is female. Lopez Ochoa and Barton both use scores by male composers (Peter Salem and Mason Bates respectively) and Wang seems to have been handed an entire Akram Khan creative toolkit that includes music by Jocelyn Pook, costume design by Kimie Nakano, lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli and video projection by Matt Deely. Given the role of Farooq Chaudhry — co-founder and producer of Akram Khan Company — as creative producer at ENB one can trace a male influence in the choice of Wang’s collaborative team. This might have gone unnoticed but for an overwhelming sense that Pook’s score drowns Wang’s version of the Greek tragedy of Medea, M-Dao. Wang’s approach to Medea is not so much by way of the western notion of fate as through a particularly Eastern sensibility of emotional detachment. Pook misses this subtlety, so M-Dao relies for its effectiveness on its visual construction. Erina Takahashi as Medea is an ideal interpreter for Wang and her articulate, fragile opening solo, one foot in a pale blue pointe shoe the other bare, suggests the enigma of Medea’s character. Because the gestural appearance of James Streeter as Jason and Lauretta Summerscales as his new wife Glauce lack this sense of detachment, their narrative separates naturally from Medea’s and leaves the focus on her. Wang’s understated choreography signifies the drama without getting involved in its outward emotion and she is helped in this by Nakane’s sensibility in set design and Piccioli’s lighting. Deely’s video tends to state rather too much, as if he is afraid Wang’s imagery is not enough, but it is Pook’s fleshy, middle-eastern mix of a score that simply overrides the quiet articulation of Wang’s choreography; we can barely see for hearing.

The opening work, Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, is based on the life and love of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Lopez Ochoa remembers Rojo giving her a list of female figures in history and literature from which to choose a subject, but she kept coming back to Kahlo. Spanish culture is a bond between choreographer and director/interpreter, and Kahlo provides Rojo with a role for which she has an affinity. She is most effective at the beginning as a young, spirited girl playing with the Day of the Dead skeletons; her sense of fun and self-confidence is palpable. Kahlo’s adolescent life was brutally interrupted by a tram accident that left her an invalid but Lopez Ochoa gives Rojo’s transformation a soft balletic treatment — a turned-in, shaking leg that she clutches but which can nevertheless reach 190 degrees behind her when called for — without the tormented, emotional dimension that gave rise to Kahlo’s creativity. Lopez Ochoa uses the visual symbolism of Dieuweke van Reij’s set design to suggest Kahlo’s flights of imagination as well as a corps of male dancers (a lovely inversion) dressed and brilliantly painted (by Dominic Skinner) as Kahlo’s feminine spirits. Broken Wings also provides a wonderful role for Irek Mukhamedov as the painter Diego Rivera. His passionate on-again-off-again relationship with Kahlo is the stuff of legend, and Mukhamedov fills those legendary shoes with weighty, captivating flair.

Mukhamedov is also the company’s principal ballet master, and some of the credit must go to him for the outstanding level of technique evident in the last work, Barton’s Fantastic Beings. Of all the voices this evening, Barton’s is the one I hear most clearly: someone who is confident of what she can coax from the dancers, skilled in putting it together with subtle and witty imagery (enhanced by Burke Brown’s lighting and Michelle Jank’s costumes), and assured in making the music an equal partner to the choreography. This latter aspect is perhaps the only weakness: the length of Fantastic Beings is dictated by Bates’ existing score, which draws out Barton’s wealth of invention beyond its choreographic endpoint. Nevertheless, the technical demands Barton brings out of the dancers are inspired and in turn the dancers — particularly Isaac Hernandez — respond with a precision, clarity and imagination that is thrilling to see. Fantastic beings indeed.


