Friday, 29 March 2019

Made in Wales

© 2019 Sian Trebart: all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of Ballet Cymru

Ballet Cymru Made in Wales Dance House, Cardiff, 22 March 2019 19:30

One of the reasons why the Dutch National Ballet is so strong is that it provides "a stepping stone for young dancers to make the leap from the Dutch National Ballet Academy to The Dutch National Ballet, Holland’s largest ballet company."  That stepping stone is the Junior Company and it has launched the careers or some of HNB's most exciting young dancers such as Michaela DePrince, Martin Ten Kortenaaar, Riho Sakamoto and Sho Yamada.

I have often argued for a British junior company and I think I may have found one at Rogerstone in South Wales.  Rogerstone is a small town near Newport where Ballet Cymru is located.  One of Ballet Cymru's initiatives is a Pre-Professional Programme for "talented, aspiring and highly motivated young dancers with bold ambitions." Like the Junior Company, the Pre-Professional Programme is "designed to facilitate the transition from full time training into professional company life in a focused, nurturing environment."

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to meet those motivated young dancers and to watch them rehearse. There are 13 of them:
  • Natalia Cimpeanu
  • Beau Dillen
  • Kibyusa Forcos
  • Anais Gentjens
  • Colleen Grace
  • Emma Ikavalko
  • Caitlin Liston
  • Renan Alvez Manhaes
  • Sophie Morris
  • Guilia Machado Rossi
  • Michaela Skuce
  • Naomi Stientstra, and
  • Ann Wall.
They come from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Romania, the UK and Ukraine and have trained at some of the world's top ballet schools such as the Australian Conservatoire, Ballet West, English National Ballet School, the International Dance Academy of Berlin, Kiev State Choreographic College, the National Ballet School of Finland, Northern Ballet Academy, the RAD Academy, Royal Ballet School of Flanders, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the State School of Municipal Theatre in Rio de Janeiro.  

They have all done well to have progressed as far as they have. Awareness that they have achieved a lot gives them confidence and poise in their dance but there is no cockiness about them. They are 13 of the most likeable young people that I have ever met or am ever likely to meet.  When we discussed connections I told Sophie Morris, who had graduated from Ballet West, that I had attended the first year undergraduates' class with Jonathan Barton and that I have dined out about it ever since. They laughed heartily imagining the honour to have attended such a class but also the exertion it must have required of me (see Visiting Taynuilt 6 May 2018).

The piece the dancers rehearsed for me was an excerpt of As We Are choreographed by Emma Lewis who had been teaching them when I arrived.  They were to perform it the following evening at the Dance House in Cardiff. Ballet Cymru had very kindly offered me a ticket to the show which I had declined as I had to be in Leeds to set up Powerhouse Ballet's company class on Saturday morning.  After watching those angels move I just had to see them again even if though it would mean driving through the night to Yorkshire.  I asked whether I could change my mind about the ticket and, happily, I could.

The Dance House is behind the Wales Millennium Centre, an auditorium that I had visited once before to see Ballet Cymru's Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs (see Ballet Cymru's 'Sleeping Beauty' Moment  5 Dec 2016). It is very close to the National Assembly for Wales and reminded me of The Quays near Manchester with its waterfront, pubs and restaurants and expensive looking flats and townhouses. The Dance House is the home of the National Dance Company of Wales which is a frequent and very welcome visitor to the North of England.

The Cardiff Dance House is somewhat smaller than ours in Manchester but it appears to be very well equipped.  The auditorium reminds me of the Stanley and Audrey Burton in Leeds and the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells in that it is a very intimate space.  The front row is within inches of the dancers.

We saw five pieces on 22 March 2019:
  • Excerpts from Child's Christmas by Darius James OBE and Amy Doughty 
  • As We Are by Emma Lewis
  • Concerto Junkins by Alex Hallas
  • Ex Situ by Jack Philps, and
  • Divided We Stand by Patricia Vallis.
Each work was introduced by a short video from the choreographer just as the Junior Company's shows.

The Child's Christmas is very familiar to me as I had seen it in Leeds and Bangor and described it aptly as the company's best work ever (see Ballet Cymru's Dylan Thomas Programme: The Company's Best Work Ever 13 Dec 2018). I had even danced a little bit of In My Craft or Sullen Art at Ballet Cymru's workshop in Leeds 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). When the words "Not for the proud man apart" I felt myself bracing as I had been taught to do in the workshop.

