Monday, 1 May 2017


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Ballet Central, Mixed Programme, Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre 28 April 2017

Ballet Central has aways been good and, having met Christopher Marney at several Ballet Black and London Ballet Circle events, seen him speak, and, most importantly, watched him work I expected great things from his first season as the company's artistic director. I had been dazzled by Marney's dancing as Count Lilac in Sir Matthew Burne's Sleeping Beauty.  I have been awed by his choreography, particularly War Letters which he created for Ballet Black. On Friday I discovered his prowess as an artistic director. All I can say without gushing hyperbole is that Friday's mixed bill greatly exceeded my highest expectations.

We were presented with a varied programme arranged in three parts:
  • Jenna Lee's ballroom scene from Romeo and Juliet;
  • Malgorzata Dzierzon's new piece Sleepless; and
  • Liam Scarlett's Indigo Children.
After a short interval, we were treated to 
  • the triumphant return of Solor in the first act of La Bayadḕre;
  • Christopher Bruce's fascinating Mya; and
  • Michael Pink and Christopher Gable's spine-chilling Dracula.
After another interval, the programme ended with a major part of Sir Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling, a witty but slightly disturbing reworking of La Sylphide.

Lee's ballroom scene was a beautifully crafted classical piece though with original reinterpretation of some of Prokofiev's most popular music. It is very dramatic and very clever. In that regard, very like Marney.  It was very different from the work that appears on Lee's YouTube channel and website which
"..... pushes the boundaries of classical ballet, by fusing world-class ballerinas with more modern art forms such as break dancing and beat boxing, providing a world of professional bespoke entertainment for any event."
Cira Beautiful Misfits featuring one of my very favourite dancers from Ballet Black and Conflux with a beatbox Swan Lake are examples. Commissioning Lee to revisit Shakespeare and Prokofiev where Lavrovsky, Cranko and MacMillan already walk tall and create a 20-minute work to open the show was an imaginative and risky but, as it turned out, spectacularly rewarding step. I long to see the rest of the story. I wonder how Lee would rework the bedroom scene when Romeo or the conflict of emotions when Juliet learns that her husband has dispatched Tybalt. I do hope someone commissions that talented choreographer to finish the ballet.

Lee had the perfect Juliet in Amy McEntee. She seemed born for that role. An actor and storyteller at least as much as a dancer. she enchanted us with her knowing glance to Romeo and galvanized us with her expression of horror as Romeo squared up to her brother.  Central has trained a disproportionately large number of my favourite dancers and choreographers, including Marney himself. I think we saw several future stars on Friday one of whom is definitely McEntee.  

Dzierzon's Sleepless was a complete contrast. Beginning with a huddle of dancers in subdues lighting the work exploded into vigorous movement. Dzierzon had 10 dancers in that work - 9 on stage and one at the piano. My seat was at the far right hand of the second row next to the pianist and though I tried to concentrate on the stage I could not help my gaze returning to the composer and pianist Phil Feeney. His score was vibrant and exciting as indeed was his playing of it. But those on stage were great too. Representing the spray can wielding shadows of my youth who transformed every carriage of the New York subway, those kids darted around the stage one scribbling letters on the shirts of the others. A real frisson of subversion.

Yet another change of mood with Liam Scarlett's elegant Indigo Children to the music of Philip Glass. A work created for Ballet Black - Beautiful Ballet Black, as I like to call the company - it was lovingly re-staged by Cira Robinson and Damien Johnson. McEntee shone in this work too as did Craig McFarlane who had been her Romeo.

Although I have only seen two complete performances of La Bayadḕre I love that ballet. I have even tried to dance little bits of it.  Last Autumn I saw the Dutch National Ballet's performance of Makarova's version with the magnificent Sasha Mukhamedov in the title role. I had expected Ballet Central to perform the entry into the kingdom of the shades which is probably the best-known scene from the ballet. Instead, Marney chose the triumphant return of Solor to Golkonda which was an opportunity to show off the corps as well as Kanon Kihara and Jaume Ruiz who danced the principal roles. A word of commendation to Dante Baylor who designed the costumes. I loved those outfits: trousers and turbans for the men and pantaloons and scarves for the women.

On Friday I had complained that we had been deprived of Marney when I wrote All that was missing from this Evening's Performance was a Ballet by Marney ...... In fact, I had not read the programme carefully and, in any case, I should have recognized his mark. It was a masterly restaging of a much-loved work. May we have some more of that beautiful arrangement, please?

Christopher Bruce's Mya turned out to be my favourite work of the evening. Three dancers clad head to foot in tightly fitting, somewhat shapeless, almost colourless gowns moving to Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel (literally mirror in the mirror). But what could it mean?  The costumes reminded me of the chrysalis of a butterfly and there was a touching moment when the limbs of one of the dancers began to emerge from the constraint. An analogy with the human condition? The composer is Estonian whose nation has emerged like a butterfly from the Soviet thrall. Doesn't matter. The music is haunting. The choreography compelling. The performance enthralling.

Central was founded by Christopher Gable who was the artistic director of Northern Ballet when I returned to Manchester.  As a Mancunian in exile, I had read about Northern Ballet (then known as Northern Dance Theatre) in the dancing press but had never actually seen any of its performances. I thought I would miss Covent Garden, Sadler's Wells, the Coliseum, the Place ....... I did not do so at all, They continued to exist 200 miles away, of course, but on my doorstep was a wonderful company treating us to a succession of delicious works in that golden age of Northern Ballet. We were reminded of that golden age by Pink and Gable's Dracula. Not an easy watch but an enthralling one as Harker is first seduced then savaged by vampires. Yet another star in the making, Matthew Morrell, dominated the stage. Tall and menacing he induced teal fright, however, many times I reminded myself that this was only theatre.

The last work of the evening was act 2 of Sir Matthew Bourne's "romantic wee ballet" a Highland Fling. "Romantic" indeed with a woman hobbling about the stage her costume drenched in blood. Well, stage blood of course. It was Sir Matthew's take on La Sylphide which is one of the oldest ballets in the modern repertoire. I have often said that it ought to be our national ballet as it is set in Scotland. Bourne kept Løvenskiold's score but gave it a new twist portraying James as a drunken Glaswegian in a Highland glade cavorting with winged and kilted sylphs. I'm not sure what happened to Effie or Madge but Sir Matthew arms James with a pair of garden shears instead of a poisoned scarf with which he does even more damage. The sight of the wounded sylph was the second tummy turning moment of the evening, Dracula being the first.The sylphs get their own back on James after mourning their murdered sister for he sprouts a pair of wings in the last scene.

Marney chose this piece well. I have not always been a fan of Sir Matthew Bourne but I loved this work. I can well understand why Scottish Ballet currently performs Highland Fling but not the 1836 original. Much of the appeal of  this work lies the designs as well as Bourne's quirky humour.  Lez Brotherston, who had designed Scottish Ballet's, appears to have inspired Baylor who designed Ballet Central's production.

Sir Matthew staged that work himself. An enormous compliment to Marney but one he well deserves. Bourne would not be where he is today without an uncanny knack of recognizing talent when he sees it. He saw it in Adam Davies who danced James and Brittanie Dillion, his sylph. I don't know where they come from but they looked pretty Scottish, in fact totally Glaswegian to me. Especially the sylph with the suitcase wandering sheepishly hand in hand with James. So much to see in this work.

Ballet Central is making only one other appearance in the North on this tour.  In Whitehaven on 13 May 2017 which I can't make because I am in Move It at The Dancehouse in Manchester. However, I am determined to see this year's mixed bill again. Even though I shall have to travel I just gotta see those fine young artists again.

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