Thursday, 29 November 2018

More than a Bit Differently: Ballet Cymru's Workshop and the Launch of the Powerhouse Ballet Circle

"We are a ballet company who like to do things a bit differently", proclaim Ballet Cymru on their home page.  "We enjoy finding new ways to make what we do exciting, innovative and relevant." They can say that again. Last night's workshop at Yorkshire Dance was one of the most challenging but also one of the most enjoyable balletic experiences since my first plié at St Andrews Dance Society over half a century ago.

It started off like any other ballet class with a walk around the studio except that we had to make and maintain eye contact with each other. The walk quickened to a trot and then a tennis ball was introduced which we had to catch and throw to one another.  Dan Morrison  and Robbie Moorcroft who led the exercises conducted the pliés, tendus and glissés in the centre and not at the barre. We did a few unusual exercises. For example, teaming up in pairs we pulled and pushed against each other to create support.

The first hint that we had to use our brains as well as our bodies came in the port de bras.   We were led gently enough through bras bas, first, second, thord and fourth,  "Now it is for you to decide what comes next," said our mentor. In other words we had to choreograph the rest of the phrase.  The obvious continuum for me was arms in fifth, rise and soutenu but others who included Fiona, the teacher who led me back to ballet nearly 50 years after that first plié, were much more ambitious. Dan and Robbie asked us to add steps and I tried an ababesque which is never a good idea with my sense of balance and excess weight.

About hslf way through the workshop the members of the company played an extract of the score of the company's new ballet, Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs.   Cerys Matthrews was reading ome of Dylan Thomas's poems - not one I know - about the thoughts that come to mind when waking with a start in the middle of the night.  The company demonstrated the way they had interpreted that poem.  Each dancer expresssed it differently.  It was now our turn and we each worked at it independently and in groups.  Members of the company circulated and helped us polish the piece. Beth Meadway worked with me. I couldn't quite manage the elevation or coordination for a cabriole so she suggested a temps levé instead.   In the last few minutes each group danced what it had learned to the other group and the Ballet Cymru dancers.   It was an unmissable experience.

But the evening did not stop there for Darius James and Ballet Cymru were the first guests of Powerhouse Ballet Circle.  We met in Martha's Room where we had laid on some drinks and nibbles. The Martha after whom the room is named is of course Martha Graham.  After our members had introduced themselves to members of Ballet Cymru and we each had a glass in our hands I interviewed Darius just as they do in the Civil Service Club in London.  "Croeso i Sir Efrog a Powerhouse Ballet" I said in my best Welsh. Happily, Peter, Alicia, Zoe and Holly were not there to correct me. I asked Darius about his career, what brought him into dance, his training in Newport and at the Royal Ballet School, his time at Northern Ballet (or Northern Dance Theatre a it was then called) and the ahievements of Ballet Cymru since he set it up in 1986.  Not much happened in the performing arts in Newport in the early days but now there is a lot thanks to the Riverfront Theatre on the banks of the Usk. I invited questions fropm the floor. Amelia asked about costume and set design and Sue about how Darius rated Powerhouse Ballet.   There were also questions from Miguel Fernandez and Krystal Lowe of the company,

Even thouigh I had a lot of last minute cancellations owing to illnesses and probems on the railways as well as other glitches both the workshop and the launch of the Powerhouse Ballet Circle went well.  The London Ballet Circle has a very close link with Ballet Cymru and we hope to do so too.  Our next guest is likely to be Yoko Ichino who has accepted our invitation in principle and I will advise members of the date and venue sooon. I also hope to arrange visits to schools and companies in the region and then, maybe, a trip to Newport.  At its 70th anniversary celebrations I learned that Dame Ninette de Valois regarded the London Ballet Circle as part of a tripod of achievements of equal importance to her company and school. I hope that Powerhouose Ballet Circle will be similarly supportive of dance in the North.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

English National Ballet's Swan Lake: Kanehara conquers the Empire

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English National Ballet Swan Lake Liverpool Empire 23 Nov 2018, 19:30

There are a lot of shows that call themselves Swan Lake but unless they turn on the impersonation of Odette, the deception of Siegfried and the breaking of the spell they are not Swan Lake.  You can strip out all the divertissements, have swans of both or either gender, dispense with feathers and tutus, dump them in a tank of water and even substitute a Kalashnikov for a crossbow but so long as you have an Odette-Odile danced by the same artist it will still be Swan Lake.  Take her away and it is something else even if you keep cygnets and feathery white tutus.   It may still be a good show (and many of them such as Graeme Murphy's are) but give it another name.  Monkeying with such a perfect piece of theatre really makes my blood boil far more even than stick toting wilis in disused garment factories

On Friday I saw a very good Swan Lake at the Liverpool Empire and what made it good was the performance of Rina Kanehara in the lead role.  Where did she come from?  I must have seen her before as she is a soloist but she has never grabbed my attention as she did on Friday night.  She was a lovely Odette. As delicate as Dresden porcelain.  As light as a lily.  And I felt that she was living Odette and not just dancing it.  How could she possibly change into the imperious, scheming, seductive magician's daughter of the black act after just 20 minutes interval?

