Thursday, 2 January 2020

Review of 2019

Alexander Campbell, Male Dancer of 2019
Author Wild21swan

Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The year that has just ended was a particularly good one for dance. Two of the world's greatest ballet companies, the Bolshoi and the San Francisco Ballet visited London. There were excellent productions of Carlos Acosta's Don Quixote by the Royal Ballet, Rudi van Dantzig's Swan Lake by the Dutch National Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella by English National Ballet and Giselle and The Nutcracker by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.  Phoenix Dance Theatre excelled itself with its Rite of Spring performed as part of a double bill with Opera North at the Lowry.  There was some great choreography by David Dawson, Cathy Marston, Mthuthuzeli November and Ruth Brill. Scottish Ballet, the first company that I got to know and love, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its déménagement from Bristol to Glasgow, Northern Ballet the 50th anniversary of its first performance at the University Theatre in Manchester and Chelmsford Ballet, the amateur company in Essex on which Powerhouse Ballet is modelled its 70th.  Incidentally and on a much more parochial level but very importantly for me, our little transpennine amateur company gave its first performance at the Dancehouse Theatre in Manchester in May as part of the KNT Dancework's 10th-anniversary gala in a work that was choreographed by Terence Etheridge who had been one of the original members of what is ow Northern Ballet.

With all this activity, readers might think that this would be a particularly difficult year to pick performances, performers, companies and choreographers of the year and for the most part, they would be right.  But there was once performance that stood head and shoulders above the rest and that was the Bolshoi Ballet's Spartacus at the Royal Opera House on 10 Aug 2019.  This is what I wrote about the show:
"Ever since I saw a streaming of the ballet from Moscow nearly 6 years ago I have longed to see it on stage. I have had a long wait because few if any Western companies seem to perform the work and certainly no British ones. This year, however, the Bolshoi included Spartacus in its London season so I traipsed down to London yesterday to see it. The ticket in the centre of row G of the stalls wasn't cheap. Neither was the rail fare. The rail network was all over the place as a result of the high winds and the aftermath of Friday's power outage. Nevertheless, I can think of no better use of my time or a better way to spend my money. I have been going to the ballet for nearly 60 years and see about 50 shows a year. Rarely have I been more excited by a performance than I was yesterday by the Bolshoi's performance of Spartacus."
One of the reasons why the show was so good is that Igor Tsvirko and Ruslan Skvortsov danced the male leads and Margarita Shrayner and Ekaterina Krysanova the female ones.  They were so good that I had shortlisted Tsvirko and Skvortsov for premier danseur noble and Shrayner and Krysanova for ballerina for 2019.

Male dancer of the year was very difficult this year because there were so many to choose from.  In addition to the two from the Bolshoi, I had listed Xander Parish of the Mariinsky whom I saw at the Dutch National Ballet's gala in September, Daniel Carmargo of the Dutch National Ballet and my ballerina of the year's partner Brandon Lawrence,  In any other year, any of those fine artists would have been my male dancer of the year but this was the year of Alexander Campbell. He won my heart for his Don Basilio in Don Quixote on 30 March 2019.  Here is what I wrote about him in Campbell and Magri in Royal Ballet's Don Quixote on 2 April 2019:
"My enjoyment of the show was facilitated greatly by the casting of Alexander Campbell as Don Basilio. A year or so ago I read about his taking part in a scheme by the RAD and MCC to encourage kids to take up ballet and cricket. Perfectly natural in my view as I have always had a passion for the two. I think it was Arnold Haskell who observed that cricket had predisposed the British to ballet pointing out many parallels between the two. Like another of my favourites, Xander Parish, Campbell had been a promising cricketer as a boy. I had long surmised that that might be the case before I had read that article for Campbell commands the stage like a batsman at the crease. There is something about his manner - perhaps his grin - that makes it impossible not to like him. He wielded his guitar while wooing the coquettish Kitri as an extension of himself just as a batsman holds his bat. As he seized her fan in the same scene I imagined his diving for a catch. In his jumps and lifts, he is much an athlete as an artist. It may be a figment of my imagination as it may be have been years since he last played the game, but I think that his youthful cricketing prowess has contributed more than a little to his appeal as a dancer."
I have never met Campbell but his personality bubbles as readers can see from this interview with him by Guerilla Cricket.

