Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Made in Wales

Ballet Cymru's triple bill at Sadlers Wells 

 Joanna Goodman

The Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadlers Wells in London is quite a small theatre and on Saturday night it was full. There was a buzz of excitement and anticipation for Ballet Cymru’s Made in Wales triple bill – and there were a lot of dancers in the audience, so expectations were high. And we were not disappointed. 

The opening piece, Poems and Tiger Eggs, by Amy Doughty and Ballet Cymru’s founder Darius James OBE, was an interpretation of some of Dylan Thomas’ best known poems. These were read live on stage by Cerys Matthews (who some might remember as the energetic lead singer of Catatonia) accompanied by music written by Matthews and performed by jazz musician Arun Ghosh. Matthews has a relaxed yet compelling stage presence and her beautiful melodious voice brought familiar poems to life in new ways. The choreography was complex and energetic and engaged the audience straight away. The 12 dancers shifted smoothly from combination to combination and from an amusing depiction of suburban life in ‘That sanity be kept’ through the poignant drama of ‘The hunchback in the park’ to darker works, ‘Do not go gentle’, ‘And death shall have no dominion’. The dancers’ simple costumes and acrobatic contemporary style accentuated their strength and flexibility which combined with power of Thomas’ poetry and Matthews’ emotive performance was a hard act to follow. 

This was achieved by Liam Riddick’s Murmurations, set to music by Welsh singer Charlotte Church. Riddick was an award-winning dancer, performing with BalletBoyz and the Richard Alston Dance Company, whose influence can be seen in his choreography. This is Riddick’s first work for Ballet Cymru and its lyrical freshness is a great addition to the repertoire.

Ballet Cymru’s choreographers and dancers come from all over the world, and they all look different – unlike the typical corps de ballet – yet they move together in a fluid and harmonious way, blending classical ballet and flowing contemporary moves. This was particularly noticeable in Murmurations, which was inspired by the way starlings fly in ballet-like formations.  The dancers move together in flowing and leaping combinations, lifting and supporting each other in different ways. Again, the choreography was demanding and acrobatic, but it is also abstract, balancing out the dramatically figurative Poems and Tiger Eggs where the choreography often directly reflected Dylan Thomas’ words as well as its rhythm. Notwithstanding its abstract nature, it was a moving interpretation, enhanced by Joe Powell-Main’s beautiful expressive shoulders and arms which also spun his wheelchair with incredible speed and strength.

While the first two pieces felt like the essence of Wales, the final work, Isolated Pulses, was more broadly resonant. Created during lockdown by the company’s resident choreographer Marcus Jarrell Willis, and set to a medley of tracks ranging from Olafur Arnalds to George Frideric Handel, to the LSU Tiger Marching Band, the choreography was designed to convey the significance of individual existence and how each individual contributes to and shapes the world, through a series of  synchronised configurations around simple props of chairs and mirrors – each person was locked down in their own space, until they shifted and mingled with each other.  Here the costumes were more individualistic, and each role had a personality that interpreted the choreography in different ways, even though the coordinated sequences were designed to make moving shapes and patterns on the stage. 

While the first two pieces tended to move from cameo to cameo, Isolated Pulses belied its name with a broader range of music and bigger scenes, with all the dancers on the stage together throughout the piece. This perhaps echoed Willis’ background at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Rambert Dance. Again, despite its theme and title, Isolated Pulses reached out beyond Wales, expressing the way all of us have reacted collectively and individually to a situation that has affected the whole world. It was a great finale to an evening that showcased Wales’ cultural heritage and diverse contemporary talent in an original and enjoyable way. If you get the chance to see this, definitely go! This is my first experience of Ballet Cymru and I am looking forward to more of their interesting and unique work.

Thank you, Ballet Cymru and Terpsichore.

Joanna Goodman, November 2021

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Ballet Cymru's Giselle

Author Sian Trenberth Photography   © 2021 Ballet Cymru - all rights reserved


Ballet Cymru Giselle Riverfront Theatre, Newport 6 Nov 2021 19:30

On its home page Ballet Cymru proclaims:
"We are a ballet company who like to do things a bit differently. We enjoy finding new ways to make what we do exciting, innovative and relevant."

Nothing exemplifies that better than their new Giselle which was premiered at Lichfield cathedral and online on 8 July 2021 (see Giselle Reimagined 9  July 2021).  They are a small but important company which spends much of its time on the road.  Many of their venues are small auditoriums with limited ranges of stage equipment.  Ballet Cymru's artistic directors, Darius James and Amy Doughty, have taken the essentials of some of the world's great ballets and refashioned them for a small cast that is constantly travelling before audiences that may not see a lot of ballet.  They succeeded spectacularly with their Cinderella and Romeo a Juliet.  Their Giselle is a similar success.