I loved all the works but one that made a particularly deep impression on me was Alex Hallas's Jenkins Concerto.  That is partly because I like Carl Jenkins's music and in particular, The Armed Man and Dies Irae which formed the bulk of Hallas's contribution, partly because it was an opportunity for Renan Alvez Manhaes (the only gentleman on the course) to show his potential which is considerable and partly because the ballet enabled all the artists to shine.  Not an easy work but, I should imagine, an immensely satisfying one to perform.

Hallas, a Yorkshireman, has impressed me several times in Ballet Cymru's Cinderella and the Dylan Thomas double bill and Ballet West's The NutcrackerHe attended our reception in Leeds after Ballet Cymru's workshop and he taught at KNT's Day of Dance in December. I have booked him for a workshop for Powerhouse just as soon as he is free. Maybe he can teach us some of his Concerto Jenkins or other choreography.

Even though I had to stop for an espresso at every service station between Cardiff and Sheffield and arrived so full of caffeine that I could not sleep once I made it to my bed in Holmfirth at 05:45, I would not have missed the evening for all "the cats in Wales standing on a wall" with a 6 foot drift of snow. Or, indeed, even a fire in Mrs Prothero's parlour.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Van Dantzig's "Swan Lake"

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Dutch National Ballet Swan Lake The Music Theatre, Amsterdam, 24 March 2019, 14:00

Rudi van Dantzig is one of three towering geniuses who have given Dutch ballet its reputation for excellence,  The others are Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk.  Van Dantzig and van Schayk collaborated in the 1980s to stage one of the best versions of Swan Lake that I have ever seen.

As I entered the auditorium, I saw a screen bearing a likeness of Tchaikovsky, his name and the title of his ballet in Dutch and Russian.  As the house lights faded and the orchestra struck up, the principal characters of the drama appeared behind the screen. The tale of Odette's enchantment by Von Rothbart is sketched out.  The screen rose to reveal the palace gardens where Prince Siegfried's coming of age took place.  From there until the final act the ballet proceeds in the same way as most other versions of Swan Lake until the last act.  There, the story deviates.

According to the programme notes:
"Von Rothbart tries to drive Siegfried away from the lake, but although Siegfried manages to defy him, he drowns in the waters."
That appears to be an accident rather than a deliberate sacrifice by Siegfried and Odette to break von Rothbart's spell as in other versions.   The drowning is represented by a pale blue sheet of silky material suddenly fanned across the stage.  The lifeless Siegfried is carried ashore by his companion, Alexander. The programme concludes:
"In Alexander, Siegfried's ideals will live on."
That is how the ballet ends.   No epilogue of lovers ascending to heaven on a swan-shaped barque as in the versions with which we are familiar.

Every performance of Swan Lake turns on its lead ballerina.  She has to assume two very different personalities in the same work.  There are some who dance Odette well but are less convincing as Odile and vice versa.   The superabundantly talented Maia Makhateli can do both.  She is pure and delicate as Odette and brazen and explosive as Odile. Never have I seen Legnani's 32 fouettés performed with greater aplomb. Her virtuosity is thrilling and her acting was compelling. She was perhaps the best Odette-Odile I have seen since Sibley.

Sibley was partnered in Swan Lake by Sir Anthony Dowell who later created a beautiful version of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet. Comparisons are odious but Camargo does have a lot in common with Dowell.   He is equally graceful and just as strong.  His solo in the seduction scene was a thrill to watch emphasized by a single fiddler striking out his tune.

Swan Lake is a struggle between good and evil as personified by von Rothbart.  Liam Scarlett portrays von Rothbart as a treacherous courtier as well as a magician. Indeed the costume and makeup department make him look like the real-life head of a nuclear-armed potential adversary.    In that regard, he was truly scary. Van Dantzig dressed his evil one in a suit of green which is the colour of reptiles, slime and decay.  Jared  Wright flapped his wings with menace and paced the floor with foreboding.

Jane Lord, a former principal with the National Ballet who is now with the National Ballet Academy, danced Siegfried's mother.  Tall and elegant she exuded regal authority.  Her role is pivotal.   By insisting on his contemplating marriage and acknowledging his state responsibilities, she started a chain of events that ended with the drowning of her son.  The tragedy is that she brought about this catastrophe out of an abiding sense of duty.  That prompted home thoughts from abroad about another female leader courting catastrophe as a result of such a sense of duty.

Van Danzig has expanded the role of the prince's companion.  The companion is called "Alexander" in this work and the role was danced by Semyon Velichko.  Alexander comforts the prince as he bemoans his approaching adulthood and state responsibility.  He is with the prince when he is asked to choose a bride.  He tries to warn the prince that Odile might not be Odette. Finally, as I observed above, it is he who retrieves Siegfried's body from the water.  Benno plays a similar role in David Dawson's Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet (see Empire Blanche: David Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2016).   Since seeing van Dantzig's work I have been wondering just how far his Alexander inspired Dawson's Benno.

