Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Heavy Arts: Flashdance

I mentioned Heavy Arts Theatre School in my article on The Base Studios, Huddersfield on 2 March 2013. On 25 and 26 May 2013 Heavy Arts presented Flashdance at The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. I bought tickets for myself and a friend largely out of loyalty to the show's producers. I had expected a good amateur performance but nonetheless an amateur one. In fact the show exceeded my expectations. It was good. by any standard.  It was exuberant. It was energetic.   It was polished. It was poignant.  And in some scenes it was funny.

Based loosely on the film which grossed over US$201 million in box office receipts the musical tells the story of how Alex, a young woman working in a Pittsburgh steelworks by day and in a bar by night with very little formal education achieves her ambition of becoming a dancer against all the odds.  There are a number of sub-plots.  Her employer's nephew, Nick, uses his influence to get Alex an audition.  Her friend, Gloria, is tempted away to a pole dancing joint where she is abused by its owner, Kool and has to be rescued by Alex.  Alex's mother, Hannah, is shot in an armed robbery by  Jimmy, Alex's first date, who is desperate to raise a few hundred dollars.

This plot provided a setting for some good songs and even better dancing.  A triumph for the producer, director and choreographer Sean Sedley and the producer and general manager Matt Slater.  Sedley and Slater coaxed the best out of their cast - Caroline Hamilton who played Alex, Alex Jones who played Nick, Leah Varnam who played Hannah, Lawrence Guntart who played Jimmy, Oliver Burkill the sinister Kool and Florence Anstey, Beki White and Macy Varnham who played Alex's friends, Gloria, Keisha and Jazmin. They were all good - as indeed were the performers I have not mentioned - and it would be invidious to single out any of them out for special praise.

The scene changes were slick moving convincingly from a steel mill to Hannah's dry cleaning shop, a ballet school, Alex's flat, Kool's Bar and so on.  There were some difficult technical effects such as the end of the first act when the heroine was doused in what appeared to be a jet of water.  I struggle to see the point of that scene but it was still impressive.

There was just one detail that did not quite work for me and that was the accents.   For most of the audience it would not have mattered but having lived and worked in the USA they grated on me.  Pittsburgh is a steel town in Western Pennsylvania rather like Sheffield.  Like Sheffield it has its own distinct speech patterns that are recognizable instantly in America. "Still" for "steel", for instance, and "yous" for the second person plural. There are some good examples on YouTube. The actors managed something vaguely transatlantic but it was not Pittsburgh. The show would have been even better for me had the company stuck to their native speech.. Either than or they find themselves a good dialect coach.

According to the programme  Flashdance is the company's tenth show since 2007 and they have tried some very ambitious productions.  I look forward to their next show.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"Dépouillement" - another beautiful Pas de Deux by Kundi and Christofi

I have just found this clip of Sarah Kundi and Jade Hale Christoi on YouTube.  Compare it to Dépouillage which I embedded in "Ballet Black's Appeal" on 12 March 2013. See also "Why Ballet Black is special" of 20 May 2013.

The music is by Alastair Broadley.

Dépouillement and dépouillage are not easy to translate because the word dépouiller has a literal as well as figurative meaning. The literal meaning is "to skin" so I guess the figurative meaning must be "to strip down". Thus, dépouillage would be the process of stripping down and dépouillement stripping down perhaps..

Whatever the meaning this is a chance to enjoy two fine dancers.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Why Ballet Black Is special

In "Ballet Black's Appeal" 12 March 2013, I wrote:
"I have yet to see Ballet Black on the stage but I fell in love with the company just by watching this film of Depouillage by Jade Hale-Christofi and Sarah Kundi on YouTube:"
I could not say so at the time but that clip of Depouillage reminded me of another pas de deux.  In 1969 I attended a special gala to mark Sir Fred Ashton's retirement as principal choreographer to the Royal Ballet.  One of the works presented at that gala was the pas de deux was from Marguerite & Armand.   It was danced by the late Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.   

