Thursday, 31 October 2019

Wheeldon's Cinderella in Manchester

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English National Ballet Cinderella Palace Theatre 19 Oct 2019 14:00

I have now seen Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella no less than four times: twice with the Dutch National Ballet once in London and the other time in Amsterdam; and twice with the English National Ballet once at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year and most recently at the Palace Theatre in my home town.  It is a sumptuous ballet with gorgeous costumes and elaborate sets. It is also very witty with glowering portraits and hilarious faux-pas from Hortensia as she downs the bubbly at the prince's ball.

The Palance has the smallest stage upon which I have seen this show and it struck me as I looked at the somewhat blurry cloud scene that it would not di justice to the animations that are built into the sets. I need not have worried because the dancing attracted and held my attention.  Erina Takahashi danced the title role and she fitted it perfectly.  Joseph Caley was her prince and I can't think of a better partner for her. He delighted me in the first duet in the palace where they fell in love and then in the last scene when she produced the missing slipper.  But there is a lot more to this ballet than a love story which is why the supporting characters are so important.

At the Albert Hall, it was Sarah Kundi who nade the ballet for me,   She danced Cinderella's stepmother, Hortensia, who made an exhibition of herself even before the wine was served. As the second act continued she became tighter and tighter and behaved increasingly outrageously.  She turns up at the breakfast table with a head the size of a balloon, a vile temper and eventually throws up in the porridge bowl. At the Saturday matinee, that role was danced by Tiffany Hedman, Now she is good - particularly technically - but I think you have to be brought up in the country that invented pantomime to carry it off s well as Kundi.

The other theme of Wheeldon's ballet is the romance between the prince's childhood companion, Benjamin, and Cinderella's stepsister, Clementine.  He was danced by the American guest artist Brooklyn Mack and she by Katja Khaniukova.  I also enjoyed watching Alison McWhiney who danced Edwina amusingly. 

There are scenes from other productions of the ballet that Wheeldon leaves out such as the dancing lesson and substituted wood spirits and seasons in their place.  I am still not sure how that works but I suppose it gives an excuse for woodland sprits and other strange creations to take their place in the queue for the shoe filling with the knight in armour brandishing a halberd.  I enjoyed the second where an alarmed Benjamin jumped straight into the prince's arms.

After Manchester, this show went on to Southampton where it seems to have run its course for the time being.  That is a pity because I think it is English National's best show in the repertoire and I am sure that other audiences would like to have seen it.  Most classical companies feel compelled to do The Nutcracker at this time of the year which is fair enough but they could have rested Le Corsaire and Akram Khan's Giselle for just a little longer.  Especially since audiences will have Dada Masilo's excellent production in their recent recollection.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

"Raymonda" from Moscow

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Bolshoi Ballet Raymoda  Streamed from Moscow to cinemas worldwide 27 Oct 2019 15:00

Although Act III of Nureyev's production is in the current repertoire of the Royal Ballet, Raymonda is not a ballet that we see very often in this country. That is a pity because it has a pretty score by Alexander Glazunov and plenty of exciting choreography. It was after all created for Pierina Legnani who pioneered the 32 fouettés in the seduction scene in Swan Lake. Also, Sergei and Nicolai Legat, Olga Preobrajenska and Giuseppina Cecchetti were all in the first show. It was one of Petipa's last ballets and it has a fin de siȅcle feel to it. By that, I mean that it is close to the border in artistic as well as chronological terms between the age of the Imperial Ballet and that of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

The action is set in medieval Europe at the time of the Crusades. The male lead is Jean de Brienne who was a real historical character. He was king of Jerusalem for a while and even took over Constantinople but none of that features in the ballet except in so far as he follows Andrew II of Hungary on crusade. I can find no reference to a historical Raymonda, Abderakhman or even Castle Doris where the ballet is set.  But then I suppose Lidiya Pashkova, who wrote the libretto, would have claimed to be writing historical fiction rather than history.

As ballets go, it is quite a good story. Raymonda is betrothed to Jean de Brienne who visits her in Castle Doris just before he is due to go on crusade. After he has left she falls asleep and dreams of an eastern prince called Abderakhman who declares his love for her.  She wakes up in a cold sweat and finds that it was all a nightmare.  In the second Act, however, the real Abderakhman appears and offers to carry her away.  She politely turns him down but Abderakhman will not take "no" for an answer. He and his followers try to adduct her but are interrupted by de Brienne. They fight each other with swords and de Brienne kills his rival. In the last Act, Raymonda weds de Brienne and they all enjoy a long Hungarian divertissement.