I was pleased to see that many of the dancers whose careers I follow closely were in yesterday's show.  Maria Chugai (whom I had featured most recently in Meet Maria Chugai of the Dutch National Ballet on 8 March 2019) appeared with Vera Tsyganova as one of the two lead swans in act two.  Chugai also led the Hungarian dance with Dario Elia. The czardas happens to be one bit of the ballet that I know well (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 18 Aug 2015). I watched it particularly intently.

There were some interesting little touches in van Dantzig's ballet that I have not seen elsewhere. I have already mentioned the fiddler in the prince's solo during the seduction scene. Here is another. One of the prospective brides breaks from the others and hides.  She is coaxed back by one of the other girls. When she dances, she does so with flamboyantly and energetically.  On the other hand, no images of Odette fluttered onto the screen during the seduction scene or after the palace is destroyed.

I was delighted to see the pas de six which is often cut from other productions and I must congratulate  Tsyganova, Martin ten Kortenaar, Jingjing Mao, Sem Sjouke, Floor Eimers and Timothy van Poucke on their performances.   I liked all the divertissements but I think we do the Neapolitan dance better than HNB or, at least, Wayne Sleep did.  Here is a clip of Sleep and Rosemary Taylor in that piece.  I am glad to see that English National Ballet retains that choreography.

Yesterday's matinee was a stupendous performance that was aptly rewarded by a standing ovation, but not by many curtain calls.   Had the show taken place in London there may not have been a standing ovation but there would have been umpteen curtain calls many for the lead dancers and the stage would have been covered with flowers. A bouquet certainly for Makhateli and probably also for Lord and several of the other female dancers who richly deserved them.  Amsterdam and London are very close but we have very different ballet traditions.  A ripple of applause meets a principal when he or she appears for the first time.   We count Legnani's fouettés and explode with applause and roars on the 28th turn - never on the 27th nor the 29th. There was applause for Makhateli but it started just as Camargo got into his stride.

I could not say that this is my favourite Swan Lake.  Derek Deane's for English National Ballet is very hard to beat (see English National Ballet's Swan Lake: Kanehara conquers the Empire 25 Nov 2018) and I also love David Dawson's for Scottish Ballet. However, it is certainly up there with them.

This show will continue until 2 June. There are convenient and inexpensive flights to Amsterdam from most British airports.  My seat in the centre of row 14 of the stalls cost a mere €87 and that includes the programme.  I have paid more than that for the amphitheatre before now.   Tariffs for hotel accommodation, food, drinks and public transport are about the same as in Manchester.  It would be a shame to miss this show.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Chelmsford Ballet's Seventieth Anniversary Show

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing
Author: Willliam Blake
Source Wikipedia, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Chelmsford Ballet Company A Midsummer Night's Dream 20 March 2019 19:30 Chelmsford Civic Theatre

It is very hard for me to review a performance by the Chelmsford Ballet Company objectively because I am an associate member of the company. As I live in Yorkshire I cannot participate in its performances but I have attended all its shows since 2014 and even one of its AGMs.  I am very proud of my connection with the company.   I have come to expect a lot from the Chelmsford Ballet and its dancers have always delivered.   This year's show was no exception.

The evening was in three parts:  it opened with preparations for Hippolyra's wedding to Theseus. It then switched to Coppelia starting with the dolls' scene.  That comprised the whole of the first act.  The second act was a transposition of the play without Pyramus and Thisbe. A computer-generated graphic flashing the years back to 1949 indicated why Coppelia had been substituted for the play within a play.  Coppelia had been the company's first full-length ballet so there was no need for a lion, wall or even a man in the moon which would not have been easy for a choreographer transpose into dance.  There are also some parallels between Hermia and Swanhilda in that Franz makes a pass at the strange new girl reading a book upside down.  Is that is reading too much into the juxtaposition of Athenian wood and Swabian village?

Although I love Coppelia I enjoyed the second act much better than the first.  It told the story beautifully.  It started with the quarrel over the changeling boy and continued with the troubles of the lovers, Puck's blunder, Titania's infatuation with Bottom and the final reconciliation.  I think Annette Potter was right to include Coppelia into the 70th-anniversary production though it might have been better to have Midsummer Night's Dream with an extract of Coppelia as part of a double bill.

