Thursday, 11 February 2016

Birthday Offering

My birthday falls on Sunday. Don't ask me how old I will be because it's depressing. But there is one thing that never fails to cheer me up and that is to watch the excellent young men and women of the Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet. They are recent graduates of some of the world's best ballet schools and they are now cadet members of one of the world's best companies. I featured them in a series of articles in 2014 (see The Junior Company 3 Dec 2014) and I have been following them for almost as long as I have been keeping this blog.

Last weekend they danced in the finals of the Lausanne International Ballet Competition. This weekend they will begin their tour of the Netherlands with a performance of Ballet Bubbles at the Meervaart wherever that may be. Their programme will consist of
  • La Vivandière Pas de six – Arthur Saint-Léon
  • Ballet 101 – Eric Gauthier
  • Fuse – Charlotte Edmonds
  • 5 – David Dawson
  • Kurt Weill – Krzysztof Pastor
  • Trois Gnossienes – Hans van Manen
  • New work – Ernst Meisner.
I will catch their matinee on Sunday which will enable me to see Ted Brandsen's Mata Hari the night before and catch a plane home in time for work on Monday. The role of Mata Hari will be danced by Anna Tsygankova. She danced Cinderella at the Coliseum so delightfully. That will be another treat,

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A Cause for Double Celebration at the Robin's Nest

Natasha Watson
Copyright 2016 Ballet West: all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the Principal

One doesn't need much of an excuse to visit the Robin's Nest bur if one has something to celebrate there are far worse ways of doing so than indulging in one of that establishment's cakes and pastries (see the photo of a slice of their sponge cake in Taynuilt - where better to create ballet? 31 Aug 2013 before Gita devoured it). I fancy that quite a lot of folk in Taynuilt will have had something to celebrate today because Natasha Watson and Andrew McFarlane have just been hired by English National Ballet (see Ballet West's home page). Hearty congratulations to both of them.

As I said in Thinking Out Loud About Ballet West on 8 Feb 2016 that ballet school must be one of the most remarkable educational institutions in the United Kingdom. These are not many institutions that can cultivate excellence in alumni like Watson and McFarlane while making dance accessible to a large section of the general public through its associate programmes, summer schools and outreach work.

Of course, such an enterprise requires facilities and the 2016 tour programme reports a £1.2 million project to build new studios on its site at Taynuilt:
"In addition to meeting the needs of the students the new studio complex will provide rehearsal space for Ballet West's full scale classical productions which tour Scotland and internationally. It has the potential of being used as a performance space and will open up all Ballet West's facilities for greater use by the local community."
Just what's needed to burn off the calories after a slap up tea at the Robin's Nest.

To help pay for this project Ballet West has appealed to the public for support and one can do so n many ways. One can slip them a few quid through their website or one can become a patron, sponsor a dancer or, if you have a business, you can become a corporate sponsor or benefactor.  If you want to find out more, call Ballet West on +44 (0)1866 822641 or email

Monday, 8 February 2016

Thinking out Loud about Ballet West

A few miles outside Oban lies the village of Taynuilt. I spent a day there on 31 August 2013 before catching a McBrayne ferry to the Isle of Mull.  I wrote about my visit in Taynuilt - where better to create ballet? 31 Aug 2013.  The reason I came to Taynuilt is that Ballet West is there.  That school must be one of the most remarkable educational institutions in the United Kingdom. It offers degrees in dance and higher national diplomas in professional dance performance to residential students, dance training through its associate programmes to children and young people in Glasgow and Edinburgh and summer schools in Taynuilt and outreach classes to children, young people and adults at various venues in the Highlands.

The training that appears to be available at Taynuilt is particularly rich in that the staff includes Daniel Job, who danced with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Ballets des Marseille and with such greats as Roland Petit, Kenneth MacMillan and even George Balanchine, and Olga Voloboueva who trained at the Vaganova Academy and danced with the Mariinsky Ballet when it was known as the Kirov.

The best testimonials for an educational institution are the achievements of its students and last year the only British finalist in the Lausanne International Ballet Competition was Natasha Watson who has now graduated from Ballet West. I have followed the career of this talented young woman for some time and celebrated her success in the Genée in Yet More Good News from Ballet West - Natasha Watson's Medal in the Genée 30 Sept 2013 and her entry for Lausanne in Natasha Watson in Lausanne 15 Nov 2014. Another graduate of Ballet West is Sarah Mortimer who dances with Ballet Theatre UK. I first came across this artist in Ballet Theatre UK's Little Mermaid at the Atkinson and wrote about it in Pure Delight - BTUK's Little Mermaid in Southport 27 April 2014 and I have been following her career ever since. Ms Mortimer also did well in the Genée in a previous year and I should mention in passing that Ms Watson is by no means the only medallist (see Ballet West's Competition and Awards page), In fact, on Saturday evening I shook hands with three of them: Ms. Watson and her teachers, Jonathan Barton and his sister Sara-Maria Barton.

