Sunday, 31 July 2022

The van Manen Festival, Programme IV

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Dutch National Ballet and Guests Hans van Manen Festival IV National Opera and Ballet auditorium 29 June 2022 20:15

I would argue that Hans van Manen is the greatest living choreographer and one of the greatest of all time.  I have been a fan ever since I first saw his work some 50 years or so ago.   In that time he has made over 150 ballets and I have seen a fair number of them.  His works are performed regularly by the world's leading ballet companies including those of the United Kingdom.

Earlier this month van Manen celebrated his 90th birthday.   To mark the occasion, the Dutch National Ballet ended its 2021-2022 season with a special Hans van Manen Festival.  Between 8 and 29 June 2022, the Dutch National Ballet and companies from Austria and Germany performed 19 of van Manen's works arranged in four separate programmes.  

I attended the fourth of those programmes on 29 June 2022 which consisted of Four Schumann Pieces, In the Future, Variations for Two Couples, Solo and Concertante.  I chose that programme for three reasons.  It was an opportunity to see the latest recruits to the Junior Company which I had followed closely since 2013.  They were to perform In the Future which I had previously seen at their 5th-anniversary celebration at the  Stadsschouwburg on 15 April 2018, the 2018 gala and in London on 5 July 2019.  Secondly, one of the works was to be performed by the Vienna State Ballet and another by the Stuttgart Ballet which had been Cranko's company.  These are companies that rarely visit this country and it was a chance to see them. Finally, the fourth programme included Concertante which is the work by van Manen that I know best.

Van Manen had created Four Schumann Pieces for the Royal Ballet.  It was first performed at Covent Garden on 31 Jan 1975 with Sir Anthony Dowell in the leading role.  The music is Robert Schumann's String quartet in A opus 41 no. 3.   The ballet revolves around the leading male and there is some YouTube footage of Dowell in that role.  It was part of a mixed bill which I attended.  I can't remember much about it but it would have been one of the reasons why I began to admire van Manen.   According to the programme notes, the male lead was later performed by Rudolf Nureyev, Hans Ebelaar, Wayne Eagling and Matthew Golding each of whom interpreted it in a different way.  The company that performed the piece on 29 June was the Vienna State Ballet.   Davide Dato was the lead male  He was supported by Hyo-Jung Kang and Arne VanderveldeLiudmila Konovalova and  Francesco CostaElena Bottaro and Igor MilosSonia Dvořák and  Géraud Wielick and Aleksandra Liashenko and Andrey Teterin.  The company danced Four Schumann Pieces for the first time in the Vienna Volksoper on 4 June 2022. For them, it was a brand new piece which they danced with appealing energy and freshness.

In the Future was created for the Scarpino Ballet Rotterdam in 1986,  a company that is even older than the Dutch National Ballet.  The piece was inspired by music that the Scottish composer David Byrne had written as a soundtrack for Fritz Lang's film Metropolis the previous year.  As striking as the music are the set, costume and lighting designs of Keso Dekker  Each dancer wears a garment that is green at the front and red at the back. The dancers pulsate to the music as if they were beams of light.  It is a perfect piece for the Junior Company which is now a completely different cohort from the one I saw in Amsterdam in 2018 and London in 2019.  The members who danced on 29 June were Luca Abdel-NourKoko Bamford, Lily CarboneMila Caviglia, Sven de Wilde, Lauren Hunter, Nicola Jones, Gabriel Rajah, Guillermo Torrijos, Louisella Vogt and Koyo Yamamoto.  They were as impressive as their predecessors and I look forward to watching them develop as a troupe and blossom as artists of the Dutch National Ballet and other leading companies.

Variations for Two Couples is one of van Manen's latest works.  It was created for Anna Tsygankova,  Matthew Golding, Igone de Jongh and Jozef Varga and first performed on 15 Feb 2012.  It is a very short piece that packs in music by Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Stefan Kovács Tickmayer and Astor Piazzolla.   The programme states that for van Manen it was all about the personalities of the dancers that he wished to draw out.  Varga danced the role that van Manen had created for him on 29 June. but instead of Tsygankova, Golding and de Jongh he was joined by Riho Sakamoto, Young Gyu Choi and Jessica Xuan.   Van Manen intended this to be a very understated ballet.   He said, "everything is 'low down' – even the dancers’ lifts."  That is echoed by Dekker's costumes and backdrop.  The result is a work of refinement and elegance.