I had the same difficulty in choosing a ballerina of the year because of the abundance of talent. In addition to Shrayner and Krysanova, there was Maia Makhateli whom I described as "perhaps the best Odette-Odile I have seen since Sibley" and the ultra-talented Celine Gittens.  I have seen Gittens in many roles including Sugar Plum in the Albert Hall this year and last,  Swanilde in Coppelia and Juliet in MacMillan's Masterpiece but it was her performance as Giselle on 29 Sept 2019 that touched my heart:
"Gittens was outstanding in the title role. An accomplished actor as well as virtuoso, it was hard to stay dry-eyed as she glided inexorably towards her fate. First, the plucking of the petals, the heart murmurs, the warning from her mother, feeling the hem of Bathikde's garment and finally the deception as Hilarion produced Albrecht's sword and Albrecht acknowledged his posh betrothed."
My acknowledgement of Gittens's excellence is long overdue.  After I saw her in Romeo and Juliet I wrote:
Because of MacMillan's focus on Juliet's transition I can't help comparing the ballerina who dances that role with Seymour. I have never seen a performance that has impressed me as much as Seymour's over the last 50 years but some have come close. Last night's exquisite performance by Celine Gittens came closest of all. She taught me new things about the ballet. Her realization of her womanhood as she tossed aside her toy. The look that she gives Romeo before they dance a step. No doubt that is part of the choreography but somehow I had missed them all the other times that I have seen the work. In Gittens I saw Juliet rather than a representation of Juliet. Just as I had with Seymour all those years before.
After reading those words, Gittens reminded me on twitter that she like Seymour also came from Vancouver.

I saw some brilliant new works this year:  David Dawson's Requiem in Amsterdam, Jeanguy Saintus's The Rite of Spring, Cathy Marston's Snowblind as well as her Victoria and The Suit, Mthuthuzeli November's Ingoma and Ruth Brill's Peter and the Wolf.  Dawson and Marston are two of my all-time favourite choreographers.  I love Dawson's Swan Lake and admire Marston's Snowblind enormously November's Ingoma moved every emotion but there was just one work that I just had to see twice, That work was Peter and the Wold. When I saw it in Shrewsbury I wrote:
"Peter and the Wolf is just so well known and well-loved it could not possibly fail to appeal. I first heard the score and dialogue on Children's Favourites with Uncle Mac on the Light Programme in the early 1950s and I have seen countless performances in various genres on different mediums at different levels of performance ever since. So, no doubt, would a lot of other people in the audience,
Yet Brill created something new. First, she set it in the urban wilderness and not a rural one. The set was scaffolding. A tree only in a child's imagination. There was a pond for a duck that was probably a burst water main or a crater. And the wolf was very much of the two-footed kind as in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Little Red Riding Hood. Secondly, she cast Day as Peter, Tori Forsyth-Hecken, Alys Shee and Eilis Small as the hunters and Tzu-Chao Chou as the little bird. I have to be careful here for I once got into trouble with several of the company's dancers by discerning a dimension that upset them but I detected a feminist twist here. If Peter is a boy and the hunters are men, as they usually are, it is the female duck that is eaten by the male wolf (Mathias Dingman) it is the makes who remove the pest and lead him into captivity. Whether intended or not there was a strong feminist twist Brill made it clear that women can take care of threats without the need for heroes thanks very much.
Day may have been cast as a boy but she danced like a girl and one with spirit - particularly when her granddad (Barton) scooped her from the meadow (building site) and lectured her about keeping safe. Like a girl, she showed ingenuity in catching the wolf and I think also like a girl she interceded with the hunters to save its life. Downs made a great cat. I loved the way she probed the air with her paw just like a real moggy. And there was a lovely performance of the duck by Shee taking the place of Brooke Ray. I enjoyed her riposte to the bird's taunt: "What sort of bird are you if you can't fly?"
Peter and the Wolf will be danced in Birmingham and London as well as other places and I think audiences will love it."
I liked it even better when I saw it again in London:
"Even though I liked Lyric Pieces and Sense of Time very much, the highlight for me was Peter and the Wolf. The cast was the same as it had been in Shrewsbury except that Brooke Ray was able to dance the duck. Laura Day danced Peter as charmingly as she did in Theatre Severn, Matthias Dingman the wold, Tzu-Chao Chou the bird, Samara Downs the cat, James Barton the grandfather and Tori Forsyth-Hacken, Alys Shee and Eilis Small the hunters. As I forecast in my review of their performance in Shrewsbury, the audience at Sadler's Wells loved Peter and the Wolf. I don't think that they danced any better in London than they did in Shrewsbury but a London audience somehow lifts a show. I think that is because a show is a sort of conversation. An audience that sees a lot of dance appreciates a good show and responds accordingly. That, in turn, is picked up by the cast who shine even more. It was a great atmosphere and it was lovely to see the choreographer acknowledging our applause at the reverence."
I notice from her twitter stream that Brill has been appointed artistic director of the London Children's Ballet.  All I can say about that is that the kids are very fortunate to work with such a fine choreographer at an early point in their lives. I wish Ruth Brll every success in that endeavour and I will support it any way I can.

