Monday, 10 February 2020

Ballet West's "Swan Lake" - A Show of which any Company could be proud

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Ballet West Swan Lake  SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, 8 Feb 2020 and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 9 Feb 2020, 19:30

According to Wikipedia, the SEC Armadillo has 3,000 seats. When I attended Ballet West's performance of Swan Lake on Saturday evening the place was heaving.  That was the wild night that Glasgow was hit with 70 mph winds and horizontal, torrential rain when most sensible Glaswegians would have been safely ensconced at home.  Though the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock is somewhat smaller, there was also a pretty large audience there on Sunday.  A small ballet school nearly 500 miles from London and even 87 from Glasgow that attracts crowds like that must be doing something right.

And indeed it is.   The current production of Swan Lake is the best show that I have seen from Ballet West in the 7 years that I have been following them.  It was not just a good student production.  It was a good show - one of which any company could be proud.

There are several reasons why this show worked so well.

 First, it was a true Swan Lake and not just a dance show about humanoid swans.  Swan Lake's appeal lies not just in Petipa and Ivanov's choreography or Tchaikovsky's score but in its simple, powerful message of redemptive love.  Consider the opening lines of Milton's Paradise Lost:
"OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat."
The swans have lost their humanity and are held in thrall to von Rothbart for a reason that we know not.  They could have been redeemed by Siegfried but he betrays them by pledging his love for von Rothbart's daughter.  The only other way is the sacrifice of Odile and Siegfried.  Any deviation from that story is just not Swan Lake/   That is why I am exasperated by works called Swan Lake that omit that narrative

The second reason for the success of the show lay in the casting.  I was impressed by Norton Fantinel who danced Siegfried and even more by Karina Moreira who danced Odette-Odile but the artist who caught my eye from his serpentine entrance at the beginning of the white act to his destruction at the very end was Rahul Pradeep. He danced von Rothbart and his role is as crucial as Odette-Odile's and Siegfried's in that he is the personification of evil.  He manifests it in so many ways from the moment he and his daughter barge onto the scene literally sending the chamberlain flying to his studied rudeness as he slouches next to the queen turning his back on the divertissements.  Other dancers who grabbed my attention were Luciano Ghideli, Michaela Fairon and Josephine Mansfield in the pas de trois, Fairon again with Florence Blackwood, Caitlin Jones and either Freya Hatchett or Josie Ridgway in the cygnets and Fairon once again with Gianni Illiaquer in the Neapolitan divertissement.  Their agility and joie de vivre reminded me of Wayne Sleep and Rosemary Taylor in my salad days.  I could go on to list the artists in the Spanish and Hungarian dances and the Mazurka but then this review would resemble a telephone directory. All who took part in the show including the Glasgow associates merit commendation.

The third reason for the production's success was the investment in sets and costumes. The backcloths displayed computer-generated graphics which included falling leaves, a waterfall and ripples on the surface of the lake which were of cinematographic quality. The author of the graphics software is not mentioned in the programme but I understand him to be Léon ten Hove. Rarely have I seen detail of that kind on stage. There were two moments that literally took my breath away. The sudden appearance of a super life-size vision of Odile as Siegfried is on the point of declaring his love for Odile and the final scene as the swans soared above the clouds illuminated by an outsize moon. The costumes, especially the dresses of the guests to Siegfried's party, were sumptuous. So, too, were von Rothbart's robes. How the artists must have enjoyed wearing them.

I take a close interest in dancers' education.  I support other schools such as Central, the Northern  Ballet School and, more recently, the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam.  But Ballet West has a special place in my esteem which is why I return to Scotland at this time of the year every year.  It is partly its idyllic position with views of the banks of Loch Etive but I think there is something special in the quality of its training.  Towards the end of the programme, there are pages headed "School Highlights" and "Where are they now?" They make very interesting reading.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

"The Nutcracker" by St Petersburg Classic Ballet

Lyceum Theatre Sheffield

St Petersburg Classic Ballet Thr Nutcracker  7 Jan 2020 Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

According to the programme notes for its recent tour of the UK, the St Petersburg Classic Ballet "has built a fan following of audiences who appreciate the artistry and technique of this company of exquisite young dancers and stars of the future". Maybe I saw it on an off-day because I have to say that I have seen better performances of The Nutcracker.