But change she did.  When she reappeared in her black blue flecked tutu she was magnificent.  Clearly, she was the same woman but quite a different character and she seemed to live that role too. She was very strong, robust and as indestructible and flexible as wire appearing to deliver Legnani's 32 fouettés effortlessly.   The English National Ballet has a star in Kanehara and I will seek out her performances from now on.

A good Odette needs a good Siegfried and the company produced one in Ken Saruhashi.  Like Kanehara he is a soloist though it appears from his biography that he has danced leading roles before.  He is tall, slender and very strong.  He lifted Odette as if she were weightless and some of his jumps in the betrothal pas de deux drew my breath away.  The crowd loved him.  I heard loud Russian type growls from behind me in the auditorium, the sort you hear regularly in live streaming from Moscow or even occasionally in Covent Garden but hardly ever outside London.

A lot of dancers impressed me on Friday night and it would be invidious to single out any for special praise. It was good to see Jane Haworth as Siegried's mum and Michael Coleman as his tutor and master of ceremonies again.  I liked Erik Woodhouse, Anjuli Hudson and Adela Ramirez in the pas de trois.  Ramirez was also one of the cygnets with Alice Bellini, Katja Khaniukova and Emilia Cadorin all of whom were good.  Hudson delighted me with her Neapolitan dance in Act III where she was partnered by Barry Drummond.  This is a delightful piece which I am sure Sir Frederick Ashton created for the Royal Ballet for it has all his hallmarks on it.  In fact, I remember Wayne Sleep in that role with (I believe) Jennifer Penney.  The Royal Ballet no longer seem to do it and it is good to know that our other great national company does.  Finally, I congratulate Isabelle Brouwers and Tiffany Hedman as lead swans.  I noticed Skyler Martin whom I remember from the Dutch National Ballet and it is good to welcome him to these shores.

English National Ballet's website quotes The Sunday Express in describing the production as "One of the best productions of Swan Lake you are likely to see."  I don't agree with that newspaper on much but I think that its dance critic was right on this point.  I have seen a lot of Swan Lakes in nearly 60 years of regular ballet going including Liam Scarlett's and the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's with Denis Rodkin this year but this is definitely the best Swan Lake of those three and one of the best of all time. I like Peter Farmer's designs and the ENB Philharmonic under Huddersfield trained Gavin Sutherland. I always give him a cheer for that though I would anyway as he is good.

Altogether it was an excellent show in a fine auditorium with an appreciative crowd.  This is not the first time I have seen an outstanding Swan Lake at the Empire.  David Dawson's very different but equally good production for Scottish Ballet was performed there (see Empire Blanc: Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2916).  The Empire's audience seems passionate about dance and quite a few rose to their feet at the curtain call.  I think that the crowd lifted the dancers on Friday.  It was everything a night at the ballet should be.

Saturday, 10 November 2018


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Dutch National Ballet Giselle Theater Heerlen 9 Nov 2018, 19:30

I overheard the word "mooie" a lot in snatches of conversation in the bar of Theater Heerlen during the interval and after the show last night so I looked it up. I found that it means "beautiful".  Tonight's performance of Giselle by the Dutch National Ballet was indeed beautiful but it was also so much more.  It was outstanding.  It was one of the best performances of that ballet that I have ever seen and I have attended a lot of performances of Giselle in my 50 years of regular ballet going. I have seen some of the world's best dancers and many of the world's greatest companies.  The rest of the audience was aware of something special for we rose to our feet at the curtain call as one and clapped until our palms were raw.

"So what was so special about this performance?" I hear you ask.  I don't know where to begin.  There was so much that impressed me.

Obviously, there were two excellent principals in the lead roles:  Qian Liu as Giselle and Young Gyu Choi as Albrecht.  She was a perfect Giselle for she balanced virtuosity with charm.  She communicated winsomeness and innocence in the early scenes of act I, passion and despair in the mad scene and an ethereal quality in the second act.  Young Gyu Choi is now my favourite Albrecht of all time and I have seen Nureyev and Acosta in that role.  He had previously impressed me with his strength and athleticism. Yesterday he showed he could act as well.

