Sunday, 16 June 2019

Wherefore Art Thou Romeo? Or Juliet for that Matter?

Richard Burbage, an Early Romeo
Author Unknown
Source Wikipedia Romeo and Juliet

New Adventures Romeo and Juliet The Lowry, 15 June 2019, 19:30

As I hate to dis a show in which a lot of resources have been invested and in which brilliant young artists have danced their hearts out, let's start with the positives. There was some dazzling dancing, particularly by Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite in the title roles and Daisy May Kemp as the Rev Bernadette Lawrence, the Verona Institute's chaplain. There was some very clever choreography for the inmates. I particularly liked the exercise in which the dancers did everything they could with a chair except sit on it. There were some brilliant designs by Lez Brotherston as always. It was a very slick and polished production that almost everyone in the audience rewarded with a standing ovation.

I was not one of them.  I remained firmly in my seat.  The show was good in many ways but not that good. Certainly not in comparison to some of the recent performances in that auditorium by Phoenix Dance Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet, Or, indeed, other works by Sir Matthew Bourne such as Red Shoes, Highland Fling and The Car Men. "What was wrong with it, exactly?" asked my friend who had spent the evening at the Bridgewater Hall listening to the BBC Philharmonic playing a new work by Mark Simpson as well as Mozart and Mahler.  I replied that it was shorn of just about everything that makes Shakespeare's play and almost every other version of the ballet so gripping.

It was set not in Verona, Italy, but in some gruesome psychiatric hospital called the Verona Institue,  There were no Montagues and Capulets or even Reds and Fascists as in Krzysztof Pastor's version, Just clipboard-wielding medics and brutal armed guards one of whom was called Tybalt,  Romeo was not a scion of one of the leading families but a disturbed young man who was ambushed by the inmates, debagged and clad in hospital whites as his loveless parents took their leave of him.  Juliet was also disturbed and apparently abused by Tybalt.  The couple met at an inmates' ball where most of the patients danced as woodenly as the dolls in Coppelia.  Romeo and Juliet's duets were different.  Their dances, particularly the last passionate one just before Juliet knifed herself, were the bits of the performance that I enjoyed the most.  There were no sword fights.  Just a shot from a drunken Tybalt and his strangling by the inmates for which Romeo allowed himself to take the rap. There was no grief-stricken Lady Capulet. No attempted forced marriage. No drug inducing a catatonic state. No final encounter with Paris. No suicide by knife or poison in the Capulet family tomb.

Now I am all for restaging a ballet in modern dress if it can be done well as Darius James and Amy Doughty did with Ballet Cymru's Romeo a Juliet, Ted Brandsen with Coppelia and indeed Sir Matthew with his re-imaginings of La Sylphide and Cinderella but change for change's sake as in Nixon's Swan Lake or Akram Khan's Giselle is pointless.  There is nothing wrong with creating a new work to a well-known score as Jean-Guy Saintus did with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or, indeed, as Milena Siderova did with the Dance of the Knights in her pillow dance for Bart Engelen. This was not so much a restaging of a gripping, complex work as a degutting.

Now I am a blogger, not a critic.  I keep this blog to remind me of shows that gave me joy.  If I can't say anything nice I say nothing at all.  If I really hated this work I would have kept it to myself.  There were things to admire which is why I started with the positives. It is just that I think Sir Matthew has done better and I have certainly seen better versions of Romeo and Juliet, not least Ballet Cymru's which is in Bracknell today. 

Don't let me put you off New Adventures's version.  Everyone else in The Lowry seemed to think it was outstanding. It is coming to Cardiff this week, London in August, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury and Southampton in September and Nottingham and Newcastle in October.  See it for yourselves and make your own minds up about it.  As I say, I am a  dance fan not a critic and my only qualification to cast an opinion is that I have seen an awful lot of dance in my 60 years or so of fairly regular theatre-going.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Cinders in the Round

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English National Ballet Cinderella  Royal Albert Hall 9 June 2019, 14:30

I have seen three of English National Ballet's productions in the Royal Albert Hall: Romeo and Juliet in 2014, Swan Lake in 2016 and now Cinderella.  The last of those is by far the best.  I would go so far as to say that it was one of the best shows by that company I have ever seen in a lifetime of pretty regular ballet going.