There were some memorable performances.   Andrew Potter danced both Dr Coppelius and Oberon.  James Fletcher was a hilarious Botton.  Olivia Riley was a splendid Puck.  Women can often dance that role at least as successfully as men as Isabela Coracy has shown in Arthur Pita's version for Ballet Black. Titania, the fairies, lovers all danced well and all deserve congratulations.

I have already mentioned the computer-generated graphics. Whoever created them for Chelmsford Ballet is a genius. I am surprised he or she has not been snapped up by New Adventures years ago.  I think that artist's best work was the overgrown palace in The Sleeping Beauty.   The other things the company does particularly well are the costumes. They were gorgeous.  Particularly the fairies' tutus and in some cases headgear.

Wednesday's opening night was attended by both of the company's patrons,  Doreen Wells and Christopher Marney.  Readers of this blog will know I have always been one of Marney's fans. Wells, who danced with what was then called the Touring Company, was one of the big names when I began to follow ballet. She was and remains one of my favourite dancers. The city's lord mayor was in the audience resplendent in her chain of office.  It was, altogether, a very good evening.   Well worth the long drive from Holmfirth.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Stunning - Ballet Black's Triple Bill

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Ballet Black, Triple Bill (Pendulum, Click! Ingoma) Barbican Theatre, 17 March 2019 15:00

I see a lot of dance every year and one of my highlights every year is Ballet Black.  I usually see them in London (whenever I can get a ticket because they perform to packed houses) and again when they go on tour.  I have come to expect a lot from them and they have never failed to meet my expectations.

Their matinee at the Barbican last Sunday was stunning.  I mean that quite literally and I was not the only one.  Neither the family to my left nor the one to my right could get up after the performance.  We just sat still coming to terms with what we had seen on stage.  When we found the strength to move I clambered up the stairs and slumped into the first unoccupied chair.  There I stayed for a couple of hours until I was forced to sprint to the Circle Line to avoid being marooned in London.

I had brought my Chromebook with me with a view to reviewing the triple bill while it was still fresh in my mind but when I tried to write it I found it was just too soon.  The words would not flow.  However, I did make notes. I wrote that Mthuthzeli November's Ingoma was the most impressive new work that I had seen in a while. It is a work of considerable substance. It is all the more remarkable in that it was created by one so young.

According to the programme, Ingoma means "prayer" in Xhosa. In this case the Lord's Prayer though I had guessed that before I read the note. The performance began with the house lights burning.  Two miners came on stage carrying their equipment. They were joined shortly by the rest of the cast dressed identically irrespective of gender.  November mentioned two strikes in his programme note: one in the 1940s that had been suppressed brutally by the authorities and a more recent one at Marikana in post-apartheid South Africa which was also put down violently.  While I think there was more to the ballet than that there was a scene where Ebony Thomas seemed to fall to a rat-tat-tat that reminded me of automatic gunfire.

For me, the most moving part was the women's dance in the last phase of the piece.  It was danced with considerable energy by the company's four female members dressed identically in light blue smocks and head ties.  Having lived through the 1984-1985 miners strike 7 miles from Barnsley I can attest how it was the women who kept the coalfield communities intact - and indeed still do even though the mines are long gone. Having been married to an African for 27 years I was reminded of my sisters in law, strong, fierce women. Just as in the choreography.  It took a lot of courage to be a miner and perhaps, even more, to be married to one. There were always threats of accidents. pneumoconiosis and poverty even when the men were not on strike.  All of that fierceness and passion came through in that dance.

The piece was greeted enthusiastically even in London which never had mining and has now lost its heavy industry.  I think ti will strike a chord when it goes on tour.  It may have been set in South Africa but it will speak to folk here in a way that few other works can.  This is not the first time Ballet Black has moved me. It did so the first time I saw Chris Marney's War Letters at the Bernie Grant Centre and it did again last year with Cathy Marston's Suit.  But I don't think the impact of those ballets was anything like as great or as longlasting as Ingoma.

Because he had created and staged Ingoma we did not see much of November this year. That was a shame because he has the habit of stealing shows as he did with Little Red Riding Hood (see Ballet Black Triumphant 7 March 2017). I have been following him since 2015 when he was with Ballet Central (see Dazzled 3 May 2016).  He appeared in Pendulum, the first ballet of the evening, with Sayaka Ichikawa. With music by Steve Reich this was a revival of a work that Martin Lawrence had created for the company in 2009. The work starts in silence and then a gentle heartbeat cuts in.  It gathers pace until it becomes compelling.  This is a thrilling work amplified by those dancers' vigour.

