Monday, 30 November 2015

Mata Hari

Mata Hari
Author: Lucien Walery
Source Wikipedia

Both English National Ballet and the New Zealand National Ballet have created works to commemorate the First World War (see Kia Ora! The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Leeds 5 Nov and Lest We Forget 25 Nov 2015), The Netherlands was neutral during the First World War but it lost at least one of its citizens to that conflict.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, was executed by a French firing squad at Vincennes on 15 Oct 1917 after being convicted of espionage in a travesty of a trial in which her counsel was prevented from cross-examining the prosecution witnesses.  On 6 Feb 2016 the Dutch National Ballet will present Ted Brandsen's ballet Mata Hari on her life story.

The company's press manager, Richard Heideman, has described Mata Hari as "one of the most iconic women in Dutch history". His press release continues:

"Mata Hari was born to a well-to-do Frisian family in 1876 as Margaretha Zelle. Following an unhappy marriage, Zelle went to seek adventure in Paris. As the exotic, mysterious Mata Hari, she became one of the most famous dancers of her day. She travelled throughout Europe and had highly placed lovers everywhere, which made her an ideal spy during World War I. She was accused – rightly or wrongly – of being a double agent, and she died in front of a French firing squad in 1917.
Mata Hari was a passionate woman, for whom real life was too restrictive, which is why she was continually creating new images of herself and new guises.
The mysteries that surround her person and her dramatic, controversial death have made Mata Hari a welcome subject for the film industry. Famous actresses like Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gábor, Marlène Dietrich, Jeanne Moreau, Sylvia Kristel and Maruschka Detmers have all played Mata Hari. There have also been stage versions, a television series and a Broadway musical about Mata Hari. She has been immortalised by painters like Isaac Israëls (1916) and John Singer Sargent (1906). And a great many books have been written about her life, ranging from serious biographies to Tomas Ross’ thriller The Tears of Mata Hari."
Brandsen's ballet focuses on Mata Hari's ability to keep ‘reinventing’ herself:
“She underwent many metamorphoses, like a Lady Gaga or Madonna of a hundred years ago”. 
He is particularly moved by her survival instinct and her will to make something of her life no matter what.

Tarik O’Regan has been commissioned to compose the score, The sets will be by Clement & Sanôu, and the costumes by Francois-Noël Cherpin.  If I can get to Amsterdam in February I will review the show.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Manchester's Favourite Ballet Company

Manchester Town Hall
Source Wikipedia
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English National Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Palace Theatre, 28 Nov 2015

Last night was the 46th anniversary of the first performance by Northern Dance Theatre (later known as Northern Ballet) at the University Theatre in Manchester. Northern Ballet crossed the Pennines many years ago leaving our city without our own major ballet company. Or did it?  I think Manchester has a special relationship with English National Ballet which goes back a very long way. The company gave its first performance at the Opera House on 5 Feb 1951 (see Our History) and it has chosen Manchester for the première of Akram Khan's Giselle on  27 Sept 2016. Last night and on Tuesday English National Ballet pulled out all the stops for us. I don't think I have ever seen English National Ballet dance better since I started following it in 1955.

On Tuesday the company performed Lest we forget (see Lest we Forget 25 Nov 2015). For the rest of the week it has been dancing Nureyev's production of Romeo and Juliet. Yesterday was the first time I had seen that version and I liked it a lot. It has a lot of imaginative and original features some of which, such as the unfolding of Friar Lawrence's cunning plan, seem to have been borrowed from the cinema. It is tense and tight and packed with action. There are lots of colourful touches from the dropping of the black and red cloth in the prologue to the Montagues' flag dance in Act II. There are whole new scenes such as Mercutio's death scene when Romeo and his mates think he is play acting or Juliet's solo with the dagger after Romeo has gone into exile and her parents are trying to force her to marry Paris. The shock when Romeo realizes that Mercutio is dead explains the rush of blood that goaded him to pick up a sword even better than the play. Having said that it is much closer to its source material than either Jean-Christophe Maillot's for Northern Ballet with its focus on Friar Lawrence or Krzysztof Pastor's for Scottish Ballet with its potted history of Italy even though I must add that I liked both versions well enough at the time (see Northern Ballet's Romeo and Juliet - different but in a good way 8 March 2015 and Scottish Ballet's Timeless Romeo and Juliet 18 May 2015).