This was not an entirely new show for me, or indeed for London, as it is an adaptation of Christopher Wheeldon's production for the Dutch National Ballet. That company performed it at the Coliseum in 2015 (see Wheeldon's Cinderella 13 July 2015).  I saw it again in Amsterdam just before Christmas (see Cinderella in the Stopera 24 Dec 2018). Wheeldon has used the same creatives: Craig Luca for the libretto, Julian Crouch for sets and costumes, Basil Twist for the tree and carriage, Daniel Brodie for the video and Natasha Katz for the lighting design.

There are several big differences between the Albert Hall and the Stopera or Coliseum.  The first is that the audience surrounds the stage and dancers make their entrances and exits down the gangways. A wonderful opportunity, incidentally, to admire the dancers' costumes, hairstyles and makeup. The second is scale. The projectionist did some wonderful things with a massive screen that stretched from floor to ceiling. One scene showed the royal palace with portraits of the royal family looking down sternly on the antics of the coming generation. One developed horns, another blushes and yet another a withering frown of indignation. The third big difference was that the orchestra performed on a platform high above the stage where they had enough space to swing a leopard. So much better than being cooped up in an orchestra pit under the stage.

The story progressed very much as it had in Holland.  Little Cinders is playing with her parents when her mum suddenly coughs up blood.  The scene changes to the graveyard where her father introduces a new lady in his life.  At first, she does not seem to be such a bad old stick because she presents (or rather gets one of her daughters to present) a bouquet to Cinderella.  Cinders lets the flowers fall to the floor. Perhaps not surprisingly, the new step mum just does not like her new stepdaughter.

The two stepsisters are actually girls, unlike Ashton's version in which he and Robert Helpmann put on drag. One of them is a little kinder to Cinders than the other.  Wheeldon cuts out the dancing lesson and visits from the cobbler, dressmaker and milliner and substitutes spirits of lightness,  generosity, mystery and fluidity representing the seasons. These take the form of tree trunks, unicorns and conkers instead.  He even does away with the fairy godmother but gives her four fates, Skyler Martin (formerly of HNB), Daniel McCormick, Erik Woolhouse and Aitor Arrieta instead. They arrange for Cinders to be conveyed to the ball ib one of the most ingenious carriages I have ever seen.

The second act is the prince's ball where the step mum and her daughters turn up with Cinders's dad but no Cinders wearing quite the wrong outfits and generally making fools of themselves.   Things got worse when the drink was served because the stepmother drank just a teeny weeny bit too much and had to be lifted off the floor and carried to a couch. That role was performed by Sarah Kundi who is one of my favourite dancers. I have followed her ever since she was with Northern Ballet in Leeds. She used to remind me of a famous dancer of my youth whom she still resembles in many ways. Since she joined ENB I have begun to appreciate her for her own qualities.  Kundi stole the second act if not the show and she raised more than a few laughs in the third act when she showed up at the breakfast table with one almighty hangover.

Back to the story. Cinders arrives in a lovely golden dress. She is spotted by the prince who falls for her. Everything goes swimmingly until midnight when the clock chimes, the fates arrive and her stepmother cottons on as to who she must be. Cinders scarpers leaving one of her shoes behind. The third act begins with Cinders serving her dad, Her step mum arrives nursing her head and pukes into the porridge bowl.  The prince then tours his kingdom slipper in hand auditioning for brides.  Some improbable candidates show up. A knight in armour. One of the trees. A unicorn.  Something with very smelly feet.  The step mum and her two daughters one of whom is molested by her mother with a mallet.