The middle work was Click! by Scottish Ballet's Sophie Lapllane whom I have long admired. It shows her sense of fun. Jose Alves, Isabela Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas are in primary colours. The piece opens with some dialogue:
"Eddie consulted his therapist because he could not stop clicking his fingers,
The therapist asked Eddie why he thought he was clicking his fingers,
'To keep the tigers away' he replied.
'But Eddie there are no tigers here within 6,000 miles of here.'
'I know' he replied, 'It works pretty good.'"
Ballet Black can make us laugh just as easily as it can make us cry,  This was our chance to laugh before Ingoma.

A sixth star of Click! was David Plater, the company's lighting designer.  I have never mentioned him before and I should have done because he is a genius.  Nowhere did his genius shine more brightly than in Click!  I love that piece and can't wait to see it again.

The company will tour Cambridge, Northampton and Bristol next month before venturing to Cambridge, Derby and Birmingham in May and Edinburgh in June (see Upcoming Performances on its website). It has not announced a date just yet but it usually comes to Leeds in November.   I shall see the company at least a couple more times this year.  This will be a season we shall long remember.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Phoenix Comes of Age with its Rite of Spring

The original cast of the Rite of Spring, Paris 2013

Phoenix Dance Theatre The Rite of Spring The Lowry, 8 March 2019

In my review of Windrush, Movement of the People 8 Feb 2018, I described the work as "the best show that I have ever seen in Leeds."  "What could possibly follow that?" I asked myself.  My answer came on 8 March 2019 when I saw Phoenix Dance Theatre's Rite of Spring with Opera North's Gianni Schicchi at The Lowry. As Vanessa Vince Pang led Maestro Garry Walker on stage to acknowledge the audience's applause I thought to myself that Phoenix had truly come of age.

The foundation of any production of The Rite of Spring is Stravinsky's music which sets out a framework in two parts starting with an introduction and ending with the sacrificial dance of the chosen one,   Some choreographers have kept the music but chosen not to follow the framework.  Jeanguy Saintus has not done that and although his choreography reflects his genius I did not fear that Nijinsky's shade would be troubled. In fact, I felt that Santus's work was the next best thing to a time machine that would transport me to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for the 29 May 1913.

For the first time, I saw Phoenix perform before a live orchestra and they did so magnificently.  Five members of the cast I already knew well but Manon Adrianov, Aaron Chaplin and Michael Marquez were new to me. They complimented Carmen Marfil, Carlos Martinez, Vaness Vince-Pang, Prentice Whitlow and Natalie Alleston seamlessly.  The stage was a caldron of movement and sound.   It was everything that Stravinsky, Nijinsky and indeed Diaghilev must have imagined.  The applause at the end was deafening.

The Rite of Spring was performed not with another dance piece but with a one-act opera by Puccini,   Stravinsky and Puccini may have lived and worked at the beginning of the last century. I have long admired them both.  But until their works were juxtaposed I never thought that they had much in common.  To my great surprise and joy, The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi seemed to work very well together.   The latter work is not nearly as well known as the former though it does contain one very well-known air, O mio babbino caro by Lauretta.

The libretto, incidentally, was about something that actually happens in real life from time to time though happily in England the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975  alleviates the need for a deceased's disappointed relations to impersonate the testator or forge his will.  The opera was staged beautifully by Opera North.  I hope that the success of this production will lead to similar collaborations between Opera North and Phoenix and indeed other opera and contemporary dance or ballet companies.

There is just one more performance of The Rite of Spring and Giani Schicchi at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on 22 March 2019.   If you live anywhere near Nottingham this is the show to see even if you see nothing more all year.

A Great Send-off for a Great Lady

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Northern Ballet Victoria, Leeds Grand Theatre, 16 March 2019, 19:30

Victoria may have been the title rôle but the star of last night's show was Pippa Moore who danced Princess Beatrice. That is not because the ballet is really about someone other than the character in the title like Coppelia or Don Quixote.  Queen Victoria has a very substantial role in Cathy Marston's ballet and it was danced beautifully by Abigail Priudames whom I admire greatly. But last night was the night the company and its audience said goodbye to Moore who is, for the time being, Northern Ballet's last remaining female premier dancer and one who enjoys great respect and affection.

At the end of the performance, Moore was presented with an enormous bouquet of flowers. Something that does not happen very often outside London (see Flowers for Dreda 9 June 2018). David Nixon came on stage and gave the best speech that I have ever heard him make (I have heard more than a few from him over the years) and handed Moore a picture of herself as Beatrice. I am a hard-bitten patent lawyer and I have seen some great moments in the theatre but I could feel the tears welling up inside me. Several members of the audience including yours truly rose to out feet.  Just as well that the curtain fell when it did because I am not sure for how much longer I could have contained my emotions.