There was an interval after Variations for Two Couples.   On returning to my seat I noticed that van Manen was sitting in my row.  Several of his fans were talking to him and one gave him a hug.   He stood up to allow me to pass and for a moment I felt impelled to introduce myself and shake his hand.  However, the curtain was about to rise and I let the moment slip.  The very next day my friend Gita Mistry button-holed him in the lobby of the National Opera and Ballet auditorium as we gathered for the Gala.  She introduced me to him and  I had the opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed his work over the last 50 years.  However, Gita went one better and actually took a selfie of herself with the great man. In her interview with Judith Mackrell, Laura Esquivel compared the art of the chef with that of the choreographer (see Like Water for Chocolate  23 July 2022). Gita offered to cook for van  Manen and as she is an artist in spice he would enjoy one of the best meals of his life were he ever to take her up on the offer.

Solo danced by Henrik Erikson, Alessandro Giaquinto and Matteo Miccini of the Stuttgart Ballet won the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening.  It is a very short piece set to Bach's Violin Partita. Keeping up with the music requires great virtuosity and equal stamina.  It was danced with energy, flair and fluidity. - an altogether brilliant display.

The first time I saw Concertante it was performed by Northern Ballet.   I wrote in Terpsichore:
"What can one say about a masterpiece? Especially when there is a YouTube video of the great man himself discussing his ballet. According to the clip van Manen staged the work for the Nederlands Dans Theater junior company (Dans Theater 2). He spoke very highly of the Leeds dancers (Bateman, Batley, Leebolt, Contadini, Lori Gilchrist, Nicola Gervasi, Prudames and Isaac Lee-Baker) as well he might for they were good."

The video to which I referred was an interview with van Manen in Leeds on 6 June 2013.   I have seen performances of the work by other companies since then and it never ceases to impress me. Floor Eimers said that Concedrtante brings out the best in her and that seems also to be the case with other dancers.  There is something compelling in Frank Martin's music, Kekko's designs and of course the choreography,   This was the last work of the van Manen season and it was danced with verve by Nina Tonoli, Timothy van Poucke, Jingjing Mao, Martin ten Kortenaar, Lore Zonderman, Jan Spunda, Khayla Fitzpatrick and Conor Walmsley.

The evening had begun under the baton of Matthew Rowe, a compatriot and (I believe) an old boy of St Paul's School.  It ended under that baton of Northern Ballet's Director of Music, Jonathan Lo.  As he was led onto the stage the applause was deafening.   I felt very proud of him as well as Matthew Rowe.   But the loudest cheers and most vigorous clapping were reserved for van Manen himself.  They were in appreciation of the works that we had seen that night but also for his lifetime's achievement.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Further Reflections on "Like Water for Chocolate"

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In Like Water for ChocolateI noted that Christopher Wheeldon had advised his audience to come early and read the programme.  I added that that was good advice but not nearly enough.  Those coming to see  Like Water for Chocolate should watch Judith Mackrell's Insight videos:  Insights: Like Water For Chocolate — Beginnings and Origins Insights: Like Water for Chocolate – Music and Design and  Insights: Like Water for Chocolate – Towards Opening Night.  As a counsel of perfection, I advised readers to read the novel and see the film,   At that stage, I had done neither but now I have done both greatly enhancing my appreciation of the ballet.

Although the story spans several generations from the death of Tita's father at the shock of learning of his wife's infidelity to the wedding of her niece Esperanza to the doctor's son, Alex, most of the action takes place during the Mexican civil war between 1910 and 1920 near the city of Piedras Negras on the US border.  The book is divided into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year.  The months do not seem to bear any particular relationship to the narrative.  Each one starts with a list of ingredients some of which are quite gargantuan,   Most are for food but one is for matches.  Some of the chapters contain instructions but the novel is no cookbook.  I should be amazed if the author expects her readers to make dishes out of those ingredients.

The ballet is much kinder to Mama Elena than the book.  The scene where Tita reads her mother's correspondence shows the murder of her African American lover.  In the novel, there is nothing sympathetic about her at all.   Offering Rosaura to Pedro is an act of pure malevolence which wrecked the lives of two daughters, one son-in-law and possibly one grandson. She thrashed Tita for supposedly lacing the wedding cake with an emetic.  She tried to commit Tita to a psychiatric hospital which would necessarily have deprived her of the services of the daughter whose happiness was supposed to be sacrificed for care.  She showed the worst kind of hypocrisy in the second haunting by accusing her daughter of immorality when she had given birth to Gertrudis out of wedlock.  Tita banished the ghost by reminding Mama Elens of her hypocrisy.  Her last words to the ghost were words of hate,

Laura Esquivel's portrayal of Pedro is hardly kinder.  He is reprimanded for his folly in accepting the hand of a woman he did not love in order to be closer to her sister in the first chapter.  He neglected his bride for months after her wedding night on the pretext that Tita's cake had made her ill.  At several times in the story, he had the chance to carry Tita away much as Gertrudis had been carried away by her revolutionary captain but he missed every opportunity.  He was resentful of the doctor for his interest in Tita even though the latter had saved his skin literally after a carousel that dislodged an oil lamp.   He was moody, spoilt and not very bright.  Tita was right to send him packing several times.   

