Thursday, 28 February 2019

Dawson's "Requiem"

Standard YouTube Licence

Dutch National Ballet Requirem Music Theatre (Stopera) Amsterdam, 27 Feb 2019, 20:15

David Dawson's Requiem is a double bill of two of that choreographer's recent works: Citizen Nowhere which was first staged in 2017 and Requiem which was premiered on 12 Feb 2019.  These are formidable works which were performed to a packed house that gave them a standing ovation.

The first of those works was Citizen Nowhere.  I am not sure whether to describe it as a solo or a duet.  There was only one artist on stage, namely Joseph Massarelli but an outside image of Sasha Mukhamedov appeared on screen and there was certainly a dialogue between Massarelli and the screen throughout the show. According to the programme notes, one of Dawson's sources of inspiration was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Le Petit Prince.  However, in the weeks before my nation is dragged with at least half our population including me kicking and screaming out of the European Union against our will, I could not occlude from my mind the shameful speech of our Prime Minister to the 2016 Tory party conference that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.  The programme hints that that speech may have been in the choreographer's mind:
"For Dawson, an Englishman by birth who has been living and working in Europe for a long time, this famous story has gained extra meaning because of some of the political issues the world faces today due to nationalism, the building of walls, and the displacement of people who find themselves far from home."
It was clear from the guffaw that May's speech was in the mind of my audience when I invited my audience for my talk on developments on English law at C5's Pharma & Biotech Patent Litigation to follow we down to the Stopera to see this double bill by one of the world's greatest dance companies.

Though a very short work Citizen Nowhere was demanding both for artist and audience.  Massarelli, stripped to the waist, circled the stage like a colt stallion. Powerful but constrained by the screen much like Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984.  On to the screen bounced letters which gathered and were swept away like autumn leaves. Occasionally quotations from Saint-Exupery's book appeared like "One sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye" from Fox.  "Why in English?" I asked myself.  If people here read Saint-Exupery at all it would be in Dutch or perhaps in the original French which most schoolchildren in the Netherlands master at the same time as they as they study English and German.  Be that as it may, it was spectacular and breathtaking as was  Szymon Brzóska's score with Matthew Rowe's interpretation.  Congratulations to Altin Kaftira who made the film and indeed all who collaborated on this multidimensional and absorbing creation.

Requiem is more than a work of art.  It is an act of worship.  Surprisingly, perhaps, in this day and age. Living, as I do, close to Huddersfield with its famous Choral, I related immediately to this work. Especially to the Kyrie and Agnus Dei. This is a choral work upon which I felt dance was but a commentary.  I loved Gavin Bryars's music and even though one of my very, very, very, very special and very favourite ballerinas, Mukhamedov, was performing ethereally before my eyes I felt them closing as I focused on the sound.  "How could I do that?" I kept saying to myself for it was not just Mukhamedov that I was missing but also other favourites such as Floor Eimers, Yuanyuan Zhang, Riho Sakamoto, Nancy Burer, Clara Superfine, Thomas van Damme and Nathan Brhane whose careers I follow closely and whom I greatly admire.  There was just so much to see, so much to hear, so much for intellect and spirit to absorb that I felt overwhelmed.  This is a work that requires multiple visits to understand and, alas, this is my only opportunity to see it this season.

This double bill is the sort of programme that makes the Dutch National Ballet special.  Perhaps Hampson's Scottish Ballet could do it too but I can think of few other companies in the world who would do it justice and even fewer audiences who would value it as much as those in the Stopera who stood and cheered.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A Fille that owes Nothing to Ashton or Lanchbery

Krasnoyarsk State Opera House
Author MaxBioHazard 
Licence Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Source Wikipedia Krasnojarsk

The Russian State Ballet of Siberia La Fille mal gardée 15 Feb 2019 Liverpool Empire

Krasnoyarsk is a city in Siberia with a population of just over a million on approximately the same latitude as Dundee. According to Google Maps, it is 4,559 miles away and takes over 14½ hours to reach by air or 5 days by surface transportation.

An opera house with a resident ballet company opened in that city in 1978.  The company's founder members included graduates of the Vaganova Ballet Academy and the Moscow State Academy of Choreography.  Krasnoyarsk has produced some fine dancers over the years despite its remoteness and modest population. They include Anna Ol of the Dutch National Ballet and Viktoria Tereshkina of the Mariinsky.  Many of those dancers trained or began their training in the city and some such as Ol danced with the Krasnoyarsk opera house company.

Every year artists from the Krasnoyarsk opera house ballet tour the United Kingdom as The Russian State Ballet of Siberia (see Anna Lidster Promoting Krasnoyarsk: How the Russian State Ballet of Siberia has won British hearts 3 March 2013 The Siberian Times). I am not sure why they chose that name. It may be that they think that the name of their city might be a bit of a mouthful for British tongues or it may be because they recruit a few extra dancers for the tour such as Francesco Bruni and Francisco Gimenez. However, it is clear from comparing the Russian State Ballet of Siberia's programme with the Krasnoyarsk opera house's website that the two companies are substantially the same.