I saw Fonteyn a number of times and even dined with her in a manner of speaking when she visited my Inn one Grand Night. She was exquisite and I have never seen her like again. Nor had I ever expected to.  But I was reminded of Fonteyn by Sarah Kundi when I first saw Depouillage on YouTube.  Am I flattering Kundi extravagantly? I don't think so. Take a look at this YouTube clip of Marguerite and Armand and then another look at Depouillage. See what I mean?  

When I actually saw Kundi on stage for the first time in a Quadruple Bill at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre on Saturday 18 May the resemblance to the prima ballerina assoluta was quite uncanny.   She danced in two of the four short ballets: "Dopamine (you make my levels go silly)" with Jazmon Voss and as one of the girl friends left back home in Christopher Marney's "War Letters".

Dopamine was a pas de deux choreographed by Ludovik Ondiviela to the music of Fabio d'Andrea. It demonstrated the virtuosity of both Kundi and Voss.  Next was "The One Played Twice" by Javier de Frutos - a charming suite of dances to a barbershop harmony. The dancers were Sayaka Ichikawa, Damien Johnson, Cira Robinson and Jacob Wye.  I loved Javier de Frutos's green and purple costumes. Finally there was Egal danced by Kanika Carr and Jose Alves choreographed by Robert Biner to a strong percussive score.  

Though I had trekked down to London specifically to see Kundi I was bowled over by the other dancers. Each and every one of them is a star.

War Letters, which took up the whole of the second act, brought all the dancers together.  It opened with the voice of Kwame Kwei Amah reading the words of a soldier's letter to his sweetheart rejoicing at their love. The mood changed with a poignant pas de deux between a wounded, gassed or shell shocked soldier in pyjamas and his lover who arrived with smiles and left with a broken. Next came a dance to the music of Glenn Miller. Four soldiers met four girls on the dance floor. Three of the girls were asked to dance but the fourth was ignored. She tried to attract the boys' attention but to no avail. The second reading came from Thandie Newton comparing throwing off a lover to the loss of a heavy coat - but then regretting the loss of warmth. This analogy was taken up by the choreographer as the boys tried to lend her their overcoats. The scene ended with the girl shrouded with the soldiers' coats.  Finally, there was the voice of the wartime radio presenter John Snagge announcing "Victory in Europe". The last scene is of the artists together which I reproduced in my previous post. Home came the boys nursing their injuries. This was not the first ballet on the horror of war but I still found it a very moving work.

According to the company's website Cassa Pancho started Ballet Black to provide opportunities for aspiring Black and Asian dancers. That may still be its mission even though dancers of all races are now establishing themselves in other companies but it is certainly not the main reason for watching the company.  See Ballet Black because it is very, very good.

We in the North will have an opportunity to watch Ballet Black in November when it comes to the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds between 6 and 7 Nov 2013.  Do go and watch them. They really are unmissable.

See also
"'Dépouillement' - another beautiful Pas de Deux by Kundi and Christofi" 22 May 2013

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

They're not from Chigwell - they're from a small Welsh Town called Newport

Except that Newport is not all that small and it has a very good ballet company called Ballet Cymru. I blogged about the company in "Ballet Cymru: 'Romeo a Juliet'" and on Saturday 11 May 2013 I actually got to see them at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal.

Now Kendal really is a small town but its arts centre is impressive. Not only does it have a fair size auditorium for dance and drama but it also has space for pictures, cinema, a pretty good restaurant and several bars. Last Saturday there was a reggae concert and two first run films as well as the Welsh Ballet. My friend had an excellent sea food and I a meat platter before the show for £9.99 each. On the walls outside the auditorium I admired some interesting art work that appeared to have been made from rubbish washed up on a beach. Incidentally, the Brewery is only one of a number of attractions in this town. Earlier in the day we glimpsed the Quaker Tapesty and enjoyed some of the delicious drinking chocolate at the Famous 1657 Chocolate House. And there is so much more in this delightful town.