My heart sank with the opening bars of the familiar overture for it sounded thin and tinny.  My spirits were not raised when the curtain revealed a set that looked cheap and artificial,  So, too, did the costumes even though they were supposed to have been made by "craftsmen of the legendary Mariinsky Theatre Workshops."  The blue Father Christmas hats which were worn by Fritz and the other little boys at Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum's party and the moon and stars outfit of Dr Drosselmeyer particularly irritated me.   I saw some competent dancers but none of them seemed to be particularly young and I should be very surprised to see any of them in leading roles with major companies.  Somehow they managed to fill the Sheffield Lyceum but I suspect that had more to do with the attraction of brand "Russia" and brand "St Petersburg" than anything else.  Many in the audience will have seen clips or read reports of the Mariinsky or Kirov and I should not be surprised if one or two of them thought that that was the company that they had seen that night.

As I said in The Nutcracker #2 - The Bolshoi Screening (25 Dec 2019), there is a difference between The Nutcracker as performed in Russia and the versions that are performed in the West.  Here it is a Christmas show - almost a pantomime - with expanding Christmas trees, toy soldiers, a really saccharine choral bit in snowflakes and lots of jolly divertissements about chocolate, tea and coffee in the kingdom of the sweets.  There it is much more dramatic and in some ways darker with lots of psychological undertones.  The version that we saw in Sheffield was decidedly Western.  They called the Stahlbaums' daughter "Clara" rather than "Marie" or "Princess Masha" and although they separated the roles of Clara and Sugar Plum in the cast list both roles were danced by Yulia Yashina. 

On reviewing my notes a month after the performance, I see that there were some bits that I really liked.  I starred the Chinese dance by Mikhail Bogmazov and Alina Volobueva. Although I wasn't moved sufficiently to mark the dancers' performance I much preferred the Russian dance to be performed by a man and a woman as it was in this show than by four lads pretending to be Cossacks as happens in other productions. 

The Nutcracker is already a very short ballet as it consists of two acts but this production seemed to be even shorter than usual.  Two acts of 50 minutes each with a 20-minute interval.  Divertissements seemed to have been left out of both acts.  There were some touches that I just could not understand like the appearance of 4 men in the scene where the Sugar Plum appears with her beau.   I know that this is a touring production that requires compromises to be made but this seemed to have more than most.

 My ticket to this performance had been an early birthday present and I hate to winge when someone else is treating me.  Being a bit of a duffer when it comes to ballet, it ill behoves me to criticize those who make their living from dance.  But I just can't give this show a ringing endorsement and I won't be seeing the St Petersburg Classic Ballet on any future tour it may make to the UK.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Northern Ballet's 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala

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Northern Ballet 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala 4 Jan 2020 19:00 Leeds Grand Theatre

Last night's gala was everything for which I had hoped and a great deal more than I had dared to expect.  It was one of the best evenings that I have ever spent in a theatre and by far the best evening that I have ever spent in Leeds.  It was so much better than the company's 45th-anniversary gala in March 2015.

The evening consisted of excerpts from 18 ballets some of which are among my favourites.  A few of those ballets I had not seen for decades. Several of those excerpts were danced by favourite artists such as Federico Bonelli and Marge Hendrick. The excerpts were interspersed with speeches and videos from dancers, choreographers, directors and others who have contributed to Northern Ballet over the last 50 years.  A few of those recollections touched me personally because they recalled events that have become part of my life.

Having seen Elaine McDonald on stage and having met Peter Darrell several times (see Scottish Ballet 20 Dec 2013) I was close to tears when Hendrick danced Darrell's Five Rückert Songs to Mahler's haunting music. My association with Scottish Ballet goes back to my second year at St Andrews where I was taught my first plié as well as a lot of other things that qualified me to make a living (see Ballet at University 27 Feb 2017). Scottish Ballet was the first company that I knew and loved and it is still the company that I love best.  I swelled with pride as Christopher Hampson entered the stage and discussed the two companies' kinship.

My other personal highlight was A Simple Man with Jeremy Kerridge and Tamara Rojo as the painter and his mother.  That was the first work by Northern Ballet that I ever saw.  I attended its performance shortly after returning to Manchester to take up a seat in chambers. My late spouse and I had been regular ballets goers in London and remoteness from Covent Garden, Sadlers Wells, the Coliseum, The Place and the Festival Hall seemed unbearable.  It was Gillian Lynne's brilliant choreography with Christopher Gable and Moira Shearer in the leading roles that reassured us.  We could see that there was a ballet company in the North that was just as good as Nick Hytner's Royal Exchange and the Hallé at the Free Trade Hall. I have followed and supported all three of those great Northern institutions (albeit not always uncritically) ever since.

