This month Julia and Rosie attended two performances of English National Ballet’s (ENB) Le Corsaire at the London Coliseum. This production, first staged in 2013 for ENB by Anna-Marie Holmes remains the only production of the ballet performed by a British company, although both the Mariinsky and Bolshoi companies have performed their productions in London.
Le Corsaire is a preposterous tale of swashbuckling pirates, an avaricious slave trader, lascivious pasha, and the love of Medora, and Conrad, the Pirates’ Captain. Originally choreographed in 1856 by Joseph Mazilier and loosely based on Lord Byron’s 1824 The Corsair, it is a product of its time – a spectacular fantasy of romance and adventure set in the Ottoman Empire, complete with an onstage shipwreck. It also now includes some of the most beautiful and exciting choreography in the classical repertoire.
There were lots of possible topics of conversation raised in reviews by Emma Byrne, Mark Monahan, Graham Watts, Lyndsey Winship, for example, but we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the subject of the dancing itself and individual dancers’ styles and interpretation of character.
JULIA: So, this was the first time I’ve seen the full ballet live, but you’ve seen other productions, haven’t you, Rosie?
ROSIE: Oh yes, I still vividly remember the Mariinsky (at that time called the Kirov) Ballet coming to London in 1988 after an interlude of 18 years and performing their new production. I saw the same cast as on the DVD: Altyai Asylmuratova, Evgeni Neff, Farukh Ruzimatov Yelena Pankova, Konstantin Zaklinsky and Gennadi Babanin. I’d never seen a whole troupe of dancers so explosive, virtuosic and compelling before. It was electrifying. Dance critic John Percival wrote that after seeing it in Paris at the end of 1987 he had raved about it for months before the company brought it to London the following summer (28).
JULIA: I went to the RAD Library this morning and found out that when Rudolf Nureyev staged Le Corsairepas de deux for Margot Fonteyn and himself in 1962, Peter Williams noted certain technical skills and qualities that set Nureyev apart from “Western” male dancers. He says: “His variation … provided one of those frisson-making occasions – most exciting of all being a series of jumps in a manège in which he turned high in the air with his legs tucked under him. It is the ease, softness and panther-like grace with which he does everything that makes him so different …” (49-51).
ROSIE: But this description reminds me of Jeffrey Cirio’s performance of Ali, Conrad’s friend, on opening night. In the grand allegro sections, he created beautiful clean precise arabesque lines, and after enormous jumps he would land gently, gradually allowing his body to alight. I find this kind of virtuosity exhilarating!
ROSIE: Daniel McCormick as Ali was also spectacular, but had a quite different visual impact – the twist in his torso was so pronounced that he looked two-dimensional. Extraordinary. He won the 2018 Emerging Dancer Competition performing this role, but since then he has definitely refined and developed the stylistic characteristics of Ali. He drew me in like a magnet whenever he was on the stage, even when he wasn’t performing a dance as such.
JULIA: Another thing that I was particularly impressed by was the use of both personal and performance space. All the men were using the far reach space of their kinesphere; it looked like they couldn’t have reached any farther into the space – this added to the sense of power end elevation in their jumps.
ROSIE: Over the last few weeks I have been noticing the advertising poster with Brooklyn Mack as Conrad: it shows exactly this sense of broad kinesphere – breadth and length through the whole body – as well as strength in allegro. For me the hands are super important to the style. All the male dancers were showing openness and energy in their hand positions.
JULIA: Yes, and this was such as a contrast with Erina Takahashi’s use of personal space… As Medora she used a lot of near space making her port de bras look very delicate, which is also representative of her character. Medora seems quite gentle in comparison to her feisty friend Gulnare. I like the journalist Teresa Guerreiro’s description of Shiori Kase in that role as “sassy” and “resourceful”.
ROSIE: But I think we both found the personalities reversed with the other cast. Katja Khaniukova’s Medora was more spirited. You felt that was connected to her personal moment style, right?
JULIA: Yes, it’s not just a matter of acting, it’s that she highlights positions at the end of a phrase, and this gives her dancing a kind of boldness that makes Medora seem more assertive.
ROSIE: To be honest, when I watch this ballet, I don’t really pay much attention to the story line, as such. Nineteenth century ballets like Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1842), Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895) seem to hold a lot more symbolic significance within their narratives. But even still, the characters have to have life … Yes, for this ballet to work, the dancing has to be glorious and the acting has to resonate with me.
JULIA: I know what you mean about the libretto, but as I was watching I was seeing important themes emerge, like loyalty, betrayal, compassion. All of them tell us something about human nature. And I always think that the dancers in this Company are really convincing with their acting – even if they have a minor role or are milling around, like in the market scene in Act I of this ballet.
ROSIE: They are! When Jeffrey was performing Conrad, I was so captivated by his “conversation” with Birbanto, his second-in-command, at the side of the stage that I got distracted from the centre-stage dancing!
JULIA: You can even see this commitment to portraying character in the photos – people watching onstage events, showing their interest in different ways, engaging with other characters in really vivid ways, going about their business and so forth. It’s like people watching.
ROSIE: So I was really surprised when I read that Anna-Marie Holmes found teaching the mime the biggest challenge of staging the work. That makes me really appreciate what a skill it is.
JULIA: I know that the Odalisques pas de trois is one of your favourite parts …
ROSIE: I love it!
JULIA: Even here, where the dancers might focus solely on their technique, I noticed on the first night a true sense of character coming through. Julia Conway (she’s such a beautiful dancer – another winner of Emerging Dancer) seemed quite solemn, whereas Precious Adams appeared more agitated about her fate …
ROSIE: And Alison McWhinney was gently glowing, as if indulging in the sheer pleasure of dancing. I always admire her lovely neck line …But I want to go back to the male roles, because the two other male lead roles were performed by dancers that I don’t know at all well: Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad, and Erik Woolhouse as the scheming Birbanto.
JULIA: They were both a revelation to me too. They performed with such gusto and energy. I heard you whoop at their elevation.
ROSIE: Birbanto is a much more compelling character for me, though. When Erik Woolhouse slashed his way through the air it spoke of Birbanto’s personality as well as technical bravura. Erik really nailed it in both ways – he was on fire!
JULIA: As Jane Pritchard, ENB’s Archive Consultant, says, Le Corsaire “is a production that allows dancers the opportunity to display virtuosity and personality”.
We started this blog two years ago with The Nutcracker Now & Then. Last December we published a second Nutcracker post. However this year, Cinderella seems a more relevant ballet for our Christmas discussion.
On the other hand, Cinderella seems to be a ballet for all seasons: at the start of 2019 Scottish Ballet (SB) were performing their production by Christopher Hampson; in the summer English National Ballet (ENB) performed Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, but in the autumn toured the original version, choreographed on Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet for the proscenium stage; shortly after this Northern Ballet (NB) started to tour their 2013 production by David Nixon, which they will continue to perform over the Christmas period and then again in the spring months of 2020.
Of course, Cinderella adaptations that are based on the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev have the four seasons built into the structure of the work, if the choreographer chooses to employ the music in that way. Wheeldon and ENB took advantage of this structure when adapting his 2012 choreography for the huge arena of the Albert Hall by doubling the number of dancers for the Four Seasons divertissement making it into a magnificent spectacle. But nevertheless, with its magical tree, vibrant blues and greens, the fantastical birds and mythical Tree Gnomes, it seems to us to be imbued with a sense of warmth and fecundity that makes us associate it more with spring and summer.
The same might also be said for Hampson’s 2007 staging of Prokoviev’s Cinderella with SB, in which a rose planted by Cinderella …
… becomes the motif…, blooming into swirling curlicues and trailing blossom, becoming the backdrop of the ballet’s scenes of magic. There’s a corps de ballet of roses, and it’s a rose, as much as a dropped slipper, that reunite this Cinders with her prince. (Anderson)
In this way the magic of nature is woven into the fabric of the ballet, and more literally into the fabric of Cinderella’s gown for the ball, woven together by “silk moths, grasshoppers and spiders” as it is (Lowes).