English National Ballet: Emerging Dancer 2013

Posted: March 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet: Emerging Dancer 2013

English National Ballet: Emerging Dancer 2013, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 4

English National Ballet has an enterprising Learning program that encourages the public to engage in ballet through various interactive projects. This time last year I was drawn to their Dance in Focus, an opportunity to develop dance photography under the guidance of Chris Nash, and recently I joined their stimulating Dance is the Word workshop on critical dance writing with Donald Hutera. It was structured around ENB’s Emerging Dancer 2013, a platform that encourages promising artists within the company to step up to a new level. Each year six dancers — thee men and three women up to the rank of soloist (this year they are all Artists of the Company) — are chosen to prepare for this privilege on top of their demanding touring schedule. Unlike last year, where dancers were judged on two solos, the 2013 competition is based on a solo and a pas de deux, a framework that allows both individual expression and fine-tuning with a partner.

We watch the dancers in company class in the Festival Hall’s Clore Ballroom and later in dress rehearsal on stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Neither of these preparatory processes is designed for public observation; they are places for each dancer to iron out technical, spatial, costume or lighting problems under the aegis of company teachers and directors, so the presence of even a small number of spectators can have an ambivalent effect on the artists. It is the performance on which the dancers are judged, after all, and that is the moment for which they summon all their powers.

It is the nature of competition to single out a winner and Nancy Osbaldeston rose to the challenge to carry off this year’s prize. John Neumeier’s fluid solo Bach Suite No. 2 is a perfect vehicle for her radiant turns and effortless ballon and in the pas de deux from Don Quixote with Ken Saruhashi she replaces Kitri’s dark vein of passion with her naturally bright ebullience. Osbaldeston doesn’t have the classical lines of Laurretta Summerscales or Alison McWhinney, but she has a star quality that makes her shine in whatever she does.

The award is made on the night by a jury of five (Tamara Rojo, Darcey Bussell, Luke Jennings, Tommy Franzén and Jude Kelly), but an additional prize is the result of audience votes over the previous season. In 2012 the jury and the public concurred, but this year’s People’s Choice recognized the qualities of Summerscales, whose wit and intelligence and swan-like ability to reveal beauty without any apparent effort are the mark of a great artist. For her solo, she danced the Calliope Rag from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Élite Syncopations; she could have brought out a more unctuously flirtatious quality, but her musicality and sense of fun were evident. My heart went out to McWhinney, whose ethereal tenderness in Giselle — she will save many a young man from an early death and will make them all eternally repentant — and her lovely line and poise in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique are a joy to watch.

It is fitting in the year Tamara Rojo becomes artistic director that the women feature so strongly in this competition. In a sense they have already emerged, showing a mature self-awareness in their choice of solo to complement their pas de deux. The men are not quite so astute: Saruhashi and Nathan Young choose solos that challenge their technical skills but that do little to enhance their stage presence, while Guilherme Menezes, whose enthusiasm and innocence draw us naturally into his confidence, has the right idea — a loose, clown-like solo by Nicky Ellis to contrast with the Black Swan pas de deux — but the choreography is not well enough developed to fully reveal his energies and qualities. Saruhashi has prodigious technical ability but wears his emotions close to the skin, giving an impeccable if somewhat inscrutable rendering of Don Quixote and unwinding only slightly in the all-too-brief Patrice Bart solo, Verdiana. Nathan Young gives full play to his romantic spirit and partnering ability in Giselle, but his style in Bournonville’s Napoli variation is too muscular to bring out the Danish charm and buoyancy.

It is worth noting that Osbaldeston and Summerscales were finalists in 2011 and 2012 respectively; it will be interesting to see which of this year’s three men will emerge in 2014.


Dance GB: Olympic fever

Posted: July 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dance GB: Olympic fever

Dance GB, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, July 6, 19:30

From the press release: The UK’s three national dance companies – Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet and National Dance Company Wales, will perform together for the first time in an Olympian inspired program featuring three specially commissioned works from leading contemporary choreographers.

In a parallel project with sixty young dancers from Scotland, England and Wales, three separate but related works involving both dance and parkour have been created in their respective countries and spliced into a heartwarming film by Nic Sandilands called Dancing Parallel which is shown at the beginning of the evening.