One of the reasons why Ballet West achieves so much is that it gives its students and associates touring experience through its performance company. Northern Ballet School offers its students performance experience in Manchester City Ballet (see Alchemy 13 Dec 2014 and Manchester City Ballet's Giselle 12 Dec 2015) and, of course, the Central School of Ballet does the same with Ballet Central (see Dazzled 3 May 2015 and Central Forward 25 March 2013).  At the beginning of every year Ballet West tours Scotland and I have been coming to Scotland for these tours since 2013. In fact the first post in this blog was on the company's performance of The Nutcracker in Pitlochry (see Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" 25 Feb 2013). I also reviewed their Swan Lake in Swan Loch - Ballet West's Swan Lake, Pitlochry 1 March 2014 3 March 2014 and Rome and Juliet in Ballet West's Romeo and Juliet 1 Feb 2014.

Last Saturday I saw Ballet West perform The Nutcracker again in Stirling.  The 2013 production had been good but this production was even better. It was tight and slick and could stand comparison with that of any professional company. Indeed, in my humble and totally ill informed North Country opinion as some of the metropolitan toffs who sound off about dance  would have it, in some respects it was even better.   Of course, it did have pros - Mr Barton who danced the Snow King and Herr Stahlbaum partnering Ms Watson as Frau Stahlbaum and the Snow Queen, Sara-Maria Barton as the Sugar Plum who was partnered by Ballet Cymru's Andrea Battagia and Andrew Cook, a graduate of Ballet West whom I had greatly admired for his performance in Swan Lake two years ago who danced Drosselmeyer and the Russian divertissement in Act II.

One of the reasons why I like this version of The Nutcracker so much is that it is faithful to its libretto and the choreography of Ivanov and Petipa. Though it had some delightful Scottish touches like Mother Ginger who shook Clara vigorously by the hand, draped a red shawl round Clara's neck and decanted a gaggle of associates from her ample skirts there were none of the gimmicks of other productions that tend to get my goat. There were, for example, no rodent kings clinging onto the dirigible into Act II.  Clara does not morph into the Sugar Plum but remains childlike. The Stahlbaums remain the Stahlbaums of somewhere in Mitteleuropa rather than the Edwards of Bramhope. All credit in that regard to Mr. Job, the choreographer, whom I had the pleasure of meeting after the performance.

I think on Saturday I saw some stars in the making.   Uyu Hiromoto who danced in the snow scene and as Columbine in Act I and was the dew drop fairy in Act II, Owen Morris who was Rat King, accompanied Andrew Cook in the Russian divertiseement and also danced the Arabian and Alice Flinton who was an adorable Clara.  She is only a first year HND student yett she already knows how to hold an audience. We were enchanted by her mime scene where she recounts the battle with the mice and how she clobbered King Rat. She was Gita's man (or in this case) woman of the match.

In any production of The Nutcracker it is the children who often make or break the show for they take on so many roles. In this show they took on even more than usual and coaching them all cannot have been easy. They brought real joy to the stage but they kept their discipline. Whoever drilled those kids deserves enormous applause.  I think a large part of the credit goes to Ms Barton who told me that she had been teaching as well as dancing Sugar Plum that evening when I met her after the show but there were others and if I had flowers to throw they would have got some.

I should say a word about the sets, costumes and lighting.  They were magnificent, particularly the party scene which reproduced the Romanesque columns from the video that appears above.   The backdrop of the kingdom of the sweets was a vivid floral design.  The programme says that these were designed by Amelia Seymour.  There are a lot of tutus of various colours in this show not to mention the mouse king's outfit and period clothes of the party guests. More flowers for the wardrobe team.   There was also some clever lighting particularly in the transition scenes in Act I which was designed by Matthew Masterson.

The production is moving on to Inverness on the 11 Feb, Glasgow on the 13, Greenock on the 14 and Edinburgh on the 20. If you live anywhere near those places you should do yourselves a favour and get tickets for the show.  Gita and I drove 250 miles to see it and it was well worth the journey.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

One of my proudest moments - Dancing in Move It!