Making such adaptations often requires adjustments to the libretto, characters and score.  For example, the mesmeric effect of rank upon rank of artists in white romantic tutus approaching each other in arabesque as the music reaches a crescendo is difficult to achieve with a small cast on a tiny stage playing recorded music.  Moreover, most modern audiences are unfamiliar with Rhineland folk tales about forest maidens who die before their wedding day.   Most of us have seen or at least heard of horror movies about the undead who crawl out of their tombs at night.  That is why there were zombies crawling about the stage instead of wilis en pointe in Act II.

If you replace wilis with zombies you probably need a new score.  James and Doughty commissioned Catrin Finch to adapt Adam's music. Finch had previously contributed the music for Celtic Concerto and The Light Princess and it was through those works that I first learned about her.  I have started to explore her other work. I was lucky enough to meet her at a reception at the Riverfront Theatre after the show.  I hope to write more about her work in this publication later.  Finch kept important parts of Adam's score such as the overture to Acts I and II and passages from the made scene but the greater part of the work was her own.  Some of it was very dramatic such as the percussion to indicate a heartbeat.

Apart from substituting zombies for wilis, James and Doughty kept the story more or less intact.   It unfolds with great clarity.  In keeping with their mission to make everything they do exciting, innovative and relevant James and Doughty set the ballet in contemporary Wales rather than the medieval Rhineland.  As there are not too many lords of the manor in Brexit Britain, Albrecht is no longer a noble, Merely a married man playing the field away from home.  He does not carry a sword but he does keep something in his wallet that enables Hilarion to denounce him.  The main character changes are the introduction of male as well as female zombies and Cerys, a besty for Giselle instead of an over solicitous mum,

I have now seen the ballet three times - once on-screen on 8 July, once live at the Stanley and Audrey Burton in Leeds on 4 Nov and again live in Newport on 6 Nov.   Each performance was a different experience. The company danced well in Lichfield and Leeds and must have made a lot of friends in both places but their performance in Newport before their home turf was of a different order of magnitude.  After a performance of TIR some years ago, their patron Cerys Matthews described them as "the pride of Newport and the pride of Wales".   She won a peel of polite applause for that remark.  On Saturday, it was palpable.  The crowd in the Riverfront have learnt to appreciate ballet and taken their home company to their hearts.  Just like the crowd in the Grand has adopted Nothern and the Hippodrome BRB.  Ballet Cymru has put down roots that may one day blossom into a mighty national company with its own school.

The cast was the same in all three shows.   Beth Meadway danced Giselle with grace and poise.  It was as if she was born for that role. Tall with an expressive countenance, there were instances when she was on pointe in Act II that reminded me of the lithographs of Grisi.  Andrea Battagia is a powerful athletic dancer but he is also a fine dance actor capable of expressing the subtleties of Albrecht's personality and his many emotions.  Isobel Holland, one of the most pleasant individuals one could ever hope to meet in real life, was a convincing personification of decay and evil as the lead female zombie.  So, too, was Robbie Moorcroft - again congeniality itself in real life - who created the new role of lead male zombie.  Two newcomers to the company impressed me particularly: Yasset Roldan as Hilarion and Hanna Lyn Hughes as Cerys.  I shall follow their careers with great interest. All the members of the company danced well in all three performances and I offer all of them my congratulations. 

James designed the sets and video projections.   These were ingenious and set each of the scenes effectively.   I particularly admired the churchyard scene just before dawn.  Ballet Cymru relies heavily on such projections but these were particularly good.   The opening scene of an ECG flashed onto the gauze together with the percussion and the cast's jumping like cardiac muscles warned the audience at the start that Giselle had a weak heart. James's designs were accompanied by skilful lighting design by Chris Illingworth and the imaginative costumes of Deryn Tudor.

Wales has a strong dance tradition as you can see from this grasshopper dance but it does not yet have a national ballet school or comprehensive nationwide facilities for developing balletic talent.  There are good ballet teachers in the main towns and cities but most of Wales is rural.   Ballet Cymru's Duets Programme goes some way to filling that lacuna.   Before Saturday's show, several young local schoolchildren on that programme presented a short demonstration of what they had learnt in a very short time.  They drew rapturous applause after which most of them watched Giselle in the row in front of me.  Ballet Cymru's investment in its nation's youth will create, at the very least, an eager and informed audience for dance and possibly even some of the next generation of the world's principals.