Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Nutcracker returns to the Royal Albert Hall

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Birmingham Royal Ballet The Nutcracker 29 Dec 2019 14:00 Royal Albert Hall

Each of the five largest ballet companies of the United Kingdom has a version of The Nutcracker in its repertoire.  I have seen all of them at one time or another and the ones that I like best which are Scottish, Northern's and the Birmingham Royal Ballet's more than once.  If I had to choose one it would be Peter Wright's production for the BRB. Last year I saw it in the Hippodrome in Birmingham. Yesterday I saw it upscaled fro the Royal Albert Hall.

This was not the first time I had seen ballet in that auditorium.   On previous occasions, I had seen Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake in the round performed by the English National Ballet.  Birmingham Royal Ballet used the space quite differently.  They created a stage at one end of the floor above which they positioned the orchestra. On either side of the stage, they placed enormous screens upon which all sorts of images such as pine branches and baubles to represent a growing Christmas tree and falling snow for the snow scene. Seating was installed in the part of the floor not used as a stage and the gallery was closed off altogether.  My view from the centre of the Rausing circle was comparable to the view from the front of the amphitheatre at Covent Garden.

The libretto was very similar to the one for the version that I had seen at the Hippodrome last year and used about the same number of dancers. The one big difference was a voiceover by Simon Callow which was probably harmless enough but not particularly necessary. He was supposed to represent Drosselmeyer who was already represented in dance more than adequately by Rory Mackay.  What rankled a little bit with me was that Callow spoke in a thick continental accent that made Drosselmeyer appear to be some kind of foreigner which was unlikely as he was Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum's godfather. Unlike Sir Peter Wright's production for the Royal Ballet, there was no subplot of the nutcracker being Drosselmeyer's nephew imprisoned in wood. Nor were there an,y angels in the Birmingham version.

The other three lead characters yesterday were the Sugar Plum danced by Celine Gittens, her prince Brandon Lawrence and Clara who was Arancha Baselga. On 26 June 2018, I had been captivated by Gittens's portrayal of Juliet although she had been one of my favourites for some time (see MacMillan's Masterpiece 29 June 2018). I chose yesterday's matinee specifically to catch Gittens and I am glad to say that she did not disappoint me. I was too far away to see her face which had been so eloquent when she danced Juliet but her elegance was unmistakable.  As in June, she was partnered by Lawrence who demonstrated his strength and virtuosity. Baselga delighted her audience with her energy as she threw herself into the divertissements in Act II. I admired and liked her particularly in the Russians ance as she was tossed from dancer to dancer like a bag of cement.

Another of my favourites is Ruth Briill who danced Clara's grannie with Kit Holder. I had thought of auditioning for that role if and when Powerhouse Ballet ever performs that ballet but having seen Brill in Birmingham's production and Hannah Bateman in Northern's (see Northern Ballet's "The Nutcracker" - All My Favourite Artists in the Same Show 14 Dec 2018) that may be a little bit too ambitious.  I had also contemplated auditioning for Mrs Stahlbaum until I saw Yvette Knight's impressive solo. Maybe I could be a rodent but not the rat king like Tom Rogers yesterday.

Plaudits are due to Harlequin, Columbine and the Jack in the Box danced by Gus Payne, Reina Fuchigami and Max Maslen, the Snow Queen (Alys Shee) and each and every one of the dancers in the divertissements in Act II. I particularly liked Laura Purkiss as the Spanish princess and Beatrice Parma as the rose fairy.