On Sunday's transmission, Olga Smirnova was Raymonda, Artemy Belyakov was de Brienne and Igor Tsvirko was Abderakhman.  All performed well as did the rest of the cast.  I particularly liked Tsvirko who was the most realistic of the leading characters. I have seen him several times in London as well as on screen. Ekaterina Novikova who is an excellent interlocutor switching effortlessly between her own language and English and French interviewed him while he was still in costume in the second interval. Tsvirko showed real emotion when Raymonda rejected him.  It seemed he was tearing out his heart - a gesture that his followers echoed by waggling their shields. There was some great jumping for Belyakov and some moves that must have required considerable stamina as well as skill from Smirnbiva.

The costumes were gorgeous but I was not taken with the set design.   The orchestra played well under Pavel Klinichev, their conductor.  Apart from a couple of seconds when the sound was lost temporarily the transmission was good.  Altogether it was a successful start to the Bioshoi and Pathé Live's new cinema season which is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

World Ballet Bay - Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Ballet Troupe

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One of the joys of World Ballet Day is the opportunity to learn about companies that might never otherwise be seen. One of those companies is the ballet troupe of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre. Perm is a city is in Russia some 721 miles east of Moscow which is about the size of Birmingham. For a number of years, it was known as Molotov after the Soviet foreign minister.

According to Alexei Miroshnichenko, who is described as the artistic director of the Perm ballet, the Kirov Ballet was evacuated to Molotov during the second world war. While they were there they laid the foundations for the Perm ballet.  The Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre is, however, much older. The building was constructed between 1874 and 1879 but there was apparently an opera company in Perm from at least 1870.

The Bolshoi featured the Perm Ballet in its contribution to World Ballet Day and readers can see the feature on that company from 20 minutes to 30 in the recording.  For me, the most fascinating aspect of the feature is that the company performs ballets by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton. Much of the feature is taken up with rehearsals and interviews with the dancers.  From the clips, they seem to have mastered the choreography very well.  Several of the dancers say that it is not easy and I wonder whether that is because of differences between our traditions and the Russians'.

Intriguingly, Natalia Osipova is listed as a principal ballerina on the Perm Ballet's website. I have tried to cross-reference in this website with Osipova's own and other sources but I have seen no evidence that she is the same as the Royal Ballet's Osipova.

Tomorrow I shall look at a British company,

World Ballet Day - Dutch National Ballet

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Sometimes one can have too much of a good thing and World Ballet Day is one of those times. There's a great temptation to drop everything to watch a whole day of classes, rehearsals, interviews and shows.  This year I rationed myself to just one contribution on the day and this is it.

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I have chosen the Dutch National Ballet's slot.  I have been following that company for the last 6 years and I have watched careers blossom like cherry trees in Spring. One of the folks I interviewed as a member of the Junior Company in 2014 was Martin ten Kortenaar. He is now one of the leads in Rudi van Dantzig's Romeo and Juliet. 

The recording shows three scenes from the work:  the Dance of the Knights, the balcony scene and the bedroom scene just before Romeo takes flight.  I have seen many versions of this ballet: Lavrovsky's, Maillot's, Pastor's, James's, Nureyev's and, of course, MacMillan's but there seems to be a unique exuberance to this work. According to Ted Brandsen, the Director of the Dutch National Ballet this was the first full-length work to be created in Holland.  With designs by Toer van Schayk, it must be gorgeous.

But, so too, will be Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's FridaI have long admired the work that she has done for Ballet Black, Scottish Ballet and other companies. This promises to be a tour de force. With Floor Eimers in the show, how could it be otherwise?

I have said many times in this blog that I can't watch Ernst Meisner's Embers without the tears welling up. I have seen it performed beautifully by different artists - Cristiano Principato and Jessica Xuan at last year's gala, Thomas van Damme and Nancy Burer and Cristiano again with Priscylla Gallo at Trecate in Italy.  In this clip you will see two new young dancers in Embers whom I am sure will go far,  They are Sebia Plantefȅve and Davi Ramos. I can't wait to see them live on stage.

Tomorrow I shall watch another clip from a favourite company that performed yesterday.   A Russian company other than the Bolshoi or Mariinsky perhaps. Or maybe an American company that is not from New York.  There is no shortage of choice.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Chantry Dance's "Alice Wonderland through the Looking Class"

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Chantry Dance Company Alive Wonderland Through the Looking Glass Victoia Theatre, Halifax 3 Oct 2019

I have been following Chantry Dance ever since I attended their workshop at the Drill Hall in Lincoln in May 2014 (see Chantry Dance Company's Sandman and Dream Dance 10 May 2014). It was on the way to that workshop that I made friends with Mel Wong who has an encyclopedic knowledge of dance and been a great source of encouragement.  I had come to watch that workshop and not take part. No sooner had I settled into my seat in the stalls when I was coaxed out by Gail Gordon, the company's dance director, and led to the stage. That was the first time I had danced in public and the moment is recorded on film.