The evening started with the party scene from The Great Gatsby which I reviewed at its premiere and on tour. After the opening, the company's director, David Nixon, appeared and greeted the audience. He paid tribute to his predecessors and all who had contributed to the company in various ways over the years. He singled out Carole Gable who also appeared in a video and the composer Philip Feeney (see Central School of Ballet's staff biographies). The very early years of the company were recalled by photos of the dancers and press clippings that flashed on the screen.  There were also some personal reminiscences from the 1970s. The later years were covered in much more detail, There were videos from Robert de Warren, Michael Pink, Patricia Doyle. Several of the company's leading dancers were recalled from retirement including Tobias Batley, Martha Leebolt and Dreda Blow who now live on the other side of the Atlantic.  The nostalgia was palpable - just like Noel Coward's Cavalcade.

Some of the works in Northern Ballet's repertoire were danced by guest artists from other companies. Federico Bonelli of the Royal Ballet partnered Abigail Prudames of Northern Ballet in the balcony scene from Massimo Moricone's Romeo and Juliet.  Momoko Hirata and César Morales of the Birmingham Royal Ballet danced the wedding night scene from Nixon's Madame Butterfly which I have always regarded as Nixon's masterpiece. The Royal Ballet's Laura Morera and Ryoichi Hirano, another two of my favourite artists, danced the countryside scene from Jonathan Watkins's 1984.   Greig Matthews and Amanda Assucena danced Rochester and Jane in the proposal scene from Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre.

It was good to see Central's students, Elise de Andrade and Matteo Zecco, in a scene from Cinderella by their school's founder, Christopher Gable.  As a fan of Phoenix Dance Theatre, I was delighted to see the magnificent Vanessa Vince-Pang (yet another favourite) and Aaron Chaplin in Sharon Watson's dance chronicle Windrush: Movement of the People.  Space and time do not permit me to mention everything in detail.  Other works included
All danced delightfully and I congratulate them all.

The finale was the last scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream which is Nixon's other work that I regard as a masterpiece (see Realizing Another Dream 15 Sept 2013). The whole cast took to the stage including Kenneth Tindall.  He was one of my favourites in the company and I thought I would never see him dance again.  At the end of the gala, Nixon recited Puck's speech which ends the play: 
"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends."
It is supposed to be uttered by a dancer.  Kevin Poeung said those words when I last saw the show.  But the words seemed entirely appropriate as they dropped from Nixon's lips.  A shower of gold confetti rained from the ceiling. Hardly anyone remained seated and there were not many dry eyes.

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

Monday, 30 December 2019

The Nutcracker #4 - Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Albert Hall

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Birmingham Royal Ballet The Nutcracker Royal Albert Hall, 29 Dec 2019 13:00

Having seen Sir Peter Wright's version of The Nutcracker for the Birmingham Royal Ballet several times in Birmingham as well as once at the Royal Albert Hall I had very high expectations of yesterday's performance.  I am pleased to report that those expectations were exceeded.  There are two reasons why I liked yesterday's matinee so much.  The first was the sheer quality of the dancers and musicians with Celine Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in the leading roles and Koen Kessels conducting the orchestra.  The second was the straightforward interpretation of Hoffman's story with great special effects but no creepiness or spookiness.

The performance began not with the familiar overture but sounds of industrial activity from Dr Drosselmeyer's workshop. Drosselmeyer (Tom Rogers) appeared on stage and introduced himself through the voice of Simon Callow. He explained that he is called a doll maker but prefers to call his creations "automatons" as he likes to think they have a touch of magic about them.  Nowadays, that "touch of magic" might be called artificial intelligence and that was seen in the self-propelled toy mice that scurried about the Stahlbaums' sitting room as well as the humanoids Columbine, Harlequin, Jack-in-the-Box and, of course, the Nutcracker.  Callow announced that he was bringing gifts for his delightful goddaughter Clara and her somewhat less agreeable brother Fritz.  Beatrice Parma danced Clara. Wesley Mpakati, an 11-year old schoolboy from Tyseley according to Brum Pic, was Fritz,

After that introduction, the orchestra struck up and the ballet unfolded in the traditional way.  The workshop was removed and replaced by a Christmas tree which became the centrepiece of the Stahlbaums' Christmas party.  Guests arrived including Drosselmeyer and his assistant (Gus Payne). They distributed presents to the children: dolls to the girls and drums, rattles and war toys to the boys and the nutcracker to Clara. Fritz and his friends made thorough nuisances of themselves earning more than a few tickings off from Mr Stahlbaum (Jonathan Payn). At one point they grabbed the nutcracker from Clara and damaged it.  Happily, Drosselmeyer was able to repair the damage.  He demonstrated Harlequin (Hamish Scott), Columbine (Rosanna Ely) and the Jack-in-the-Box (Max Maslen) to the guests.