In contrast to this emphasis on nature’s warmer months, NB’s Cinderella is set for the main part in a fantasy Moscow winter time, affording the opportunity for visits to the winter market populated by the likes of jugglers, acrobats and a magician, skating scenes on the Crystal Lake, and huskies for Cinderella’s sleigh to take her to the ball.
The atmospheric score composed by Philip Feeney, and Duncan Hayler’s sparkling set, with its Fabergé-inspired ballroom (new this year) create a quite different world of magic to that created by Daniel Brodie, Natasha Katz and Basil Twist for ENB, and the art nouveau realm of Tracy Grant Lord’s designs for SB.
One of the things that these three Cinderellas all provide is a back story that helps to create a sense of humanness in the characters, making them more than stock figures or archetypes.
Both Hampson (SB) and Wheeldon (ENB) show their heroine in childhood grieving over her Mother’s grave. But the everlasting bond between mother and daughter is symbolised by Cinderella’s tears generating new life: the blossoming of Hampson’s rose garden and the growth of Wheeldon’s magical tree. Hampson’s Prince is portrayed as lonely, without anyone to whom he can relate (“The Story of Cinderella”), while ENB’s Prince Guillaume seems to enjoy his life with his childhood friend Benjamin too much to want to commit to marriage – until, of course, he meets Cinderella. A delightful scene occurs in Act I as the result of the familiar trope of swapping identities: taking Guillaume for a destitute pauper, Cinderella offers him food, shelter and company – a mark of her compassionate nature. But as they clumsily dance together on the table, the attraction between them is unmistakable.
Nixon’s (NB) Cinderella meets Prince Mikhail in childhood, but the most significant thing we discover about her is that she is partially responsible for her Father’s accidental death; this perhaps accounts for her Stepmother’s antipathy towards her. Yet, despite her burden of guilt, the grown-up Cinderella radiates delight in the world of the market and the Crystal Lake. The innovations in characterisation that make this production feel fresh and closer to life, despite the wintry glitter and sparkle, are Cinderella’s eventual bold defiance of her Stepmother, and the Prince’s initial derisory rejection of Cinderella when he discovers her lowly status as a servant to the household. The Prince’s “upper-class bad-manners moment”, as Amanda Jennings calls it (37), felt quite uncomfortable to watch; however, so poignantly did Joseph Taylor portray Mikhail’s remorse at his own lack of empathy and insight, that there could be no doubting his love for Cinderella.
As the first three-act British ballet, Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella, still regularly performed by The Royal Ballet (RB), is without a doubt the most celebrated Cinderella in the history of British ballet. And without a doubt this is in part attributable to the number of prestigious ballerinas who have performed the eponymous role, amongst them Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Maria Almeida, Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru.
But despite its status in the British Ballet canon, Ashton’s Cinderella is to some extent an exception, especially for the year 1979, which is where we focus our attention now. We chose this particular year, because not only did the RB stage Ashton’s Cinderella that December, but both NB and SB mounted brand new productions – by Robert de Warren and Peter Darrell respectively.
It is no secret that Ashton choreographed his Cinderella as a tribute to late 19th century ballet. The divertissements of the Seasons are reminiscent of the Prologue Fairies from The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), with their quirky, idiosyncratic movements that portray the feel of the season, while the Stars remind us of Ivanov’s Snowflakes, with their sharp, spikey, shimmering movements and patterns that bring to mind the constellations of the night sky. The pantomime dame style “Ugly Sisters” could be comical renditions of Carabosse, as they plot to ensure Cinderella’s continued subjugation and to deny her her destiny, earned by the beauty of her being.
Like Desiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s Prince arrives late in the proceedings and has to pursue Cinderella through the Stars that form barriers between them. Like a 19thcentury classical ballerina role, Cinderella herself is the focus of the stage action and the narrative, with a string of solos and duets in different styles. No ballerina we have seen has ever competed with Tamara Rojo in portraying the two faces of Cinderella: the downtrodden but creative, imaginative and kindly young woman on the one hand, and the ideal vision of the fairy princess on the other.
But in 1979 NB offered a quite different interpretation of the Cinderella story. De Warren based his choreography on the 1901 score by Johan Strauss Jr., the only ballet score ever written by the composer, and adapted the scenario from Heinrich Regel’s original libretto. The theme of the seasons was retained in the name of the department store where the action is located. Here Cinderella is employed in the millinery workshop and bullied by her Stepmother, who is head of the department. However, as far as we can make out, there were no fairies representing the seasons, although magical doves (reminding us of Wheeldon’s fantasy birds) help Cinderella with her chores so that she can go to the ball.
The ball has been organised by Gustav, the owner of the Four Seasons, for his staff. What we find so enchanting about this telling of the story is that Gustav is so in love with Cinderella, despite her lowly position, that he makes excuses to go to the millinery department to catch a glimpse of her, and seeks her out at the ball, where everyone is disguised by masks.
Darrell’s 1979 SB Cinderella shared similarities with the NB production in that it also used an alternative musical score to Ashton’s, one arranged by Bramwell Tovey from music by Gioachino Rossini, including some numbers from his Cinderella opera La Cenerentola (1817). The libretto was also based loosely on the scenario to the opera (Tovey) and evidently foregrounded the Prince. The first source we found on this production was a review by John Percival which struck us with both its title “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, and with the first lines:
The Hero of Peter Darrell’s ballet Cinderella is the quiet, gentle Prince Ramiro, who is more interested in books than court occasions; you could almost imagine him talking to the plants in the palace gardens …
This version of Cinderella in fact started with the Prince, who, finding the preparations for the masked ballet tedious, changes places with his equerry Dandini; and as in the current production, an instant bond is kindled between Cinderella and the Prince, despite the disguise. As Percival emphasises “Cinderella knows real worth when she sees it” (“A Scottish Cinderella” 20). Once again, nature plays an integral part in the staging, with Exotic Birds, Fire Fairies and Dew Fairies listed in the cast, and Cinderella arriving at the ball in an exquisite cloak resembling butterfly wings.
Choreographers past and present have drawn on different sources and ideas in order to make their particular Cinderella fitting for their context.
Yet, no matter which adaptation you see, Cinderella is a ballet about different kinds of magic, love and beauty, as well as the everyday miracle of nature, with its message of hope and faith in the constant renewal of life. As such it as an ideal Christmas ballet, as well as a ballet for all seasons.
In September, Julia and Rosie presented a paper at the Theatre & Performance Research Association Conference in Exeter on Cathy Marston and the influence of Regietheater (directors’ theatre) on her choreographic style.
We thought we would share with our readers a version of our script as very little has been written about this aspect of Cathy’s work.
As you probably know, Cathy has been creating dance works for over twenty years and is in demand internationally. Predominantly she is known for her narrative ballets, adaptations of literature, drama and biography. Marston was brought up in the UK, the daughter of two English teachers, a background that led naturally to a love of literature. We really enjoyed her description of her birthday, when she was about 12 years old: evidently, instead of having a party, she requested a visit to Stratford to see The Merchant of Venice(“Interview with Cathy Marston”).
Of course, Marston was also drawn to ballet, and we find it interesting that at the age of around 14 she was already concerned about the meaning of movement and its potential for expression:
I actually took that [RAD] syllabus book to bed … and wrote next to every plié what the particular port de bras meant for me or what that frappé exercise was supposed to express to me. So I think it was always about what the dance was telling rather than how it was happening. (“Delving into Dance”)
After studying for two years at the Royal Ballet Upper School (1992-1994), Marston worked as a dancer in Switzerland (1996-1999) and during this period started to choreograph professionally. However, in addition to choreographing, Marston worked as artistic director of Bern Ballett for six years, from 2007 to 2013. As artistic director and choreographer, Marston was exposed to European theatre practices, in particular Regietheater, often translated as “directors’ theatre” (Boenisch 1).
In this Spotlight post we will examine Marston’s Juliet and Romeo, which she created in 2009 for Bern Ballett, and her biographical ballet Victoria, which premiered earlier this year in Leeds with Northern Ballet. In this way we can examine the negotiation in her work between her British roots and the strong influence of European theatre practice on her approach to adaptation for the ballet stage.