The tourists have a punishing schedule.  They opened at St David's Hall in Cardiff with The Snow Maiden on 19 Dec 2018 and they will finish in Oxford on 16 March 2019 with Swan Lake. By the end of their tour, they will have performed 6 full-length ballets in 24 venues in every one of our constituent nations except Northern Ireland.  On Friday they reached Liverpool which is where I saw them for the first time.

I was attracted to Liverpool by the show rather than by the company.  They were to dance La Fille mal gardée with music by Hertel rather than Lanchbery and choreography by Gorsky rather than Ashton. La Fille mal gardée is in one sense the oldest ballet in the modern repertoire having first been performed at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux less than a fortnight before the storming of the Bastille but the version that we know was premiered in 1960.

To my great surprise and joy, Friday's performance was not at all inferior to the Ashton-Lanchbery-Lancaster version. I would go so far as to say that I left the Empire somewhat more elated than when I left the Lowry in October after seeing BRB's latest production which had somehow expanded into three acts. The story was very much the same. The only significant difference is that Colas gets into Simone's house disguised as a notaire rather than hidden under a bundle of wheat sheaves.

There were a few other differences.  Instead of churning butter half-heartedly, a distracted Lise collected a couple of eggs from the henhouse while her mother gathered a basketful.  Nobody dressed as poultry though there were computer generated animations of pigs and other animals crossing the backcloth which earned a few laughs from the audience. There was a sort of ribbon dance but it did not end up as a love knot and Simone performed a clog dance though not the one we know.  Alain was not swept into the sky by the storm clutching his umbrella.  Nor was he made to resemble a carthorse.

But there were elements that do not occur in the Ashton version such as a full-blown classical pas de deux complete with entrée, male and female solos and coda.  Lise dons a classical tutu which could not possibly have been in the Dauberval version. In the Russian version, Lise dances at least as many fouettés as Odile in Swan Lake or Kitri in Don Quixote.

As in Ashton's version, Simone was danced by a man.  In this case Pavel Kirchev, a Bulgarian guest artist who dances with the Varna ballet.  He reminded me quite a lot of Stanley Holden. Elena Svinko was a delightful Lise, coquettish and feisty.  She had teeth and she used them on poor Alain (Ilia Kaprov) biting his fingers and ear and stamping on his foot as he tried to express affection.  Marcello Pelizzoni, who trained in Moscow and dances with the Krasnoyarsk ballet, was Colas. He has impressive elevation, power and grace and I delighted in his virtuosity.

Considering the time they must have spent on the road and the need to pack and repack almost every day I was pleasantly surprised that the sets and costumes seemed so fresh and that the cast had so much energy.  I shall try to catch their Swan Lake when they come to Halifax or Sheffield.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Hampson's Cinderella: Coming up Roses

Standard YouTube Licence

Scottish Ballet Cinderella  Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 1 Feb 2019

I first saw Christopher Hampson's Cinderella in Edinburgh on 19 Dec 2015 and I loved it  (see Scottish Ballet's Cinderella 20 Dec 2015). I saw it again in Newcastle on Friday and loved it all the more.  I have been asking myself why I love it so much.  I think it is because it is multilayered.  Very different from the pantomimes and films of childhood.

At one layer there is the narrative.  The libretto is conventional enough but, to get a better idea of the theme, watch the video, Designing Cinderella.  Hampson and his designer, Tracy Grant Lord. explain the significance of the rose.  That is the second layer.  Roses are even more important than glass slippers because Cinders's slipper is discovered and shredded.  "How is the prince to authenticate his bride?" the audience wonders as the rest of womankind force their hooves and flippers into the discarded shoe.  Happily, Cinderella had another memento of the evening, namely the silver rose that the prince had given her at the ball.  She produced that rose and all was well.  Roses are everywhere. In the backdrop, the clothes and of course the cemetery where Cinderella's mum is buried.

But there is a layer below the roses and I think that it explains why the ballet appeals so much to me.  Hampson's ballet is a study of emotion.  After the death of his first wife, Cinderella's father seeks solace in a second marriage but it fails to work.  Cinderella is a constant reminder.  He takes to drink incurring the contempt of his stepchildren and the despair of his new wife.  Reason enough to explain her resentment of Cinderella.

In most interpretations of the story, Cinderella is a victim. Not so much in this ballet,  Not even as a scullery maid,  She is resourceful.  She has the cash for her mother's portrait which the stepmother is desperate to remove  She can dance in contrast to her stepsisters' stumblings. Even her work clothes eclipse her stepsisters' finery. The prince for all his wealth and power is lonely.  It is Cinderella who rescues him from his loneliness at least as much as he rescues her from her servitude.

