Sunday, 18 March 2018

Bernstein Centenary

Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990
Photo Jack Mitchell
Source Wikipedia

Royal Ballet Bernstein Centenary (Yugen, The Age of Anxiety and Corybantic Games 17 March 2018, 19:30 Royal Opera House Covent Garden

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most popular classical composers ever. One of the reasons for his popularity is that he did not work entirely in the classical idiom.  Consequently, many of his tunes appeal to an audience who have never entered a concert hall.  They are simple and memorable - easy to sing, hum or whistle. To celebrate the anniversary the Royal Ballet revived Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety and commissioned new works form Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, namely Yugen and the Corybantic Games.

I liked all the ballets in the programme. Yugen and The Age of Anxiety appealed immediately.  Corybantic Games was different. I admired the choreography, the geometric sets and, of course, Bernstein's music and I am an enormous fan of Lauren Cuthbertson but I think I will have to see it again and probably more than once to appreciate it properly.  Happily I will get that opportunity when the programme is streamed to cinemas on 28 March 2018.

Recently Gary Avis, the work's ballet master, tweeted that Yugen was breathtakingly beautiful. On seeing the tweet my first reaction was that he would say that - but he was right. I literally gasped for breath from the moment the stage revealed the geometric set with the dancers clad in red at first glance almost exactly alike. McGregoor had interpreted Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (extracts from the psalms including the 23rd sung in the original Hebrew) in movement and the result can only be described as sublime. I was enchanted by the whole performance.

The Age of Anxiety could not have been more of a contrast.  According to the programme notes it is based on W H Auden's poem which I have yet to read.  Wikipedia states:
"The poem deals, in eclogue form, with man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world. Set in a wartime bar in New York City, Auden uses four characters – Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble – to explore and develop his themes."
Well everybody must have got the New York bar bit but the coming to terms with industrialized world bit bypassed me. The ballet seemed to be about 4 people getting progressively drunk until the barman throws them out. They repair to Rosetta's flat with a magnificent view of the New York skyline. One of them passes out.  The last scene reveals Manhattan at dawn and the dancer's wonder at the sight.

Well Rosetta was  obviously Sarah Lamb and she was splendid in that role as she always is.  Luca Acri was Emble, Yorkshireman Thomas Whitehead was Qant and James Hay was Malin. I always give Whitehead an extra loud clap or cheer whenever I see him on stage because ........ well, we Northerners have to stick together, don't we.

For some reason or other the Corybantic Games reminded me of Ashton's Symphonic Variations even though Bernstein's music is so different from Cesar Franck's as is Wheeldon's choreography from Ashton's. I think it may have been because of the classical allusions. I seem to remember my old classics master telling me that the Olympic games were only one of a number of games in which the Greek city states competed. I surmised that the Corybantic Games must have been another. The dancers were clad simply as athletes and their movements were pretty extraordinary too. The work was divided into five movements with Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Yasmine Naghdi accompanying Cuthbertson in the first. Beatrix Stix-Brunnell on her own in the second, Navarra Magri and Marcelino Sambé in the third, Cuthbertson, Naghdi, Ball, Ryoichi Hirano, Stix-Brunnell and Bracewell in the fourth and Tierney Heap leading the ensemble in the fifth.

The crowd applauded politely at the end of Corybantic Games - especially when the leading ladies received bouquets - but the applause ended before the lights came on again. Nothing like the sustained clapping and cheering for the other two works.  I think the Wheeldom will become a well loved staple of the repertoire in time but audiences need to get to know it better.  Perhaps a different title would have helped.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Excellence - Ballet Black's Double Bill

Ballet Black  The Suit and A Dream within Midsummer Night's Dream Barbican Centre 16 March 2018, 20:00

After seeing extracts of Cathy Marston's The Suit and Arthur Pita's A Dream within Midsummer Night's Dream at Ballet Black's rehearsal studios on 25 Feb 2018, I wrote that I was confident that this year's tour would be Ballet Black's most successful yet (see Visiting Friends - Ballet Black at Home  7 March 2018).  And so it has proved.  I don't think I have ever seen them dance better. I don't think I have ever seen their audience more thrilled.