Though I admired Nureyev's choreography, the orchestration of Prokofiev's magnificent score and Ezio Frigerio's designs it was the dancing that made the evening for me. The casting of Max Westwell and. in particular, Lauretta Summerscales in the title roles was inspired. On her web page she mentions Juliet as the role she would love to dance. The company gave her the chance to dance that role and she grabbed that chance with both hands. I don't think I have ever seen a better Juliet although I have seen some of the world's greatest ballerinas in that role. The quality that she brought to that role was her youth. When playing with her nurse and girl friends in Act I she looked as though she might actually be 13. She grew into a mature woman before our eyes. Westwell was an excellent partner for her.  I can quite see how he became a finalist of the emerging dancer contest. His web page says that Romeo and Juliet is his favourite production too and he also made the most of his opportunity to dance the leading role.

All the cast did well and it is perhaps unfair to single any of them for special praise but Fernando Bufalá was a great Mercutio. He was the life and soul of every party (even the one he gate crashed) and clowning even as he died. Fabian Reimair was a seething Tybalt, Jeanette Kakareka a delightful Rosaline and Daniele Silingardi a decent Paris. He seems to have loved Juliet and would have been quite a catch for almost every other young woman. I felt really sorry that he had to die in the tomb.

But the casting that delighted me most was to see Sarah Kundi as Lady Capulet. I have followed that dancer ever since she danced in Leeds. It was she who led me to Ballet Black and through MurleyDance to Richard Chappell. She is tall and elegant with the most expressive face. An actor as much as a dancer, yesterday's role was perfect for her. It is an important one in Nureyev's production for it is Lady Capulet who forces her daughter to take desperate measurers. How I clapped at the curtain call.  I fear my "brava" roared from the middle of the stalls would have been drowned out by everyone else's applause by the time it reached the stage. Had this show been in London I could have tossed flowers at her. She and everyone on stage would have deserved them.

So farewell to English National Ballet until its next season in our city.  Heartfelt thanks for two magnificent shows. Now that we are to build our fine new £78 million arts centre (see The Factory begins to take Shape 26 Nov 201) maybe we can tempt it back more often and to stay with us a little longer each time it returns.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Remembering Mandev Sokhi

A Red Kite
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From 18:00 this evening Ballet Cymru will hold a gathering at its studios in Rogerstone to celebrate the life of its dancer and education officer Mandev Sokhi. This event is for "anyone and everyone to come and pay their respects to this wonderful person, who gave such a lot and had so much passion for dance."

As I said in Mandev Sokhi 10 Oct 2015 Mandev was one of my favourite dancers in one of my favourite companies. I particularly admired his performance as the beast in Beauty and the Beast which Mel Wong reviewed for us so aptly in For grown ups who haven't lost touch with their childhoods - Ballet Cymru's Beauty & The Beast 24 June 2014. I am very glad to have made Mandev's acquaintance when the London Ballet Circle visited Rogerstone on 3 Oct 2015 (see Ballet Cymru at Home 5 Oct 2015).

Mandev will be remembered tonight far beyond Newport and indeed well beyond Wales for he danced wth Ballet Cymru in every part of the United Kingdom. Clearly it will not be possible for all his admirers to make their way to Wales tonight but there are two very good ways in which we can show our appreciation of the man. First, there are still a few tickets left for Ballet Cymru's triple bill in London on the 29 and 30 Nov. I saw it in Newport on 6 Nov 2015 and reviewed it in "The Pride of Newport and the Pride of Wales" 8 Nov 2015. I am seeing it again on Monday. Another way to remember Mandev is to become a Friend of the company as I did after my visit to its studios last month. You can also make a donation or sponsor one of its productions or activities.  The company has been nominated for a National Dance Award so it is well worth supporting (see Ballet Cymru Am Byth 1 Nov 2015).

Phoenix in Huddersfield

Phoenix Dance Theatre, Mixed Bill, Lawrence Batley Teatre, Huddersfield, 27 Nov 2015

When I reviewed Phoenix's triple bill at The Linbury in The Phoenix Soars Over London on 13 Nov 2015 I promised to focus on Itzik Galili's Until.With/ Out.Enough and Caroline Finn's Bloom as soon as I had seen them in Huddersfield. I made that romise because I was so impressed with Sharon Watson's TearFall that I ran out of space and time to write about anything else. I am unable to keep that promise in its entirety because the first two works in last night's show were not Galili's piece bbut Christopher Bruce's Shift and Shadows

Not that I'm complaining for I am a great admirer of Bruce's work as you can see from my reviews of Rambert's Rooster (see Cock a Doodle Doo - Rambert's Rooster 27 Oct 2015 and Rooster ................ :-) 4 Oct 2014) and Scottish Ballet's Ten Poems (see Bruce Again 6 Oct 2015). Nevertheless it did occur to me to ask the reason for the substitution in a question and answer session with the cast in the Syngenta cellar at the end of the show. I didn't get a chance to ask that question because there were so many others who wanted to quiz the company but it was answered by Tracy Tinker, the tour director, who explained that the company had to dance Galili's piece in London because it had been a joint commission with the Royal Opera House.

