Monday, 22 April 2019

Best "Day of Dance" Ever

KNT Danceworks has held three Day of Dance events at the Dancehouse studios.  For a Day of Dance, Karen Sant hires guest teachers from the stage and leading ballet schools. She has brought us Harriet Mills, principal ballerina of the Karlsruhe Ballet, Alex Hallas of Ballet Cymru, Martin Dutton of the Hammond and other great teachers.  I have attended all three of those events.  They have all been good but, last Saturday's was perhaps the best one yet.

Ironically, I very nearly missed the event even though I had been looking forward to it from the day it had been announced.  That was because I could barely walk on Saturday.  My legs were like jelly - or rather melting sorbet - and I was stiff and achy in every single limb and muscle.  I could barely step into the shower.  How on earth was I to achieve ronds de jambe let alone grands battements?  Reluctantly I messaged Karen to say I was unlikely to make it.  Sympathetically she advised me to rest up.

So I abandoned plans to visit Manchester and settled in front of a computer screen to write about trade marks.   But then tweets and Facebook messages about the morning's sessions started to ping.  I thought about what I was missing.  I tried to put the Day of Dance out of my mind but I couldn't.   Even if I did not dance a step I still wanted to be at the Dancehouse.  I quickly donned some leggings and a leotard and set off for Manchester.  There was no way I could arrive in time for the 13:30 class but I could still make the 15:00 one.

I arrived at 13:45 by which time Amanda Van Hoof Gilliland would have been on glissés if not further into the barre.  She subsequently informed me that she would have let me join the class late.  I have done that with teachers I know but I had not previously taken a class with Amanda. In any case, arriving late is discourteous to other students as well as the instructor.  I waited in the cafeteria until the class was due to end before making my way to the studio where it was taking place in order to find my classmates.  I caught the last few minutes and could see it was good. Amanda received resounding applause at the reverence. I shall certainly look out for one of her classes in future.

The class that I did join was excellent.  It was given by Joey Taylor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.  He taught us the Jack in the Box solo from the first act of Sir Peter Wright's version of The Nutcracker.  That is a production that I know very well.  I had last seen it at the Albert Hall just after Christmas with my former ward and her little boy, Vladimir, who are the nearest I have to a daughter and grandson. In my review, The Nutcracker returns to the Royal Albert Hall 30 Dec 2019,   I wrote:
"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."
Vlad loves ballet and The Nutcracker in particular.  One of the bits that he liked best was the Jack in the Box solo.  He applauded until the palms of his hard were sore.

It is a very fast piece.  It starts with 4 jumps followed by 4 grands battements then 4 sets back in arabesque, a soutenu, some spectacular tours en l'air,  then some steps to the left which I can't even begin to describe, a gesture to the children at Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum's party, a coupé, two cartwheels, a run around the stage, more jumps and finally a collapse into a box. It is over very quickly but requires a lot of energy and even more skill.  Needless to say, I did not achieve very much of that though I did do some despite the discomfort.  But several members of our group did manage more.  In particular, Christie Louise Barnes, who is a member of the cast of Powerhouse Ballet's Aria, performed some very impressive cartwheels.  I should add that she is one of the most congenial persons I know and working with her on the Aria project has been a pleasure.

One of the reasons why I had crossed the Pennines was to answer questions on the constitution and business plan for Powerhouse Ballet that I had drafted on Friday (see Please do not let Powerhouse Ballet wither on the Vine  20 April 2019 Powerhouse Ballet).  I have been running Powerhouse Ballet in my spare time meeting the odd expense here and there as and when it arrived which was fine for the first few months but not for the long term. Hopefully, we shall have an organization in place to take over the management of the company after 4 May 2019 when we make our debut at KNT's Tenth Anniversary gala.

I met lots of dancers from Powerhouse Ballet as well as the regulars from KNT.  They are the loveliest bunch of people one could ever hope to meet.  Karen once referred to us as "the KNT family." That's not a bad description.  I am so glad I made the effort to attend the Day of Dance on Saturday.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Phoenix's Rite of Spring and Left Unseen

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Phoenix Dance Theatre The Rite of Spring and Left Unseen 9 April 2019, 19:30 CAST in Doncaster

On 8 March 2019, I saw Phoenix Dance Theatre perform  Jeanguy Saintus's Rite of Spring with a live orchestra on the main stage of the Lowry Theatre.  It was a magnificent performance that I described as Phoenix's coming of age.  It had been part of an evening of dance and song - a very successful collaboration with Opera North that I should like to see repeated.   