And, finally. Cinderella who fits the slipper perfectly.  The stepmother peevishly tosses it onto the fire but, happily, Cinders kept the other one. There is a royal wedding and everyone is happy.  Cinderella even has a kiss for her former tormenter.  And the kinder of the two step-sisters finds love with the prince's best friend.  I have been rather spoilt watching  Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding in the leading roles in London and Remi Wörtmeyer and Anna Ol in Amsterdam but Erina Takahashi was a lovely Cinders and Joseph Caley was a great prince. Good to see Gavin Sutherland from Huddersfield conducting the orchestra, But the star for me on Sunday was definitely Kundi.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

San Francisco Ballet in London

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The San Francisco Ballet  The Infinite Ocean, Snowblind and Björk Ballet 1 June 2019, 14:00 Sadler's Wells

The San Francisco Ballet was founded in 1933 which makes it one of the oldest ballet companies in the United States. It was founded by William, Harold and Lew Christiansen who were born in Utah.  They were the first American company to dance Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.  Balanchine was an important influence but he was not the wellspring of inspiration. There have been plenty of other influences from around the world including Buornonville, Ashton and van Manen   Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director since 1985, was born, trained and began his career in Iceland.  The San Francisco Balet is therefore different from the companies on the East Coast and in many respects much more interesting.

The company has brought a portfolio of new work to London which includes many ballets by British choreographers such as David Dawson, Cathy Marston, Arthur Pita and Liam Scarlett.  Having seen Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria I am something of a Marston fan. When I heard that Marston had been commissioned to create a work for the San Francisco Ballet to be premiered on my 70th birthday I seriously considered a trip to San Francisco as a birthday treat to myself. Happily, I did not have to cross the Atlantic because the company has brought Marston's new ballet to London.

The new work is called Snowblind.   It is a one-act ballet which forms part of a triple bill.  The other works in the programme were Edwaard Liang's The Infinite Ocean and Arthur Pita's Björk BalletI do not recall seeing anything by Liang at all but I have seen Arthur Pita's Dream within Midsummer Night's Dream for Ballet Black at least 8 times plus once in rehearsal and I love it to bits.

Although I must have seen the San Francisco Ballet when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s because I spent much of my time watching ballet, I do not have a clear recollection of them as I do American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I do not think they were as well known or well regarded in those days as they are now. I had seen many snippets of their performances on YouTube as they were one of the Royal Ballet's partners on World Ballet Day.  I knew they were good but I did not know that they were that good until I saw them in the flesh yesterday.  Some of their physical feats - particularly by the women - were amazing.  In The Infinite Ocean, for example, there were several scenes where they on pointe with their lower legs ramrod straight but their upper legs forming a perfect 90 degrees but their upper bodies bolt upright. That must have been so uncomfortable, yet they kept it up for some time.

The title of Liang's work was inspired by a Facebook message from a friend who was suffering from a terminal illness:
“I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.”
According to the programme notes, Liang lost his father to cancer at the age of 13. His ballet is an exploration of the time between life and death.   I was expecting something morbid but it was far from that.  The ballet opened with the dancers clad in gold and white walking slowly towards a golden orb like the sun to the music of Oliver Davis played on a Stradivarius violin by Cordelia Merks.  I was reminded a little bit of Macmillan's Gloria which was also set against a slope though I only noticed it in the last moments of Liang's piece when one of the dancers suddenly dropped behind it.  There were 12 dancers in the piece including duets by the principal dancers, Sofiane Sylve with  Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan with Vitor Luiz.  The impression I formed was that each character was facing his or end in a different way, some with resignation, others with serenity and yet others with regret.  Something that we all have to think about but never do.