The substitution prompted me to buy a new programme at the first interval and I remarked to a lady selling Phoenix merchandise in the foyer that this was a completely new programme. It wasn't entirely new. The other two works, TearFall and Bloom were the same as in the Linbury. 

As on the 12 Nov 2015 I enjoyed TearFall tremendously and appreciated it a little bit more for seeing it twice. It was clear from the Q & A that that piece went down well with the audience. Prentice Whitlow explained his interpretation of the work in response to a question from the floor. One point that I had missed before was that men and women think of tears in an entirely different way and the piece explored that.  Whitlow had introduced the piece with a short monologue and recordings of his voice and someone's (possibly his) weeping recurred at several points of the show.

Finn's Bloom was another work that I got to understand better the second time round though I am still not sure that I have got to the bottom of it.  Perhaps if I describe it you will see why.  It began with a group of dancers on the left hand side of the stage cooing and clucking around a table.  Suddenly one of them screams and Sam Vaherlehto wearing a clown's tragedy mask appears round a microphone. He shifts and shuffles apparently with embarrassment as his audience applauds and looks on. There is a duet - or more properly a dance dialogue - with Whitlow. One of the women in a tutu like skirt dances a solo to a rhyme that seemed to mock medicine. In another scene Vaherlehto gathers the dancers who were stretched on the ground like corpses and assembles them into a pile. The dancer in the tutu makes her way to the centre and lies down about them.  Towards the end Vaherlehto, stripped to his underpants, danced to a song with the chorus "I'm a creep. I'm a wierdo. What the hell am I doing here." Starting with the title Bloom I wondered whether the dancers might be plants or flowers and that the man in the mask was the gardener. I was dying to ask whether or not I was on the right track but sadly didn't get a chance to find out.

Even if it was about flowers Bloom did have disturbing undertones such as the thin line between reality and hallucination, Bruce's Shadows also seemed to be about aberrations of the mind as it started with furniture throwing. I was not the only one to see a connection with depression. The lady sitting next to me in the Q & A was a therapist and she alluded to it in formulating her question.

Shift, however was quite different. I had seen the same dancers dance that work at The Sapphire gala in March and I think they were better second time round. More polished somehow. Dressed in forties costumes with the women in head scarves Gracie Fields style they seemed to represent a production line. I was reminded very much of the munitions workers in Liam Scrlett's No Man's Land which I had seen in Manchester two days earlier (see Lest We Forget 25 Nov 2015). However, Bruce's workers seemed to have a lot more fun that Scareltt's canaries.

The Q & A session was my first chance to see all the dancers together and hear them speak. I had already met Whitlow a few days earlier, I have been following several of the others on twitter and I knew Marie-Astrid Mence from Ballet Black. They are an impressive bunch of artists. Watson explained her selection process which is uber competitive. They were asked how they took up dance. Two of the men explained that they took up dance because their sisters were taking lessons. The others gave various reasons. They were asked by the therapist how they relaxed and we learned from Vaherlehto that they look (or at least he looks) to another art. Photography in his case someone added.  I hope to run a feature on Mence and Whitlow in Terpsichore soon.

This has been a pretty good month for dance and the two shows by Phoenix were among the highlights. Although rooted in Leeds it really is a word class company with dancers from around the world.  I am very proud of them.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Factory begins to take shape

Manchester  Graffiti
Photo Mike Colvin
Source Wikipeda
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In his Autumn statement last year the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised a £78 million investment in a new arts centre in Manchester to be called "The Factory". I picked it up in my article  Let's bring the Royal Ballet to The Factory Manchester 11 Dec 2015. The Chancellor, whose constituency is in the Manchester city region, repeated his promise yesterday (see George Osborne’s Autumn Statement speech in full 25 Nov 2015 Financial Times).

The Autumn statement coincided with press reports of the appointment of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to design the Factory (see Rem Koolhaas wins Factory design project as Manchester goes Dutch 25 Nov 2015 The Guardian, The Factory: CGIs of Manchester's multi-million pound culture hub  released 25 Nov 2015 Manchester Evening News and OMA wins competition to design huge Manchester arts venue The Factory 25 Nov 2014 De Zeen). Work is to start on the site next year and the building should be finished by 2019.

When completed the Factory will host the Manchester International Festival which featured artists from the Paris Opera Ballet in Wayne McGregor's Tree of Codes this year. Next year it will première Akram Khan's Giselle for English National Ballet. Manchester which is visited regularly by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Northern Ballet as well as smaller companies is probably the biggest audience for dance outside London.