In a recent interview, Marston commented on her understanding of the term Regietheater:
The German attitude is something called Regietheater, which means director’s theatre: the director, and in this case the choreographer, should interpret the text, rather than put it on stage as written. … you can cut the text up inside out, upside down, you could do whatever you want with the source in order to convey your vision
Marston’s description of Regietheater as “cutting up the text inside out and upside down” is akin to Peter M. Boehnisch’s words: “I wonder whether precisely a genuinely emancipatory ‘messing up’ is not the briefest possible description of what the contested Regietheaterdoes …” (5).
In their outlining of Regie both Boenisch and Marvin Carlson highlight the director’s interpretations of “traditional” (Carlson 68), “older” (110) or canonical plays (Boenisch 1). Particularly in the Anglophone world, this is where the director’s role as “creative artist in his or her own right”, as Carlson expresses it (110), or Boenisch’s “messing up”, perhaps seems at its most radical and unsettling.
Amongst Marston’s over 60 choreographic works are adaptations of canonical works of literature and drama, including:
The adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another, is by its very nature a creative act, perhaps most obviously when a verbal form is being transposed to a non-verbal form, as in the case of an adaptation from a Shakespearean drama to a ballet. As you know, Romeo and Juliet is an extremely popular ballet across the globe, and the British ballet repertoire already includes a canon of three Romeo and Juliet choreographies, all of them using the score specifically composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935 and all of them following the clear structure provided by Prokofiev with its discrete acts and scenes, themes and leitmotifs. They are not the only ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s play performed by British companies (there is, for example, the innovative Ballet Cymru production from 2013), but these three were all created by revered British choreographers who are in addition identified as creators of an English style of ballet: Frederick Ashton, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.
These three Romeo and Juliet ballets were all created between 1955 and 1965 for the Royal Danish Ballet (Ashton), Stuttgart Ballet (Cranko) and Britain’s Royal Ballet (MacMillan). They are large-scale works of high drama that employ rich, colourful décor and costumes representative of the period; as such they complement the sumptuous music score. While each work is distinguished by the variations in choreographic style, there is a certain predictability in their characterisation and linear structure.
By the time Marston choreographed Juliet and Romeo she knew that such an approach would not have been well received well in Bern, where the theatre directorship, critics and audiences were accustomed to a more experimental approach on the part of a director, or choreographer in this case, towards a canonical work. Additionally, Bern Ballett is a small- to mid-scale company and would therefore be unable to provide large numbers of dancers for teeming market and ballroom scenes.
Marston’s approach to this situation was to create a work for 11 dancers representing 11 characters dressed in costumes that might be 21st century or could even be a reference to the 1950s. The stage is framed by scaffolding and stacks of posters that are moved around by the dancers in the course of the performance to create different spaces. The impression is distinctly monochrome. Some of the posters are moved individually and become visible to the audience as posters of Juliet from previous film, theatre, and ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, including Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 film. The conflicts take place between Mercutia, Benvolio and Romeo on the side of the Montagues, and Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Paris for the Capulets. Weapons and potions are replaced by a single shard of mirrored glass visibly located downstage when not in use.
We can compare Marston’s production to those of Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan by referring to different traditions of theatre practice. Boehnisch distinguishes the practice of “directing a play” in an English context and “making a performance” in Continental Europe (3). The choreographers Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan indubitably “made a performance” by the incontrovertible fact of having created ballet movement inspired by Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s music. However, because of their adherence to ballet codes of technique, gender, structure, characterisation and music-movement relationship, we argue that the process of creating these productions is also akin to “directing a play”, particularly when compared with Marston’s approach to the same task. The details of Marston’s set and costumes that we have outlined, and the re-gendering of Mercutio are consistent with the notion of “making a performance” and giving a specific direction or purpose to the “text” (5), as Boenisch puts it. Further, Marston as choreographer raises questions of patriarchy, gender, contemporary relevance and relationships between “texts” rather than choreographing the narrative to mirror the Prokofiev score. In this way she also “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties”, which is a significant aspect of Regie for Boenisch (10).
These properties of Regie – making a performance, giving the text a specific purpose and destabilising certainties – can be observed even more clearly in three striking features of Juliet and Romeo: the unusual structuring of the work, the foregrounding of Juliet and Friar Laurence, and the emphasis on the themes of authority and conflict.
In Prokoviev’s score and the three traditional British adaptations of the ballet, Friar Laurence is a minor and straightforward role. In stark contrast, Marston’s Juliet and Romeo both starts and ends with Juliet and Friar Laurence – the two characters who are in possession of all the facts pertaining to Juliet’s duplicitous “death”. The ballet opens with the scene where Juliet threatens to kill herself, and a motif is established between Juliet and Friar Laurence, whereby the Friar lifts Juliet away from the shard of glass, she pirouettes into him, he catches her and pulls her upstage right, away from the shard’s location.
Another motif is established where Laurence places his hands close to Juliet’s head, thereby drawing her back in time: from this scene in Juliet and Romeo the sequence of events follows the usual trajectory, beginning with the Montagues and Capulets’ initial brawl and ending with the double suicide.
The focus on Friar Laurence and Juliet, and their relationship, is developed as they spend time together at the start of the ballet watching the events that have passed, sometimes also walking amongst the Veronans. Juliet at times seeks to intervene in the action, and repeatedly returns to the thought of suicide. Through the course of the ballet the Friar frequently appears at moments of conflict, moves posters or rolls them up in an understated but deliberate way. At the end of the ballet he brings Juliet downstage, organises her body tidily and places the shard in its usual location, conveying a sense of inevitability to the narrating of this tragedy. Occasionally Juliet rebels against the Friar, pushing him away or running away from him. Ultimately, the conflict within Juliet it is resolved by her death. In our opinion, the prominence of Laurence, whose movements could be interpreted as either manipulative or protective, or both, seems to follow Shakespeare’s portrayal: a prominent figure of authority, an ambiguous character who constructs a dubious plan to reunite the lovers that ends with their death (Herman).
This fascinating restructuring and refocussing of the narrative is underpinned by Marston’s use of the Prokofiev score: appropriately, rather than starting with the love theme of the overture, Juliet and Romeo begins with the “Duke’s Command” that represents Prince Escalus’ warning to the Capulets and Montagues, and through this establishes an atmosphere of “conflict and tragic premonition” (Bennett). This approach is “radically at odds with” traditional ballet adaptations of the narrative, which emphasise the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet, a radicalism that is highlighted by Carlson as a feature of Regie (110). For us, the emphasis on conflict, the ambiguity of Friar Laurence’s actions and his role as narrator mark a welcome return to concepts central to Shakespeare’s text.
As we discussed in relation to the British ballet canon of Romeo and Juliet choreographies, the British ballet-going public, unlike the Bern audience, are accustomed to narrative ballets with realistic depiction of time and place and to a straightforward linear rendition of the storyline. We enjoy Marston’s description of this as the “BBC costume drama” approach to adaptation (“Delving into Dance”). Two recent examples of this approach are The Winter’s Tale (2014) and Frankenstein (2016), choreographed for Britain’s Royal Ballet by contemporaries of Marston, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett respectively, who, like Marston, are English graduates of the Royal Ballet School.
While Victoria, created for Britain’s Northern Ballet, appears to us less radical than Juliet and Romeo, neither does if conform to the “BBC costume drama” model: although relatively large-scale, with rich costumes recognisably representing the Victorian era, the influence of Regietheater is unmistakable in the structure and presentation of the narrative of Victoria’s life.
You may not be aware that over the course of her lifetime, Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic diarist. Upon her death her youngest child Beatrice took on the task of editing and rewriting the diaries from 122 to 111 volumes, a monumental enterprise that took her more than three decades. The ballet Victoria is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries, beginning shortly before Victoria’s death, ending with Albert’s death and spanning over sixty years. Therefore the narrative is presented in flashbacks as the audience witnesses Beatrice reading the diaries, the contents of which are simultaneously represented on the stage. Beatrice edits according to her to emotional reactions, including nostalgia and longing; surprise and delight; disapprobation and anger. For the purposes of this process two dancers portray Beatrice: one performs Beatrice as a young woman, and the other the older Beatrice, who is seldom absent from the stage.