The setting in the big tent at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is more like a large Punch and Judy show, with a faded blue velvet curtain drawn across the broad stage with a space above for a giant puppet master. In front of the tiered seating is a carpeted area for audience members to sit on pillows, blankets, inflatable mattresses or cushions. The tent flaps of the main entrance let in plenty of light, even when closed, but when the film starts it is just dark enough.

We see a hand reaching down to retrieve a partially submerged, wooden school chair out of the water and a young Welsh boy runs with it to a deserted building where he sets it down on a stone floor as a pommel horse and dancing partner. Welcome to the art of the sport of parkour. We see the boy’s legs, arms and torso arching over the chair during his routine, and when he finally sits, the camera pulls back to reveal his face. Cut to a windswept expanse of beach at low tide near Aberdeen. A boy gathers a chair from the wet sand and takes it to join his friends who have found similar chairs, which they form into a choreographic obstacle course on the beach. Cut to inside a dimly lit concrete basement, where these same friends put on a dance performance (choreographed by Emma-Jane McHenry and Lorraine Jamieson) for an audience of empty chairs. Cut to the same space with all the kids sitting in the chairs watching an empty space. Cut to an industrial, dockland warehouse in east London. The now familiar wooden chairs are bobbing in the water and a hand fishes them out one by one, passing them up a line of kids on a metal stairway into a vaulted brick space. We see the kids assimilating their dance movement phrases (choreographed by Laura Harvey, Danielle Jones and Hayley Arundel) then performing them all together for another audience of empty chairs, to the sounds of squeaking rubber soles. Cut to a close-up of an eye, that of the Welsh boy at the beginning. A fully expressed, sometimes wild and always poetic dance with chairs follows, choreographed by Jem Treays to street accordion continuum in the old NatWest Building in Cardiff. It begins with simple seated moves in unison, followed by a passage of movement around and over the chairs, then the kids lay them down, and a couple of boys dance with the equilibrium of the chairs on their feet. The performance is interrupted by the sound of an intruder; all the kids scatter to the recesses of the abandoned lobby. One hopes they will all have the courage to return to continue their dance.

I scoured the program for evidence of a clear mandate for the creation of the three commissioned works by Scottish Ballet, Dance Company Wales and English National Ballet, but if there is one, it is not elaborated. Christopher Bruce is unique in proposing to celebrate the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee together, and his Dream “is also a celebration of the sheer enjoyment of highly physical movement in all its forms.” For Martin Lawrance, choreographer of Run For It for Scottish Ballet, “The Olympics – like any live dance performance – challenges and celebrates an individual’s physicality and mindset. How do you just push that effort? How do you get to the next step, and the next, and the next? And if that ties into Einstein’s vision of dancers as God’s athletes, it also connects into our own lives whatever we do. You just have to get out there, run for it – and hope to win through on your journey.” Itzik Galili was more elusive when asked what the link was between the Olympics and his work for English National Ballet, And the Earth Shall Bear Again: “I feel like I am in the Olympic Games, just being in such a company!…2012 is a year of many beginnings, with potential for new world records…To me, it’s like the earth having its birth again.”

The work takes its title from one of the pieces for prepared piano by John Cage, composed in 1942, that Galili has used as his inspiration. There are various recordings, with a range of percussive tones, but the one used here by Boris Berman is more athletic than most and the amplification for this performance gives a particularly bass, almost distorted tone. Other works by John Cage used by Galili are Prelude for Meditation, The Perilous Night (4 & 6), Primitive, 3 Dances for prepared piano (excerpts), A Chance Operation, and Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos, Dance #1.

Outgoing artistic director of English National Ballet, Wayne Eagling, intended to make Galili’s work the final offering on the program, as performed in Theatre Royal, Glasgow and Cardiff’s Wales Millenium Centre, but for technical reasons here in the tent it has been put first. Reading in the program how Galili uses light as a choreographic tool, I wonder where the lighting is going to come from as I don’t see any sophisticated lighting rig in the tent and there is evidently no fly tower. When the curtain slides open, the mystery is solved: designer Yaron Abulafia’s rig is an integral part of the stage design, some of the more sculptural elements being in plain view. I can see why you wouldn’t want to be setting this up during an intermission.