So we now have an audience for dance and we will soon have a major venue for the performing arts in the city. All we need now is a major resident company. As I hinted last year we would welcome the Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet with open arms if it wanted to resume the negotiations for a Northern home which were terminated by the change of government last year.

Or we could build out own. Some of the building blocks are here. We have the Northern Ballet School in Oxford Road which already has its own performing company known as Manchester City Ballet. It will perform Giselle at The Dancehouse between 10 and 12 Dec 2015.  There is also the Centre for Advanced Training in Dance at The Lowry. All we need is to commitment and money.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Lest We Forget

Commemorating World War 1
Photo Andrew Davidson
Source Wikipedia
Creative Commons Licence

English National Ballet, Lest we Forget Palace Theatre, Manchester, 24 Nov 2015

Yesterday's performance of Lest we Forget in Manchester was superb. It was not an easy watch and for that reason I can't say that I enjoyed it but I was moved by it in a very special way. This was ballet at its best. It showed the unique power of dance to comprehend and find beauty in one of the greatest tragedies of human history. The end of the performance brought some members of the audience to their feet. I guess the only reason why more did not join in was that the audience was emotionally drained by the end.

The performance consisted of Liam Scarlett's No Man's Land, Russell Maliphant's Second Breath and Akram Khan's Dust. That was a shorter programme than the one premièred at the Barbican last year in that it omitted George Williamson's Firebird which I hope to see one day. All three were impressive works but the one that stood out for me was Scarlett's No Man's Land.

I had already seen a recording of Scarlett's Viscera earlier in the month (see Au Revoir but not Adieu 19 Nov 2015) and was keen to compare it to No Man's Land.  The two works could not have been more different. Set to excerpts from Franz Liszt's Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses that had been arranged by Gavin Sutherland No Man's Land was haunting and lyrical. The work remembered not only the men who served in the forces but the women who stayed behind to make the munitions in appalling and sometimes dangerous conditions. The setting for this work was a damaged but still operational building - possibly a factory or maybe a ruin on the front. The women were in simple flowing dresses. The men in green or brownish tunics with steel helmets at one point in the ballet. There was enchanting dancing by Begoña Cao, Junor Souza, Alison McWhinney, Fabian ReimairShiori Kase and Fernando Bufalá.

Maliphant's Second Breath was an opportunity for Tamarin Stott and Joshua McSherry-Gray to shine and they were incandescent in their duet though the supporting dancers were important too. The work was set to a score by Andy Cowton but not easy to absorb. There were pulses of sound that I found quite alarming though that was possibly the composer's idea. There were snatches of barely audible and even less comprehensible speech in the piece followed by a pretty clear rendering of Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night which seemed to be delivered by the author himself. Dark and disturbing this was the work that required most work on the part of the audience.

The most dramatic work of the evening was Khan's Dust. It began with an execution - or possibly the nightmare of an execution for the victim continued to writhe on the ground. There was some impressive human sculpture where the dancers' limbs became waves or possibly a production line. It was Khan's Kaash at the Lowry that prompted me to book for Lest we Froget but this work was very different in that any South Asian influences were much less noticeable to me at an rate. The music for this work was by Jocelyn Pook who also wove speech into her score. There was what seemed to be a phrase of Auld Lang Syne repeating itself on a scratched record. The lead dancers were Erina Takahashi with Reinar and Bufala, This piece won Khan a number of awards last year and its success seems to have led to his commission to create a Giselle. I look forward to it immensely.

The centenary of the First World War inspired the Royal New Zealand Ballet to create Salute, another mixed bill focusing in war. They two of their ballets from that production to Leeds which I reviewed in  Kia Ora! The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Leeds 5 Nov 2015 earlier this month. The Netherlands which was neutral in the conflict is commemorating the war in a different way with Ted Brandsen's Mata Hari who was also a victim of that conflict.

Anyone who thinks that dance is a frivolous, frothy superficial art form incapable of dealing with difficult matters should think again. It is the synthesis of many arts and the whole is almost always greater than the constituent parts.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights in Bradford

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Northern Ballet, Wuthering Heights, Alhambra, Bradford 21 Nov 2015

I inserted a photo of Top Withens near Haworth into my review of Northern Ballet's performance of Wuthering Heights at the Sheffield Lyceum as it is said to be the inspiration for Emily Brontë's novel. Haworth is in the metropolitan district of Bradford and the Alhambra is the nearest theatre to that township. No doubt that is one of the reasons why Northern Ballet premièred David Nixon's ballet in that theatre to less than ecstatic reviews at the time (see Ismene Brown's Lost in the Moors 25 Sept 2002 in the Daily Telegraph and Judith Mackrell's Wuthering Heights 25 Sept 2002 in the Guardian).