There is an intriguing parallel between the way in which Beatrice furiously rips out segments from the journals and Marston “cuts up” and reassembles the “text” of Victoria’s life making a Regie performance. Further, by portraying her life to the audience through the eyes of Beatrice, Marston gives a specific direction and purpose to Victoria’s biographical narrative, a direction that “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties” (Boenisch 10) about Queen Victoria.
Marston herself refers to Beatrice as an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison). Her conscious choice of an “unreliable witness” is not only in line with current thinking about the writing of history, but also reflects the approach of Regietheater to the past, according to which the past cannot simply be brought into the present through straightforward representation (Boenisch 29). In discussing this issue Boenisch refers to the term “aesthetic mediation”, which emphasises the “distance and unavailability of the past” (9) integral to the philosophy of Regie. Through aesthetic mediation the past is “re-presented” (29), and the lacuna between the dramatic text (or in this case the dominant narrative of Victoria’s life) and its staging is exploited (30).
Integral to this “aesthetic mediation” in Marston’s ballet are the set and the corps de ballet of archivists: the stage is dominated by bookcases housing Victoria’s red volumes, which gradually over the course of the work the archivists replace with Beatrice’s edited blue volumes. In comparison with more orthodox productions of narrative ballets in this country, such as The Winter’s Tale and Frankenstein, this set is distinguished not only by its essential contribution to the action, but also its relative sparseness and ability to create a number of environments for the purpose of the narrative. In its relative minimalism Victoria cannot compare, for example, with the extreme bareness of Miki Manojlović’s 2015 Romeo and Juliet, set on a metallic cross. However, its imaginative and fluid use of stage space does seem to represent a negotiation between the general expectations of ballet in this country and the influence of Regietheater that has become integral to Marston’s choreographic style.
Echoing Boenisch’s words, Marston’s experience of encountering Regietheater she describes as liberating: “You can really take pieces, take traditional, archetypal works of literature or mythology and extract what inspires you, and that’s really given me the freedom to find my own voice (“Interview”). Victoria is an iconic monarch whose persona is indubitably imbued with the mythology of the “Widow of Windsor”, a queen grieving for her consort for almost four decades in her black bombazine, symbolic of the deepest mourning. In Act I the audience witnesses this well worn image of Victoria: in Act II the young Victoria emerges in all her ebullience, with her sense of fun, and the intense physicality of her passion, expressed both in abject rage and in the euphoria of sexual pleasure. By drawing an analogy between the myth of Victoria and a playtext, we can describe this production as what Boenisch terms a “play-performance” and conclude that “our perception and understanding [of Queen Victoria] is ultimately changed through the play-performance afforded by Regie” (9).
As far as we can see, Cathy Marston’s approach to adapting narrative for the dance stage, wherever in the globe that might be, is driven by concepts and ideas rather than linearity and “fidelity” to the text being adapted (Hutcheon and O’Flynn). In the case of both Juliet and Romeo and Victoria, choreographed a decade apart in different contexts, what we thought we knew about figures from the canon of English literature and British history is questioned in a way that goes “beyond established paradigms of meaning” (Boenisch 5), revealing their “inherent contradictions ” (10). This is achieved through integrating features of the “emancipatory ‘messing up’” that is Regietheater (5).
Narrative ballets, mostly adaptations of existing narratives, have been crucial to the British ballet repertoire since its inception in the late 1920s. Now, in the 21st century, Marston has developed an approach to creating narrative choreographic works that on the one hand, as she says “respects” her sources, as in the British tradition (“Interview”), but on the other hand challenges audience perception of the subject matter, in a way the owes much to the influence of living and working in Continental Europe.
In February next year Marston’s The Cellist, a ballet about Jacqueline du Pré, premieres at Covent Garden. An imaginative subject matter, as so often. We look forward to seeing how Marston approaches her chosen topic, and wait with bated breath to see what she has in store for us in the future …
We would like to thank Cathy Marston for her help and support in the writing of this post, and of course for her marvellous choreography!
Bennett, Karen. “Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Socialist Realism: a Case-Study in Inter-semiotic Translation”. Shakespeare and European Politics, edited by Dirk Delabastita, Josef de Vos, Paul Franssen, U of Delaware P, 2008, pp. 318-28.
Boenisch, Peter. Directing Scenes and Senses: the thinking of Regie. Manchester UP, 2015.
Carlson, Marvin. Theatre: a very short introduction. Oxford, UP, 2014.
McCulloch, Lynsey. “’Here’s that shall make you dance’: Movement and Meaning in Bern: Ballett’s Julia und Romeo”. Reinventing the Renaissance: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Adaptation and Performance, edited by Sarah Brown, Robert Lublin, Lynsey McCulloch. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp. 255-268.
In the annals of British ballet, Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, indubitably remains the most celebrated and revered ballerina. As you know, this year marks the centenary of her birth, and so, in recognition of this fact and of her status and role in the development of British ballet, our section on British ballerinas of the past in this post will be devoted entirely to Fonteyn.
It was a tricky task to select current British ballerinas to discuss, but we were led by the cast of Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration, the event organised by the Royal Ballet for June 8th of this year. The three ballerinas we decided to focus on not only displayed qualities reminiscent of Fonteyn during their performances at the celebration, but have on previous occasions all been noted for particular attributes connected to Fonteyn and the English style of performing ballet. Further, all three dancers are of British descent, which seems appropriate given that Fonteyn is the inspiration for this post and that from time to time concern is expressed regarding the number of ballerinas in the Royal Ballet who are British nationals. Our selected ballerinas are Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Even a modicum of research uncovers interesting parallels between the careers and development of these three ballerinas. All are principal dancers of the Royal Ballet (the highest rank), who attended both White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School, and joined the Company soon after graduation. In terms of career progression all three ballerinas were dancing with the Royal Ballet for between five and seven years before being promoted to Principal Dancer. There were two points that caught our eye: the early evidence and identification of talent; the particular qualities in their dancing that had an impact on the repertoire they perform, including the excerpts that were performed by them in the Fonteyn Celebration last season. While all three ballerinas won the Young British Dancer of the Year Competition before joining the Company, evidencing the calibre of their dancing, other accolades were signs of more specific characteristics: Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward were both presented with the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, whereas at the age of fifteen Yasmine Naghdi was recipient of the Royal Ballet School’s “Most Outstanding Classical Dancer” Award. So let’s think a little about this in relation to their individual repertoires …
Although Hayward and Naghdi are younger than Cuthbertson, both celebrating their 27th birthday this year, and their repertoires consequently not as broad as Cuthbertson’s, we feel we can make some valid comments on the repertoires of the three ballerinas. All of them performed Juliet early in their careers, Cuthbertson in fact debuting when she was still a teenager, and all have danced principal roles in some of the 19th century classics, which to this day still seem to be the ultimate measure of a ballerina’s mettle. However, it is noticeable that although Naghdi has been performing Odette/Odile since the age of 24, Hayward has not yet danced this crucial role; on the other hand, Hayward has won recognition for her interpretation of Manon, a role that requires sophisticated acting skills, and one that Naghdi still covets. It is also noticeable that Naghdi’s repertoire includes Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Matilda Kscheshinskaya in Anastasia, both of which require impeccable classical technique. In fact, even the way in which she performs Juliet accentuates her clarity of line, revealing this way of interpreting the choreography (“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”).
In the last two seasons Cuthbertson has added to her repertoire two of Frederick Ashton’s most important and celebrated creations for more mature ballerinas: the first Marguerite, choreographed on Fonteyn, in the 1963 Marguerite and Armand; the second Natalia Petrovna, created on Lynn Seymour, in A Month in the Country (1976). Although Seymour never reached the zenith of Fonteyn’s fame, in being Kenneth MacMillan’s muse she was nonetheless critical to the development of British ballet once ballet had been established as an indigenous art form: together they facilitated its evolution as a dramatic art form in response to the artistic and social upheaval that marked the late 1950s and 1960s. In a sense Cuthbertson recently also seems to have become an ambassador for British ballet. Last year she was invited by Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Sylvia, a major role created for Fonteyn by Ashton, in Saint Petersburg. This year she returned to the Mariinsky to dance in Marguerite and Armand and in The Sleeping Beauty, often described as the Royal Ballet’s signature work, a work integral to the development of British ballet and its international standing, and probably Fonteyn’s most celebrated role.
