Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Of Bikes and Busses

Bicycles in Buenos Ares
Photo Lars Curls
Source Wikipedia
Creative Commons 

On 23 Oct 2016 Chris Marney tweeted:
"Thinking of Christopher today 18 yrs on and proud to continue his work everyday #GableLegacy."
The "Christopher" Marney had in mind was, of course. Christopher Gable. He founded the Central School of Ballet which has a performing company called Ballet Central of which Marney is artistic director. I admire Marney's work very much so I tweeted
"And Gable's work could not be in better hands @chrismarney. Missing him too."
Christopher Gable became artistic director of Northern Ballet in 1987 which was just after I returned to the North of England to practise at the Manchester bar. He held that appointment until his death on 23 Oct 1998 (see Christopher Gable on Northern Ballet's website). it was during his directorship that my late spouse and I started to follow that company. In that time Gable created or commissioned some of my favourite works for that company.

Photo dave_7
Creative Commons Licence
Gable's successor as artistic director of Northern Ballet is David Nixon and I have asked myself whether I could say the same about Nixon as I had tweeted about Marney.  I think I can safely say that I can. I admire much of Nixon's work - though not everything. I am not, for example, the biggest fan of his version of Swan Lake with its bikes in the opening scene (see Don't Expect Petipa 5 Jan 2016 and Up the Swannee 17 Mar 2016) and I can't say that his Beauty and the Beast is my favourite ballet with its old bus (see Jane Lambert Ballet and Intellectual Property - my Excuse for reviewing "Beauty and the Beast" 31 Dec 2011 IP Yorkshire). But Nixon has created some fine work for the company such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (see Realizing Another Dream 15 Sept 2013), Cinderella (see Northern Ballet's Cinderella - a Triumph! 27 Dec 2013) and The Great Gatsby (Life follows Art: the Great Gatsby 8 Mar 2011) and has commissioned more such as Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre (see Northern Ballet's Jane Eyre: the best new Ballet from the Company in 20 Years 2 June 2016).

According to Northern Ballet's website, Nixon is working on a new ballet called The Little Mermaid which is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and the company has commissioned Casanova from Kenneth Tindall and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas from Daniel de Andrade. I hope to learn more about those works when Nixon appears at the London Ballet Circle on 28 Nov 2016 to talk to Esme Chandler (see the Events page of the Circle's website). This is quite a challenging time for the company as two of its "premier" (that is to say, principal) dancers are developing careers elsewhere. I shall be interested to hear what, if anything, Nixon has to say about that as well.

Those who want to hear Nixon speak should make their way to the Civil Service Club on Great Scotland Street off Northumberland Avenue next to the Nigerian embassy before 19:30. The meeting will be open to the public at a charge of £5 for members of the Circle and £8 for everybody else. The meeting will take place on the 1st floor and there is a bar downstairs which serves hot meals to those attending the Circle's meetings. Very handy for those like me who have a train to catch from King's Cross and I particularly recommend the fish and chips. The nearest underground stations are Charing Cross and the Embankment.

As the Circle has set out Nixon's career in some detail I shall not embarrass him or weary my readers by repeating it beyond noting that he has achieved much on both sides of the Atlantic and that he enjoys a formidable reputation as a choreographer. director and dancer. I would have attended Nixon's talk anyway but my resolve has been reinforced by his remarks on Front Row (BBC Radio 4) last night. He was interviewed by John Wilson with Luke Jennings of The Guardian in a short section about 15 minutes into the programme entitled New, but always old, ballet. 

Wilson began by playing a recording in which Tamara Rojo had opined that dance needed to change in order to survive in a digital age in the context of Akram Khan's Giselle, remarks which were vaguely endorsed but not developed by Jennings. He then turned to Nixon and suggested that he was "playing safe" reminding the audience that Northern Ballet was dancing Beauty and the Beast in Norwich. Nixon replied with the entirely reasonable point that ballet needs an audience to survive. In answer to Jennings's contention that ballet needs to be relevant to its age and Wilson's remark that Beauty "was not breaking any moulds" he made another equally valid point that Beauty and the Beast appeared just after the credit crunch and contained plenty of allusions to austerity that were raw in his audience's experiences in 2011. He added that ballet is a language that takes dancers 8 years to learn which can be used to tell any story and express any emotion and that there was still room for classics as well as new work.

Jennings, whose review of Mary Skeaping's Giselle had been headlined A Giselle to cry for 14 Jan 2007 (see English National Ballet's other Giselle 22 Oct 2016), seemed to argue that works like Akram Khan's Giselle with its elements of Kathak and contemporary would attract whole new audiences. With all due respect I just don't see it. It may be innovative but not in the way that Nijinsky's L'Après-midi d'un faune and Le Sacre du Printemps were over 100 years ago. If audiences want experimentation they will go to NDT or Rambert or, on another plane, Sir Matthew Bourne. If they want cultural interaction they will go to Alvin Ailey or indeed Phoenix in the same building as Northern Ballet who do it so much better. Akram Khan's Giselle is interesting, it is not without merit and is certainly worth seeing but let's get a sense of proportion. It is not the choreographer's or the company's best work and it is nowhere near the best Giselle.

Classical companies like Northern should stick to what they do best which is to present fine theatrical experiences following a 400 year classical tradition that are nevertheless still relevant to modern audiences. That does not preclude classical companies from creating abstract masterpieces such as Chroma or Angels in the Architecture but there must be balance by which I mean there must always be room for Petipa and Ashton. Having heard Nixon yesterday, I think he understands that. It is for that reason that I say that Gable's Northern Ballet (like Ballet Central) is in very good hands.

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