The show in which Moore and Prudames danced was Cathy Marston's Victoria, a co-production between Northern Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. The score was by Philip Feeney and the sets and costumes were designed by Steffen Aarfing.  There was some stunning choreography in the ballet of which the duets between the queen and John Brown, danced by Mlindi Kulashe, and the queen and Prince Albert (Joseph Taylor) were perhaps the most striking. I was particularly struck by the invocation of the saltire as the queen splayed her arms in open fifth and legs second in defence of Brown.  There were other touches that I loved like the relevés to convey excitement when Victoria met Albert for the first time.

However, regular readers of my blog will by now have sensed a "but" coming.  I cannot deny it is there but I don't want to exaggerate it.  Victoria was still a work of considerable merit.  I am a great fan of Cathy Marston even though I have not seen much of her work on stage. Most of her works that I have seen have been on YouTube.  When I saw Jane Eyre in Richmond in 2016 I described it as "the best new ballet from the company in 20 years." I think I was even more impressed with The Suit when I saw it for the first time (see Excellence - Ballet Black's Double Bill 17 March 2018). Though I admired it very much, Victoria did not have the same effect on me as Jane Eyre or The Suit.

I have asked myself "why?" as there was a lot of good in this ballet.  I think the weakness lies in the libretto.  This was a very complex story but I don't think that was the main problem.  It is never easy to create a ballet around a recent historical figure as Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia shows.  The only choreographer to have pulled it off in my humble opinion is Ted Brandsen with his Mata Hari  (see Brandsen's Masterpiece 14 Feb 2016). I think he succeeded because he kept the story simple with hardly any flashbacks, unlike Anastasia and Victoria.  Had I not read the synopsis I would not have had a clue as to what was going on and I think that would have lost me.

My only other criticism (and it is a minor one) is of the costumes for the corps.  They were clad in a stripey top and what appeared to be a red skirt for dancers of both genders.  From row P of the stalls, they looked like a crocodile of schoolgirls on an outing.  When I read the programme properly on the train to London later this morning I shall probably discover the significance of that apparel.  All I can say that it was less than obvious yesterday.

But this was still a magnificent evening. I would not have missed it for the world.  It is still a fine ballet and Cathy Marston is still one of my favourite choreographers.  I saw Anastasia when it was first staged in 1971 and have never had a desire to see it again. Unlike Anastasia, I am going to give this ballet a second view.   I am sure it will go down well at Sadler's Wells. It has already had a good press.  I have very heterodox tastes having no time whatsoever for The Favourite despite its many awards and nominations.  So see Victoria for yourself. Don't let my niggles at the plot and costume designs put you off

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Meet Maria Chugai of the Dutch National Ballet

Maria Chugai as Myrtha

Last November I witnessed a remarkable performance of Giselle by the Dutch National Ballet. I saw it not in Amsterdam but in Heerlen, a former mining town in the far southeast of the Netherlands that reminded me very much of Doncaster. I reviewed that show in Terpsichore (see Mooie 10 Nov 2018).

One of the dancers who had impressed me the most was Maria Chugai. She danced Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. I described her as “a formidable Myrtha, one of the most chilling but also one of the most elegant I have ever seen.” I had also admired her performance in The Sleeping Beauty a year earlier (see The Dutch National Ballet's "The Sleeping Beauty" - I have waited nearly 50 years for this show 20 Dec 2017). I interviewed Ms Chugai while I was in Amsterdam at the end of February.

I started our conversation by discussing that performance in Heerlen. In my review I wrote:
“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.”
I wondered whether she was aware that something very special had happened that night so I asked her what had been in her mind. She spoke of the exhilaration of being on centre stage as the orchestra struck up and of the sublimity of being as one with the music. 

While researching for this article, I found that she had said something very similar in The Best Ballet School in the World. That was a programme on the Vaganova Ballet Academy that had been made by the English language television service RT when Ms Chugai was a student of the academy.  She had featured in that programme because she was to dance the lead role in the Vaganova’s production of The Nutcracker. The recording refers to that role as “Princess Masha”. “Masha” is a hypocorism of Maria or Marie in Russian. There the character known as “Clara” in productions of The Nutcracker in English speaking countries is often called “Marie”.  Marie or Masha also dances the role that is performed by "the Sugar Plum Fairy" in British productions (see Clara grows up- Grigorovich Nutcracker transmitted directly from Moscow 21 Dec 2014). 

Ms Chugai’s mother appeared on the programme. She said that her daughter’s passion for ballet had been sparked by a performance of The Nutcracker that she saw when she was 4 years old. The child’s enthusiasm could not be contained. Her mother recalls how she was constantly dancing the role of Princess Masha. Ballet lessons followed, of course, and she made remarkable progress going on pointe when she was only 9.