In 2013 Bryony Brind, former principal of the Royal Ballet, expressed her consternation about the lack of British dancers in the highest ranks of the Royal Ballet, Britain’s most renowned ballet company (qtd.in Eden). At Britishballetnowandthen we think of British ballet as the directors, dancers and choreographers and other collaborators working with companies in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or background. However, articles, reviews and interviews reveal the extent to which the issue of nationality looms large in the minds of some people who are interested in the status and development of ballet in this country. With the addition of Hayward and Naghdi to the list of Royal Ballet principals, headlines such as “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death” (Eden) have been replaced by “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas” (Byrne) and “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina” (Craine).
The term British or English is not restricted to the description of nationality, of course, but frequently used in association with a specific school of training and performance style. Interviews with both Hayward and Naghdi emphasise their English ballet training at the Royal Ballet School, as well as their sense of Britishness in everyday life (Cappelle; Crompton). This tends to be the aspect of their identity that they highlight rather than the fact that they are both mixed race, in contrast to the American ballerina Misty Copeland, also mixed race, who champions her identity as a black ballerina – the first black principal at American Ballet Theatre. For us, however, it seems important that they are mixed race (Hayward English and Kenyan, Naghdi Belgian and Iranian), as it means that the roster of principal dancers at the Royal Ballet is becoming more reflective of an increasingly mixed-race Britain.
In a 2014 review of Cuthbertson in The Sleeping Beauty, Graham Watts focuses strongly on the notion of English training and performance style, accentuating Cuthbertson’s articulation of English style in his description of her poses and lines as “disciplined”, “refined”, “traditional” and “elegant”. For Watts the maintenance of this style is vital for the continuity of tradition, which he links directly to Fonteyn:
… after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did.
References to Fonteyn also appear in writings about Hayward and Naghdi: Hayward has been directly compared to Fonteyn (Byrne “Dancing Queens”; Taylor), while descriptions of the impact of Naghdi’s “intense dark eyes” (Byrne, “Royal Ballet”), and the ferocity, energy and musicality of her Firebird (Dowler) are also reminiscent of both Fonteyn’s facial features and her qualities as a dancer.
The roles that were selected for our three chosen ballerinas for the Fonteyn Celebration capitalised on their particular talents. Naghdi was luminous in the classical Le Corsaire pas de deux in a replica of the tutu that Fonteyn wore in the celebrated recording with Rudolf Nureyev. Cuthbertson captured the mystique of the Woman in Ball Dress in Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions (1936). Hayward’s Ondine made us forget that we were watching a gala, so intensely did she draw us in water’s nymph’s world.
The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta
It seems unlikely that any ballerina will ever compete with the status of Margot Fonteyn in terms of her significance in the history of British ballet. It was she who headed the triumphant Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty that reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after its transformation into a dance hall during World War II. It was she who repeated this triumph in New York three years later, earning Britain’s national ballet company the international reputation that it has enjoyed ever since.
Through the course of WWII Britain’s ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, toured Britain indefatigably bringing the art form to an enormously varied audience including troops, office and factory workers, and codebreakers, sometimes giving as many as four performances a day (“Wartime Entertainment”). The combination of dedication, determination and hard graft required for the continuous round of class, rehearsals, performances, packing, travelling and finding digs has been recognised as integral to the war effort on the home front, and the indomitable spirit of company members completely in tune with the patriotic mood of the nation. In fact, historian Karen Elliot goes as far as to claim that “the artform was deemed vital to the survival of the average British citizen” (4).
In addition to a swiftly growing audience for ballet, an English style of choreography and performance was being developed through the work of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn herself as Ashton’s muse and the ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s style of dancing was, and has continued to be, perceived as the essence of the English style, with her clean, unexaggerated lines, and with her musicality and focus on balance, poise and harmony rather than on a show of virtuosity.
But Fonteyn’s mother was half Brazilian, and from the ages of nine to fourteen she lived with her parents in China. So perhaps it is not surprising that back in London, when she first joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, Ninette de Valois famously referred to her as “the little Chinese girl in the corner” (Daneman 58). At the time when Fonteyn joined de Valois’ school there existed a prevalent notion that the British were incapable of performing ballet: ballet was a foreign art form, connected in people’s minds particularly to Russia, due to the influence of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and Anna Pavlova. Ballets Russes was firmly connected with the notion of exoticism, depicted in particular through works such as “The Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor, The Firebird, Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, Une Nuit d’Egypte, and Thamar, all choreographed by Michel Fokine from 1911 to 1912, and all performed in London. On the other hand, Anna Pavlova, who regularly toured Britain for two decades between 1910 and 1930, represented the ideal of the ballerina with her “fragility” dark hair, expressive eyes and long neck. It seems unquestionable therefore that Fonteyn’s dark almond eyes and black hair would have struck audiences as both rather exotic and quintessentially ballerina-like, thereby contributing to her persona as Britain’s undisputed queen of ballet.
Importantly, during the early decades of ballet’s development as an indigenous art form in Britain, proponents of British ballet were depicting it as “both exotic and homegrown” (Elliot 19). Fonteyn seemed to personify this twofold depiction of British ballet through her stalwart “British” approach to the War years coupled with her understated virtuosity on the one hand, and through the “foreignness” of her appearance and stage name on the other.
Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration gave some sense of the range of the ballerina’s repertoire, her versatility and dance qualities, but it would be impossible to pay tribute to this range in one evening: Fonteyn danced for more than four decades in over eighty works (Money). Let us not forget, however, that the length of her career, the huge number of performances she danced, and both her national and international status were in part at least due to historical circumstance. This included de Valois’ plan to establish a canon of “classics” to give ballet as an art form some gravitas, in addition to ensuring the creation of new choreographies with a distinctly British identity. In the early years of this Company this canon consisted of existing ballets from the 19th century that de Valois had access to – Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – as well as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Spectre de la rose. In addition to a repertoire, however, de Valois needed a ballerina who was capable of performing both these 19th century works and the new ballets being choreographed, initially primarily by herself and Ashton.
Fonteyn’s first substantial role was the Creole Girl in Ashton’s 1931 Rio Grande, which she danced in 1935, four years after de Valois had established her company, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later to become the Sadler’s Wells and finally Royal Ballet). At the tender age of sixteen she was replacing de Valois’ ballerina Alicia Markova, for whom the role had been created, because Markova had left the Company to establish her own company with Anton Dolin. As well as being a muse for early Ashton choreography, Markova was the first British Giselle, Sugar Plum Fairy and Odette/Odile. Now Fonteyn swiftly took on those roles, with the result that by the age of twenty she had performed all of them as well as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1936, after seeing the seventeen-year-old Fonteyn as Odette, the influential critic Arnold Haskell enthusiastically declared her to be a ballerina (qtd. in Bland 46). And over the following two decades and more, the collaboration between Ashton and Fonteyn flourished, becoming a major force in the expansion and style of the British ballet repertoire.
The extent of Fonteyn’s international status and her unassailable standing as the nation’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta is reflected in the words of Lynn Seymour, who grew up in the small town of Wainwright in Alberta, Canada:
She was a big name. She was as big a name as the Prime Minister of England, if not more; she was up there with Churchill in my remote little dot on the globe … She was a household word. She represented ballet; she was ballerina. (Qtd. in Margot chap. 1)
While British ballet may never again experience such a phenomenon as Fonteyn, the three current ballerinas we have highlighted in this post display qualities that are associated with Fonteyn and the “Britishness” of her style, as well as being British by nationality. In an era concerned about the impact of globalisation on the distinctiveness of national styles in ballet (Meisner 11) it feels to us important to note that the legacy of Fonteyn can still be recognised in today’s Royal Ballet ballerinas.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … As both English National Ballet and Northern Ballet have been performing their productions of Cinderella in 2019, we will make this the focus of our British Ballet Now & Then post for December. Perhaps we will have some surprises for you …
Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.
