Saturday, 26 May 2018

Powerhouse Ballet - What comes next

Kirklees Leisure Centre
© 2018 Jane Elizabeth Lambert: all rights reserved

At about 3 pm today. a group of dancers will meet in the studio shown in the photograph above to begin a 90 minute class with Jane Tucker of Northern Ballet Academy. I have no idea how big that group will be. Some 20 people have registered for the class but several have had to drop out. On the other hand, I have received at least one intimation through twitter from a dancer who has not yet registered that she is looking forward to meeting everybody. All I would say is that if you want to come and have not yet registered is please let me know as soon as possible so that I can ask the staff at reception to let you in.

The class will take place at the Kirklees Leisure Centre at Spring Grove Street, Huddersfield, HD1 4BP which is just to the west of the Castlegate ring road. It is just down the hill from junction 24 on the M62 with oodles of onsite parking at 70p per hour and a short walk from the bus and railway stations for those who will use public transport.

There will be a short meeting after the class to decide whether we want to form a company and to elect a small steering committee to draw up a business plan and constitution. Several of the people who have had to drop out have stressed that they still want to form a company. Several others who can't be here today have said the same. We have even had messages of support from Mel Wong and David Hotchkiss in Hungary. I think we have enough support to plan for our next activity.

It is important to keep the momentum. Chelmsford Ballet holds company classes with a different teacher on the first Sunday of every month. Cara O'Shea, who once danced Princess Aurora for the the Chelmsford Ballet, gave her old company a very good class a few years ago. We need to do the same. Jane Tucker has very kindly agreed in principle to give us another class as have a number of other teachers.

As many of us have progressed from beginners to improvers and beyond without mastering all the basics and have acquired bad habits I have asked Karen Sant of KNT to arrange a day long ballet boot camp to iron some of these out (see Ballet Boot Camp Pilot 9 May 2018 Powerhouse Ballet). As it is likely to take a little more than a day for folks like me I have discussed the possibility of residential courses with Gillian Barton in Scotland and Terence Etheridge in Cornwall.

Chelmsford arranges all sorts of other events throughout the year such as workshops, an annual coach trip to London to see a show, a performance with the Brentwood Choral Society at Christmas and a children's workshop called "Let's make a ballet" in the Autumn. As workshops and summer schools require time off work I was thinking that we may as well hold them in places where we might well go on holiday such as Taynuilt and Truro. I was also thinking of inviting artistic directors of visiting companies, choreographers, dancers and musicians to dinner meetings where we talk to them over a glass of wine or coffee after a light supper. If I can persuade them to sit down with us, Christopher Marney, Yoko Ichino, Cira Robinson and Koen Kessels are high on my list. Finally, I hope we can persuade Northern Ballet, Phoenix Dance Theatre and visiting companies to arrange special events with us where we can explore the choreography and maybe meet their dancers, creatives and technicians.

I emphasize that we need artists, craftsmen and women, designers, managers, musicians and technicians as well as dancers. If you would like to help us in any capacity even if you live outside the North, do get in touch.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Scarlett's Swan Lake

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Royal Ballet  Swan Lake Royal Opera House 22 May 2018 19:30

The curtain fell for the last time at about 22:35 yesterday and it is now 03:22 on Wednesday. Since then I have travelled 180 miles by rail and another 32 by road. I have read the programme from cover to cover.  Yet I cannot sleep because I am still excited about Liam Scarlett's new production of Swan Lake.

There are hardly any gimmicks in this production.  There are no new characters.  The story is unchanged:
"Prince Siegfried chances upon a flock of swans while out hunting. When one of the swans turns into a beautiful woman, Odette, he is enraptured. But she is under a spell that holds her captive, allowing her to regain her human form only at night.
The evil spirit Von Rothbart, arbiter of Odette’s curse, disguises his daughter Odile as Odette to trick Siegfried into breaking his vow of love. Fooled, Siegfried declares his love for Odile, and so dooms Odette to suffer under the curse forever (see the Royal Opera House's website).
Yet there was still innovation (see How choreographer Liam Scarlett is reimagining Swan Lake on the Royal Opera House's site).