I was led to Ballet Black by Sarah Kundi whom I admired greatly when she danced in Leeds. When she left Ballet Black I was desolate. How could the company be the same without her?  But it did and became even better (see Ballet Black is still special 7 Nov 2013).  A few years later it lost another of my favourite dancers, Kanika Carr with her beautifully expressive face and laughing eyes. Again, I felt bereft but the company recruited beautiful new dancers and was stronger still.  And then Damian Johnson, my male dancer of the year for 2017, returned to the United States. How could Ballet Black ever recover from his departure? For a moment I feared they couldn't (see Ballet Black post Johnson - Still a good performance but something was missing 19 Nov 2017).  But it has for last night's performance was outstanding.  Walking back to my hotel I realized that Ballet Black is like a living thing, greater than the sum of its parts and capable of regenerating itself even after it loses an important member.

Cathy Marston's The Suit is based on Can Themba's short story which was made into a powerful film in 2016 and stage play, Briefly it is about a husband who punishes his wife's infidelity by treating her lover's suit as though it were a living guest placing it at the table for meals and taking it outside for walks. The wife can endure only so much of this humiliation before she hangs herself on her lover's tie. Set in apartheid South Africa her oppression is compounded by the repression of the state. The austerity under which even highly educated Africans were obliged to live was represented by skeletal furniture and a percussive score.  Particularly effective was the crumbling wall of sound that accompanied the mind shattering discovery of a stranger in the marital bed.

The wife, Matilda or Tilly, was danced by Cira Robinson.   Perhaps her finest performance in any ballet and certainly the most dramatic.  José Alves was Philemon her husband.  Another stunning performance. Simon, the lover, the owner of the suit was Mthuthuzeli November.  The rest of the company danced neighbours in Sophiatown.   In the programme they are described as a "chorus".  The use of a chorus is a technique that I noticed in Jane Eyre, the other Marston ballet that I have seen recently.  The choreographer will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I think it is the balletic equivalent to Greek drama. I find it very effective.

After that stage suicide - not the first I have seen in the last few months (Las Hermanas in Northern Ballet's MacMillan Celebration and English National Ballet's Le Jeune Homme et la Mort in Tamara Rojo at Last! Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and La Sylphide) we needed a bit of cheer and Arthur Pita provided it with A Dream within A Midsummer Night's Dream.  This was the fifth time that I have seen that ballet and I love it.  I love Isabela Coracy's playful Puck in boy scout uniform, Titania's infatuation with Bottom (November), the delicious girlishness of Hermia and Helena (Marie Astrid Mence and Sayaka Ichikawa) and Oberon's grunting with his butterfly net. Alves danced Oberon beautifully, with gravitas tempered with levity.  I love the music and although I am still not sure how Salvador Dali fits into the story I love him and his moustache too.  In this staging of the work November glides in with a Dali dead.  I love the music, particularly the Yma  Suma and the stately Handel with the girls in classical tutus at the beginning and the end.

I had originally planned to see the double bill tonight and had a ticket for the centre stalls but on learning of the talk I asked the theatre to exchange it for whatever it had for yesterday so that I could attend the discussion.  Actually I did very well for I was in the centre of row B of the gallery commanding a great view of the stage with the most vocal and appreciative section of the crowd.  I am so glad that I stayed for the talk because Cira Robinson was magnificent.  She spoke about her art with passion.  I have always admired her. Yesterday my respect increased 200%. But there was another treat. Arthur Pita was in the audience and he spoke how Shakespeare had inspired his Dream and his love for every piece of the score.