Her father, a civil engineer, had hoped that his daughter might follow him into his profession. She would certainly have had the aptitude as she was good at all her subjects and not just dance. She must have been particularly good at modern languages. Her written and spoken English is faultless. Her Dutch is obviously good because a waitress answered her question about an item on the restaurant menu in Dutch. That is a compliment that the Dutch rarely pay to foreigners because they find it easier to converse in English than suffer our contortions of their tongue. Before she started English and Dutch she had studied French. Ms Chugai told me that she had impressed her teachers with a presentation in that language, I could not help musing on the elegance of the bridges, dams and other structures that she might have built had she become an engineer.

Her mother, on the other hand, dreamt of her studying at the Vaganova (the successor to the Imperial Ballet School about which Tamara Karsavina reminisced in Theatre Street) and dancing with the Kirov as the Mariinsky was called until 1992. There were books on ballet in her home as well as photos of stars of the Kirov and Mariinsky, the teachers of the Vaganova and their illustrious alumni which sustained that ambition. Her mother inspired her with that dream and encouraged her through her studies. When the opportunity arose for her to be assessed by the Vaganova, her mother accompanied her on the 1,100-mile journey from their home in Donetsk to St. Petersburg. The examination must have been difficult for both of them. Her mother was not allowed to watch the audition but had to sit in a waiting room. Then there was a long wait for a decision followed by an interview and medical. It was so stressful that she passed out at one point.

Happily, for her fans, Ms Chugai was accepted into the Vaganova. She spoke about her first few weeks in St Petersburg. The intense cold of her first winter in the city had been a shock. Donetsk, not far from the Black Sea, has relatively mild winters. St Petersburg is on the same latitude as Shetland but without the benefit of the Gulf stream. Her mother had to stay with her in rented lodgings in St Petersburg for the remainder of the first term because a place could not be found for her in the academy’s boarding house until the Christmas holidays. The RT programme showed the room that she shared with three other girls, the refectory where they took their meals, the studios in which they attended class and rehearsed their show, the language lab where she had acquired her excellent English with a group of girls from an English class practising Jingle Bells.

Whenever I interview a dancer I ask about inspirations and influences at ballet school. Ms Chugai singled out Altynai Asylmuratova who became Artistic Director of the Vaganova. She had spotted the young Maria Chugai’s potential and cast her as Princess Masha a year before her graduation when she was only 17. She continued to mentor Ms Chugai after she had left the Vaganova. The teacher drew Ms Chugai’s attention to the Dutch National Ballet commending the quality of its productions, dancers and management, It was on the strength of that commendation that Ms Chugai applied to join the Dutch National Ballet. Other instructors who had inspired her included Olga Iskanderova-Baltacheeva, Alisa Strogaya and Liudmyla Kovaleva who had also taught Diana Vishneva. Despite the harsh winters and some difficulty in making friends when she first joined the course, Ms Chugai describes her days at the Vaganova as a “most bright and happy time.”

Ms Chugai graduated from the Vaganova with top marks and full honours. She was immediately accepted into the Mariinsky. She distinguished herself in international competitions winning the second prize in the Junior Group of the Talin International Ballet Competition in 2000 and coming joint second in the Vaganova Prix in St Petersburg in 2006. The jury for the Vaganova Prix (headed by Natalia Makarova) did not award a first prize that year so Ms Chugai and the other second prize winner were the best in the competition. Ms Chugai regards her performance in the Vaganova Prix as one of her career highlights.

When I asked her about others she referred me to her YouTube channel. One of the reasons why this feature has taken so long to appear is that there are some gorgeous clips in that channel and I have watched them all, some several times. They include a recording of an earlier performance as Myrtha, an extract from her graduation performance and my personal favourite, the second shade from La Bayadȅre. I love that dance and actually tried to learn it once (see La Bayadère Intensive Day 1: There's Life in the Old Girl Yet 16 Aug 2016).

We talked about the future. I asked her about choreographers whom she admires and with whom she would like to work. Intriguingly, they include Crystal Pite. Imagine what they could accomplish together. I discovered that Ms Chugai has a talent for choreography. She has already created a delightful, lyrical work for three dancers to Debussy’s Clair de Lune which she presented to the Dutch National Ballet’s New Moves programme in 2016. I look forward to more of her work.   For the longer term, she is training for a graduate qualification as a ballet mistress from the Vaganova Academy. She already does some teaching. Rather cheekily I invited her to give a masterclass in Manchester. Amazingly, she said “yes”.

