Sunday, 20 October 2019

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

Standard YouTube Licence

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.

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