Snowblind is a narrative ballet inspired by Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome of which I regret to say I had never heard until I read about it in the programme notes.  It appears to be a very simple story of a husband with an infirm and ever demanding wife in a  remote farmstead who falls in love with a young woman he employs to care for his wife with predictable consequences. The set is very plan.  There is a bed for the wife and a chair for husband.  The husband meets the young woman at what appears to be a square dance.  She is resplendent in red while all the rest are in featureless grey.  For her score, Marston approached Philip Feeney who arranged the music with pieces by Amy Beach, Arthur Foot and Arvo Pärt. The husband, Ethan, was danced by Ulrik Birkkjaer, the wife by Jennifer Stahl and the woman in red by Mathilde Froustey.  A hallmark of Marston's work is what I call the dance equivalent of the chorus in classical Greek drama.  I had first seen that technique in Jane Eyre and she used it very effectively in The Suit.  The ballet opened with the chorus bending in the wind like snowflakes in a blizzard.   This is the best work from Marston that I have seen so far - or perhaps, less pretentiously, the work I have enjoyed most.   She appears to be very busy with new commissions.  I look forward very much to seeing her next one.

I guess that Pita chose a ballet on the music of one of Iceland's most popular entertainer because Tomasson also came from that country.  It opens with miniature golden palm trees that eventually fall to the ground with a thud.   Some of the women appear to be wearing yashmaks at one point which must be as far from Iceland as one can get.  The man with a very long fishing rod wears a tragedy mask but then fishes up a comedy mask from the orchestra pit which he wears on the back of his head.  I was reminded of Pita's Dream several times as I watched Björk Ballet.  The fishing rod made me think of Damien Johnson's butterfly net.   Also like Dream was the sudden juxtaposition of classical and popular music, the glittering costume of one of the female dancers and quirky interludes like the dropping palm trees.  Pita's quirkiness and sense of fun shone through.  I described the ballet on twitter as "the icing on the cake, the piece de resistance, the real McCoy for it was all those things.  The perfect end to a very log but also very enjoyable programme.

The Liang, Marston and Pita part of The San Francisco Ballet's season ended last night and I fear we shall have to fly to San Francisco if we are ever to see those works again. However, the company remains at Sadler's Wells until 7 June.  There is a lot more to see and if I lived in London and did not have to labour in the law courts for a living I should have seen them.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

A World-Class Company for a Changing Nation

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Ballet Cymru Rome a Juliet 31 May 2019 Riverfront Theatre, Newport

This is the third time I have seen Darius James and Amy Doughty's Romeo a Juliet and each time I see it I have found something new. Last night I saw two exceptional talents: Danila Marzilli, one of the finalists in the ballet category of the BBC Young Dancer of 2019, for the first time; and Beau Dillen whom I had seen two months earlier in Made in Wales. Marzilli danced Juliet in the second professional performance of her life (the first being the previous night) and Dillen the nurse, standing in for Krystal Lowe at the very last moment.

To give a young dancer straight out of ballet school the leading role is an incredibly risky thing to do both for the dancer and the company. James and Doughty did that once before with Gwenllian Davies the last time I saw Romeo a Juliet and it worked spectacularly well (see A Romeo and Juliet for Our Times 7 Nov 2016). It also worked last night with Mazilli. Mazilli is very accomplished technically but she can also act. The despair in the bedroom was palpable after Romeo had taken flight and her parents, grief-stricken with the loss of Tybalt, were piling on the pressure for her to marry Paris. So, too, was the fear as she considered whether to take Friar Larence's potion.  So, also, was the agony of finding Romeo's body in the Capulet family grave.  These and all the other thoughts and feelings fleeting through young Juliet's consciousness were communicated with considerable eloquence.

In most versions of Rome and Juliet and, of course, the play the nurse is much older than Juliet and her social inferior.  In James and Doughty she is a confidante.  In previous performances by this company, she has been called Cerys.  In last night's show, she was referred to simply as "Juliet's friend." As such, she adds a dynamic to the narrative that actually enhances Shakespeare.  She recognizes Romeo at her parents' ball and tries to lead Juliet away.  She tries to intercede with Juliet as she rejects Paris. It is she who finds Juliet stone cold the morning of her wedding. This is a role that requires maturity and authority which is why it is usually performed by one of the company's most experienced dancers. Dillen is the company's apprentice yet she filled that role magnificently.