The stage is filled with atmospheric fog and we are immediately drawn into the murky darkness. What Abulafia has created is remarkable: a theatrical black hole from which dancers emerge into the light, or recede into latency at the will of the lighting designer and choreographer. As our eyes search for familiar form, we see the back of a dancer, too indistinct to know if it is male or female. This figure backs towards us into the diffused, triangular downlight, one fifth position at a time, the feet as closely spaced as the keys on a piano. The costume (designed by Natasja Lansen) is androgynous, worn by both male and female dancers: a black, transparent, sleeveless, net jerkin with its hem barely covering the buttocks. Legs and arms are bare, and reflect the light, while the torso absorbs it. The figure emerging from the mist is Esteban Berlanga. On the first brutally amplified note of Cage’s score, a girl walks across downstage from right to left. A line of dancers cross in the other direction, like a keyboard advancing across the stage, leaving a dancer in the centre with Berlanga, duplicating his movement. The line returns, sweeping away the first dancer and leaving another in her place. Others arrive; there are six on stage who are then joined by another twelve to complete the full complement of eighteen. The percussive nature of the score lends itself to fierce physicality and staccato movement. On two consecutive notes a girl jumps and is caught in the boy’s arms, like two pieces of a puzzle locking together, a movement repeated five times with five other couples. The limbs, because they reflect the light and are used in exaggerated extension, are the principal elements of the dance. Faces are not revealed as clearly, adding to the effect of a gesticulating forest of limbs emanating from mobile trunks. The girls are on point, accentuating the already attenuated lines. The movement is predominantly linear, launched in all directions, so when Nancy Osbaldeston pulls off a beautifully controlled multiple turn, sculpted to perfection in the light, its spiral form takes the breath away. If there is a sense of the title in the movement, it is this emergence of form from chaos.

If the energetic, athletic movement is a constant, Galili modulates it with a succession of male and female duets and trios – although the ultra-flexible movement of overextended legs and arms common to both male and female dancers blurs the sexual distinction – and with interesting dynamic juxtapositions: a mass of movement pauses leaving one girl dancing alone. Towards the end, Berlanga returns to a solo after which he is engulfed once more in the vapour from which he emerged, and a girl walks quickly from left to right across the stage. In the end is the beginning.

In Christopher Bruce’s Dream, the opening is all heart and amateur athletics from a bygone era: a tug of war, egg-and-spoon races, wheelbarrow races, leap-frog, three-legged races and sack races, overlaid with the sound of children’s excited voices. One couple takes a tumble and gets back up to continue the fun (they do it again later, so it’s not an accident). The backdrop is divided horizontally into two sections. The top three quarters is black and the bottom strip is white. All the races take place in front of it, giving the impression of an early home 8mm movie being spooled from one side of the stage to another. Guy Hoare’s lighting adds a touch of faded yellow to the action to complete the effect. This is Bruce looking back on his first memories of the celebrations and street parties for both the 1952 jubilee and coronation the following year, the only work on the program to anchor itself in a specific time and place. As the opening music finishes, one man is caught half way across the stage in his sack race; a poignant moment, as if the era had suddenly passed and he was unsure where he was going. After the festive events of the day, all the participants are standing in the street looking out at us – the future – dreaming of a better world.