Finally, on the way out to Silk Street I spotted some of the dancers. If they read this review they would have known how much I loved last night's performance. But yesterday I could tell them in person and that was so much more satisfying.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

No Ordinary Nutcracker - Duchy Ballet's 20th Anniversary Performance

Sara-Maria Barton as Sugar Rum Cherry
Author Zoe Green Photography
© 2018 Duchy Ballet
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

Duchy Ballet  The Nutcracker Hall for Cornwall, 10 March 2018, 19:30

In my very first blog post just over 5 years ago I reviewed Ballet West's performance of The Nutcracker at the Festival Theatre in Pitlochry.  The ballerina in that performance was Sara-Maria Barton and she danced brilliantly. It is a long way to Pitlochry from Clegg and Compo Land but that show was well worth the journey. Today I travelled approximately the same distance in the opposite direction to see another performance of The Nutcracker - this time by Duchy Ballet. Again, Barton was the lead dancer.  Once again she danced brilliantly as did everybody. Yet again, the show was worth every single millimetre of the journey.

Tonight's show was no ordinary Nutcracker.  Shortly after the house lights dimmed and the music started my row of the stalls was bathed in light as Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum's guests stepped in front of us. In a questionnaire that was circulated to the audience, we were asked "What was the most memorable part of Duchy Ballet's Nutcracker and why?" Not an easy question to answer because there was much that was memorable but I wrote down that entrance because it invited the audience into the show allowing us to feel part of the story.   It was the first of many clever touches by the choreographer and producer, Terence Etheridge.

Another difference in Etheridge's version is that Clara was quite grown up. Her role was danced appealingly on Saturday night by Grace Hazeldine. Drosselmeyer - slightly sinister in most productions and sometimes a little dotty - was danced dashingly by Jamie Constance.  In this production, he was a tall, slender and handsome ballet student - not a wizened wizard or batty inventor.  There were some lovely little touches such as Clara gently cradling her nutcracker, Bethany Hoskins, Kira Allen and Amy Shakerley as mechanical ballerinas, Stuart Strongman and Amy Robinson as a soldier automaton  and his vivandière and some of the youngest dancers holding a Roman numeral turning in sequence to represent the passing of the hours up to midnight.

Strongman led his soldiers into a fierce battle with the rodents led by Riley McLoughlin. In my review of Scottish Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker I said that Lez Brotherston's vermin are the best in the business (see Newcastle Nutcracker (16 Feb 2018). Well Duchy Ballet's were pretty fearsome too. But for Clara's intervention they would have won the day in Truro. She seemed to show a pang of remorse after she had dispatched King Rat which made me warm to her all the more.

The first act ended traditionally with a blizzard of snowflakes with Laura Miners as their queen. Joined on stage by young dancers bearing lanterns they were quite charming.  Nothing like last week's "beast from the east".

Although Etheridge had made the changes that I mentioned above, tailored the choreography and tweaked the libretto to suit his dancers, the first act would have been recognizable to Petipa and Ivanov.  The music was Tchaikovsky's. The story was based on Hoffmann and Dumas.  The second act was rather different.  For a start there was live music provided by the talented students of Truro School Senior Jazz Orchestra conducted by their teacher Peter Thompson.  Instead of Tchaikovsky's composition they played Duke Ellington's adaptation of Tchaikovsky's score. In place of the kingdom of the sweets there was a jazz café imaginatively designed by Sandra Goodenough.  In substitution of a Sugar Plum Fairy there was a Sugar Rum Cherry danced quite deliciously by Barton.

I should stress, however, that though the link with Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Ivanon was stretched it was never strained to breaking point. Tchaiovsky's tunes remain recognizable in Ellington's variations. In traditional productions the Spanish dance represents chocolate, the Arabian coffee and the Chinese tea.  Etheridge extended the analogy to all the divertissements so that we had "Manhattan Sunrise", "Sassy Sangria", "Bucks Fizz" and "Liquorice Cocktail" as well as other concoctions to the dance of tje mirlitons, flowers and all the other familiar pieces.  All the divertissements delighted me but if I had to choose a favourite it would be the Chinese dance.  It is seldom done well because the music is tingly and often it is clowned.  Etheridge created a children's dance which suited both mood and music.  I should add that I was greatly impressed by the strength and skills of the waiters, Strongman, McLoughlin and, Constance though I am not sure that their dance could be described as a divertissement.