I must also congratulate the orchestra and its conductor Koen Kessels whom I had the pleasure of meeting ar the party following the Dutch National Ballet's gala on 8 September 2018. I attended the ballet with the nearest I have to a grandson and his mum who is the nearest I have to a daughter. She was particularly affected by the music saying that it had touched her in a way that previous performances of the score had not/. Clearly, I was not the only one to regard the music as special

Altogether it was one of the best performances of The Nutcracker that I have ever attended and a great way to end the year.  It is in the running for my ballet of the year as indeed is the Birmingham Royal Ballet for company of the year.  Upon the merger of my chambers with Arden Chambers earlier this year we acquired an annexe at Snow Hill in Birmingham which I intend to use to the full.  As I shall be spending far more time in their city I hope to see even more of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and get to know it even better.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Cinderella in the Stopera

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Dutch National Ballet Cinderella 22 Dec 2018 , 20:00, Stopera, Amsterdam

In July 2015 the Dutch National Ballet performed Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella at the Coliseum. It played to full houses and audiences seemed to like it but though not all critics did.  In my review, Wheeldon's Cinderella 13 July 2015, I wrote:
"I enjoyed the show. I liked Wheeldon's treatment of the story, the dancing, Julian Crouch's designs and Natasha Katz's lighting. I prefer it to The Winter's Tale to which I was indifferent when I first saw it on stage but warmed to it when I saw it in the cinema and on television. It may be that Wheeldon is an acquired taste and that his critics will come round. I look forward to seeing the show again and I think it will look even better on the stage of the Stopera."
Well, I saw it in the Stopera on Saturday 22 Dec 2018 and was bowled over by it.  At the end of the second act, I wrote on my Facebook page: "Christmas has been made for me by  DutchNatBallet's Cinderella even if I never get a single present, a Christmas card, a slice of Turkey, a smidgeon of plum pudding, a mince pie or a whiff of mulled wine."

Why the difference?  The answer came when I joined a tour of the Stopera for new Friends on my birthday in 2016 (see Double Dutch Delights 17 Feb 2016).  One of the senior technical staff welcomed us to the stage and showed us some of the computer equipment at his command.  I mentioned that I had attended a performance of Cinderella in London the previous summer and asked him how the company found the Coliseum.  He replied that the company enjoyed their visit to London very much through the Coliseum lacked the state-of-the-art equipment and facilities that they enjoy at the Stopera. That equipment enabled the tree over the grave of Cinderella's mother to grow and change colour with the seasons. It showed birds in flight and falling rain at the funeral of Cinderella's mother.

I noted the similarities between Cinderella and The Winter's Tale in my previous review.  In both, the lead characters were introduced as children and both features a massive tree.  In a strange sort of way, Cinderella was actually more Shakespearean than the ballet that was based on a Shakespeare play.  Excitement was ratcheted up as in a Shakespearean play.  When Cinderella's appeared in a golden gown the lights on stage were cut and the house lights switched to full brightness.  That moment was matched at the end of the next act when Cinderella ran off stage right into the stalls and through the audience to the exit.

There was also plenty of humour that provided dramatic relief.  Cinderella's stepmother, Hortensia, became tight at the ball as the evening wore on much to the embarrassment of her husband.  Benjamin, the prince's friend, fell head over heels in love with the plainer of Hortensia's daughters.  The most unpromising candidates queued to try Cinderella's abandoned slipper including a Balinese princess with long nails and a spiked headdress, a forest spirit with an outsized head and a knight in full armour brandishing a battle axe.  Levity is not easy to induce in ballet.  Ashton managed it his Cinderella in his pairing with Robert Helpmann as Cinderella's ugly sisters and Wheeldon succeeded in his version of the ballet.

In London, I had seen Remi Wörtmeyer as Benjamin, the prince's friend.  On Saturday he was promoted to prince, a role that suited him well.  Benjamin was danced by Sho Yamada who has impressed me twice this year.  Cinderella was Anna Ol. She commanded the audience's respect from the start and not our pity.  She showed her spirit from the moment her father (Anatole Babenko)  introduced her to Hortensia.   Hortensia had offered her a bunch of flowers that she tossed to the floor.  I sensed fear on the part of the stepmother and her sisters rather than simple malice. Hortensia, a difficult role, was danced impressively by Vera Tsyganova. Luiza Bertho danced Cinderella's stepsister Edwina and Riho Sakamoto, her other stepsister Clementine. Finally, it was great to see Jane Lord on stage again as a dance teacher.