In those days Chantry Dance had only recently been formed.  They explained that they had been commissioned by Chinese calligraphers to translate their work into dance and had been asked repeatedly for the name of their company. The idea of freelance dancers seemed alien to those artists. Paul and Raw asked themselves "why not form a company" and, not long afterwards, Chantry Dance was established.

They were very ambitious and they have grown very quickly. A few months after their workshop I attended an open-air performance of a new ballet by Paul Chantry for Grantham's Gravity Fields science festival called Chasing the Eclipse featuring Dominic North of Sir Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and Rae Piper (see Gravity Fields - Chasing the Eclipse 28 Sept 2014).  A few weeks after Gravity Fields they made their first appearance in Halifax with three superb one-act ballets,  The Happy Prince, Rhapsody in Blue and All I can do is me - the Bob Dulan Ballet (see The Happy Prince in Halifax  24 Nov 2015).

They staged their triple bill at the Square Chapel which is a tiny auditorium.  It was a great show and the audience loved them but their numbers were disappointing. Any other company would have written off Halifax but Chantry Dance persevered and they have now built up a loyal following.  Every summer they tour the venues in advance with a free talk about their autumn show.  They also reach out to local dance schools and groups with their young choreographer programme  When they visited the Victoria - a much bigger theatre than Square Chapel - the place was heaving. There were a few empty seats at the back and sides of the stalls and the management had not opened up the upper levels but there was a definite buzz in the air.

Alice Wonderland through the Looking Glass is a full-length ballet.  In fact, it is their third or fourth.  That is an achievement in itself because not every small company has managed to stage even one full-length work. When I interviewed Kenneth Tindall about Casanova he explained that a full-length ballet is a much more difficult and complex proposition than a one-act piece.  The choreography is by Paul Chantry and Rae Piper. The music was written by Tim Mountain who had provided the score for Chasing the Eclipse.  Jenny Bowmam and Emma Darban designed the costumes.

The story, which was created by Rae Piper, could actually be considered a sequel to the other Alice books.  Piper imagines Alice as an adult working in a teashop trying to establish herself as a writer.  The connection with Lewis Carroll is an old looking class which turns out to be the one in Carroll's story. All Carroll's characters - the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts the Cheshire Cat et al - are in the ballet. The big difference is that they come into our world which they find as mad as Alice found theirs.  The plot of the story is to prevent the Queen from doing mischief in our world.  She is eventually neutralized by being turned into a chess piece.  Alice writes all about it in a novel which is a runaway success.  Her reputation as a writer is made.

Alice was danced by Shannon Parker who has had a long career which has included stints with the San Francisco Ballet, Northern Ballet and the Ballet du Rhin.  The Queen of Hearts was danced by Rae Piper, the Mad Hatter by Paul Chantry, the March Hare by David Beer, the Cheshire Cat by Claire Corruble-Cabot and the Knave of Hearts by Vincent Cabot. The last two dancers had been two of my favourites with Ballet Theatre UK and it was good to see them again.

It was an ambitious undertaking and I think it worked well,  I think I preferred Mountain's score in Chasing the Eclipse to this one.  More than once I got a sense of délȁ vue,  Perhaps a little less percussion and a variation of the instruments and tempo would have made it more perfect. But I liked the story and there were some good performances, particularly by Chantry and Parker.  The very noisy applause that the dancers won at the reverence showed how much the public liked the work.

Before the show, David Beer introduced three short works by local dance groups.  The titles and dancers are not in the programme and they were only mentioned once on stage so I cannot say who they were or name their pieces. One was about Bollywood. They danced to Jai Ho, the theme song from Slumdog Millionaire.  Another was a solo about Anne Frank danced by a young woman of approximately the same age as the diarist.  The last featured different coloured shirts and that is all I can remember about it other than that the choreography was put together well.  From the sound of the cheering, I guess that many members of the audience were in Victoria to see and support the young people.

There is usually a question and answer session after Chantry Dance's shows and this was no exception.  There were questions about pointe shoes and how long it took to create the work.  I wanted to ask a question but I did not attract Rae Piper's attention in time. Probably just as well that I didn't because the remnants of a tropical storm were about to hit Halifax. The audience would have been caught in the deluge had they stayed a moment longer.   I had intended to say hello to Paul and Rae at the stage door but there is no shelter there from the elements.  If they read this review they will know that I was there and liked their show.