The other great female role in this ballet is the Queen of the Wilis.   Maria Chugai was a formidable Myrtha, one of the most chilling but also one of the most elegant I have ever seen. I was on tenterhooks as she drew back from Albrecht and Giselle their arms splayed in the form of a cross even though I knew how the story ends.

Dario Elia came to my attention for the first time yesterday with his portrayal of Hilarion.  In a Q and A after a talk by Rachael Beaujean just before the show, I suggested that Hilarion had a very raw deal compared to Albrecht.  He may have been jealous, even a bit stupid, but he was not the one to deceive two women.  Did he really deserve to die?   Beaujean agreed with me "but then the world's unfair", she observed.  I think Elia communicated the character of the gamekeeper and disappointed suitor well.  I shall follow his career with interest.

There were many other good performances last night. It is probably unfair to single any of them out for special praise.  But I cannot ignore the peasant pas de quatre and in particular the powerful performances of Sho Yamada and Daniel Silva.  Yamada first impressed me when he partnered Michaela DePrince the first time I saw the Junior Company at the Staddshouwburg in 2013 (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 25 Nov 2013) and he impressed me again as Don Basilio earlier this year (see A Day of Superlatives - Dutch National Ballet's Don Quixote 1 March 2018).  I have been a fan of Silva ever since he opened No Time Before Time in Ballet Bubbles at the Meervaart on my birthday in 2016.  He impressed me again later in that year with his bronze idol in La BayadèreI must also congratulate their partners Salome Leverashvili and Emanouela Merdjanova for they were impressive too. In Merdjanova's case, she impressed me again as Moyna in act II.

Finally, I must commend the corps and Beaujean and Ricardo Bustamente's deployment of them in both acts.  I particularly liked the circling of the Wilis which was mesmeric.  Combined with Toer van Schayk's backdrop of a gorge in the Rhine and James Ingalls's lighting they were the spookiest but also the most realistic depictions of the tormented vengeful spirits I have ever seen.

I saw that performance, not in Amsterdam or some other major city, but in Heerlen, a town in the southeast Netherlands approximately the same size as Doncaster. Like Doncaster, Heerlen had once been a mining town and there was much about the landscape, the style of the buildings and many other things that reminded me of South Yorkshire.  One thing in particular that Heerlen has in common with Doncaster is a fine repertory theatre which no doubt played a part in the town's regeneration after the collieries closed much in the way that the CAST did in Doncaster. The Heerlen theatre is somewhat bigger than the CAST but it looks and feels very similar.

I see a lot of the Dutch National Ballet. This is my fourth visit to the Netherlands this year and I am coming back on the 22 Dec to see Cinderella.  Usually, I see them in Amsterdam though I have also seen them at the Coliseum in London.  This is the first time that I have seen the Dutch National Ballet on tour in its own country. That is something that other great companies like the Royal Ballet hardly ever do.  I chose to see it in Heerlen for two reasons.  First, it was very good value - €39 for one of the best seats in the stalls - a fraction of what I paid on tickets, rail fares and refreshments to see La Bayadere last week in Covent Garden last week even after taking my return airfare, airport parking and an overnight stay in Heerlen into account.  Secondly, and much more importantly, it treats its provincial audiences with exactly the same respect as it does its metropolitan ones.  How many other of the world's great ballet companies  around the world can say the same?

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Nothing Wrong with this La Bayadère

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Royal Ballet La Bayadère Royal Opera House 3 Nov 2018 13:30

It is often said that only the Russians can do La Bayadère.  In one online forum to which I subscribe, I have read the suggestion that the Royal Ballet should not even bother to stage that ballet "because the Russians do it so much better." While it is true that only the Russians did  La Bayadère until very recently I find it a very curious argument.   Nobody says anything like that in respect of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker or any of the other 19th century Russian classics.  As it is set in Golkonda in India by a French-born choreographer to an Austrian composer's score, the ballet is not actually all that Russian.

Yesterday's matinee performance of La Bayadère by the Royal Ballet is the fourth that I have seen. The others were by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in August 2015, the Dutch National Ballet in November 2016 and the Mariinsky last year.  Each of those productions including yesterday's had its good points.   The Royal Ballet's lay in the set and projection designs except for the appearance of a Buddha in what was supposed to be a Hindu temple.  I watched the show with one friend who is a Hindu and another who comes from Japan which is a predominately Buddhist country and I don't think either was impressed by that solecism.  Notwithstanding that niggle, it was a very slick and polished production with a well-rehearsed corps and particularly good performances by the shades (Yuhui Choe, Fumi Kaneko and Beatriz Stix-Brunell) and the bronze idol (Valentino Zuchetti).