As I had benefited from attending Rachael Beaujean's talk on Giselle last month, I attended the introductory talk on Cinderella.  That took the form of a Powerpoint presentation in a lecture room `below the auditorium between 19:15 and 19:45.  Although it was given in Dutch which is a language I have never studied I think I got the gist of it as Dutch is closely related to Engish and German. I learned that this ballet is a co-production with the San Francisco Ballet, about Ashton's influence over Wheeldon, the significance of the tree and all sorts of other useful facts.

The ballet will run to 1 Jan 2019 and is playing to full houses.  Readers who miss it this month in Amsterdam will have a chance to see English National Ballet perform a version in the round in the Albert Hall between 6 and 16 June 2019.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Northern Ballet's "The Nutcracker" - All My Favourite Artists in the Same Show

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Northern Ballet  The Nutcracker  12 Dec 2019 19:00 Leeds Grand Theatre

Northern Ballet does a very good version of The Nutcracker.  I have seen a lot of productions of that ballet in my time and, in my humble opinion, it is one of the best. Having said that, I can think of no good reason why David Nixon has to change the names of the Stahlbaum family to Edwards and Northern Ballet really must do something about the backdrop which is supposed to be a wall and bookcase but flaps like a flag if anyone gets too close to it. But I can forgive all that because everything else is good.

Wednesday's performance was particularly good because nearly all my favourite artists from the company were in the show.  They did not all have major roles.  Javier Torres who was my dancer of the year for 2017 was Mr Stahlbaum (or Edwards if you must) and the exquisite Hannah Bateman was Clara's grandmother.  Rachael Gillespie, of whom I can never see enough, was Clara. Abigail Prudames, another beautiful dancer, was Sugar Plum.  Gavin McCaig was in the ballet as the butler and also the Arabian divertissement.  My favourite of the evening was Mlundi Kulashe who played a blinder as Drosselmeyer.  He danced it with energy and verve in a way that I have never seen  it danced before,  Everybody in the show (and that includes the musicians) performed brilliantly.

In some versions of The Nutcracker, Clara (or Marie) is a child who does not have much to do beyond bopping the mouse king with a shoe or some other blunt instrument.  In Nixon's version, she handbags him Thatcher style.  She also performs some duets in the snow scene and again in the second act with the Nutcracker (Ashley Dixon) and joins in some of the divertissements. Rachael is a joy to watch and Nixon displayed her like a precious jewel.

The climax of the ballet is, of course,  the Sugar Plum's pas de deux with her cavalier. On Wednesday he was Joseph Taylor.  The high point for audiences is the celesta solo just as Legnani's 32 fouettés are in Swan Lake or the rose adagio in The Sleeping Beauty.  Everything else may be perfect but if something goes wrong with one of those pieces the rest is forgotten. Abigail Prudames thus bore the weight of the performance in that solo and she carried it off beautifully.  Taylor is a powerful dancer and he was thrilling to watch.

Nixon does a particularly good fight scene between mice and toy soldiers.  Riku Ito was a particularly gallant regnant rodent expiring stoically after Rachael's handbagging.  Nixon has a cavalry in his production which is one up on Sir Peter Wright and Peter Darrell's productions.

In the second act, Itu performed the Spanish dance as a solo. That was different.   It is usually danced by an ensemble though Northern Ballet School also presented it as a solo in Christmas at the Dancehouse.   I liked the Arabian dancers (Matthew Topliss, Natalia Kerner and Gavin McCaig), the Chinese (Kevin Poeung and Harris Beattie) and the Russians (Conner Jordan-Collins, Matthew Morrell and Andrew Tomlinson); The Russian dance was a big role for those three young dancers two oi whim are still apprentices,.

There are also a lot of roles for children in The Nutcracker as guests at the Stahlbaums' party, mice and soldiers.  Two of my teachers had daughters in the show though I am not sure whether either was dancing on Wednesday night.  All the kids performed well that night and were a credit to their ballet mistress who in previous years has been Cara O'Shea.