As lovers of the ballet Giselle, first created in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, we were beside ourselves with excitement when we learnt that Akram Khan was going to choreograph a re-envisioned adaptation of the Romantic work for English National Ballet. Our only concern was whether the Company would retain a traditional production of their work in the repertoire. Fortunately this fear was soon allayed when Artistic Director Tamara Rojo announced that Mary Skeaping’s Giselle would be revived in the very same season as the world premiere of what turned out to be a most extraordinary retelling of the work in an age of refugee crises and concerns about increasing social inequality and injustice both in the UK and globally.
This autumn, three years after the premiere of Akram Khan’s work, it is an ideal time for us to revisit Giselle. Not only has Khan’s adaptation returned to Sadler’s Wells, but two additional stagings are being shown in the same theatre: both Dada Masilo’s 2017 feminist reading of the work, which draws on her South African heritage, in October, and David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s 1999 Giselle for Birmingham Royal Ballet in November. Therefore, in this post we’re focussing predominantly on productions, rather than on what individual dancers bring to the role of Giselle, as we did in our first GiselleNow & Then post.
As you may know, while maintaining the broad outline of the plot, Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have based their narrative on a community of migrants who have lost their jobs in a garment factory and are now reduced to providing entertainment for the cruel Landlords (who replace the aristocrats of the original libretto). In Act II the ghosts of dead Factory Workers wreak revenge on those who caused their death through the appalling working conditions in the factory.
When watching an adaptation, be it in the same medium, or book to film, play to ballet, the question of characterisation is always an intriguing one. There has been substantial discussion about the roles of Hilarion and Giselle herself. While Hilarion is absolutely crucial to the plot, in traditional versions he is not given extensive stage time or activity. In contrast, Khan’s Hilarion is a major character in terms of the stage action, and complexity of the role, as well as being a lynchpin in the storyline. A climax to Act I is the altercation between Hilarion and Albrecht, where they circle around one another like two stags fighting over their territory in a ritual of dominance creating a palpable tension with their glaring eyes drilling into one another. Hilarion is at the same time obsequious with the Landlords, supercilious with Albrecht and controlling with his fellow migrant Factory Workers. His skewed love for Giselle is bound to end in catastrophe.
Giselle herself is depicted by Khan as a leader (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”); her pride and defiance are writ large when she refuses to pick up the glove that Bathilde has deliberately dropped, and stubbornly resists bowing her head to the Landlords. Khan sees Giselle as an optimist in the face of the disastrous closing of the factory and consequential unemployment, so she has no need to kowtow to the Landlords. She is also in love and expecting Albrecht’s child, so she has broken the rules and rocked the boat of the precious status quo that Hilarion is so eager to hold in balance.
Because of Hilarion’s centrality to Act I and the waywardness of his character, he seems to us to be a counterpart to Myrtha. Dramaturg Ruth Little describes Hilarion as “both sinning and sinned against” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover”). Luke Jennings once found a libretto for a ballet about Myrtha’s backstory that accounts for her transformation from a loving, joyful and compassionate young woman to a vengeful wraith (“Who was Myrtha?”), and we can imagine reasons for Hilarion’s behaviour and his need to do anything to survive.
The 1841 Giselle is driven by dualisms: the daylight of the familiar village is pitted against the unknown of the dark forest; the poverty of the peasants is confronted by the blatant wealth of the aristocrats; a human community of corporeal beings is juxtaposed with the world of ethereal Wilis, where the relationship between flesh and spirit, body and soul is explored. Because of the spiritual element, Tamara Karsavina has referred to it as “a blessed ballet or an holy ballet” (A Portrait of Giselle). The spirit world is defined by a specific style of dancing, la danse ballonnée with its fleet lightness and Romantic tutus that balloon out to create the illusion that the dancers are hovering in the air. As Albrecht moves towards Giselle and fails to catch her, as she floats heavenwards in lifts and reaches away from Albrecht in arabesque, his longing for her is constantly met with confirmation of her unattainability. One of the reasons that Tamara Rojo chose Khan as the creative artist for this project was because of “the spirituality of the theme” and her belief that “he could find a different way of putting that on stage” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative”). The corporeal and ethereal worlds are clearly pitted one against the other by Khan, but the effect is strikingly different…
From the moment the curtain opens we sense the physicality of the dancers’ bodies as they push with all their might against a huge overwhelming wall (designed by Tim Yip).
Later, working as a group, they become the looms of their trade, mechanical pulsating machines; at other times they run in droves, almost like animals, as they escape their circumstances in search for new homes. In the radiant, sometimes playful, Act I duet between Giselle and Albrecht they orbit around one another and visibly enjoy their repeated moments of physical contact. Tenderly they touch one another’s head, neck, sternum, shoulders and palms, and Giselle places Albrecht’s hand on her abdomen to feel their child growing within her.
But the most intimate form of touch is when they touch one another’s faces with their hand – a movement reserved in Khan’s culture for husband and wife (Belle of the Ballet).
The Wilis of Act II wear pointe shoes, as a tribute to the Romantic tradition and the connection between pointe work and the notion of the otherworldly within that tradition. Moreover, the iconic scene where the Wilis cross one another in lines performing arabesque voyagé en avant is replicated. Originally this displayed their domination over the forest; in this case they preside over the abandoned factory. But these eldritch factory Wilis pound their canes threateningly and relentlessly into the ground, suggesting a less binary approach to the connection between flesh and spirit, the corporeal and ethereal, soul and body in this rendition of Giselle; and Giselle’s body is literally dragged into the factory by Myrtha – she may be dead, but she is in no way insubstantial.
This connection between body and spirit is demonstrated at its most poignant in the Act II duet between Giselle and Albrecht. For us Jennings’ description of Giselle’s state in Act II rings true: “She’s not dead, but she’s not quite alive, either” (Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making). The choreography for Giselle and Albrecht’s duet is physically intimate, the closeness of the bodies more continuous than in the Act I pas de deux. As they wrap themselves around one another, their touch is more sustained and prolonged. It is this very physicality that suggests to us that their souls inhabit the same realm. There are fleeting moments where Giselle seems to evaporate from Albrecht’s embrace, as if in memory of Giselle of old. But her body is often limp, no longer able to resist the force of gravity, so Albrecht bears her weight and seems to try and woo her spirit back through the warmth of his body. At one extraordinary moment he draws her up from the ground using the power of her hand on his face, as if the bond between them will return her to life, but she almost immediately sinks back down again. Despite the bond Giselle pushes his hand away from her stomach – a reminder that their child has died within her. This is far from Romanticism’s trope of representing the spiritual as insubstantiality of body. A final touch of the hand on the other’s face is the last instance of physical contact. Their final prolonged gaze at one another is so intense that Albrecht fails to notice the wall descending. This ultimate physical separation in the face of the unassailable wall is gut-wrenching.
The success of Khan’s Giselle with both critics and audiences in no way diminishes the power of traditional productions, so in this section we are discussing three traditional versions of Giselle performed by three major British ballet companies: David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s staging for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production, and the version mounted by Mary Skeaping for London Festival (now English National) Ballet. Even though they present “standard” versions of the narrative and choreography, there are differences in design, staging, characterisation and movement style. These differences may initially seem slight, but on closer inspection they have a significant impact on performances and enable this 1841 Romantic ballet to maintain its freshness, and to continue to capture the imagination of the audiences.
When the Bintley-Samsova production of Giselle was first staged in 1999, Bintley expressed the objective of creating a “proper” Giselle (Marriott), meaning that he wanted to recreate some of the excitement felt by the 1840s audiences (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). Part of this excitement was instigated by the designers’ realistic depiction of Giselle’s two contrasting worlds, including live animals in Act I and Wilis “flying” on wires in the second act. Consequently, one of the elements that was chosen as a focus was the visual element.