The reviews have become somewhat kinder over the years, at least in the local press (see Emma Clayton's Northern Ballet brings Cathy and Heathcliff back home 12 Nov 2015 Telegraph and Argus and Yvette Huddleston's Review: Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights 18 Nov 2015 Yorkshire Post) though not necessarily among balletomanes (see Emma's What we shouldn't try to tame in Balletical). Emma is particularly preceptive in her review, She begins with the observation:
"I could well be alone in my commentary of this ballet. I cannot be representative of the good ladies who rushed to the front of the stage to offer a standing ovationat the close of this performance. Then perhaps this review be considered a response rather than critique – and here is the enigma of Wuthering Heights and the creative challenge of this particular story ballet."
And concludes:
"I know it: I have been unduly harsh on Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights – a ballet that may please many, many people. I hope it does. My response is indeed less critical judgement than personal experience. That is the thing with Wuthering Heights and with Heathcliff, who we really shouldn’t try to tame."
A lot of choreographers other than Nixon have tries to tame Wuthering Heights. Cathy Marston has created one for the Berne Ballet which you can see in this YouTube video. Deborah Dunn has created Nocturnes which is said to be based on the novel (see Paula Citron's Cathy and Heathcliff in dance 12 Jan 2011 The Globe and Mail). Kader Belarbu made Hurlevent for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2002 which was reviewed by Patricia Boccadoro for Culture Kiosque 22 April 2002. Although Northern Ballet's version seems to do well enough in the English regions, none of those productions have really taken off.

Like Carmen which I discussed in Au Revoir but not Adieu 19 Nov 2015 Wuthering Heights has been very difficult to transpose into dance and probably for the same reason. Everyone loves Bizet's score and Mérimée, Each has his or her own interpretation of those works which seem to be violated by the choreography even of the calibre or Petit, Alonso or Acosta. It is the same with Brontë:
"The foundations of music, structure, costume, and above all, choreography, bore atone I disagreed with. This was not my Wuthering Heights. They lent to a feeling of romantic melodrama in classical gowns – when everything about Wuthering Heights for me is about being hungry and not having washed for days. Heathcliff – my Heathcliff – is full of dominance, violence and childhood hurt – yet the worst he does in Act I is knock a shuttlecock off play and drum on the table."
My own review of Nixon's work was much kinder than Emma's and I think that is because I am not really a fan of the novel and had no preconceptions for him to knock. I prefer Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sir Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray to the Brontës any day of the week and if Nixon had made a ballet out of Emma or Persuasion my reaction might well have been the same as Emma's.

All that circumambulation is an introduction to the fact that I was at The Alhambra yesterday for the last performance of the current revival of Wuthering Heights with the same cast that I had seen in Sheffield. That was Northern Ballet's A Team: Tobias Batley as Heathcliff, Martha Leebolt as Cathy, Hironao Takahashi as Edgar, Hannah Bateman as Isabella and Pippa Moore as Ellen. The last performance of a flagship work by the company's stars after a successful provincial tour should have been brilliant and it was certainly OK. Bateman, now perhaps the strongest female dancer in the company, showed her considerable talent and expertise as a dancer and actor as the injured Isabella. It is a complex role that perhaps only she could do well. Takehashi showed his experience and authority in his role. Light, energetic and effervescent, Rachael Gillespie was a delight to watch and she was aptly rewarded in the reverence including a "brava" from me roared from the back of the stalls. Those three dancers made my evening.

Batley and Leeboilt were good too as they always are but their performance lacked fire. It was like watching World Ballet Day or even company class. Old ladies like me who sacrifice their widow's mite for ballet (now increased by 133% - see The Increasing Prince of Friendship 14 Oct 2015) expect to float when we leave the theatre as I did on Friday when I saw Ballet Black (see Ballet Black's Return to Leeds 21 Nov 2015) or on 12 Nov 2015 when I left the Linbury after seeing Phoenix (see The Phoenix Soars Over London 13 Nov 2015). The reason I floated was that Ballet Black and Phoenix danced as though they were inspired as did Bateman, Takehashi and Gillespie yesterday.  I swapped a ticket in the centre of row B of the Stanley and Audrey Burton for yesterday's performance of Ballet Black for one at the side of the top of the auditorium for Friday so that I could see the last performance of Wuthering Heights in Bradford. Had it not been for  Bateman, Takehashi and Gillespie I think I would have regretted the exchange.