Yoshie Kimura and Jane Lambert

It is nearly 03:12 in the morning but I am not going to sleep until I have written this experience out of my system. Last night I took part in Move ItThe Dancehouse's seasonal dance revue performed by students from its many and varied evening classes. I was in KNT's Beginners' Ballet piece which was choreographed by our teacher, Karen Sant. It was not the first time I had danced in public but it was by far the most enjoyable.

Karen had asked us to assemble at The Dancehouse at 15:30. She had told us to wear black leotards with a mesh dress, black tights, pink shoes and our hair in a bun. The last instruction caused me no end of grief because I have never learned how to style my hair. I spent a whole hour in front of three different transatlantic YouTube tutorials entitled "How to make a classic ballet bun" (or words to similar effect) getting precisely nowhere. Happily Gita knew how and she arranged my hair in a very tight bun within minutes.

Just as she had finished I caught my crowd proceeding with a purpose so I followed them. They led me to the auditorium of The Dancehouse Theatre where we all sat down. There were already dancers on stage performing to an infectious drum beat.  After they had finished the compère whom I had mentioned in Better than Eurovision took to the stage. Her introduction was very much as it had been last year but she said something very true about adult dance. Nobody forces us to come to class week after week as may have happened to some of us when we were children. We come because we want to not just to keep fit but because dance is enormously satisfying both emotionally and spiritually. She added that for the teachers seeing that satisfaction on the faces of their pupils is enormously rewarding. I will give an example of what she must have meant below.

The compère then called on the first piece which was Josh Moss's repertoire class (see A Pint for Josh 28 Aug 2015). They were performing the swans' entry from Swan Lake which was a bit of choreography that I happened to know from the Swan Lake intensive that I attended over last summer (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 18 Aug 2015, Day 2 19 Aug 2015 and Day 3 20 Aug 2015). It was executed beautifully as was a Rothbart excerpt danced by my classmate from the intensive, Simon Garner, and another gent whose name I do not know.  We saw the whole of the first part of the review and a bit of the second before our cast was called back stage to do our stuff. Gita saw the whole performance so she will review the show. All I will say is that I enjoyed each and every piece and some (including the last ballet piece performed by a cast that included another Swan Lake intensive student, Yoshie Kimura, photographed with me above) enormously.

Not long into the second part of the show we were called back stage.  The Dancehouse is only the second commercial theatre in which I have performed and is quite a bit bigger that the Stanley and Audrey Burton in Leeds. There is a whole labyrinth of passages and anterooms before you get to stage left or stage right. Somehow I arrived at the right place for entry stage right. Our music struck up. The first step was a tendu with the right leg followed by a fondu and lunge. Out of my peripheral vision I caught Tyson, yet another Swan Lake intensive student doing those steps so I knew I was OK. We repeated those en croix. then some lunges left and right working through a plié in second, a soutenu, some balancés right and left, followed by three glissades to the right, a changement, more glisssades and another changement, a run, a temps levé, another runa turn with the right hand followed by a turn with the left, some sautés, an advance forward, two awkward retirés, a port de bras and then lights followed by a curtsy and a rapid exit to the right. Or something like that! We (or rather I) made a few errors but somehow we got through that rehearsal without mishap.

Karen shepherded all the KNT evening class students to one of studios after the rehearsal where she and the other teachers put each of the casts through our paces. Being very old and rickety I had intended to do a barre with Sophie before the rehearsal but I never made it because of my struggles with my hair.  I did a few pliés in each position with side and back bends, tendus, glisses, ronds de jambe, grands battements and stretches on the upper rail of the barre of my own. I applied some make up and then it was time for our second rehearsal. We were better second time round. Several of us practised some of the steps once or twice again until we got it more or less right.

With all the KNT casts in the studio dancing, snacking, chatting, stretching it was just like a party. Some of us checked our phones. I found tweets and chukkas messages from far and near: Andrea from Basel (via Golcar), Andrew in Sheffield, Marion and Annette in Chelmsford, Mel in Budapest, Nik in New Zealand and Mark Hindle from somewhere on the high seas.  I thank them all.  After our studio rehearsal I spotted Jane Tucker who had taught our intensive. Everyone who had taken that intensive was transformed by it so her presence back stage lifted our morale to new heights. Mine particularly for I had taken her class at Northern Ballet the previous Wednesday and by some fluke I had actually managed to pull off a pirouette more or less correctly. Jane had witnessed it and the expression on her face was a joy to behold. I think she was even more delighted than I had been.