For this mounting of the work designer Hayden Griffiths created a waterfall, vineyards and mountains as the background for Act I, an environment that David Mead likens to “a Victorian painting come to life”. The waterfall may also remind viewers of William Wordsworth’s The Waterfall and the Eglantine (1800), thereby making a satisfying connection with Romantic literature. The verisimilitude of Act I includes “a pig’s bladder football … a dead hare, two live beagles and a real horse” (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). The village is also brought to life by the inclusion of children in the cast (because why wouldn’t a village have children?) and by ensuring that the dancers emphasise the individuality of each villager. The bustling liveliness of this act, enhanced by the bright colours of the costumes, provides a striking contrast with the ballet blanc of Act II, with its “flying” aerial Wilis and its ruined abbey, in keeping with the tastes of the Romantic audiences, who relished the successful theatrical fashioning of the mystical and otherworldly. David Mead captures the atmosphere: “Gothic arches soar heavenwards above the ruined choirs. Lit by a full moon, peeking through what is left of the windows, it is spookiest of atmospheres”.
The waterfall of the first act is particularly significant, as water is an essential element in the legend of the Wilis – in Heinrich Heine’s Über Deutschland, one of the sources used for the original libretto of Giselle, Heine explains that their hems are constantly damp, as they dwell close to or even on the water. In Giselle; or The Phantom Night Dancers, the play based on the ballet that was produced in London shortly after the ballet’s premiere in Paris, the inclusion of “Fountains of Real Water” in Act II provided a major attraction and was therefore highlighted on playbills in no uncertain terms (Morris 53). Therefore, it’s interesting that Hanna Weibye incorporates water imagery in her writing to convey the effect of the corps de ballet as the Wilis in Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet, to convey the impression that they create: “In John Macfarlane’s creamy Romantic tutus they cross the stage in serried ranks like swells on the open ocean, seemingly unstoppable” (“Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”).
It is this staging of Giselle by Wright for the Royal Ballet that is undoubtedly the most celebrated British production of the ballet. Wright has been producing Giselle since as long ago as 1966. We were fascinated to discover that when he first saw the ballet in the 1940s, he could not take it seriously. Once he had witnessed Galina Ulanova perform the title role on the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to London, however, he understood its potential; subsequently when John Cranko asked him to produce it for Stuttgart Ballet, Wright discovered (as we do!) that the more he researched, the more fascinated be became (“Getting it Right”). The current production is the second version that Wright has created for the Royal Ballet, and they have continued performing it regularly since 1985.
Wright’s approach to producing Giselle was to ensure that the characters and the drama made complete sense in his mind. To this end he made Bathilde into a more haughty, even heartless, character than she was in the original libretto, thereby creating a more sympathetic portrayal of Albrecht. This characterisation is often commented on by critics (Jennings “Giselle Review”; Mackrell “Giselle review”; Watts “An indelible performance”). Jennings’ comments on Olivia Cowley’s performance is particularly telling: “Realising that Albrecht has broken the village girl’s heart, Cowley’s Bathilde appears not so much wounded as faintly nauseated”. For Wright it is also essential that Giselle commits suicide, rather than dying of a broken heart, in order to account for her burial in the woods, outside the bounds of the churchyard and therefore unprotected from the Wilis (Monahan).
As in the case of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, design is a feature of the work that is essential to the creation of atmosphere, which has been described as “eerie”, with a “threatening” (Weibye) and “brooding” forest (Jennings). Macfarlane demonstrates a different approach to that of Griffiths, with a more uniform colour palette, but Graham Watts’ vivid description of the Act II décor shows how imaginative design can recreate an atmosphere by bringing new ideas to work that conjure up fresh images in the minds of the audience:
The woods … with their uprooted trees and a ceiling of scrambled, entwined branches provide the perfect lair for the ghostly Wilis to take their revenge on the carefree men who foolishly pass by in the dead of night (“Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”).
And now to our favourite traditional Giselle …Like Peter Wright, Mary Skeaping spent years researching the ballet, but she also had the added advantage of dancing in Anna Pavlova’s company, when Pavlova herself was performing Giselle. In addition, Skeaping saw Olga Spessivtseva dance the role, and she received a great deal of support and guidance from Tamara Karsavina to help with her first staging of the ballet in 1953 for the Royal Swedish Ballet. In 1971 Skeaping mounted a production on London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), which is their current traditional Giselle. Undoubtedly the most authentic of the British versions, this production is probably exceeded in authenticity internationally only by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011 reconstruction based on primary sources including two 19th century notation scores and the research of historian Marian Smith’s (“Giselle”).
One of the reasons we favour this production is pure sentimental nostalgia – in particular memories of Eva Evdokmova and Peter Schaufuss as the protagonists, Maina Gielgud as Myrtha and Matz Skoog in the Peasant Pas de deux, as well as the first performance of Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev dancing the ballet together. However, we are also fascinated by the impact of recreating period style, so evident in the curved asymmetrical port de bras and posture of the Wilis. It draws us into another era with its distinctive aura, “antique sense of the supernatural” (Mackrell “Giselle: Coliseum”) and restored sections, such as the complete Pas de vendages for Giselle and Albrecht. Giselle’s solo in this particular section gives a taste of a more authentic Romantic ballet style with its skimming terre-à-terre petit allegro, the batterie and ballon and quick changes of direction, all enhanced by gentle épaulement. Not only do we appreciate the understated virtuosity of such passages and the way they extend our understanding and knowledge of ballet, but when we watched performances by English National Ballet in 2017, we were struck by the contribution the full Pas de vendages makes to the dramatic climax of Act I. In comparison with the truncated version that is generally presented, the full Pas brings all the focus of both the onstage audience and the audience in the auditorium, to Giselle and Albrecht. It is playful and tender in its inclusion of the usual game of kisses, but also in the joie de vivre of the dancing style. Consequently, it distracts us from the plot, giving no warning or sense of the impending disaster. When Hilarion suddenly challenges Albrecht, it seems to cut like a razor through the celebrations. After such idyllic moments of love witnessed by her community, Giselle’s isolation in her distress is all the more raw and brutal. Perhaps it was this dramatic effect that inspired Bintley and Samsova to reinstate some of the usual musical cuts to their interpretation of the work, particularly with Samsova’s personal experience of dancing the title role in a number of different productions.
In our opinion all of these productions are relevant today. Tamara Rojo herself highlights the impact of the social context on people’s behaviour when their actions are driven by their emotions (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: The Social Context”), a theme that is of course evident in both the 1841 Giselle and the 2016 reinterpretation. Writing of the Royal Ballet’s production Hannah Weibye considers the added import of the ballet in the #metoo era, emphasising the themes of “abuse of power for sexual gratification” and questioning whether Albrecht deserves Giselle’s forgiveness. Khan’s interpretation of Giselle is a monumental work of art in its own right. As an adaptation, moreover, it provides us with a new lens through which to watch the Romantic work, find fresh insights, new emotional resonance, and to appreciate once again its own singular portrayal of love, betrayal and the beautiful, dangerous undead.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … To mark the start of the Royal Ballet’s new season and pay tribute to the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth, we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in June’s Margot Fonteyn a Celebration at the Royal Opera House celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Last Friday Julia and Rosie attended English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round, specially adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by the award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Although we knew the production would be spectacular, it exceeded our expectations!
On the way into the auditorium we were delighted to meet the dancer James Streeter whom we interviewed last autumn. He was clearly very excited about the production.
JULIA: An evening full of great surprises! ENB’s dancers filled the Royal Albert Hall’s grand arena with such energy that the venue’s atmosphere seemed to be enchanted… full of magic.
ROSIE: For me the magic starts right at the beginning, even before the performance begins: you walk into the auditorium and there’s the huge projection of a blue sky with white clouds, and then you hear birds and see them fly over the “sky” just before Sergei Prokofiev’s score starts. So I felt that nature was going to play a really important role in the production.
JULIA: Well it does, doesn’t it? In the original Wheeldon production the stage is dominated by the tree created by Julian Crouch, which apparently had to be “pruned” (as Graham Watts appropriately put it) when Dutch National Ballet brought it to the Coliseum four years ago. Although the actual tree isn’t there in the Albert Hall, it’s still present in the projections onto drapes gathered in the shape of a tree.