The company has come a long way in the time I have known it.   It is now very slick and polished.  There was an air of showmanship in the way that Rae Piper got the whole cast and audience to take part in a massive group selfie and in her speech at the end of the show.  Having toured the country for the last few autumns we can almost certainly look forward to a smart new production next September.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

A Brace of Giselles

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Birmingham Royal Ballet Giselle 28 Sept 2019 Birmingham Hippodrome 19:30

Dasa Masilo Giselle 12 Oct 2019 Bradford Alhambra 19:30

I have seen two fine productions of Giselle: David Bintley's for the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 28 Sept 2019 and Dada Masilo's at the Bradford Alhambra last night. Both were impressive even though they could not have been more different.

Bintley's was a direct descendant of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot's of 1841 with Marius Petipa's modifications.  He created his version in collaboration with Galina Samsova who would have studied the lead role in Ukraine before performing it herself to great acclaim with the company that is now known as the English National Ballet in London.  According to Susan Turner's note for Birmingham Royal Ballet's programme, Samsova found a tape in which Anton Dolin, Galina Ulanova and Alicia Alonso had recorded their recollections of the ballet which influenced Bintley too. Turner noted that he and Samsova set out to create a "proper Giselle" in contrast to Arthur Mitchell's for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mats Ek's for the Paris Opera or. now, Akram Khan's for English National.

With breathtaking designs by Hayden Griffiths and ingenious lighting by Mark Jonathan, Bintley succeeded spectacularly. The set for the first act with its apparently flowing waterfall was particularly arresting as the audience awaited Hilarion with his offering of game as well as Albrecht and his squire, Wilfred. For some reason, principals at the Hippodrome appear not to be applauded when they first appear.  I experienced quizzical looks from fellow audience members when, instinctively, I began to clap Brandon Lawrence's entry on stage.  I was more careful when Celine Gittens appeared at her door shortly afterwards.

Gittens was outstanding in the title role. An accomplished actor as well as virtuoso, it was hard to stay dry-eyed as she glided inexorably towards her fate. First, the plucking of the petals, the heart murmurs, the warning from her mother, feeling the hem of Bathikde's garment and finally the deception as Hilarion produced Albrecht's sword and Albrecht acknowledged his posh betrothed.

Lawrence also impressed me as he always does.  He is a powerful dancer magnificent in his solos.  I am not sure that Albrecht is his most natural role but he discharged it well.  He came into his own in the second act with his soaring leaps and graceful turns.

Crucial to the success of any Giselle is a strong Myrtha for it is she who commands the wilis and indeed the audience.  Her role is technically difficult requiring considerable strength and stamina.  She must be tall, icy and aetherial.  Yijing Zhang performed that role with flair.

I must also commend Matthias Dingmann and Yanquian Shang for their peasant pas de deux, Alexander Yap for his performance as Hilarion and Jonathan Pain as a worthy Wilfred.  My companion who is a sports fan likes to choose a man or woman of the match when she watches a ballet and she chose Payn.  Finally, I must also congratulate the corps for their highly polished performance.  A lot is asked of them in Giselle and they gave their all.  Bentley's was indeed a proper Giselle and one of the best.

I approached the Alhambra with a degree of trepidation for I love Giselle and would have hated to see it spoilt.  While I am intrigued by innovation I detest change for change's sake. A choreographer who reimagines a classical ballet plays with fire so far as I am concerned. Ted Brandson got away with it with his Coppelia as did David Dawson with Scottish Ballet's Swan Lake. Others have been much less successful.

Masilo's reworking of Giselle succeeded for me in a way that Akram Khan's did not.  I attended the premiere at The Palace three years ago have never been tempted back. By contrast, I have already booked my ticket at The Lowry to see Masilo again.   Though transposed to the banks of a lake in rural Africa it was still recognizably Giselle.  There were a few tweaks to the story.  Obviously, Albrecht did not carry a sword. Instead, his smart trousers indicated his rank. Hilarion appears to have been Berthe's choice for an arranged marriage. She is nothing like the kind concerned mum in the traditional story.  The mad scene is particularly poignant with Giselle reduced to nakedness on learning of Albrecht's betrayal.  It is followed by her funeral to the haunting music of a beautiful Zulu hymn. The biggest change was with the wilis half of whom are men. Clad in identical raspberry costumes they are fiendish creatures.  Myrtha, their leader, a sangoma, is danced by a man. In this version, Albrecht is shown no mercy. Giselle takes an elephant whip to him.  The show ends with Giselle scattering white dust over his grave.