The black backdrop descends, covering the white filmstrip: this is the real thing, set to the last movement of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Bruce takes simple body moves like stretching, running in place, rubbing shoulders, wave patterns and cartwheels as phrases that will be developed throughout the work. Four boys enter, good sports running around, practicing sprint starts, then joining together, arms around the waist, walking forward towards us. We hear a crowd roar at the scoring of a goal. The men run off, and Camille Giraudeau enters, her long red hair accentuated in the circle of light. To the rhythm of the introductory phrases of Ravel’s Boléro, Gaudreau shakes out her feet and legs. Such disarmingly natural movement makes this over-familiar music fresh again. Four other girls join, each performing a different exercise that develops into dance movement. Gaudreau, with Ravel, repeats the opening phrases, and the five girls dance together in a beautiful, musically precise, off-balance variation. The boys return; a duo of kicking and boxing morphs into wrestling and deliciously into a waltz before another boy breaks it up. Two girls are joined by a third in a bowling motif, after which they link arms and swing their hips as they sway upstage. Four boys play football; the girls lie on the ground in a circle kicking their legs in the crawl; two boys fence and shake hands; a basketball gesture becomes a dance phrase with more swinging hips, then a duo enters skating, in an inevitable reference to Torvill and Deane’s gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics. Two boys sprint across the back to the trombone solo. A trio of two boys and a girl, then all six girls build the physical complexity of the dance with the music, though Bruce pulls back to repeat that opening phrase once again. The javelin throw is followed by a group of four men in a marathon walk, handkerchiefs on head, which develops into a brilliant canon of girls who then pose while the sparky Naomi Tadevossian performs a lightning solo, leading the girls into a line. Now four men jump and a team of oarsmen cross the stage, two girls spin, the four men hurdle and the crescendo culminates in a triple black flip to a rock solid gymnastic pose, arms raised in celebration. There is applause, as the Boléro has ended, but there is an epilogue, to Grace Williams’ upbeat second movement from her Penillion, Allegro (and how) con fuoco. The men and women return to the street sports, to the sack races, the egg and spoon races, the three-legged race (the couple falls again), wheelbarrow races, and leapfrogging. In a final fling, eggs are tossed – and caught – before the street party winds up and the participants resume their opening positions in the dusk, looking dreamily out and up at the audience. Dream is full of heart, infused with a sense of humour and a nostalgic sense of sportsmanship without being soppy, and not so literally sporty as to be imitative, but rather celebrating the proximity of sport and dance.

Martin Lawrance’s Run For It is aptly named and with a score like John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony the wind is behind the dancers, blowing them along relentlessly. There are apparently subtle quotations from the Olympic sports though I only noticed the swimming gestures. It is is a very musical piece, though because of Adams’ pace and because Lawrance seems to have choreographed most of the accents in the many layers of music, the dancers have to maintain an inexorable momentum to keep up. As in Galili’s work, the movements of men and women are equally athletic and supple, with the girls on pointe, though the speed-enhancing costumes (by Yumiko Takeshima) clearly differentiate the sexes. The slow movement provides a respite, musically and choreographically, with a series of duets and trios with swapping partners on contrasted sequences – one lifting, the other turning – to the same music. Arabesques and deep lunges flow nicely with lovely lines, the technique is clean and the rhythms bright, but aerial shapes are less interesting. When four men lift one of the women, she appears (perhaps understandably) more manhandled than partnered and her shape is lost. Once the men have put her down and left, she recovers in a solo to deserved applause before the finale kicks in. A man’s flying entrance heralds a succession of energetic entrances but the movement vocabulary begins to run low on inspiration and the energy seems to flag, though the dancers regain their control of the score supported by what sounds like an entire farmyard of instrumentation with an energizing dose of percussion. By the time the rapid marching band of cymbals starts up, all the dancers are on stage, finishing in a tight group, with one man circling around them and dancing off at a tangent into the wings; a winding down, as in the music.

The sculptural stage design by the 2011 Turner Prize winner, Martin Boyce, incorporates a Greek column to remind us of the origin of the games. The column, which commands a good portion of the stage, supports a roof of interlocking, transparent forms like a collection of identical 1960’s white lampshades. Indeed, the lighting (by Charles Balfour) is diffused through this honeycomb ceiling, lending it various suffused shades of red and blue. Its height from the stage – perhaps a function of the tent’s limited vertical space – tends to press down on the dancers and Adams’ music belongs to another era and another kind of landscape: an odd contest in which there is no clear winner.