But we had come to see ballet and in particular Darius James and Amy Doughty's version of Romeo & Juliet. Now I knew Kenneth MacMillan's very well and had actually seen Lynn Seymour dance Juliet. It is a big ballet for a big company. I knew from the promotional video that Ballet Cymru would use the Prokofiev score and I wondered how on earth a small touring company without an orchestra on a tiny stage could possibly do justice to it.

The answer is that they did pretty well.  There used a backdrop and projector for the scene changes: stained glass for Friar Laurence's cell and flickering candles for Juliet's funeral.   Minimal props that had to include a double bed and catafalque. Contemporary clothes instead of Italian renaissance costumes. I liked Tybault's Welsh dragon tattoo that could have been lifted from the Jay-Z spoof. The music was recorded but it sounded almost as though it was live. According to the programme it was provided by Sinfonia Cymru conducted by Richard Laing.

However, it was the dancers who made the evening and they were delightful. It is probably unfair to singe any of them out but Emily Pimm Edwards as Juliet, Lydia Arnoux as Cerys (Juliet's girl friend instead of a nurse), Krystal Lowe as one of the Montagues and Daisuke Miura impressed me very much indeed. Edwards for her dramatic as well as balletic skill, Arnoux for her adorable, flirtatious girlishness, Lowe for her street wise swagger and Miura for his athleticism. I think I saw several stars in the making on Saturday night.

There was some interesting touches to the choreography. The use of a clog dance - not a sweet mother and daughter one as in Fille - but a more sinister emphasis of stamping feet by the Montagues. I have also mentioned the substitution of Cerys for the nurse which gave scope for Arnoux.  And finally the tragic pas de deux of Romeo and the lifeless Juliet.   Shortly after the performance I tweeted that I preferred James and Doughty's choreography to MacMillan. On reflection I would rather not compare the Royal Ballet's work with the Welsh because they are so different  but I certainly liked the Welsh version as much as the Royal's and I would really like to see more of James's choreography.   I have seen a lot of ballet over the last 40 years or so.   I rarely get as excited about a company as I did on Saturday.

The company spent only one night in Kendal. The next day they were off to Ayr. Then back to the Lake District.  Later this week they are on their way to Hertfordshire.  It must be an exhausting tour.  If Ballet Cymru come anywhere near you they are well worth seeing,

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The New Mariinsky

The Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg has a special place in the history of ballet. It was where the art developed and from where it spread to Paris, London, America and the rest of the world.    For those who don't know that history "The History of the Theatre" on the Mariinsky's website is a good place to start. Those who want to learn more should read Tamara Karsavina's "Theatre Street".

The title of Karsavina's book is the theatre's address and now it has a neighbour, Mariinsky II. This is a massive new opera house beside the existing one and according to the pictures on the BBC website it is very impressive. It opened this week to a special performance on May Day for "the Mariinsky Theatre’s older members of staff, WW II veterans and respected figures from St Petersburg’s artistic and research intelligentsia."   According to a report on the BBC website there has been some criticism of the expense and also of the building's aesthetics but if I were Russian I'd be as proud as Punch.

Thinking of Karsavina I am reminded of this passage from Arnold Haskell's Balletomania. Her brother, Platon Karsavin, a distinguished scholar, was arrested and interrogated by the secret police. On being asked his name the interrogator enquired whether he was related to the dancer. When he said that she was his sister the interrogator exclaimed: 
"Your sister! That is wonderful! Absolutely my favourite ballerina. I find her Giselle unsurpassed." 
Karsavin then asked what the interrogator thought of her performance in Swan Lake and the two spent the rest of the evening discussing the ballet.   Haskell speculates that Kasavin owed his life to the fact that he came before a balletomane because "what balletomane could sentence La Karsavina's brother?"  Quite so! As one who grew up during the cold war I could not imagine that the nation that continued to nurture the Kirov (the Soviet name for the Mariinsky) and the Bolshoi could be all bad - even if its missiles were trained on London.