Sunday 13 September 2015

The best evening I have ever spent at the ballet

The Dutch National Ballet Grand Défilé
Angela Sterling
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet
All rights reserved

Dutch National Ballet Gala 2015, Stopera, Amsterdam, 8 Sept 2015

Last Tuesday I attended the opening gala of the 2015-2016 Amsterdam ballet season.  It was the best night I have ever spent at the ballet. I have been to some great galas in my time including Northern Ballet's 45th anniversary celebration earlier this year (see Sapphire  15 March 2015) and Sir Frederick Ashton's retirement on 24 July 1970 but this was the best ever. I still feel as though I am floating several feet off the ground from the experience. Goodness knows when I will come down to earth.

The gala took place at the Stopera which is also known as the Music Theatre in Amsterdam. That building stands on the banks of the River Amstel and one of the city's canals. It has a white marble façade that is impressive by day and magical when floodlit at night. It houses a massive auditorium with two tiers of seats and an enormous stage. Every tier has a terrace overlooking the river. The terrace is an excellent place to reflect on the previous act on a warm summer evening.

I had been to the Stopera in June to see Cool Britannia (see Going Dutch 29 June 2015) and was impressed with it then. On Tuesday it was even more grand because everyone in the audience (including me) had been invited to a party after the show. Almost all the gents were in black tie and the majority of the ladies were in long evening dress. I have been to special performances at the Paris Opera, Lincoln Center and, of course, Covent Garden as well as many other theatres in the UK but nowhere  had I such such elegance, such glitter, such chic.

Upon our arrival we were offered drinks: champagne or some other bubbly, red and white wine, soft drinks and whatever happened to be behind the bar. Knowing that I had to wake at the crack of dawn for my return flight to be followed by a long day's work I grabbed a glass of sparkling mineral water and opened my purse to pay for it. "Don't worry" said the barman "it's on the house tonight." Another little treat that does not happen very often at home was a free programme. It was in Dutch but although that language's rules of pronunciation defeat most English speakers (including me) the written language is sufficiently like English and German for most Anglophones to get the gist without too much difficulty.

Just before 19:30 a gong summoned us to our seats. I was in the stalls (zaal) just 9 rows from the stage so my view was excellent. The auditorium was packed. I did not see a single empty seat. The house lights dimmed and an electronic notice board above the stage announced the first work. It was the Grand Défilé danced by the Dutch National Ballet, the Junior Company and the students of the National Ballet Academy to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. The piece had been choreographed by the company's Artistic Director Ted Brandsen and its Welsh ballet mistress, Judy Maelor Thomas. The conductor. Matthew Rowe who was born in London, readied the orchestra.  The curtain rose. The music started. A row of little children in leotards marched on stage to thunderous applause. They were followed by rows of increasingly older children, then the dancers of the Junior Company, the company's  élèves (or apprentices as we might call them), the corps, the coryphées, grands subjets (junior soloists), soloists and finally the principals. The ballerinas partnered by their premiers danseurs nobles. All the women in the company were in gorgeous white tutus. The men were in black. Each rank of dancers took their place on stage until the spectacular formation depicted above had been achieved. All the company's stars were there including its guest artist Matthew Golding. Rarely if ever have I seen such an array of balletic talent on stage at the any one time.

The curtain fell and on to the stage walked Ted Brandsen. As his web page notes:
"Under the directorship of Ted Brandsen (1959, Kortenhoef, the Netherlands) the Dutch National Ballet has made enormous progress. In 2013, for instance, the New York Times ranked the company in the top five dance institutions in the world that presented new productions, and De Süddeutsche Zeitung ranked the group in the top three in the world."
I was fortunate enough to meet him at the reception which followed the opening night of the Junior Company's tour of the Netherlands in February (see The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's best Performance yet 8 Feb 2015), Brandsen began his talk in Dutch but then switched to English to welcome the many members of the audience from overseas. He spoke of the history of the company and its great achievements in recent years. All that had been accomplished in the last 70 years as there was no balletic tradition in the Netherlands before that time.

I reflected on our own slightly longer ballet history which began with the visits of the Ballets Russes before the first world war, the work of Adeline Genée, Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois, the formation of the Ballet Club and The Camargo Society and the wartime tour of the Netherlands by the Vic-Wells Ballet just before the German invasion which nearly ended in disaster.