My favourite sister is Gertrudis who escaped her mother's thrall by dashing naked to her revolutionary liberator.  In the revolution she becomes a general bringing her soldiers to the ranch.  In celebrations at the ranch, she displays an ability to dance that neither of her parents possessed.  There is a discussion as to how she inherited such skills.  When she gave birth to a dark-skinned child Tita rescued her reputation by revealing her parenthood.

While reflecting on the story I remembered that many of Tita's contemporaries in this and many other countries missed the opportunity to marry.  That was not because of family tradition but because so many men had perished in the First World War.   Muriel Spark mentioned the generation of unmarried women in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  That was the fate of one of my aunts who was born at about the same time as Tita. Like Tiita she was an excellent cook and needlewoman.   She stayed at my grandmother's home in Heaton Moor until my grandmother died in 1953.  When the family home was sold she had to work as a housekeeper in Wilmslow until her death some 40 years ago,  I was not aware of a Pedro in her life but how would I have known?

In one of my tweets, I said the book was hilarious.  I was very properly pulled up by mg friend Marion Pettit who pointed out all those ruined lives.   But there were some extremely funny passages in the story.  As I read the book last night I chuckled at the thought of all those guests puking in the stream after eating Tita's wedding cake.  Or the thought of Gertrudis's sergeant trying to make sense of a pudding recipe,  Every tragedian leavens his story with humour.

I read Esquivel's novel in a single sitting.   I could not put it down   It is a long time since I last read a novel so quickly.   I rarely have the time for that. Even more rarely do I invest so much time in researching a ballet.  I did so this time because the work is so good.   The public will get a chance to see the ballet on-screen on 23 Jan2023.  That leaves plenty of time to read the book, see the film and watch Judith Mackrell's Insight vieos.   Their enjoyment will be greatly enhanced if they do.

Saturday, 23 July 2022

Like Water for Chocolate

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The Royal Ballet Lije Water for Chocolate The Royal Opera House, 8 June 2022, 19:30

I saw Like Water for Chocolate on 8 June 2022. It was my first trip back to Covent Garden since Onegin on 18 Jan 2020 (see The Royal Ballet's "Onegin" 8 March 2022).  I set out my first impressions on BalletcoForum immediately after I had seen it and in slightly more detail on Facebook a few hours later. It can be seen from those remarks that I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

The ballet was inspired by Laura Esquivel's novel Como agua para chocolate which has also been made into a film.  The title is curious to English ears probably because few of us make chocolate from scratch.  It refers to emotions that are about to boil over like a pan on the stove.  The reason why emotions run high is that Tita, a young woman, is prevented from marrying her lover, Pedro, by a custom that requires the youngest daughter to care for her mother for so long as she lives.   Her misery increases when her mother persuades Pedro to marry Tita's elder sister and Pedro agrees to do simply to be nearer Tita.   For those who have not yet seen the ballet, read the book or watched the film, the story is here,

In the YouTube video Insights: Lije Water for Chocolate - Beginnings and Origins, the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon explained how he came to create the ballet.  The film was one of the videos that he watched at his lodgings in New York shortly after he had landed before he had time to make friends.  To him, it was a lovely film.   Later he read the novel which he also enjoyed.  The notion of creating a ballet based on the novel took root in his mind at that time.

In the video, Judith Mackrell says that every chapter begins with one of Tita's recipes.  Gastronomy is important to Esquivel who recounted how she prepared meals for Wheeldon at her home.   It is through making delicious meals that Tita expresses her feelings.   That is difficult to replicate on stage which is why the ballet is inspired by the book and not a literal transposition.  In the video, Esquivel compares the art of the chef to that of the choreographer.  The chef has to select and arrange ingredients just as the choreographer has to select and arrange the elements of the ballet.  That analogy is appealing.   One way of appreciating the ballet is to treat it as an analogue to the perfect meal

One of the most important ingredients of that ballet is music.  The composer was Joby Talbot who wrote the score for The Winter's Tale, Alice'sAdventures in Wonderland and Chroma.  The conductor who interpreted Talbot's music is Alondra de la Parra.  She is Mexican and on the day that I saw the ballet she unfurled a massive Mexican flag at the reverence.  She was musical consultant to the company as well as conductor.  She discussed her contribution to the ballet in an interview with Kevin O'Hare.  Mexico is a large and diverse country which de la Parra compared to a planet.  Each region had its own musical traditions and even its own instruments some of which were demonstrated in Insights: Like Water for Chocolate - Music and Design.