I could not fault the lead dancers, Sarah Lamb, Ryoichi Hirano or Claire Calvert who were Nikiya, Solor and Gamzatti respectively.  At the curtain call, Lamb was presented with a very respectable bouquet from which she selected one rose for Hirano and another for the conductor, Boris Gruzin but Calvert received even bigger bouquets (presumably from a well-wisher in the audience) which is something I have never seen before in over half a century of ballet going.  The lead dancers were well supported by Yorkshireman Thomas Whitehead as the brahmin (earning an especially loud cheer at the reverence from our little section of the stalls on account of his Borealian provenance), Bennet Gartside as the rajah and Liverpudlian Kristen McNally as the aya.

Although I liked yesterday's show I preferred the Dutch National Ballet's two years ago.   I think that is because of the superb performance by Sasha Mukhamedov who will always be my Nikiya.  The Royal Ballet's production like the Dutch National Ballet's was created by Natalia Makarova. There is another version of the ballet by Stanton Welch for the Houston Ballet with designs by Peter Farmer and an arrangement of the score by John Lanchberry that I would love to see.   Birmingham Royal Ballet appealed for funding to bring it to the UK to which I actually contributed (see A Birmingham Bayadère 26 Nov 2016) but that idea was abandoned when the local authority cut its funding to the company (see How Nikiya must have felt when she saw a snake  21 Jan 2017).

Yesterday was my first opportunity to see the result of the building works that have been carried out around the Royal Opera House over the last few years. We snuck downstairs to the Linbury bar and lobby which now looks very smart and we had a cup of tea at the new cafeteria at the entrance to the lobby which also doubled as a cloakroom.   All very new and shiny but a little confusing.  One obvious inconvenience was the ladies' loo has been moved and there was inadequate signage to its new location.   Another is that there is nothing like enough space in the cafeteria. As free wifi is provided, I suspect that some of those spaces were occupied by folks with laptops with no particular interest in opera and ballet, but that may not be a bad thing.

On the whole, we three musketeers from the North had a good day in London and it was good to meet in the interval a worthy D'Artganan, namely Marion Pettet who was until recently the chair of the Chelmsford Ballet upon which Powerhouse Ballet is modelled.   Marion has given us a lot of tips and encouragement over the last few months and it was good to see her again.

The ballet will be screened to cinemas in the UK on 13 Nov 2018 and I recommend it strongly. It may not be the very best (but then there is only one Mukhamedov) but it is still a very good production.  Lots of drama, some beautiful solos, the mesmerizing descent into the kingdom of the shades, some great projection technology.   There is nothing wrong with our Bayadère and if the Russians, Dutch or Texans do better ones, never let the best be the enemy of the good.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Ballet Cymru Workshop

A workshop that is a little bit different
28 Nov 2018  Yorkshire Dance  18:00 - 19:30 

© 2018 Sun Trenverth Photography: all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of Ballet Cymru 

Ballet Cymru describe themselves as "a ballet company who like to do things a bit differently." They enjoy finding new ways to make what they do exciting, innovative and relevant.

They achieved those objectives with TIR where they collaborated with Cerys Matthews to translate traditional Welsh songs into dance. I described it as a "thrilling experience" in my review of the company's performance of that ballet in Newport.

Matthews and Ballet Cymru have collaborated again to produce Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs which the company will dance at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre in Leeds on 29 Nov 2018. This show promises to be one of the highlights of the Leeds dance season for 2018/2019 so if you have not yet bought your ticket do so now while you still can.

The day before that performance we shall host a workshop for Ballet Cymru at Yorkshire Dance where they will teach us some of the choreography from that show. This is a rare opportunity to dance with artists of Wales's classical dance company who have come from all parts of the world to the work of Darius James and Amy Doughty two of my favourite choreographers.

This workshop is open to anybody aged 18 or above who is regularly attending ballet classes at Northern Ballet Academy or Dance Studio Leeds in Leeds, KNT Danceworks in Manchester, Hype Dance in Sheffield, Ballet North in Halifax or any other adult ballet class of similar standard. Ballet Cymru do not expect you to be another Pavlova but you are unlikely to get much out of the evening if you have not yet mastered the basics.

Admission is free but you must register here in advance. Yorkshire Dance is literally just across the road from Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance Theatre. It faces the Leeds School of Music. The bus station is the same distance in the opposite direction and the mainline railway station with regular services to all parts of the country is just a little further away.

Immediately after the workshop Powerhouse Ballet will hold a reception for Darius James and the company in Martha's room at Yorkshire Dance where we shall launch the Northern Dance Circle. The Circle will promote dance and dance education in the North in very much the same way as the London Ballet Circle does in London. You can attend that even if you do not attend the workshop. Again, there will be no charge to attend the event but you must register in advance.

Go to the Eventbrite Page