Romeo was danced by Andrea Maria Battagia who performed that role the last time I saw the ballet.  He is everything a male lead should be.  A virtuoso who thrills with his solos but nevertheless displays his ballerina like the setting of a precious jewel so that she dazzles.  I think we owe a lot to Battagia for the way he partnered Mazilli last night, much as he did with Davies in 2016. Battagia can also act.  For the first time ever I saw Romeo as a flawed hero. Possibly because he despatched Tybalt and Paris with plebian knives rather than gentlemen's swords.  A whiff of brexit Britain rather than renaissance Verona.

That brings me on to another quality of James and Doughty's work. It is set in our time and our country.  The first time I saw the work I noted Tybalt's dragon tattoo and the substitution of Cerys as a confidante of Juliet in place of the nurse (see They're not from Chigwell - they're from a small Welsh Town called Newport 14 May 2013).  Instead of a duke, the brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues is broken up by the flashing lights and shadowy figures of the Gwent Constabulary. The knifings of Mercutio and Tybalt took place not in the Piazza of Verona but underneath the flyover of the exit lane from the bridge over the Usk.   I recognized the setting in the projections against the backdrop. Again there were the flashing lights of the Heddlu.

Talking of Tybalt it is always a delight to watch Robbie Moorcroft swagger on stage. Our hearts go out for Miguel Fernandes as Mercutio, the cub of the Montague pack with something to prove. Romeo tried to hold him back but too late.  He takes on the wily Tybalt who knifes him.  His bravado after his first wound is one of the most heart-rending scenes of classical dance. The second knifing turns Romeo and Juliet from a saccharine romance into drama. Romeo has to get involved.  He then has to go on the run. There is no way this story could end otherwise than badly.

Lord and Lady Capulet danced by two of my favourite dancers, Alex Hallas and Beth Meadway, added yet another quality to the work. Other productions show a tearful, vengeful Lady Capulet but her husband's role is usually minor.  Not in James and Doughty's work. They are sleek, powerful, authoritarian - and Northern. It just so happens they are both from Yorkshire. I could almost hear them:
"Now listen up, our kid. There's nowt wrong with Paris. You could do a lot worse than wed him. I know he's not much to look at but he's got brass and he's not wanted by the law. Not like that Romeo Montague. Ooh, I do hope they catch him, lock him up and throw away the key. How could you even look at him after what he did to Tybalt?"
And with her friend joining in, is it any wonder that Juliet buried her face in a pillow before quaffing Friar Lawrence's potion and eventually killing herself?

Everyone in this show danced well.  Joshua Feist was a perfect Paris, another recent recruit whose career I shall follow with interest. Isobel Holland was an impressive Friar Lawrence. Much closer to Shakespeare than the manipulative cleric in Jean-Christophe Maillot's version of the ballet. Maria Teresa Brunello was a convincing Benvolio.  Not easy to dance a role of the opposite gender.  Holland and Brunello are to be congratulated for that alone.   Especially as there are some in ballet who would not countenance it.   I recently met a teacher and choreographer who was scandalized by my learning to dance the bronze idol in an adult ballet intensive.

James and Doughty have big plans for their company.  They are touring China soon where I am sure they will be admired.   They hope to employ their dancers on full-term rather than short-term contracts.  Ballet Cymru reminds me a lot of Scottish Ballet when they first moved to Glasgow 50 years ago.

Like Scotland in the 1970s, Wales is changing fast.  I sense a growing sense of nationhood.  The National Assembly now makes primary legislation.  The Supreme Court already sits in Cardiff and there are calls even from Unionists for a separate Welsh court system.   Until a few years ago the economy of the North was largely rural and that of the South was not unlike that of the American rust belt.  The economy is changing rapidly into one that is knowledge-based.   I see signs of that transformation every time I visit M-Sparc, Aber Innovation or the Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre.  The entrepreneurs, innovators and creative folk who are driving that change need the arts and expect the best.  They demand world-class dance and Ballet Cymru is delivering it to them.