I had a very pleasant trip to Amsterdam. I was there primarily to speak at a patent lawyers’ conference which I thoroughly enjoyed and I also saw David Dawson’s Requiem by the Dutch National Ballet. Unquestionably, the highlight of my visit was my interview with Maria Chugai. I learned a lot from her about ballet in general and the Vaganova Academy, the Mariinsky and Russian ballet in particular. This year I intend to see Theatre Street for myself. I enjoy the company of dancers and have met many over the years but few (if any) have been as affable or as personable as Maria Chugai.

Friday, 1 March 2019

An Exceptional Weekend

Through following the Dutch National Ballet I made the acquaintance of the Dutch teacher and choreographer Yvonne Charlton.  Yvonne is married to an Englishman and visits this country frequently. On one of those visits, she gave Powerhouse Ballet a great repertoire class (see Our Best Day Yet  24 Sept 2018).  Our ballet mistress, Beverley Willsmer, who is not exactly known for lavish praise, rated her class as the best ever. Before I had even left Z-Studios I was overwhelmed with requests to bring her back as soon as possible.

Yvonne emerged from international arrivals at Ringway airport at 08:20 last Saturday    My former ward and her little boy, Vladimir, who had met Yvonne at the National Ballet gala in Amsterdam last September, came with me to meet her.  As she would have got up while wilis were still about in order to drive the 32 miles from her home to Amsterdam airport, the first thing we did after she arrived was to entertain her to a full English breakfast at John Lewis's at Cheadle Royal.

Yvonne's first engagement was company class at the Dancehouse at 13:30. As we had some time before that class I gave her a tour of my dear, native city.  I started with the castra of Mancunium at Castlefield from which our city derives its name.  I showed her the Lowry and some of the paintings in the permanent exhibition.  We looked out for a video of Gillian Lynne's ballet A Simple Man with Moira Shearer and Christopher Gable but the assistant at the souvenir shop could not be sure that the DVD would work on continental apparatus.

We arrived at the Dancehouse just in time for class and what a class it was.  It was certainly the most taxing that I have ever known and it seemed to challenge even our best dancers. "No! No! No! That's not how you do a port de bras," she said to one of our stars, forcing her head to well below her knees.  And Yvonne was not afraid of correcting our ballet mistress the very next day. Even the pliés were a challenge for they finished with a relevé and then a weight shift.  Frappés on demi nearly did for me but the real killer was a type of rond de jambe that required a 90-degree sweep from a demi plié.  Her centre exercises were no easier than her barre.  She set us a rolling pirouette exercise starting with a tiré, a pas de bourré and then single, double or dynamo turns.

As I was 70 a few weeks ago I had told one of my favourite teachers who regards "easy" as a 4 letter word that I was slowing down. Having survived Yvonne's class I know I can survive anything.  I told my esteemed instructor that I shall be back at the barre whenever I can get to Leeds by19:00 on a Wednesday evening.  Indeed, I am really going to work at that lady's classes.

After class, I invited my classmates to the Revolution by Oxford Road viaduct for a libation.  Almost everyone came and we were joined presently by Karen Sant and Mark Hindle of KNT.  For a birthday present Mark gave me this beautiful bouquet of flowers.  I curtseyed and tried to remove a single flower for Mark just as I had seen Sibley do for Dowell and Fonteyn for Nureyev in my youth.  That would have been a cue for Mark to raise the bloom to his nose and savour the perfume but I am not sure that modern principals do that any more.  I have certainly not seen it at Northern Ballet and I am not sure even about Covent Garden. In Holland, it is unnecessary because the boys seem to get flowers too.

After drinks, I drove Yvonne to her hotel near Huddersfield where we threw a little party.  Several good friends from Powerhouse Ballet were able to attend as you can see from the photo to the right.

The very next morning we assembled at the Dance Circle Leeds for a 5-hour workshop with Yvonne.  I arranged for Alena Panasenka, one of Northern Ballet's accompanists to play for us.  I also invited Fiona Noonan to learn any ballet that Yvonne might teach us and coach us in it until we are word perfect.

Our warm-up class after a late night was even more punishing than Saturday class but we set to work with a will. Yvonne taught us a delightful dance to the music of Morning Mood from Grieg's Peer Gynt.  We have been invited to perform this piece at Dance Studio Leeds's gala to raise money for St Gemma's Hospice on 12 Oct 2019.

Anyone who wants to audition for this piece should stay for our first rehearsal at Dance Studio Leeds on 23 March 2019.   The Eventbrite card will appear shortly.