Monday, 10 February 2020

Ballet West's "Swan Lake" - A Show of which any Company could be proud

Standard YouTube

Ballet West Swan Lake  SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, 8 Feb 2020 and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 9 Feb 2020, 19:30

According to Wikipedia, the SEC Armadillo has 3,000 seats. When I attended Ballet West's performance of Swan Lake on Saturday evening the place was heaving.  That was the wild night that Glasgow was hit with 70 mph winds and horizontal, torrential rain when most sensible Glaswegians would have been safely ensconced at home.  Though the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock is somewhat smaller, there was also a pretty large audience there on Sunday.  A small ballet school nearly 500 miles from London and even 87 from Glasgow that attracts crowds like that must be doing something right.

And indeed it is.   The current production of Swan Lake is the best show that I have seen from Ballet West in the 7 years that I have been following them.  It was not just a good student production.  It was a good show - one of which any company could be proud.

There are several reasons why this show worked so well.

 First, it was a true Swan Lake and not just a dance show about humanoid swans.  Swan Lake's appeal lies not just in Petipa and Ivanov's choreography or Tchaikovsky's score but in its simple, powerful message of redemptive love.  Consider the opening lines of Milton's Paradise Lost:
"OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat."
The swans have lost their humanity and are held in thrall to von Rothbart for a reason that we know not.  They could have been redeemed by Siegfried but he betrays them by pledging his love for von Rothbart's daughter.  The only other way is the sacrifice of Odile and Siegfried.  Any deviation from that story is just not Swan Lake/   That is why I am exasperated by works called Swan Lake that omit that narrative

The second reason for the success of the show lay in the casting.  I was impressed by Norton Fantinel who danced Siegfried and even more by Karina Moreira who danced Odette-Odile but the artist who caught my eye from his serpentine entrance at the beginning of the white act to his destruction at the very end was Rahul Pradeep. He danced von Rothbart and his role is as crucial as Odette-Odile's and Siegfried's in that he is the personification of evil.  He manifests it in so many ways from the moment he and his daughter barge onto the scene literally sending the chamberlain flying to his studied rudeness as he slouches next to the queen turning his back on the divertissements.  Other dancers who grabbed my attention were Luciano Ghideli, Michaela Fairon and Josephine Mansfield in the pas de trois, Fairon again with Florence Blackwood, Caitlin Jones and either Freya Hatchett or Josie Ridgway in the cygnets and Fairon once again with Gianni Illiaquer in the Neapolitan divertissement.  Their agility and joie de vivre reminded me of Wayne Sleep and Rosemary Taylor in my salad days.  I could go on to list the artists in the Spanish and Hungarian dances and the Mazurka but then this review would resemble a telephone directory. All who took part in the show including the Glasgow associates merit commendation.

The third reason for the production's success was the investment in sets and costumes. The backcloths displayed computer-generated graphics which included falling leaves, a waterfall and ripples on the surface of the lake which were of cinematographic quality. The author of the graphics software is not mentioned in the programme but I understand him to be Léon ten Hove. Rarely have I seen detail of that kind on stage. There were two moments that literally took my breath away. The sudden appearance of a super life-size vision of Odile as Siegfried is on the point of declaring his love for Odile and the final scene as the swans soared above the clouds illuminated by an outsize moon. The costumes, especially the dresses of the guests to Siegfried's party, were sumptuous. So, too, were von Rothbart's robes. How the artists must have enjoyed wearing them.

I take a close interest in dancers' education.  I support other schools such as Central, the Northern  Ballet School and, more recently, the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam.  But Ballet West has a special place in my esteem which is why I return to Scotland at this time of the year every year.  It is partly its idyllic position with views of the banks of Loch Etive but I think there is something special in the quality of its training.  Towards the end of the programme, there are pages headed "School Highlights" and "Where are they now?" They make very interesting reading.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

"The Nutcracker" by St Petersburg Classic Ballet

Lyceum Theatre Sheffield

St Petersburg Classic Ballet Thr Nutcracker  7 Jan 2020 Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

According to the programme notes for its recent tour of the UK, the St Petersburg Classic Ballet "has built a fan following of audiences who appreciate the artistry and technique of this company of exquisite young dancers and stars of the future". Maybe I saw it on an off-day because I have to say that I have seen better performances of The Nutcracker.

My heart sank with the opening bars of the familiar overture for it sounded thin and tinny.  My spirits were not raised when the curtain revealed a set that looked cheap and artificial,  So, too, did the costumes even though they were supposed to have been made by "craftsmen of the legendary Mariinsky Theatre Workshops."  The blue Father Christmas hats which were worn by Fritz and the other little boys at Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum's party and the moon and stars outfit of Dr Drosselmeyer particularly irritated me.   I saw some competent dancers but none of them seemed to be particularly young and I should be very surprised to see any of them in leading roles with major companies.  Somehow they managed to fill the Sheffield Lyceum but I suspect that had more to do with the attraction of brand "Russia" and brand "St Petersburg" than anything else.  Many in the audience will have seen clips or read reports of the Mariinsky or Kirov and I should not be surprised if one or two of them thought that that was the company that they had seen that night.

As I said in The Nutcracker #2 - The Bolshoi Screening (25 Dec 2019), there is a difference between The Nutcracker as performed in Russia and the versions that are performed in the West.  Here it is a Christmas show - almost a pantomime - with expanding Christmas trees, toy soldiers, a really saccharine choral bit in snowflakes and lots of jolly divertissements about chocolate, tea and coffee in the kingdom of the sweets.  There it is much more dramatic and in some ways darker with lots of psychological undertones.  The version that we saw in Sheffield was decidedly Western.  They called the Stahlbaums' daughter "Clara" rather than "Marie" or "Princess Masha" and although they separated the roles of Clara and Sugar Plum in the cast list both roles were danced by Yulia Yashina. 

On reviewing my notes a month after the performance, I see that there were some bits that I really liked.  I starred the Chinese dance by Mikhail Bogmazov and Alina Volobueva. Although I wasn't moved sufficiently to mark the dancers' performance I much preferred the Russian dance to be performed by a man and a woman as it was in this show than by four lads pretending to be Cossacks as happens in other productions. 

The Nutcracker is already a very short ballet as it consists of two acts but this production seemed to be even shorter than usual.  Two acts of 50 minutes each with a 20-minute interval.  Divertissements seemed to have been left out of both acts.  There were some touches that I just could not understand like the appearance of 4 men in the scene where the Sugar Plum appears with her beau.   I know that this is a touring production that requires compromises to be made but this seemed to have more than most.

 My ticket to this performance had been an early birthday present and I hate to winge when someone else is treating me.  Being a bit of a duffer when it comes to ballet, it ill behoves me to criticize those who make their living from dance.  But I just can't give this show a ringing endorsement and I won't be seeing the St Petersburg Classic Ballet on any future tour it may make to the UK.