I took a particular interest in the Jack-in-the-Box because Joey Taylor tried to teach me that dance in KNT's Day of Dance last April (see Best "Day of Dance" Ever 23 April 2019).  "And were you able to do any of that?" my companion asked.  "Not much" I had to admit, "but then I am over 70."  However, I am proud to say that several of my classmates who are also adult ballet students did very well even managing a couple of cartwheels.   In yesterday's performance, Taylor was in the Spanish dance.  As my box in the grand tier overlooked stage right, I shouted "Bravo Joey" at the end of the divertissement which I hope he heard.   If not, he will know that I appreciated his performance should he ever get round to reading this review.

After the party, the Christmas tree expanded and giant baubles descended from the ceiling.  Mice and toy soldiers appeared and fought a battle that the mice nearly won. Clara saved the day for the soldiers by clobbering the mouse king (Gabriel Anderson) with one of her pointe shoes.  As a reward, she was transported to the land of sweets by a jet-propelled seagull.  The expansion of the Christmas tree was achieved by massive side panels on either side of the stage.  The same side panels showed rotating rotor blades in engines below the seagull's wings.  In the land of sweets, Clara was treated to the Spanish, Arab, Chinese and Russian divertissements followed by the mirlitons, waltz of the flowers and the Sugar Plum pas de deux.

Gittens was excellent as ever  Over the years I have seen her in most of the leading classical roles.   I think that she is particularly good in The Nutcracker.  I should mention in passing that she is this publication's ballerina of the year, her company is Terpsichore's "company of the year" and Ruth Brill is our choreographer of 2019.  Finally, Birmingham Royal Ballet's former director, David Bintley, has been awarded a knighthood in the 2020 honours list.   As he comes from the next village but one to mine in the Holme Valley I take particular pleasure in congratulating him on that accolade (see  My Home and Bintley's 12 May 2015).  Quite an annus mirabilis for the company.

Everybody danced well yesterday and I say that despite a couple of slips on the artificial snow.  Lawrence partnered Gittens deftly and jumped impressively in the final pas de deux.  Rogers was a splendid Drosselmeyer.  Yijing Zhang was a delightful snow fairy.  Anderson was a fine mouse king.  Maslen made an impressive Jack-in-the-Box.   Finally, it was good to see the musicians at work.  Kessels, whom I met briefly at the Dutch National Ballet's gala in 2018, is almost a dancer in his own right and I was grateful for the monitor that remained focused on the maestro throughout the show.

There are three more performances of The Nutcracker before the season ends.  Ticket prices are not cheap. Even the programmes cost £10.  However, if you see no other ballet over the coming year this is the one to catch.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

The Nutcracker #3 - The Royal Ballet Screening

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The Royal Ballet The Nutcracker 17 Dec 2019 19:39 Screened to cinemas worldwide

Yesterday I discussed the screening of the Bolshoi's version of The Nutcracker on 15 Dec 2019 in The Nutcracker #2 - The Bolshoi Screening.  Two days later the Bolshoi's screening, the Royal Opera House screened a recording of the Royal Ballet's version of The Nutcracker.  For the reasons that I explained yesterday the twp productions are very different.  The Bolshoi's records Marie's transition into womanhood while the Royal Ballet's is a fantasy with more than a little in common with Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Lookingglass.  

The Royal Ballet's production was created by Sir Peter Wright who took a bow at the end of the show.  The recording was made in 2016 which coincided with Sir Peter's 90th birthday.  In Sir Peter's version, the nutcracker is  Drosselmeyer's nephew who is imprisoned in wood.  He can come back to life only through the love of a young woman.  This is an adaptation of ETA Hoffmann's story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and it is a detail that most versions of the ballet overlook.  This makes Drosselmeyer a much less sinister and more likeable character than in the Bolshoi's or most other versions of the ballet.  Sir Peter's ballet opens in Drosselmeyer's workshop as he wraps up his present for Clara.  The workshop is also where the show ends as the nephew - restored to human form -  embraces his uncle.

Sir Peter's ballet requires two ballerinas, namely the young girl known as Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, and two premiers danseurs nobles, that is to say, the nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy's prince or cavalier.  There are also meaty roles for the mouse king, Harlequin and Columbine in the first act and the soloists in each of the divertissements of the second.  The climax of the production is the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her beau.  Probably, the most famous dance of the whole ballet is the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo to the slightly otherworldly sounds of the celesta.