Gradually the studio emptied until there were only two casts left. Our friends from the advanced class toi-toied and chukkased us and we made our way back stage. We could hear the peels of applause for each of the other turns and then it was us. The saying "it'll be alright on the night" has some truth because a performance almost always lifts performers. I am sure we made mistakes - Gita has already mentioned one that I made - but it didn't matter. We danced like we had never danced before and left the stage elated. "We did it!" one us said punching the air once out of the audience's earshot.

Then there were photos and flowers and hugs and kisses. That was when Yoshie arranged for someone to photograph us which she posted to my Facebook page. I'm a bit taller than Yoshie so I tried to plier in first position hence my rather curious expression and pose.  Honestly, I had not been drinking. In a Facebook post before the show Karen had referred to us all as "the KNT family" and that was just how we felt. We got to know each other a little better yesterday. I certainly got to like my classmates and our wonderful teachers, Karen, Josh and Ailsa, even more. We all made our way to the bar and I am sure the celebrations must have carried on for ages.

Performances like yesterday's are very important to students at every level for ballet belongs in the theatre. Without the chance to dance it is just another way of keeping fit.  Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, but it is a bit like reading Shakespeare for an exam. The poetry and music can still emerge but it is strained. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to everyone who got me to this point - Karen, the Dancehouse, all the teachers at KNT and all the others elsewhere who got me started and have helped me on my way.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Miracle that's wrought by tickling the Ivories of the Old Joanna

Igor Zapravadin.                          Standard YouTube Licence

Because last week's class at KNT was so good (see "So what was so great about it exactly?" 20 Jan 2016) I feared tonight's would be something of an anticlimax. In fact it was even better and one of the reasons why it was even better is that we had a pianist. There are some lovely recordings for ballet classes on the market but there is nothing like a live pianist especially when he or she plays something from a well loved ballet. I remember being transfixed by strains of Mendelssohn's Dream from the next door studio at Quarry Hill and fighting back tears as memories of Sibley and Dowell flooded back.

Although we have pianists for most of our classes at Northern Ballet we are taught to honour them. We curtsy to them in the reverence. One instructor, Elizabeth Rae, taught us to curtsy with our hands over our hearts. "You've always got to show respect to the maestro" she explained. A classmate who had studied at one of the best schools in London corroborated her. "They have real power" she warned. She told me a story about a pianist from her student days,
"If you got on the right side of the pianist he would play 'I feel pretty' for your turn. If you upset him he would serve up 'Nellie the Elephant'". 
Consequently I always make a point of thanking the pianist as well as the instructor though I would probably do that anyway.

The other reason why tonight was so good is that we had our rehearsal on the stage of the auditorium in which we are performing. What a stage it is!  I thought the Stanley and Audrey was big but The Dancehouse's is even bigger. When the house lights are up and you peer into the seating are it looks and feels cavernous.

Our rehearsal did not get off to a good start but Karen coached us patiently. We performed it in the studio a couple of times. Then Karen led us onto the stage. The first run through needed some adjustment particularly with the last movement but we practised it a couple of times before Karen called it a day.

I didn't go home immediately because some of the members of our class were in the pointe class and several of us wanted to watch them. I was quite impressed but Karen saw room for improvement. She drilled them as she had drilled us and the second time through they were even more polished.
"You must think I'm terrible" muttered Karen as she dashed past.
"Not at all" I replied. "Mark had told me you had high standards and expected nothing less than the best." 
That was true by the way. Vlad the Lad, his mum and dad, Gita and I collared my teacher Mark Hundle at the stage door of the Empire after he had danced two shows in Dick Whittington on Boxing Day and wanted nothing more than to get on with his Christmas (see a Liverpudlian Whittington 27 Dec 2015). It was Mark. incidentally, who encouraged me to dance in this show and for that I am very grateful. In that suggestion he was backed up by Mel who once saw me dance (see Mel Wong The Dance DID go on - Northern Ballet Academy Show 2014 29 June 2014).

Today we got our costumes which in my case is a mesh dress over a black leotard. I'd been worried that it might not fit because it is made by Bloch whose idea of extra large seems to me to be an anorexic stick insect. But in fact it does fit and I feel so good in it.  I shall be 67 on the 14 Feb so I am not sure how much longer I can keep dancing. But for the moment I can. And I love every minute of it.

So folks, if you find yourself in Manchester on Saturday night and feel like you need a break from assembling your Billy flat packs or a change from propping up the bar of the Lass o' Gowrie, The Briton's Protection or The Old Monkey you could do a lot worse than come to the Danchouse at 19:30  and watch us Move It.  All that entertainment for a fiver. You won't get much better value than that.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Competition for Cranko: The Bolshoi's Taming of the Sheew streamed from Moscow

Standard YouTube Licence

Even before the housekeeper ambled on to the stage I could tell from the photos that we were in for a treat. They depicted Petruchio's loucheness in the way he wore his hat, the simple set and the timeless costumes. The housekeeper was first on stage well before the maestro. She was elegant, wearing heels, immaculately coiffed.  She sat down on stage to check her make up. She donned a pair of pointe shoes and filed her nails. Then when she was good and ready she ushered in the conductor.