It was a joy was to see Barton again.  I had greatly enjoyed her performances as Sugar Plum, Odette-Odile and Juliet for Ballet West (see Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" 25 Feb 2013 and Thinking our Loud about Ballet West 8 Feb 2016, Swan Loch - Ballet West's Swan Lake, Pitlochry 1 March 2014 3 March 2014 and Ballet West's Romeo and Juliet  1 Feb 2015). She has now moved to Glasgow to pursue other interests and no longer performs with that company.  Despite outstanding performances by Natasha Watson and Uyu Hiromoto, I had missed her very much.  Well, her presence last night in Cornwall more than made up for her absences over the last two years in Scotland.  In a rôle created especially for her she seemed to dance better than ever.  Certainly, she delighted me more than ever.

Because this year is the 20th anniversary of Duchy Ballet, Kay Jones, the artistic director, came on stage after the curtain call. She congratulated the cast and the musicians from Truro School on their performance.  She acknowledged the massive contributions of Sianne Strasberg, Maureen Pascoe and Terence Etheridge to the company.   She announced that the Hall for Cornwall will close for several years  from July for extensive renovations during which time the company will require a new temporary home and perhaps new venues.  She appealed to the audience to complete the feedback questionnaire that I mentioned in the second paragraph so that informed decisions could be made as to how the company should use that time.

As I noted in Ballet in Cornwall 17 Sep 2016, Duchy Ballet is very important to Cornwall as it provides stage experience for talented students and an opportunity for Cornish residents to see high quality ballet locally. However, Duchy Ballet is also important to the rest of the country for three reasons.  First, students who have danced with Duchy Ballet study, work and teach elsewhere.  Secondly, the company has developed an audience in Cornwall not just for its own performances but also for those of Birmingham Royal Ballet's southern tour and other companies too.  Thirdly, Duchy Ballet has created works on Cornish themes like The Mermaid of Zennor and the Mousehole Cat that might otherwise never have been made.  It is therefore in everybody's interest to support the company. For those who wish to do so there are Friends of Duchy Ballet, "Sponsor a Dancer" and other fund raising schemes.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Visiting Friends - Ballet Black at Home

The View from outside the Feathers
Author Geoffrey Skelsey
Licence Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Source Wikipedia

The day before I left for Amsterdam while the Beast form the East was still stalking its lair I visited Ballet Black for a rehearsal of extracts from Arthur Pita's  A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cathy Marston's The Suit which the company will present at the Barbican between 15 and 17 March 2018. Every performance of that show is now sold out but the company will take it on tour to Newbury, Hatfield, Bristol, Nottingham, Inverness, Dundee and Exeter in Spring and no doubt Leeds and other venues in the North in the Autumn (see the Performances page of Ballet Black's website).

Pita's Dream is already a favourite with audiences and critics. I raved about it in 2014 when I saw it no less than 4 times in London, Southport, Nottingham and Leeds (see Extra Special - Ballet Black at the Linbury 26 Feb 2014  27 Feb 2014 and the links to other reviews and articles). The Suit also promises much with music by Philip Feeney and designs by Jane Heather.  As I don't want to spoil the anticipation of either ballet, all I will say at this stage is that Cira Robinson delighted me again as a regal Titania and Isabela Coracy as a playful Puck, Marston's work is dramatic and I was reminded of Jane Eyre and Rochester in the duet and the demons from Marston's work for Northern Ballet in the extract that was performed for us.

The rehearsal took place in Ballet Black's new studios at The Feathers Association in Lisson Grove. That's not a part of London that I know well and as Hull Trains delivered me to King's Cross with a couple of hours to spare I explored the neighbourhood.  It is largely residential with few places to eat though I managed to find a cafe a few hundred yards from the studios that served some excellent Moroccan specialities for a very reasonable price. The Feathers is positioned on a bridge above the railway tracks leading to Marylebone station from which the above photo must have been taken.