In the recording, Drosselmeyer was danced by the company's principal character artist, Gary Avis whom I once had the pleasure of meeting at the London Ballet Circle's 70th-anniversary celebrations.  I can report that he is as gracious in real life as he is graceful on stage.  Clara was danced by Francesca Hayward who was perfect in the role.  Her nutcracker was Alexander Campbell who, like Xander Parish, shares my passion for cricket as well as dance. The Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by Lauren Cuthbertson, my dancer of the year in 2016. and she was partnered by Federico Bonelli, another favourite.  With an orchestra was conducted by Maestro Gruzin it is hard to think of a  stronger cast by any company anywhere in the world.  The sets, costumes and technical effects match the choreography and dancing.  It is a sumptuous production.

On Sunday I shall see Sir Peter Wright's production for the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall.  That will be the last Nutcracker that I shall see this season and indeed the last ballet of this year.  The version that is staged at the Hippodrome is my favourite version of The Nutcracker. If the Hippodrome version can be scaled up for the Royal Albert's stage I suspect Birmingham Royal Ballet's will be my favourite Nutcracker for this year.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

The Nutcracker #2 - The Bolshoi Screening

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Bolshoi Ballet The Nutcracker Screened in cinemas worldwide, 15 Dec 2019, 14:00

In Coppelia in the Cinema 12 Dec 2019, I wrote that the conversation between Merle Park, Darcey Bussell and Marianela Nuñez was the high point of the screening of Coppelia.   Pathé Live went one better with an interview with Ludmila Semenyaka that consumed virtually the whole interval.  As her interviewer, Ekaterina Novikova remarked, Semenyaka was one of the greats of Soviet ballet. She danced all the leading roles including the lead in The Nutcracker.  There are some ballerinas like Antoinette Sibley who could tell a story or transmit emotion with their eyes.  I suspect that Semenyaka must have been able to do that too,  Though now is in her late 60s her eyes remain as expressive as they must have been at the height of her career.  The interview was conducted at a high level because Ms Novikova is exceedingly well informed about ballet.

I arrived at the screening shortly before the curtain rose but I caught the last part of Ms Novikova's introduction to the ballet.  She explained why the Bolshoi's version of The Nutcracker is so different from those in the West.  In the former, Clara (or Marie as she is called there) and the sugar plum are one and the same person which turns The Nutcracker into a journey to adulthood instead of a succession of divertissements as happens here. A few days after the screening I listened to a podcast by Tom Service called The Nutcracker - Strange Enchantments that argued that there was a dark side to the ballet and that the transition from the Stahlbaums' sitting room to the kingdom of the sweets might actually be an entry into paradise.  Mr Service reminded his listeners that infantile mortality was much more common at the end of the 19th century than it is now and that the final pas de deux was performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra at a concert to commemorate the children who were killed in the siege of Beslan.

If one views The Nutcracker through too dark a lens it can look very sinister indeed.  A world of monster mice and outsize Christmas trees can be seen as symptoms of delirium or worse and Drosselmeyer appears more as a child molester and less as a kindly uncle with a line of conjuring tricks. Mr Service even interpreted the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances as a defence of imperialism even though the Russia of Tchaikovsky and Petipa possessed no territories in lands that produced chocolate, coffee or tea. 

The version that Pathé Live screened on 15 Dec does not stray too far from ETA Hoffmann's story. Marie may have lost her innocence but she still wakes up in her own home. Semenyaka explained in the interview that there is a tension between Hoffmann's story and Tchaikovsky's score and where he had to choose between the tale and music the choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich chose the music. She added that was why she preferred Grigorovich's version to all others even though she could see merit in other companies' productions.

In the screening of 15 Dec 2019, the title role was performed by Margarita Shrayner, a first soloist in the company who danced more confidently than many principals. She can act as well as dance and has an impressive repertoire.  The male lead was Semyon Chudin who is now a principal with the Bolshoi. Interestingly, he trained not in the Bolshoi's own school but in Novosibirsk and joined the company from the Universal Ballet Company of South Korea.  Drosselmeyer was danced by Denis Savin who was suitably creepy.  Compared to the Royal Ballet's production (a recording of which was screened a few days later) the Bolshoi's sets and costumes seemed a bit dowdy. There was, however, nothing wrong with the dancing or acting which are the most important components of any ballet. There were a couple of nice touches which other companies might consider.  For instance, the Russian dance is performed by a couple rather than a bevvy of boys dressed as Cossacks and Bo Peep and her sheep (on casters) were substituted for "mirlitons" whatever they may be. 

Altogether I enjoyed the screening very much.  I can't wait to see the company in its own theatre which is my Christmas present to myself for the New Year.  As I see that I have finished my review on Christmas morning, I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year,