On 9 April 2019,  I saw the Rite of Spring again at the Cast in Doncaster as part of a double bill with Left Unseen by Amaury Lebrun.  The company had already performed those works in Poole and will take them to Malvery, Keswick, Dundee, Cheltenham and the Peacock. 

The evening opened with Left Unseen which is the first of Lebrun's works that I have seen.  However, we shall shortly see another because he told me that he has been commissioned to create a work for Northern Ballet. Lebrun was born in France and trained at the School of the Ballet du Nord in Roubaix and the School of American Ballet in New York.  He danced with several companies before joining the Compania Nacional de Danza in Spain as a principal.

Left Unseen opens with a spotlit single dancer.  According to the programme notes, the work explores inclusion and isolation.  I was particularly impressed by an interaction between Prentice Whitlow and Vanessa Vince-Pang. She reaches out to him but he recoils from her.  She tries again to similar effect. He approaches her but she steps aside.  He tries again but she pushes him out of the way. Finally, she leaps onto his back as an act of aggression - not of affection.  The score was contributed by Alva NotoRyuichi Sakamoto and Hildur  Guðnadóttir.  It was integrated into a single piece so seamlessly that I thought it had been a single work.

The main difference between the performances of the Rite of Spring at the Lowry and the Cast is that the company had to rely on recorded music in Doncaster.  They have chosen a very good recording by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez. The work that the Ballets Russes had performed in Paris in 2013 had been set in Pre-Christian Russia.  Using the same score by Stravinsky, Saintus set his work in contemporary Haiti drawing heavily on voudou rituals that invoke Ogou (the spirit of fire, iron, war and blacksmiths), the Marasa (divine twins) and Damballa (the serpent spirit and creator of life). In Saintus's version as in the Ballets Russes', there is a chosen one but she is chosen not for sacrifice but to host the spirit of Damballa.

I was much closer to the stage in Doncaster than I had been in Salford and I could see and admire the intricate robes worn by both male and female dancers with their tassels and drapery. For one of the movements, two of the dancers' hands were coloured green,  For another, the hands of all the dancers were coloured red.   At one point a red cushion which I had assumed to be a heart was passed on stage but, on reflection, I think it may have been the spirit of  Damballa. 

Saintus's production is an original work anchored in the traditions of the Caribbean and probably also  Africa.   However, I also think it is a very faithful one.   As I said in my previous review, Nijinsky's shade would not have been troubled by Saintus's reimagining. There is something unsettling about the idea of human sacrifice even though it is only on the stage.  That was largely absent in Saintus's work.  It felt like a celebration rather than an oblation.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Another Look at Victoira

Author: Rasiel Suarez
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Source Wikipedia Queen Victoria 

Northern Ballet Victoria 6 April 2019 Curve, Leicester

"How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen!"  The Oxford Essential Quotations attributes that remark to A Laugh A Day Keeps the Doctor Away by the American humorist, Irvin S Cobb which was published in 1924.  It is said to have been overheard at a performance of Antony and Cleopatra in which Sarah Bernhardt played Cleopatra.

The conversation is probably apocryphal but the reason why the quotation is remembered is that the home life of Queen Victoria was unremarkable.  Of course, there was sex.  How could it be otherwise with 9 children? But it was almost certainly within marriage notwithstanding speculation over her relationships with John Brown and Abdul Karim.  Queen Victoria gave her name to an age of momentous cultural, economic, political, scientific, social and technological change throughout the world but, as a constitutional monarch, she had very little to do with any of that.

According to "Creating Victoria" in the programme the idea of a ballet about Queen Victoria was David Nixon's.  He asked Cathy Marston whether she would be interested in making such a work, Evidently, someone mentioned the TV series for Marsrion spent part of a weekend watching a recording of the series before deciding to accept.

To make a full-length ballet about a home life that is a byword for respectability and normality must have been something of a challenge. Marston responded to that challenge by selecting incidents from the queen's life that she had recorded in her diary.  Those incidents were presented not as they had happened but as they had been perceived by Princess Beatrice upon reading her mother's diary for the first time. An impression was given that some of those incidents bordered on the scandalous for there were for there were several scenes where Beatrice tore pages from the diary.