There are, of course, John Macfarlane's brilliant new designs which I shall discuss later. For me the most striking innovation was the elevation of Baron von Rothbart from scary cape waving sorcerer on a rock to a an even more menacing scheming court insider reminding me just a little bit of President Putin.  Although he appears in the prologue the baron's first intervention in the story is as the queen's adviser.  It is obvious that he exerts considerable influence over her.  The idea that the prince should marry may even have been his idea.  He throws his weight around when he is alone with the prince. He reminds Siegfried of his mother's command to choose a bride. When Siegfried is about to leave the stage with his crossbow, von Rothbart gestures to him to put it down.  This enhanced role for the baron affects the dynamic of the story and in my view makes it much more realistic.  Particularly the third act when von Rothbart promotes his daughter as a possible royal bride.

A character who is so crucial to the story requires an artist who is as much as actor as he is a dancer and Bennet Gartside performed that role exquisitely.  As I could spare the time (and money) for only one performance of the new Swan Lake I chose last night in order to see Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson.  They are two of my favourite dancers at the Royal Ballet.  When I saw them in Giselle three years ago they quite took my breath away (see Cuthbertson's Giselle 3 April 2016). It was on the strength of that performance that I chose Cuthbertson as my ballerina of 2016 (see The Terpsichore Titles: Outstanding Female Dancer of 2016 29 Dec 2016). Bonelli was on stage yesterday and he was as gallant and dashing as ever but sadly Cuthbertson was indisposed. Just before the start Kevin O'Hare came on stage to announce that she had been injured and invited us to join him in wishing her well which I, for one, certainly do. He also announced that Akane Takada. who took Cuthbertson's place, had danced Odette-Odile for the first time the previous Saturday. All I can say is that she was enchanting. While I hope to see Cuthbertson in that role soon I was not in the least disappointed by the casting change.

There were many other dancers who impressed me last night but this already over-long review would become as turgid as a telephone directory were I to include them all.  But James Hay stood out for me as the prince's mate Benno. Not quite as big a role in Scarlett's Swan Lake as in David Dawson's but the character does not appear in many productions.  Perhaps because I have tried to learn the cygnets' dance (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 16 Aug 2015) I feel a special sense of fellowship with whoever dances on it on stage.  I therefore gave Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Romany Pajdak and Leticia Stock who performed that piece an extra loud clap prompting an old fashioned look from the lady next to me as if to say "What's so special about them?" It  would have taken me far too long to tell her.  I also liked the Neapolitan dance. Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Paul Kay were lively and sparky. They performed that divertissement in the way that Wayne Sleep and Jennifer Penney used to do.

This was a ballet in which every artist performed well. Especially the corps who were magnificent.  Not every man shared that view. On the stairs up to the Paul Hamlyn Bar in the first interval a pinstriped gent was holding forth that the boys were alright but the girls seemed somewhat under-rehearsed.  I was amazed by that criticism. "What had he seen that I had missed?" I wondered.  For me it was pure delight from beginning to end.  The lady who was with the opinionated gent didn't agree. She urged him to stop it and she struck him more than once with her rolled-up cast list.

Having said that it was a very funny audience last night. Nobody joined me in clapping the principals when they first appeared. Hardly anybody applauded Takada as she was approaching her 32nd fouetté. Folk were leaving Florida style even before the first curtain call   "It was only 22:30" I thought to myself, "If I can get home to Yorkshire tonight surely there must be trains to Penge." The dancers and musicians gave us there all and they deserved better from the crowd. Ballet Black got a well-deserved standing ovation in Nottingham last week as did Teac Damsa for their Swan Lake in Manchester. "What is it with stuffy old London?" I mused.  Those artists deserved a flower throw and when the flower market was next door they would have got it.

I promised to say a word about Macfarlane's designs. Well, they are good.  The backdrop of swirling waters for the prologue gave way to the palace gardens for act 1. Seamlessly they morphed into a lakeside with a full moon for act 2. The ballroom scene with its throne was magnificent. However, the most dramatic setting of all was the lakeside at the end. A monochrome landscape dominated by a rock. Those scene changes required ingenious lighting design and David Finn delivered it.  The costumes were magnificent particularly Siegfried and Benno's and the uniforms for the men.