My reflection was interrupted by Brandsen's introducing the great ballerina Alexandra Radius. She was one of the great stars of my youth and I remember seeing her in London. A short video showed her dancing various roles. Brandsen reminded us of her enormous contribution to the company. Then she entered the stage. A strikingly beautiful and elegant woman.  Brandsen explained that an award known as the Alexandra Radius prize had been established in her honour for the most outstanding dancer of the year. It had been won by Matthew Golding in 2011, Igone de Jongh in 2003, Casey Herd in 2012 and Anna Tsygankova in 2007. This year's winner was Maia Makhateli who had once danced with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Impressively as she was born in Georgia and has spent much of her life in English speaking countries she delivered her acceptance speech in what appeared to me to be fluent Dutch. A film showed her dancing the great ballerina roles.

In honour of Alexandra Radius the first pas de deux of the evening was Voorbij Gegaan which I understand to mean Gone Forever. That piece had been choreographed by Rudi van Dantzig for Radius and her husband Han Ebelaar. On Tuesday it was danced by de Jongh and Herd. That was the first time I had seen de Jongh dance and she was wonderful. So, too, was her partner. I savoured every single step, turn and lift as I would a fine claret.

Next came Anna Ol and Semyon Velichko. Those dancers have only just joined the company so this was a first opportunity to see them not only for me but for most of the audience. They danced the final pas de deux between Solor and Nikiya in the kingdom of the shades from the last act of La Bayadère. Having seen Denis Rodkin and Irina Kolesnikova in that role at the Coliseum on 23 Aug 2015 the choreography and music were fresh in my memory (see Blown Away - St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's La Bayadere 24 Aug 2015). The Dutch version had been choreographed by Natalia Makarova and Minkus's music had been arranged by John Lanchberry.

That beautiful pas de deux was followed by Juanjo Arques's Rewind danced by Suzanna Kaic and Vito Mazzeo to music by Gorecki. Arques had created Blink for the Junior Company which had been a great success in both Amsterdam and London (see Junior Company in London - even more polished but as fresh and exuberant as ever 7 June 2015). I made his acquaintance at the reception that followed the first night of the Junior Company's tour and have followed his career very closely ever since. Arques took a bow after the performance of his work and it was great to see him.

A work from the English choreographer David Dawson came next. I had admired greatly his Empire Noir in Cool Britannia and had been looking forward to On the Nature of Daylight danced by Sasha Mukhamedov and James Stout to the music of Max Richter. I felt a surge of patriotic pride in this largely British line-up. It was very different from Empire Noir but no less enjoyable. Dawson has spent much of his career in Amsterdam and is now an associate artist of the company.  It would be good to see more of his work at home.

Next came Two Pieces for Het choreographed by the great Hans van Manen for Makhateli and Remi Wörtmeyer to music by Erkki-Sven Tüür and Arvo Pärt. These were composers I had not heard before. The performance was received enthusiastically.  

The first half of the evening was rounded off gloriously by Golding and Tsygankova's pas de deux from the black Act of Swan Lake. That was thrilling although I couldn't help thinking of my own shortcomings when I tried to learn Siegfried's solo at KNT's ballet intensive last month (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 3 20 Aug 2015). They were as magnificent in Swan Lake as they had been in Cinderella on 8 July 2015 (see Wheeldon's Cinderella 13 July 2015). Apparently it is not the done thing in Amsterdam to clap until Legnani's  32 fouettés are completed. I started clapping when I would in London and quickly stopped after attracting stares.

There were more free drinks and tempting chocolates on every table in the interval.  I bought my daughter manquée (otherwise known as Vlad's mum) a Michaela DePrince T-shirt. As I think I have mentioned more than once in this publication I was married to a Sierra Leonean for nearly 28 years and we gave refuge to a young woman from Freetown in 1990. She later read economics at Cambridge, married a splendid chap from Ghana and they now have a little boy known as Vlad-the-Lad. She is the nearest I have to a daughter and she has been a great comfort to me in the 5 years since my late spouse died. Like many Sierra Leoneans she takes enormous pride in the achievements of Michaela DePrince. When she heard I was going to Amsterdam she asked me whether I might meet DePrince. "It's very unlikely" I told her. "There will be so many people at the party and I am sure Ms DePrince will be surrounded by well wishers. But I can try to get you a Michaela T-shirt."  Before the gong sounded I met two acquaintances from England: Alison Potts (immediate past chair of the London Ballet Circle and Helen McDonough from the Wirral who contributes under the moniker DonQ Fan.