One of the reasons why I think Masilo's Giselle worked was her choice of score.  She commissioned the South African composer, Philip Miller, to combine Western and traditional African instruments in a composition that was rooted in Africa but quoted Adam at many points. Sometimes it was just a chord. At other times a phrase or melody.

It was clear from their turnout and posture that all the dancers were classically trained but their steps were very different.  There were hardly any jumps, precious few lifts, no pointework so far as I could see and not a single grand jeté.  There were dialogues and soliloquies and plenty of grunts. But I think it would still be fair to call it ballet.  And it was certainly gripping theatre.  Unlike traditional Giselles, there was no break between act one and two,  It was one of the tensest 80 minutes I can remember.

Masilo herself danced Giselle and like Gittens, she can act as well as dance,  Her Albrecht was Lwando Dutyulwa. One of those most gripping moments of the show was a fight with Hilarion danced by Thshepo Zasakhaya. Also impressive was Berthe, nothing like the caring, considerate mummy in the traditional show. A three-dimensional character danced by Sinazo Bokolo.  Though very different from the usual Myrtha, Llewellyn Mnguni commanded the stage at least as much as any other.

As I have seen nearly as many Giselles as I have had hot dinners I had no difficulty in following the libretto but that was not true of everybody in the audience.  Even though I can understand why there was no interval I think it would have welcomed by the audience. There is only so much the senses can absorb at once.  There were folk in the theatre who had never seen any other Giselle whose enjoyment would have been enhanced with a fuller synopsis and a better explanation of the cultural allusions. But Masilo is a remarkable dancer and choreographer and I can't wait to see her work again.

Any comparison between the work of one of our national companies and Masilo would be invidious and I am not going to try.  I left both theatres on a high.  Both versions of Giselle have their strengths. I learned a little bit about both works from seeing the other.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Phoenix at Home

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Phoenix Dance Theatre Phoenix at Home Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre 27 Sep 2019 19:30

I have swelled with pride when I have watched Phoenix Dance Theatre perform at the Peacock, the Lowry or the Linbury in Covent Garden but nowhere are they better than at home in their own theatre before their local audience.  This year it was particularly good with extracts from an exciting new piece called Black Waters which will be premiered at the Leeds Playhouse in February.

Black Waters was introduced by Sharon Watson, the company's artistic director, at the start of the show. In a short speech, she explained that it was inspired by two of the most infamous episodes of British imperial history. One was the murder of 130 Africans in 1782 by the owner of the vessel Zong who actually had the nerve to attempt to claim insurance for the loss of those slaves. The other outrage was the imprisonment of Indians in the Kala Pani prison over 100 years later. Watson mentioned that she was building on the success of Windrush: Movement of the People which is another aspect of this country's imperial past.

The piece is a collaboration between Watson and Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta of Rhythmosaic in Kolkatta.  The intention is to blend the heritage and strengths of both companies. That is to say, kathak and contemporary to a score by Dishari Chakraborty. The extracts that we saw are very uncomfortable to watch even centuries later but they are also absorbing.  Clearly, this will be a very important work.

Our mood changed instantly with the next piece which was a work by the students of Phoenix Youth Academy.  Those kids are wonderful.  Their energy was boundless.  They performed a work created especially for them by Sandrine Monin.  She is the choreographer who created Calyx.  Monin thrilled me as a dancer when she was with Phoenix and she continues to excite me with her choreography.

The last work of the evening was Jeanguy Saintus's Rite of SpringI had seen that work in the mightly Lowry (see  Phoenix Comes of Age with its Rite of Spring 27 March 2019) and in the CAST in Doncaster (see Phoenix's Rite of Spring and Left Unseen 11 April 2019) and I have described the work in those reviews.  The Stanley and Audrey Burton is a much more intermediate auditorium and I have actually danced in it.  For once I felt I was not just watching the performance but actually taking part in the ceremony.  Never have I felt closer to the performers or more involved in the show than I did that night.  It was an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Sadly, dancers move on.  Carmen, Sandrine and Prentice have gone but the wonderful Vanessa Vince-Pang is still here as are Carlos Martinez and Michael Marquez.  There are some very promising new faces whose careers I shall follow with interest. 

Shortly after the show, it was announced that Sharon Watson had received a Black British Business Award (see Sharon Watson wins big at the Black British Business Awards 3 Oct 2019). This award delights me but not surprise me in the least.  I have seen her in presentations in contexts quite unconnected with dance such as the Chinese IP Roadshow that I chaired two years ago and she is very impressive indeed.