Scarlett shows that you don't need bikes on stage, male swans, new characters or even a new libretto to rejuvenate Swan Lake.  His work is already pretty close to my favourite Swan Lake though I would hate to have to choose between it and David Dawson's. They are both excellent with their rspective strengths.  I loved Anthony Dowell's Swan Lake but I think we were ready for this change.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Grimm - an Interesting Collaboration

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One of the highlights of the Dutch National Ballet's opening night gala in 2015 was an extract from Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which was performed by Ernst Meisner's Junior Company and Marco Gerris's ISH Dance Collective. In The Best Evening I have ever spent in the Ballet 13 Sept 2015 I wrote:
"When we returned to the auditorium images of falling snow were projected on to the stage. Before the house lights dimmed two dancers dressed as lions were in the auditorium. Then I recognized some of the beautiful young dancers from the Junior Company on stage. The beat was compelling. The dance an amalgam of ballet and hip hop. It was Narnia, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Ernst Mesiner and Marco Gerris. A collaboration between the Junior Company and ISH Dance Collective. That was the highlight of the show for me. When Ernst visited the London Ballet Circle he mentioned the possibility of bringing it to the UK. It would be wonderful if that were ever to happen. Particularly if it could be brought to Leeds or Manchester."
Last month I was lucky enough to meet Marco Gerris after the Junior Company's fifth anniversary show. I told him how much I had enjoyed the extract of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe that I had seen at the gala. I mentioned my review including including the last sentence.

Marco asked about Leeds and Manchester so I told him about  Northern Ballet, Phoenix Dance Theatre, the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, the Centre for Advanced Training and the Arts Council's plans to make Leeds a centre of excellence for dance.  I also mentioned The Lowry and its CAT, Northern Ballet School, Manchester City Ballet, our theatres and our city's links with English National Ballet,  I hope to have planted a seed that may one day lead to our seeing Marco's work in this country. I am aware that the Dutch National Ballet has been in touch with the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre but nothing has come of it so far.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely ever to see Narnia again. Apparently, the company was unable to obtain the rights it needed to re-stage Narnia (see Narnia becomes Grimm).  However, Ernst and Marco have created a new ballet called Grimm which is touring the Netherlands with great success.  According to the Dutch National Ballet's website:
"GRIMM is about two boys who find themselves in a fantasy world, where they meet Red Riding Hood and the wolf, the seven dwarves, Rapunzel, Snow White, the witch, Cinderella and other fairytale characters in succession. They get mixed up in exciting adventures, in which all sorts of elements from well-known fairytales are jumbled up in a lively parade of fairytale characters. As in all fairytales, a big role is played by love and jealousy, friendship, tyranny, intrigues and the battle between good and evil."
There is a British connection in that the score was contributed by  Scanner (Robin Rimbaud).  Unfortunately, the tour ends this week so I will be unable to see the collaboration this time but I will certainly catch future ones.

Although it has nothing whatsoever to do with ballet, I should mention that the BBC has started to broadcast a series of three programmes by Misha Glennie called The Invention of the NetherlandsThe first episode was about the low countries' early history and the Dutch Republic's war of independence against Spain.  It jolted me into thinking just how little I know of the country.  I have made scores of visits to Amsterdam over the years for business or pleasure but save for a weekend in Rotterdam with a lawyer friend who drove me around South Holland including Oudewater where, as in Pendle, they had witch trials I had never been anywhere else.

I was reminded by the programme of the Netherlands' diversity.  In Frisia, for example, the locals speak a language that is even closer to English than Dutch. In Baarle-Nassau in Brabant there are pockets of Belgium that are surrounded by Dutch territory (some just a few square yards in size) and in some places pockets of the Netherlands within Belgian enclaves on Dutch soil.  I think this may be the year for a coach or motoring holiday of one of our nearest neighbours.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Royal Ballet's Elizabeth at the Barbican: Where were her flowers?