The visit was a special event for Friends of the company.  If you are not already a Friend, Thandie Newton, the company's patron, lists some of the benefits of membership:
"Internationally recognised for its vital message of giving black and Asian dancers the professional opportunities they merit based solely on their talent and dedication, Ballet Black continues to amaze. As a Friend, you will be making a valuable contribution to the sustainability of this small yet hugely significant company and will support its ongoing commitment to aspiring dancers and to its ever increasing and loyal audience. In return, Ballet Black will welcome you behind the scenes to watch Company rehearsals under the exceptional eye of Artistic Director, Cassa Pancho as well as with acclaimed guest choreographers. You will receive quarterly newsletters to keep you up-to-date about news, events and performances so you will never miss out."
After the show, the company invited us for tea and biscuits in their office where the dancers joined us. It was very pleasant to see them all again.  The only one I did not already know was Ebony Thomas who had impressed me in Leeds in November and I took the opportunity to introduce myself to him.

I am confident that this year's tour will be Ballet Black's most successful yet.  I shall watch the show on Friday 16 after which there will be a post show talk.   The next day there will be an open rehearsal and workshop as part of the Barbican OpenFest.  According to the blurb:
"Cassa Pancho (Artistic Director of Ballet Black) will conduct a Ballet Class for all ages on the Barbican Freestage, prior to Ballet Black's open rehearsal and performance on Saturday evening in the Barbican Theatre. This workshop is free and open to all, no prior experience necessary."
I can hardly wait.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

A Day of Superlatives - Dutch National Ballet's Don Quixote

Standard YouTube Licence

Dutch National Ballet Don Quixote 28 Feb 2018 20:00 Music Theatre, Amsterdam

Wednesday was a day of superlatives. I don't think Amsterdam has ever looked lovelier than it did that night in the clear, crisp air with a full moon and the lights of the buildings, street lights and traffic twinkling in partly frozen canals and the river. I don't think I have ever seen a better Don Quixote even though I have seen artists like Isabella Boylston and Marianela Nuñez dance Kitri and Carlos Acosta dance Don Basilio. Above all, I don't think I have ever seen the Dutch National Ballet dance better.

One reason why I enjoyed that show so much was that nearly all the leading rôles were performed by dancers who graduated from Ernst Meisner's Junior Company.   Sho Yamada, who danced Don Basilio, had partnered Michaela DePrince in an extract of Diana and Acteon the first time I saw the Junior Company (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 25 Nov 2013). Riho Sakamoto was Kitri on Wednesday night. Jessica Xuan, who also joined the Junior Company in 2013, was queen of the Dryads. Yuanyuan Zhang, danced Juanita. Many more of their contemporaries including Cristiano Principato and Thomas van Damme supported them in the show,

Wednesday's show was their opportunity to impress and each of them grabbed it readily.  They danced with exuberance and verve.  Combined with imaginative sets that included a winking moon, costumes for ambulatory cacti and monsters more outlandish than Hieronymus Bosch's, the stage exploded with energy, movement and colour. Don Quixote had never been my favourite ballet because the story is so confusing.  Basically La Fille mal gardée except that it is dad rather than mum pushing daughter into an arranged marriage.  What has that to do with Cervantes? Or cactus men and beaked monsters for that matter?  The answer is "not much but who cares so long as the ballet flows".  Wednesday did flow to Minkus's jaunty score with spectacular choreography such as one armed lifts and daring fish dives. Ratmansky's production helped me understand the ballet and to appreciate it properly.

Yamada danced Don Basilio with style and swagger.  Tall, slender and athletic he commanded the stage.  Sakamoto charmed me with her coquetry and impressed me with her technique, especially with her fouettés in the final act. Though it is probably unfair to single out any artist for special praise, there were captivating performances by Xuan as queen of the Dryads, Suzanna Kaic as Cupid and Zhang as Juanita.  There was fine character dancing from Nicolas Rampaic as the slightly dotty Don Quixote and hilarious clowning by Frans Schraven as his squire.