On the whole, I think Marston's approach worked well, particularly in the second act.  There were moments of great beauty such as the passionate duet of the queen and prince consort towards the end. There were also some comic moments such as the childbirth scenes with Mlindi Kulashe delivering baby after baby.  Some of the scenes in the first act were still lost me even though I had seen them before and had read and digested the synopsis.  Someone - I could not work out who it was - drew a revolver and shot John Brown. I could find no reference to that in the synopsis.  It certainly did not happen in real life for Brown died in his bed in Windsor.  I had a vague recollection from my criminal law studied that Queen Victoria survived an assassination attempt because it was from that incident that we have got the M'Naghten rules but it seems to have nothing to so with that. I concluded that the assassination must have been an analogue for character assassination. There were several other analogues in the piece such as the ritual kissing of the queen's feet.

The cast I saw in Leicester was almost the same as the one I saw in Leeds (see A Great Send-off for a Great Lady 17 March 2019).  Abigail Prudames was the queen, Joseph Taylor the prince consort, Pippa Moore was Beatrice and Kulashe doubled as John Brown as well as an obstetrician.  All the cast danced well but I particularly enjoyed their interaction with a curious piece of furniture that I can best describe as a Victorian round sofa and their tussle over the red dispatch boxes.  Everybody in the show danced well and it would be unjust for me to select any for special praise,

Steffen Aarfing's set worked well.  A semicircular structure doubled as a gallery in a palace and the stacks of a library.   I am not quite so satisfied with the costumes.  The queen's white gown with its blue sash was effective. The red and cream costumes of the corps were less so.  Philip Feeney's score was pleasant enough. It was said to be derived from the music of the period.   I am sure that must be so but I struggle to remember a note of it even though I have heard it twice.

Though the auditorium was far from full the audience seemed to appreciate the show.   There was some cheering and the curious masculine growls that one sometimes hears in live streaming from the Bolshoi and even Covent Garden.   Several folk in the stalls rose to their feet which does not happen quite so often in England as in other countries.  I think Northern Ballet can chalk up Saturday evening's performance as a success.

The ballet's tour continues to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes and Belfast and it will be streamed to cinemas throughout the nation on 25 June 2019.  I think it is worth seeing and probably more than once since I appreciated it more the second time around.   Marston is a master of her craft and while I still prefer The Suite and Jane Eyre I appreciate Victoria.   Her many fans (of whom I am one) can look forward to her Snowblind which the San Francisco Ballet will bring to London at the end of May and beginning of June.  We will have another chance to see The Suit in Birmingham in September

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Campbell and Magri in Royal Ballet's Don Quixote

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Royal Ballet Don Quixote 30 March 2019, 13:30, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Except when I was a graduate student in Los Angeles, I have visited Covent Garden several times a year, every year, since 1969.   Seldom have I enjoyed a performance at the Royal Opera House more than last Saturday's matinee of Don Quixote. I had already seen that production several times in the cinema and once on television and had been somewhat underwhelmed by those transmissions (see ¡Por favor! Don Quixote streamed to Huddersfield 17 Oct 2013). I think that must be because no screening comes close to communicating the colour, movement and energy of the live show.

Although Gerard Davis referred to this production by Carlos Acosta as a remake in the programme notes, it seems to be pretty much the same as other companies' versions of the ballet.  The prologue begins with the dotty Don Quixote sheltering the shoplifting Sancho Panza.  The rogue kits the old man out with a bedpost for a lance and a shaving bowl for a helmet.  He is dubbed a knight by an imagined dulcinea and is confronted immediately by equally imaginary hooded demons.  As in other versions, he meets Kitri and Don Basilio in the town square and helps them elope.  On their travels, they meet gipsies.  He falls ill fighting ambulatory windmills.  In his delirium dreams of dryads or tree spirits.  They return to the town where Kitri's suitor is partnered up, KitrI marries Don Basilio and Don Quixote and his squire slip away for more adventures.   I  understand that the score had been rearranged and reorchestrated by Martin Yates but I did not detect any variations even though I know the music well. Aspects of the show that impressed me particularly were the lavishness of Tim Hatley's sets and costumes and the slickness and energy of the dancing.