The Royal Ballet’s revival of Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth at the Barbican theatre starred Zenaida Yanowsky as Queen Elizabeth I and (her brother) Yury Yanowsky as her five suitors. A strong performance by both dancers was accompanied by Martin Yates’ score, which blended period and modern music performed by cellist Raphael Wallfisch and baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, and Alastair Middleton’s script read and performed by Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon.

The plot is a biography of Queen Elizabeth I portrayed through scenes of her personal and romantic life. The commentary, which blends contemporary texts and letters, including from the Queen and her suitors, has a refrain that tells us that Elizabeth loved little dogs, chess and dancing, and gives a detailed account of her last few days. The story takes us through five of Elizabeth’s relationships at different times of her life, continually emphasising how her commitment to her role and responsibility as monarch meant she did not feel she could also be a wife. However, it was interesting that despite depicting Elizabeth repeatedly prioritising her role as England’s Virgin Queen over several potential marriage opportunities, the script made only passing reference to the history and politics of the era that must have contributed to this decision. For example, I do not recall mention of the Spanish Armada, which historians have highlighted as her finest hour. To some extent it was ironic to see a strong female leader characterised by her love life, which by her own choice was unfulfilling and unfulfilled. 

Having said that, it was an entertaining piece of theatre, with Zenaida Yanowsky portraying Elizabeth at different stages of her life with strength and sensitivity in scenes that were predominantly descriptive reportage rather than depicting actual events – although there were a few amusing acting cameos too. 

Physically, as other reviews have said, Yanowsky was a fantastic casting, with her pale, delicate colouring perfectly suiting Fay Fullerton’s shimmering costumes, and her long, supple legs accentuating Tuckett’s lyrical choreography. Her performance of the aging queen was particularly strong. Yanowsky is a recently retired principal with The Royal Ballet, and a striking, exquisite dancer. I could see from the front of the stalls that the years have clearly taken a toll on her feet and her presentation of the decline of a beautiful, powerful woman was intensely moving.

Yury Yanowsky’s excellent interpretation of the witty and technically demanding choreography fitted the Elizabethan themes, readings and music perfectly and the unique characteristics of each suitor kept the audience smiling. 

It was the final show of a four-day run at the Barbican theatre and it received a standing ovation, which Zenaida Yanowsky responded to with a short speech paying tribute to Tuckett, as well as the musicians and cast. I saw it with friends from my ballet class, and as amateur dancers we appreciated the demanding nature of the role and were sorry not to see her receive a similar tribute. “Where were her flowers?” asked one friend. I wondered too. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Importance of Performance

I posted those words to Facebook just before we appeared on stage to give readers who have never danced in public some idea of the thrill of doing so.   Possibly the  anticipation of the performance is even more delicious that the performance itself.  It is during those moments that the adrenaline begins to flow and a thousand thoughts slip in and out of the brain.   We danced our piece.  I don't think there were too many disasters. At least nobody shouted at us to get off or booed.  We detected no flying tomatoes or rotten eggs. Or if any were thrown the aim of the person throwing such missile would have been worse than our dancing. We even got a clap at the end.

I didn't see any of the show because we were the third act of the second part but I did see the dress rehearsal and was very impressed.  Particularly good this year were the repertoire class which presented their own original ballet entitled Pirates of the Caribbean choreographed by their instructor, Josh Moss.  I do not yet have a clip of yesterday's performance of Pirates but here in a video of their entry into the kingdom of the shades in October 2016 which I reviewed in Pride.   This film shows how good they are:

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That performance is all the more impressive when you consider that all the dancers have busy lives and  meet only for a few minutes on Wednesday evenings.  As usual, the Chinese dancers delighted me and the advanced ballet, intermediate and pointe classes thrilled me.