Other important ingredients are the sets and costumes.   Wheeldon's designer was Bob Crowley who had worked with Wheeldon on The Winter's Tale and Alice'sAdventures in Wonderland.  The set and costume designers who assisted Crowley appear in the Music and Design video. Esquivel was closely involved in the designs.  Apparently, she is a collector of textiles and there is a charming recollection by Lynette Mauro, the costume designer, of Edquivel's delight as Mauro draped one of her favourite materials around a dancer.  I could see occasional similarities with The Winter's Tale in the designs for Like Water for Chocolate such as a tree as the central feature of one of the scenes.

There are some ballets that I forget the next morning and others that I can remember in every detail from 50 or 60 years ago.   The performance on 8 June 2022 is one of the latter.   It was memorable in every respect.   Yasmine Naghdi was Tita and Cesar Corrales was her Pedro.   Their final dance as their surroundings were consumed by fire was the high point of the ballet and I will remember it for the rest of my life.   The other great female role was Mama Elena danced by Fumi Kaneko,  Hers is perhaps the most difficult role in the work because she is Tita's oppressor but she was also oppressed.  One of the most poignant moments of the show which is rehearsed in the video is the murder of her lover.  There were splendid performances by Claire Calvert as Rosaura, Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Gertrudis and Williams Bracewell as Dr John Brown.   I could continue.   All who took part in the show excelled.  All are to be congratulated/

In the Beginnings and Origins, Wheeldon advised the audience to arrive a little bit earlier than usual to read the programme advice.   That is good advice but it is not enough.  It is not even possible for the thousands around the world who will only see it in the cinema.   The best advice I can give for those who want to appreciate the ballet fully is to watch the three Insight videos which will take three hours to run.  Also, if possible, to read the book and watch the film which I plan to do next.   In a small way, I hope this article will help.

Saturday, 9 July 2022

Croeso i Ŵyl Dream

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Ballet Cymru Dream Theatr Clwyd 28 May 2022 19:30 and Lichfield Cathedral 8 July 2022 19:30

The words "Croeso i Ŵyl Dream" were projected onto the wall of Lichfield cathedral last night.  They mean "Welcome to the Dream Festival".  An announcer introduced Darius James and Amy Doughty's Dream as part of the Lichfield Festival's Shakespeare celebration. 

The more one studies A Midsummer Night's Dream the more one finds layers of meaning.  Sometimes it takes a derivative work to reveal those hidden layers.  At first sight, Shakespeare's comedy contains multiple unconnected plots but in fact,. the quarrel between Titania and Oberon, the lovers in the woods, the mechanicals' play and indeed Pyramus and Thisbe are connected. They show the border between reality and the magical, or, if you prefer, the imagination, to be a shadowy one.   The choreographers revealed that interconnection in many ways from the casting of Isobel Holland and Robbie Moorcroft as Hermia's mum and dad as well as Titania and Oberon to their ingenious use of Frank Moon's score and Chris Illingworth's lighting and projections.

James and Doughty are not the first choreographers to transpose A Midsummer Night's Dream to dance.  Frederick Ashton,  Jean-Christophe Maillot, David Nixon and Arthur Pita have all created work that had been inspired by the play,  However, James and Doughty are perhaps the first to tell the full story of the play in all its complexity.  They seem to have revisited Shakespeare's text and created a libretto that summarizes every essential.   As Mendelsohn's score would have limited their opportunity to do that they commissioned a new score from Moon.   They did very much the same in Cinderella and that is perhaps their unique contribution to choreography.

Their summary was not a dry and slavish transposition.   They inserted their own humour like the puppy dog pose to represent Helena's infatuation and the space suit and balloon to indicate the man in the moon,  Indeed, just as the fitting of the slipper is the funniest part of James and Doughty's Cinderella, the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe stole the show.   A mop turned into a lion's mane, a dustbin lid transformed into a breastplate and a collage of cereal packets representing bricks on a wall were hilarious. touches.

Although several of my favourite artists in Ballet Cymru seem to have left Ballet Cymru the company retains plenty of talent left.  Moorcroft and Holland performed their roles as king and queen of the fairies regally and as Hermia's parents tenderly.  The super-talented Beth Meadway brought Helena to life in a way that I have never seen before.  I shall be reminded of Meadway whenever I see the play again regardless of medium.   Sanea Singh was an excellent Puck, Kotone Sugiyama an adorable Hermia, and Jacob Hornsey a memorable Bottom.  Caitlin Jones created a new character Lysandia imaginatively,  I also congratulate  Jacob Myers, Samuel Banks and Jethro Paine for their performances as Moth, Cobweb and Mustard Seed, particularly for their mocking adulation of Bottom while he was still a donkey.

Shows often grow as they tour the country and I think that has happened with Dream.   It was already a good show when I saw it in Mold on 29 May but it was even better yesterday.   Darius James told me that it will be performed in Leeds in the Autumn and that he will give Powerhouse Ballet a workshop based on the ballet.   I look forward to both very much indeed.