I have already mentioned the imaginative sets and costumes.  I was not surprised to learn that they had been designed by Jérôme Kaplan who had impressed me several years ago with his designs for David Nixon's Gatsby. I have also mentioned Minkus's jaunty score.  Its interpreter on Wednesday night was Marzio Conti.  As I was seated directly behind the conductor only 5 rows back I experienced the music as he must have done. Perhaps that was yet another reason why I enjoyed the show so much.

Usually I come to Amsterdam for the day arriving on the first flight out of Manchester and returning on the last.  This time I had come to give a talk on patent litigation  at the Radisson Blu hotel in Russia.  Not really Russia, I should explain, but the street where the hotel stands is called "Rusland" which is Dutch for "Russia". On the way back from the theatre I felt transported to Petipa's Russia as I followed the frozen canals with the music resounding in my ears. That is just how I imagine St Petersburg to be.  One day, perhaps, I will find out whether I was right.

Talking of translations, a partner of the Dutch office of a leading international law firm invited me to dinner on Tuesday night at Hemelse Modder which translates as "Heavenly Mud".  The meal was scrumptious. I had croquettes of mussels, fennel and tarragon, lamb stew and a delicious lemon pudding with an excellent German red. I mentioned it on Facebook to which Ted Brandsen commented that it was his favourite restaurant.  I can quite see why.  It is now one of mine.   It is not far from the Music Theatre and I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Sarah Mortimer's New Studios

Just over a year ago I mentioned that Sarah Mortimer had left Ballet Theatre UK to start a new career as a freelance dancer and teacher (see Sarah Mortimer 24 Nov 2016).  Sarah was a delightful dancer and I was very sorry to see her go. However, teaching is at least as important as I explained in One of the Best Ballet Experiences Ever 14 Feb 2018.

I was therefore pleased to learn that Sarah has acquired her own dance studio known as Tenterden Studio Dance Company in one of the prettiest towns in Kent.  According to the studio website, the studio hosts Tenterden Ballet Studios which teaches a wide range of classes including adult ballet between 11:00 and 12:00 on Friday mornings. Should I find myself in the area on a Friday morning (which is not impossible as Tenterden is not far from Ashford International railway station) I shall try to attend it.

Sarah also offers private and personalized coaching and lets out studio space to other teachers.  I wish her every success in this venture.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Gaudeamus Igitur: St Andrews and Cambridge Student Shows

On 30 April and 1 May 2018 at 19:30 the St Andrews Dance Club (which I helped to found) will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a performance at the Byre. The show will feature "11 styles of dance from ballet to hip hop, choreographed by over 20 choreographers, this show is a true celebration of all the club has achieved over the past half century." I mentioned the club in Ballet at University  27 Feb 2017 which included a clip from Striking a Pose. It is good to know that our club has survived and prospered over those years. You cam buy tickets through the Byre's website here.

Last year's article was promoted by a post on BalletcoForum on Cambridge University Ballet Club's Giselle,  As you can see from their trailer the students reached a very high standard and their performance was applauded enthusiastically. This year they will dance Swan Lake at the West Road Concert Hall at 11 West Road, Cambridge  on 2 and 3 March 2018,  According to the Club's website
"over 100 dancers from the Cambridge University Ballet Club are coming together to choreograph and perform this four-part ballet. It will be an unforgettable experience!"
I attempted to learn the cygnets, prince's solo, Hungarian dance and the swans' entry at KNT in Manchester a few years ago (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3).  It isn't easy.  Fitting rehearsals into an already busy timetable requires a massive commitment from each and every member of the cast. They have my respect. I shall try to attend, or send a reviewer to attend, one of their shows.

I spent a very pleasant week at Downing College at the IP Summer School last year and I attended an adult ballet class while I was there (see Ballet, Bodywork and Bits in Cambridge 15 Aug 2018). It was one of the hardest classes I have ever taken in my life. I don't know whether any members of the Cambridge University Ballet Club attended that class but the standard in that class was very high indeed.

I wish the students at both universities toi, toi and chookas for their performances as well as every success in their studies and subsequent careers.  I will certainly be in the Byre on 30 April and I will do my best to attend and review one of the shows in West Road.