The ballet was very short. It consisted of two acts.   The screening started at 15:00 GMT and we were out by 17:00 but it packed so much in. The dancing was magnificent, particularly the duet between Katherina and Petrtuchio in act II. There were some lifts movements I have never seen before. The most extraordinary was where Petruchio seemed to raise Katherina with his arm stretched like a piston as though she were riding a horse. It must have required enormous strength from him and I guess remarkably uncomfortable for her.

The score was by Dimitri Shostakovich and the choice was inspired. One of the greatest composers for the ballet ever.  Glorious soaring crescendos and humour with his orchestration of Tea for Two for the harmony of the last scene.  Of equal genius was the choreographer, Jean-Christophe Maillot, and his muse, Bernice Copieters who translated it into dance.  So too was Ernest Pignon-Ernest who designed the set and the choreographer's son, Augustin, who designed the costumes.  One of the highlights of yesterday's transmission was Katerina Novikova's interview with Jean-Christopher Maillot and Sergei Filin in the interval and it was there that Maillot acknowledged the contributions of his creative team.

The story kept pretty faithfully to the play with a little lot more prominence to the widow.  Bianco was all sweetness and  grace while Katherina was Scotch bonnet pepper - until she was bedded towards the end of the second act.  Katherina is the star. Hers is the title role and it required a dancer with exceptional technique who was also a remarkable actor. Yesterday that role was danced by Ekaterina Krysanova.  Her Petruchio had to be at least as strong and his role was danced by Vladislaw Lantratov. Olga Smirnova was a gorgeous Bianca. Anna Tikhomirova, .as the housekeeper was in many ways the anchor of the show from the prologue when she patronizingly clapped the entry of the conductor.  I must say a special work for Vyacheslav Lopatin, one of the best character dancers ever, who played Petruchio's groom. His eyes were a picture as he tossed a sheet over his master and bride.

I have often said that Pathe Live had the edge over the Royal Opera House's transmissions though the House has recently raised its game.  Yesterday's transmission from Moscow reached new heights with the interview with Filin and Maillot. It will be interesting to see how Covent Garden responds to the challenge.

The Bolshoi are bringing the Taming of the Shrew to London on 3 and 4 Aug 2016.   Here is a little clip on their YouTube channel. I can't wait to see them live on stage in that show.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

This year I am in it!

Liverpool Town Hall, 8 Sept 2014

I described last year's Move It as better than Eurovision as indeed it was.  This year's show is taking place this Saturday and, guess what, I'm in it. I've danced in public before at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds this year and last (see My Second Ballet 5 July 2015 and The Time of my Life 5 July 2014) and also in Morley Town Hall (see Growing Old Disgracefully in Morley 28 Sept 2015) but this performance is altogether more challenging for it takes place in The Dancehouse which is half as big again as the Stanley and Audrey and part of Manchester's history.

I shall be dancing in the Beginners' Ballet piece but that class is of a very high standard. See how good they were last year in Didn't They Do Well!  Well we have an even harder routine this year and we have all been working hard to master it since the beginning of last term. Our choreographer is Karen Sant and she expects a lot from each of us. The above video shows her teaching our contemporary class in Liverpool Town Hall on 8 Sept 2014. I was there and wrote about it in It's not every Class that you can use Lord Canning's Eyes for Spotting 9 Sept 2014. It was the first time I tried jazz and contemporary although we started with ballet.

There will, of course, be lots of other performers apart from us. Other ballet classes plus Jazz, Tap, Burlesque, Flamenco, Hula Hooping, Chinese Dance, Street Dance, Belly Dancing and more. Last year I had a great time and if you do come I hope you do too.

Tickets will set you back £5. Doors open at 19:00 and the show starts at 19:30. The Dancehouse is in Oxford Road, a few hundred yards from, and on the same side of the road as, the railway station, There is also lots of unrestricted street parking on Saturday evenings. If you are feeling peckish you can get an excellent burrito at Panchos and there is also good Chinese, Indian and fast food in the area.

We Mancunians like to say that what we do today London does tomorrow. I think it derives from the days when impresarios previewed they shows here before taking them to the West End. They did that because Manchester has the best theatre and most discriminating audiences outside London