My Facebook post elicited a whole tas de merde, a "chookas" and several invitations to "break a leg" but also the following comment: "Sadly, I don't get to do an annual show, despite attending two schools."  The student who posted that response was right to be sad because performance is so important to ballet education.  As I said in my review of Hype Dance's Annual Show:
"Performances are important to dance education because ballet and kindred styles of dance developed in the theatre and are intended for an audience. The experience of appearing before a living, breathing (and paying) audience is delicious. I well remember the charge of excitement I felt in my first show which I tried to describe in The Time of My Life 28 June 2014. Every dance student from toddler to pensioner can and should feel that charge no matter how inexperienced or incompetent he or she may be. Most get that opportunity because almost every dance school worth its salt offers its students a chance to take part in its annual show. Training and rehearsing for that show is what distinguishes dance classes from dreary keep fit."
A flippant answer might be "Go find yourself another ballet school", but that would not be very helpful. I happen to know that one of the schools to which the dancer refers is rated as one the best in the country - at least for highly talented young students with the ambition and ability to make a career in dance.  Also, that school is not the only fine ballet school not to offer its adult dance students a chance to perform on stage.   Northern Ballet Academy did the same a couple of years ago which is why I spend at least one evening a week in Manchester even though there are outstanding teachers in Leeds and the Academy's timetabling is much more convenient

In Essex, Cornwall and other parts of the country, an opportunity to perform in public is offered by local amateur ballet companies.  I think we need something like that in the North,  That is why I hope we can launch Powerhouse Ballet.  However, everything depends on whether we can get a reasonable turnout (in both senses of the word) at Jane Tucker's class in Huddersfield on Saturday.

If you want to come but have not already registered, now is your chance.  This will be great class:

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Teac Damsa's "Swan Lake" - it may not have been Ballet or even entirely Dance but it was great Theatre

Teac Damsa and Michael Keegan-Dolan Swan Lake (Loch na hEala) 18 May 2018 20:00 Lowry

It didn't start promisingly.  A bare stage.  A handful of musicians clutching their instruments. A chap in a tuque smoking a fag.  A slightly flabby bespectacled middle aged gent in his underpants with a rope round his neck like a leash walking in circles and bleating occasionally. A lady in a wheelchair.

The house lights went down and sinister looking types in wide brimmed hats circled the semi-naked gent.  After performing a ritual dance one of them tugged at the rope. The bleating quickened.   They brought him to the floor, splashed water over him whipped him with towels but then they clad him in shirt and trousers. They led him to a chair with a microphone in the centre of the stage and sat him down.

"I won't say another word until I have a cup of tea" announced the man in the chair. Someone poured him a cup and handed it to him.  The man in the chair asked for a cigarette and that was provided too.  He began to tell his story and the man in the tuque and the lady in the wheelchair approached the front of the stage. From that point the story of Swan Lake emerged.  My impatience and scepticism evaporated and I became absorbed.

The man in the tuque was the Siegfried of the tale though he was called Jimmy in this story. He was disorientated and depressed because he had lost his father and was about to lose his home where his family had lived for 300 years.  He lived in the house with his disabled mother.  It was his 36th birthday and she wanted him to find a nice girl and settle down. Instead of a crossbow she gave him his father's old shot gun. By now, gentle reader, you should be seeing parallels with the ballet. The parallels were not exact because the tale was set in modern Ireland but it was much closer to Petipa than David Nixon, Graeme Murphy or Sir Matthew Bourne.

The swans were four young girls who had been students at the local girls's secondary school.   One of them,  Fionnuala, had been ravaged by her parish priest who had also been the girls' divinity master and chaplain.  Fionnuala's sisters caught him flagrante delicto.  "If any of you breath a word of any of this", he threatened, "you will be turned into a filthy animal," That is what seems to have happened to the girls for they disappeared from home and were never seen again.

Jimmy went down to the lough with his gun one night with a view to shooting himself.  Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger a swan swooped down and distracted him. A duet ensued between Jimmy and the Swan which was as tender as Petipa's.