The show will run at the Grand until Sunday and I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Ballet Cymru's Dylan Thomas Programme: The Company's Best Work Ever

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Ballet Cymru  Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs 29 Nov 2018 Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds, 1 Dec 2018 Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre, Bangor

I have been following Ballet Cymru for over five years and they have never failed to impress  In 2015 their Cinderella was my ballet of the year and their TIR was the runner-up (see Highlights of 2015. 29 Dec 2015).  In that year they were also my year and I tipped Krystal Lowe as a dancer to watch. They have continued to impress me every year but I think their Dylan Thomas double bill - Dylan Thomas – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs - is their best work yet.

It was so good that I saw it twice. The first time was in Leeds on 29 Nov and the second at the Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre at Bangor on 1 Dec 2018.  Leeds was excellent but Bangor was even better as Cerys Matthews and Arun Ghosh were on stage and the audience was even more receptive and responsive.  The show was in effect a double bill.  It began with Poems and Tiger Eggs which consisted of readings of a selection of Thomas's poems by Matthews to Ghosh's music.  The second piece was A Child's Christmas in Wales.  Both works were created by Darius James and Amy Doughty.

Poems and Tiger Eggs opened and closed with In My Craft or Sullen ArtThat is a poem I did not know before Ballet Cymru introduced me to it at the workshop on 28 Nov 2018 (see More than a Bit Differently: Ballet Cymru's Workshop and the Launch of the Powerhouse Ballet Circle 29 Nov 2018). It is now a poem that I adore.  Beth Meadway danced to it as a solo in the opening and the whole cast danced to it at the end.  In the workshop, we were taught to listen for the words "Not for the Proud Man" and then react. Meadway turned her head sharply in the solo and the whole cast moved as one when the poem was read again.

Scottish Ballet had staged Ten Poems by Christopher Bruce on the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth which I saw in Edinburgh and reviewed in Bruce Again on 6 Oct 2014.  One of the works that Bruce had set to dance was Do Not Go Gentle Into That Food Night.  Darius James and Amy Doughty also chose that poem for Poems and Tiger Eggs.  Both Bruce and James and Doughty created duets but James and Doughty's was somehow softer and more lyrical.  Incidentally, if anyone wants to listen to a fine reading of the poem, I strongly recommend the performance by Benjamin Zephaniah which is published on YouTube by the Poetry Society.

Thomas's poems incline to the melancholy but there was some levity too in Laugharne with Krystal Lowe as the stranger who got off the bus and forgot to take it back again.  I particularly liked the bit about people coming from all sorts of places like Tonypandy and even England.  The cast made the sign of the cross at that point though I wonder whether Calvinist Nonconformist chapel folk would do that.  Maybe the Welsh Italians (of whom there are many) though there are more of them on the banks of the River Chubut than the Taf Estuary.

A Child's Christmas was very different and undiluted fun.  It began with a film clip made (I think) by my good friends Lawrence and Samantha Smith-Higgins of Red Beetle Films.   In it, children explained what Christmas (or, in the case of one little girl, Eid) meant to them. Mainly presents and lots to eat.  It proceeded with "One Christmas was so much like the others" and proceeded to snow, cats and Mrs Protheroe's fire.  That fire was better than all the cats in Wales lined up on a wall.  There was the "What would you do if you saw a hippo?" and the carol singing where the children heard a ghostly voice joining in their carol. My favourite bit of the dancing was "Still the Night" before a stained glass image. There were other favourites too such as "The Uncles". I'm not Welsh but I can relate to that for we Saes have uncles too as well as aunties who get a little tipsy and start singing about death.

The workshop on 28 Nov 2018 helped my understanding of James and Doughty's choreography considerably.  Sue Pritchard, who also attended the workshop, thought the same.  Peter Harrop (who lives in Wales) joined us the performance. Peter was not in Leeds on 28 Nov 2018 but he attended Ballet Cymru's company class and reported that it was very gruelling. Apparently, no concessions were made for the adult ballet dancers.

The Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre is an impressive building just below the Arts building of Bangor University.  It has a theatre, cinema and a FabLab (see  Liverpool Inventors Club Re-launch - Fabulous FabLab 28 Jan 2012 NIPC Inventors Club).  There has been a lot of investment by the university to build a knowledge-based economy on both sides of the Menai Straits (see Jane Lambert Anglesey and the Fourth Industrial Revolution 12 Oct 2018 IP Northwest).  There has always been a close link between the University and the community in this corner of Wales. It was actually founded by a subscription of local quarrymen, This Centre will do much for the artistic and cultural life of the region.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Christmas at the Dancehouse

Reproduced with kind permission of the Dancehouse Theatre

Manchester City Ballet Christmas at the Dancehouse 7 Dec 2918, 19:30, The Dancehouse, Manchester

Whenever I can I take the train to Oxford Road on a Tuesday or drive to Leeds on a Wednesday for a 90-minute ballet class.  I can't really keep up with students decades younger even though I do my level best but I am made to feel welcome at both classes and I always have fun.  When, by some enormous fluke, something does go right the smile on the face of the teacher is palpable.

The teachers of both classes and many of their colleagues whom I also revere were trained at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester.  They are all great human beings as well as fine teachers and accomplished dancers and the institution that produced them deserves support.  So, every December (when I can get a ticket) I  attend the annual performance of the School's classical ballet company, Manchester City Ballet, and every Spring I attend the showcase of Jazzgalore, its jazz and musical theatre company.

In all the previous years that I have been following the company, Manchester City Ballet has staged a full-length classical work at The Dancehouse theatre. I have seen and reviewed some excellent productions of The Nutcracker, Giselle and  Coppelia (see Alchemy 13 Dec 2014, Manchester City Ballet's Giselle 12 Dec 2015 and Manchester City Ballet's Coppelia 10 Dec 2016).  This year they did something different with their Christmas at The Dancehouse. They gave us Act II of The Nutcracker for the second part of the evening showing that they can do Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Sugar Plum as well as anybody when they choose to do so, but they presented their own choreography using their singers as well as kids from McLaren Dance Company in Winter Wonderland for the first.

I must admit that I read the webpage advertising the show with some apprehension but the combination worked,  It gave a fuller picture of the school whose students elect a classical or jazz and musical theatre focus.  It showed, for instance, that some of its students can sing as well as dance. Francesca Thompson, for example, sang a contemporary version of Silent Night and danced the Rose Fairy.

There were some hilarious pieces such as Four Tramps where four strong men (Daniel Gooddy, James Hanna, Lucas Holden and Thomas Yeomans) entered with hands linked cygnets style actually dancing a few steps of that dance.  I know of one choreographer and a ballet mistress who would have kittens had they been in the theatre last night, but why not?  They were representing drunks and they gave a whole new meaning to pas de bourrée (for those who have forgotten their French "bourrer" means "to stuff" and to be bourré means to have had a skinful).  Another bit which worked better than one would think was a czardas to traditional Christmas carols. Finally, the Winter Wonderland was linked to The Kingdom of the Sweets when Father Christmas gave Clara (Ruby Nuttall) a nutcracker.

All credit to the choreographer, Lisa Rowlands, the ballet mistress Amanda Gilliland and the technical manager and lighting designer, Gary Whittaker.  I really liked the sets, lighting and projections, particularly of falling snow. Whoever thought of the idea deserves congratulations for her or his daring because it has paid off.

The second part included the best bits of Act II of The Nutcracker.   All danced well but I particularly liked Irene Ganau as chocolate (or the Spanish dance), Ioanna-Maria Antoniou and Elisa D'Acciavo as tea (the Chinese dance) and three of the four drunkards from the first part (Gooddy, Hanna and Yeomans) transformed into Russians.  The fourth of their number, Holden, danced the Sugar Plum's cavalier and although I admired his jumps and turns I had an anxious moment when he lifted Airi Aoki, especially in the final fish dive.  I thought perhaps they needed more time together.

Altogether I found it a very good show and anybody who can get to Manchester for this afternoon's matinee or this evening's show is in for a treat.  I thanks all the students who took part for entertaining us and wish them well for the remainder of their studies and their future careers.