Brill used to dance for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Gittens still does. Over the year that company has offered some great shows such as the Seasons in our World and Peter and the Wolf double bill, [Un]leashed,  Giselle and The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall. Its former director has just been awarded a knighthood.  It has done tremendous outreach and educational work throughout the country and particularly in the West Midlands. It is starting a new era with Carlos Acosta as its artistic director.  There can be no doubt to acknowledge the Birmingham Royal Ballet as the company of the year.

My character artist for 2019 is Sarah Kundi for her performance as Hortensia in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella.  In Cinders in the Round I wrote:
"The second act is the prince's ball where the step mum and her daughters turn up with Cinders's dad but no Cinders wearing quite the wrong outfits and generally making fools of themselves. Things got worse when the drink was served because the stepmother drank just a teeny weeny bit too much and had to be lifted off the floor and carried to a couch. That role was performed by Sarah Kundi who is one of my favourite dancers. I have followed her ever since she was with Northern Ballet in Leeds. She used to remind me of a famous dancer of my youth whom she still resembles in many ways. Since she joined ENB I have begun to appreciate her for her own qualities. Kundi stole the second act if not the show and she raised more than a few laughs in the third act when she showed up at the breakfast table with one almighty hangover."
I concluded my review as follows:
"Erina Takahashi was a lovely Cinders and Joseph Caley was a great prince. Good to see Gavin Sutherland from Huddersfield conducting the orchestra, But the star for me on Sunday was definitely Kundi."
In most years Gary Avis would win character artist of the year hands down. Alas, I can't give him that accolade this year as I saw him live only once as Don Quixote.  He is a charming man who excels in every role.  He deserves special recognition for a brilliant career.  He is certainly the best character artist of his time.  With the possible exception of Wayne Sleep, he is probably the best I have ever seen.

Finally, conductor of the year and there are some worthy contenders:  Koen Kessels, Boris Gruzin, Gavin SutherlandMatthew Rowe and Jonathan Lo.  My choice for 2019 is Maestro Rowe for his work as director of music and principal conductor of the orchestra of the Dutch National Ballet.


Ballet of the Year   
Bolshoi Ballet, Spartacus, Royal Opera House, 10 Aug 2019
Male Dancer of the Year   Alexander Campbell, the Royal Ballet
Ballerina of the Year  Celine Gittens, Birmingham Royal Ballet
Choreographer of the Year  Ruth Brill, London Children's Ballet
Company of the Year  Birmingham Royal Ballet
Character Artist of the Year  Sarah Kundi
Conductor of the Year  Matthew Rowe
Best Character Artist of his Time Gary Avus

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