Such complex characters are difficult to portray.  When I saw the show in Edinburgh I was enchanted by Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Christopher Harrison.  They were so good I had to see them in those roles a second time. Kingsley-Garner commands a stage like few others.  An actress as much as a dancer and she is a dancer of considerable strength and virtuosity.  Hampson demands a lot from his Cinderellas such as successions of relevés combined with dévelopés and his trade mark backwards jump.  Delightful to watch but probably exhausting to perform.  Another favourite, Araminta Wraith, danced Cinderella's stepmother.  She is also a fine communicator.  She helped me understand and sympathize with her character better than I had ever done before. Nicholas Shoesmith portrayed Cinderella's broken father with pathos.  Claire Souet and Aisling Brangan the ridiculous stepsisters with bathos. Grace Horler charmed us as the fairy godmother.

In my estimation, Hampson is the best narrative ballet choreographer that we have,   He may be less prolific in this genre than other choreographers but everything he produces is good,  Next year he will present The Snow Queen to mark the 50th anniversary of the company's move from Bristol.  With music by Rimsky-Korsakov and designs by Lez Brotherston, it should be splendid.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Ballet West's Best Show Ever

Ballet West The Nutcracker McRobert Centre, Stirling 2 Feb 2019 19:30

Ballet West is a ballet school on the outskirts of a little village not far from Oban.  Every winter it tours Scotland with a full-length ballet to give its students stage experience.   This year it offers a new production of The Nutcracker.   I have been following Ballet West for nearly 6 years and I have seen at least one performance of every show that it has taken on tour.  I  say without hesitation that this is the company's best show yet.  I add that I don't think I have ever enjoyed a performance of The Nutcracker as much as tonight's.

The production is an original interpretation of Hoffmann's tale of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King that nevertheless remains true to the story.  The Stahlbaums' house is set by a lake in the country rather than in a town in Germany. Some nifty computer-generated graphics take the audience inside where we see falling snow through the windows. There Mr and Mrs Stahlbam (Alex Hallas and Hannah Tokely) with their children Clara (Michaela Fairon) and Fitz (Luciano Ghidoli) receive their guests who include Ballet Cymru's Miguel Fernandes. The most important guest is, of course, the conjurer, Drosselmeyer, danced impressively by second year student, Rahul Pradeed.  I noticed that young man for the first time last year and I am convinced he is going places.  Another impressive character dancer was the grandmother, Lauren Pountney-Barnes.  She grabbed Fritz by the ear, patted Clara on the head before performing a spirited solo before the guests and collapsing in a heap. A small role, maybe, but an important one that has been performed by the likes of Marion Tait and Hannah Bateman in other productions.

A detail of a previous version of The Nutcracker which seems to be unique to Ballet Weast is the furtive dram taken by the servants after the Stahlbaums have taken to their beds.  I was delighted to see that Daniel Job, who has staged this work, has retained that detail in the new production.  They assemble around the butler glass in hand. Like traffic drill, they look to the left, then to the right and even to the ceiling before downing their bevvy.  I don't know why because that scene could occur anywhere but it just seems so Scottish - like the children dancing around their patents as in an eightsome reel.  Yet another fragment of the former production that has been preserved.

It is in the fight scenes of act I that the computer-generated graphics come into their own. Toy soldiers descend from the sky by parachute.  An intrusive rodent with the word "PRESS" on its back takes photos of a dying murine. The artist who designed those graphics is a genius.  I wonder how long it will take for Sir Matthew Bourne or someone like him to snap up that animator.  "Never," said the director with the force of the late Sir Ian Paisley, "we're keeping him" and I fervently hope they do.

The first act concluded with a delightful pas de deux by Hallas who had morphed from Clara's dad into the snow king and Natasha Watson, his queen.  The recording that Ballet West used for their show made better use of the choir than in most productions. The voices seemed to linger to the very end of the snow scene which I appreciated.  I left the auditorium at the interval grinning like a Cheshire cat. The director and Mr Job could see from my face how much I had enjoyed that act.

The kingdom of the sweets is very saccharine with representations of lollies and bonbons in most productions.  However, "sweet" can have a figurative meaning and it was the figurative meaning that the designer seems to have had in mind for this work. The backdrop was more Far Pavilions or Shangrila than Willy Wonka or the witch's hut in Hansel and Gretel.  The usual divertissements - the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances representing chocolate and tea followed by Cossacks, mirlitons and flowers - were performed with verve.  There were also new divertissements that gave Sara-Maria Barton's associates a chance to shine. One divertissement was performed by some very young kids but they were kids who knew how to hold an audience.   Three, in particular, dazzled us with their acrobatics.  In previous productions, there had been a scene for kids called "Mother Ginger".  She has been dropped from this version and I doubt that the show has suffered from her absence in the least.

The highpoint of the ballet is the pas de deux by the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier.  It is the bit that audiences remember and it is the yardstick by which some print critics seem to rate a Nutcracker.  Those roles were performed by Lucy Malin, another student who impressed me last year. and Maxine Quiroga. They were magnificent. They were exciting to watch. They justified my trip to Scotland.  Those folks are seriously good. They deserve to go far.

This is a short season and the students never stray furth of Scotland.  If you want to see them - and if I were looking for dancers I would want to see them for they consistently win medals at the Genée and other competitions - you have to travel.  London may be a Weltstadt and its ballet schools are good but they have no monopoly of excellence.