Jimmy's mum threw a party for his birthday and invited every unattached girl in the neighbourhood plus the lecherous priest.  The priest dragged a a big cardboard box onto the stage which contained a swan with black feathers that looked just like Fionnuala or the swan that had saved Jimmy's life at the lough.  Jimmy tried to approach her but was repelled.  He became distracted and retired to his home with his gun.  A local councillor visited him.  Jimmy appeared brandishing the gun.  The councillor panicked and complained to the police.  Firearms officers arrived at Jimmy's house.  They ordered an unarmed Jimmy to place his hands above his head.  When he failed to comply they shot him.

In the last scene the dancers tossed swans' down into the air.  One of them  menacingly swung a bin liner full of the stuff before emptying its contents over the front rows of the stalls.  Clearly the audience loved the show for nearly everyone rose to their feet.  Indeed, I loved it.  Mancunians stand up for all sorts of shows for which I would never rise like Akram Khan's Giselle but they were right about Teac Damsa's Swan Lake.  It may not have been ballet.  It was not even all dance.  But it was great theatre.

After the show the audience were invited to a dimly lit bar behind the stage that I never knew existed.  It was furnished with cushions, easy chairs and lip-shaped balloons.  Soft drinks were on sale for a pound and alcohol was not much more expensive.  Three members of the band - a violinist, cellist and an electric viola player - serenaded us with traditional Irish music.  At one point, a guest cellist called Mary joined the band on stage to sing a song about sorting socks.  Many companies hold Q & A after the show which I always attend out of respect for the dancers.   It is probably a mistake because it breaks a spell. I think audiences much prefer to remember the artists under the lights with makeup.  Yesterday's after show concert was so pleasant.  It will always remind me of this show.

Teac Damsa are at the Lowry for one more night.  As I am in Move It! at The Dancehouse tonight (see Our Turn to Impress 16 May 2018) I can hardly recommend a rival show but if you get the chance to see this show anywhere else but the Lowry tonight you really must watch it.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Ballet West's Showcase

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In Ballet Black's Standing Ovation at the Nottingham Playhouse 17 May 2018 I mentioned that Ballet Black are coming to Scotland.  They are not the only ones.  I shall return on 27 May to see Ballet West's Showcase at the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University.

The event is described as follows:
"This show is the culmination of the Ballet West students' year and the final assessment for the BA (Hons) in Dance students (awarded by the Open University). It demonstrates the breadth of experience the dancers have gained in classical ballet, modern ballet and contemporary and presents new works created for the students by Belgian choreographer Daniel Job. Degree courses at Ballet West combine training in technical dance skills with genuine performing experiences required by dancers working today."
The students will perform extracts from Paquita in Stirling.  The video shows a rehearsal in a studio that looks very much like the one in which I attended class on 30 April 2018 (see Visiting Taynuilt 4 May 2018).  Immediately after class I was allowed to watch Jonathan Barton coach Joseph Wright and Uyu Hiramoto in the grand pas de deux.  It was looking good even then and I am looking forward to the performance very much indeed.

One of the reasons for my last visit to Scotland was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the St Andrews University Dance Club t-shirt of which I was one of the founder members (see St Andrews University Dance Club's 50th Anniversary Gala 5 May 2018). The Club has commissioned some commemorative t-shirts to celebrate its first half century and one of my friends and university contemporaries was kind enough to send me one earlier today. The panel on the left shows my trying it on and the panel to the right is the back of the same t-shirt.

The other reason for my visit was to see Scottish Ballet's Highland Fling in Oban.  Their newsletter reports:
"The company is back in Glasgow after a whirlwind tour of Highland Fling in Shetland, Orkney, Oban and Stornoway and our hearts are full."
I love that expression "our hearts are full".  It a beautiful phrase which I shall try to remember and use in my own writing. It also reminds me of all the good things I associate with Scotland - some material like the beauty of the countryside but much more the intangible.  In their Dancer's Tour Diary  Scottish Ballet recount some of the places they visited and things they did on tour.  In this hilarious video they challenge their non-Scottish dancers to repeat some Scottish phrases like "braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht" and "Lang may yer lum reek". 

Our West Riding argot can be pretty impenetrable.  I wonder how much of it our Gavin has picked up while he has been with Northern Ballet. Happen a'll ask him next time I meet l'lad.