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.

One of the works for which Radius is remembered is Le Corsaire and we were reminded of her artistry in that role by a short film. In her honour the final pas de deux from that ballet was danced by Qian Liu and Young Gyu Choi.  This is a beautiful ballet that I have seen only once on stage and once on an HDTV transmission from Moscow. The pas de deux was executed exquisitely.

It was followed by John Neumeier's La Dame aux  Camélias danced by de Jongh and Marijn Rademaker. Although very different I could not help thinking of Ashton's Marguerite and Armand danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev which had also been inspired by the Dumas novel. Neumeier had used Chopin whereas Ashton had chosen Liszt but Neumeier's work was equally beautiful.

Next came Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov in the Diamonds pas de deux from Balanchine's Jewels. This is one of my very favourite ballets. Shesterikov had impressed me tremendously in Empire Noir and I admired him even more after seeing him in a piece that I knew well. As for Makhateli it was pretty clear why she had won the Radius prize this year. They were both magnificent.

The finale was Wheeldon's Concerto Concordia which I had admired so much in Cool Britannia. Tsygankova and Jozef Varga danced one couple as they had last time but the other couple were Nadia Ynowsky and Wörtmeyer. This was almost the only time that we saw members of the company other than principals and soloists and it was good to see the ensemble. The performance at the gala was even better than in Cool Britannia and the applause was deafening.

The party that followed seemed like a continuation of the ballet except that it was one in which the audience participated in the dancing. Literally for there was a disco on the ground floor of the Stopera. I joined in hoping to be partnered by Golding, Herd or Shesterikov. How many others can say that they have danced at the Amsterdam Music Theatre in the presence of members of the Dutch National Ballet? Throughout the night there was a steady flow of soft drinks, coffee and every kind of alcohol, all sorts of tasty nibbles. Although I missed Ernst Mesiner, Richard Heideman and most of the young dancers I had met in February I did meet Ted Brandsen and Juanjo Arques and I was flattered that they recognized and remembered me.

I told Brandsen that the evening excelled even Ashton's retirement gala. I am not sure that he believed me but it is true for the simple reason that the company had invited their public to their party. That is what makes the Dutch National Ballet great. It is why it is loved so much in the Netherlands and beyond. Ballet in that country does not seem to carry the elitism, exclusivity or snobbery that is to be found here. It is enjoyed by all. Every ethnic group seemed to be represented in the audience in roughly the proportions that they constitute the Netherlands population as a whole. Companies in this country could learn much from the Dutch National Ballet.

As I had been warned that the tubes stop at 01:00 in Amsterdam I left the party at 00:30. I had changed from evening dress into denim and was on my way out when I spotted Michaela DePrince.
"Excuse me" I blurted out, "are you Ms. DePrince?"
"Yes" she replied "and you are?"
I told her my name and that I had written about her in Terpsichore. I also mentioned my connection with Sierra Leone.
"You probably saved that young woman's life" she replied.
I don't think that was ever the case because Vlad's mum came from Freetown which suffered only briefly at the hands of the RUF and indeed her parents and siblings escaped to Nigeria during the occupation but it was so sweet of her to say so. As I was rushing for my tube and the party was still young our conversation was very brief but it was like the icing on a cake. I left the Stopera thinking how that exceptionally talented young dancer was as gracious off stage as she is magnificent upon it.

Now dear readers if you have persevered so far you will know why I am still on a high. I have learned one very important lesson from it.  As Voltaire said:
"Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
Three days after the gala I attended Northern Ballet's 1984 at West Yorkshire Playhouse. I went there because the company is always at its best in The Quarry. I knew the performance would be good and indeed it was but I just couldn't appreciate it.  I think any performance by any company would have been an anticlimax after that gala. Next time I attend an event like the Dutch gala I will leave at least a week before I see any other ballet. I owe that to the dance maker and artists.

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