My enjoyment of the show was facilitated greatly by the casting of Alexander Campbell as Don Basilio.  A year or so ago I read about his taking part in a scheme by the RAD and MCC to encourage kids to take up ballet and cricket.  Perfectly natural in my view as I have always had a passion for the two.  I think it was Arnold Haskell who observed that cricket had predisposed the British to ballet pointing out many parallels between the two.  Like another of my favourites, Xander Parish, Campbell had been a promising cricketer as a boy. I had long surmised that that might be the case before I had read that article for Campbell commands the stage like a batsman at the crease.  There is something about his manner - perhaps his grin - that makes it impossible not to like him.  He wielded his guitar while wooing the coquettish Kitri as an extension of himself just as a batsman holds his bat.  As he seized her fan in the same scene I imagined his diving for a catch. In his jumps and lifts, he is much an athlete as an artist.  It may be a figment of my imagination as it may be have been years since he last played the game, but I think that his youthful cricketing prowess has contributed more than a little to his appeal as a dancer.

Campbell's Kitri was the Brazilian first soloist, Mayara Magri,  She excelled in that role.  I was told by a well-informed acquaintance whom I met in the interval that last Saturday's matinee had been her debut.  If that was the case, her performance was all the more impressive.  I mentioned her coquetry in the previous paragraph but the role also requires virtuosity and prodigious stamina.  She displayed those qualities in abundance, particularly in the last act where she dances in the pub and in the final pas de deux where she performs lots of fouettés.    She dazzled me with those displays.

Other artists who particularly delighted me included  Itziar Mendizabal as Mercedes, Claire Calvert as the queen of the dryads. Lara Turk as the Dulcinea and, of course, Gary Avis as Don Quixote.  It was also good to see Jonathan Howells as Sancho Panza.  I had been looking forward to seeing Thomas Whitehead as Gamache. I am one of his fans and that is not just because he comes from Bradford.  That role was danced by Benet Gartside whom I also follow. I hope that Whitehead's absence was not the result of injury or illness but, if it was, I wish him a full and speedy recovery.  Valentino Zucchetti had been advertised to dance the matador and he was also indisposed through illness or injury. I wish him a full and speedy recovery too.  He was replaced if my memory is correct, by Reece Clark but sadly he was also hurt and had to be replaced (I think) by Thomas Mock. Like the rest of the cast, Mock and Clark danced well.  I wish Clark too a full and complete recovery. I congratulate everyone who took part in that performance.

I have been lucky enough to see two other fine performances of Don Quixote.   On Christmas day of 2017, I saw Mathieu Ganio and Isabella Boylston in the ballet company of the Paris Opera (see
Paris Opera Ballet's Don Quixote 28 Dec 2017).  I wrote:
"Spectacular choreography needs virtuoso dancers and Isabella Boylston is a virtuoso par excellence. She launches into grands jetes almost as soon as she appears on stage and hers seemed as graceful and effortless as any I have seen before. She danced Kitri who ends the show with spectacular fouettés. I have seen plenty of those from lots of Odiles but the excitement that Boylston generated with hers at the Bastille last night could not have been exceeded by Legnani herself."
A few weeks later, on 28 Feb 2019, I was delighted again by Sho Yamada and Riho Sakamoto in the lead roles in the Dutch National Ballet's performance of that work (see A Day of Superlatives - Dutch National Ballet's Don Quixote  1 March 2018).  I enjoyed that show a lot:
"I don't think I have ever seen a better Don Quixote even though I have seen artists like Isabella Boylston and Marianela Nuñez dance Kitri and Carlos Acosta dance Don Basilio. Above all, I don't think I have ever seen the Dutch National Ballet dance better."
Comparisons between three great performances by three great national companies would be odious.  They all had strengths.  For me, the Royal Ballet's were Hatley's designs and the casting of Campbell, Magri and Avis.  It is enough for me to say that the Royal Ballet's  Don Quixote is right up there in my esteem with the Paris Opera's and HNB's.

Without wishing to be too political I had booked my ticket to Don Quixote to cheer me up for what had been scheduled to be the day after brexit.   As it happened it wasn't but that has prompted me to think of parallels. Don Quixote lived in the past and looked back to a mythical golden age.  In that regard, he reminds me very much of our brexiteer MPs living in the past with their notions of English exceptionalism being the modern equivalent of courtly love and chivalry.  The battle with the windmills raises obvious analogies with our noble ministers battling against an intransigent commission.  Cervantes intended his novel to be a satire.  He would have had a field day had he been alive now.