ROSIE: It’s all about illusion, isn’t it? It says in the programme that there are over 370 costumes – and they include outfits for fantastical white birds, tree gnomes, and the Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, all connected to the tree, as if it’s some magical life force.
JULIA: The idea of the tree came from the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, so written in the Romantic era. In fact they seem to have produced two adaptations of the story, seven years apart (1812, 1819) but both featuring the tree.
ROSIE: So there’s no Fairy Godmother and pumpkin, as in the Charles Perrault version (1697).
ROSIE: And Cinderella is held aloft “in” the coach by one of the dancers and holding billowing silk fabric above her head, almost as if she’s flying – she really is being transported! I find this kind of theatre really imaginative, and I love the way that you can see detail because there’s no orchestra pit separating the audience from the performers. You really liked the Fates, didn’t you?
JULIA: Yes, I found them very striking… I often caught myself directing attention to their moves on stage. In my opinion they were telling the audience the fairy tale from Cinderella’s perspective. Because they are so integral to the production: they are always present; they don’t suddenly appear from nowhere in terms of the narrative…
ROSIE: No they don’t, but they do often move in a soft, almost stealthy way, at times performing low level circular and undulating movements in their dark clothes, so that they seem to emerge organically from Cinderella’s surroundings. Sometimes, because of the way they were positioned around the space, I connected them to the idea of representing the four compass points, so that Cinderella is protected from every direction. I’m sure that being performed in the round encouraged this notion.
JULIA: Their movement was such a contrast to the corps de ballet who moved with such overt energy. They really made me sit up in my seat with their constant shift of imaginative patterns. But they also contributed to the narrative in that they framed Cinderella’s entrance to the ball, for example, and then with their angular staccato clockwork movements as the scene built up to Cinderella’s exit.
ROSIE: Of course the energy is enhanced by the large number of dancers – 48 corps de ballet dancers in the ballroom scene, I believe – and by fact that, as always, the ENB corps are so well rehearsed. The cohesion seemed even more important than usual in the round – somehow it’s more exposing. One of the things I liked so much about our Cinderella, Erina Takahashi, is that she has a very distinctive quality of serene stillness that I find draws me in when she performs. And in this ballet with all its wonderful buoyant energy, it seemed important to have a still centre to give it a contrasting focus.
JULIA: On another topic, I love theatre that moves seamlessly from one environment to another, like the columns that are drawn out to represent the palace and the kitchen table that glides round the performance area.
ROSIE: The projections on the floor (designed by Daniel Brodie) like the rain, the dappled light beneath the tree, the decorative marble floor of the ballroom, the clockwork wheels. These all enhance the atmosphere of each scene. I almost fell off my seat when the orchestra was lit up during the ball scene; up to that moment it had been hidden. It really intensified the illusion of being present in a beautiful grand ballroom. And the dancers entering and exiting through the auditorium makes me feel invited into Cinderella’s world.
JULIA: Yes, the orchestra was hidden behind the projections. Those projections were really vital to my appreciation of the ballet; for me they contribute to the darkness that Emma Byrne mentions in her review: “[a] story full of dark frivolity and fantasy, high on romance yet with a strong original feel”. Indeed, there is an element of dark fantasy to the story, and this, for me, combined with the dreamy, mystical set and costumes transform the characters and Cinderella into other-worldly beings. Reminded my of a Tim Burton film…
ROSIE: I agree with Emma Byrne the idea of darkness as far as the dark colour palette is concerned (Cinderella really stands out in her light-coloured costumes), but I was relieved that not all of the gruesome details of the Grimm versions were included. The ones that make me feel queasy are the Stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet (which consequently bleed profusely) to try and force them into the shoe, and then at the wedding the birds pecking the Sisters’ eyes out for their wickedness.
JULIA: Stepmother Hortensia does try to hammer their feet into the shoe, though …
ROSIE: Yes, with distinct glee as well as determination, if I remember rightly. But it seemed to me to be comedic, or at least satirical, rather than truly grisly. There was a lot of light-hearted comedy, I thought, and Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia looked like she was having outrageous fun “momanaging” her daughters and getting deliciously drunk at the ball.
JULIA: : I think the production reflects ENB’s culture as a company – a sense of togetherness, team work and effort is repeatedly expressed on stage. This reminded me of our conversation with ENB’s first soloist James Streeter when he said that “in the culture of ENB, the notion of a minor role does not in fact exist”; all characters are equally important in setting the scene and atmosphere in their productions.
ROSIE: There are more Cinderellas coming up. I’m looking forward to revisiting the topic later in the year with a Now & Then post. Watch this space!!!
When we started researching biographical ballets, we were under the impression that such ballets were a rarity. Fortunately however, discussions with friends and colleagues revealed a multitude of works, including forgotten and unknown examples, demonstrating that, as in cinema, people’s lives offer a rich source for creation in ballet.
Internationally a number of recent biographical ballets have been based on the lives of iconic figures from the arts, amongst them Broken Wings (Lopez Ochoa, 2016), based on the life and work of Frida Kahlo; John Neumeier’s Nijinsky and Yuri Possokhov’s Nureyev, both from 2017; and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back (2018) about the relationship between Mozart’s elder sister Nannerl, also a composer, Mozart himself and their father.
Our focus for this post is of course driven by the successful addition to the British ballet repertoire that is Cathy Marston’s Victoria for Northern Ballet. Monarchs and royals are no strangers to the ballet stage. Kenneth MacMillan devoted full-evening works to exploring the lives of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna of Russia (Anastasia, 1971) and Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (Mayerling, 1978) in his inimitable full-blooded style. Between these two ballets, in 1976, came Peter Darrell’s Mary Queen of Scots, while in 1995 David Bintley tackled the subject of Edward II through the lens of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play. On a smaller scale is the more recent Elizabeth by Will Tuckett (2013), but this choreography incorporates spoken and sung text, as well as onstage musicians.
Like Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria is such a familiar figure to us. Even if we never learnt about her in school, there are documentaries and films available, as well as the current ITV series Victoria, now having completed a third series. Literature is aplenty in the form of both biographies and fiction, diaries and letters, and a Christmas never goes by without a reminder of how she and Albert established family traditions such as gathering round a decorated Christmas tree. In everyday London life their names crop up repeatedly: Victoria Station, the Victoria line, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, the Victoria Memorial. To say nothing of the numerous statues of Victoria throughout the UK …
But Queen Victoria reigned for over six decades, and writings by her and about her were carefully edited. She had a hugely important public persona to develop and project, as well as a private life to lead with its famed tragedies. Consequently, she is frequently portrayed in conflicting ways, which we definitely experienced as we watched documentaries in preparation for this post (“Queen Victoria’s Letters” 1&2; “The Secret Life of Queen Victoria”; “Queen Victoria’s Children 1,2,3”; “King Edward Parts 1&2”). So how can a choreographer create a ballet about Victoria, who was celebrated as wife, mother and widow, as well as empress and queen, over so many years of political change, in a single evening?
The solution that Cathy Marston and librettist Uzma Hameed came up with was to portray Victoria from a very specific perspective – that of Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest daughter. This enabled a sufficiently narrow focus for a two-act ballet, with a selection of a restricted number of characters and events covering the many decades from Victoria as a young woman prior to ascending the throne right up to her death.
While the notion of “narrowness” and “restriction” may initially seem limiting, if you think about it, this process of paring down is absolutely essential in any adaptation that involves a change of medium necessitating any substantial change in length or duration, such as the adaptation of an 800-page book into a 100-minute film, or years of a person’s life into a 300-page volume. Such are the skills necessary to achieve a process of adaptation of this kind, that they have been referred to as a “surgical art” (H. Porter Abbott qtd. in Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn 19).
Victoria premiered on March 16th of this year, and has received a substantial amount of media attention, including interviews with the choreographer, articles, and numerous reviews. Therefore, the fact that the ballet is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries and presented in flashbacks following Beatrice’s reading in the diaries is well documented. Some of the reviews stand out to us in the way they highlight the writing and rewriting of history (King, Lowe, Monahan, Roy, Winter). Unsurprisingly, this topic of how history is written is close to our hearts, although for some Marston’s delight at finding an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison) to Victoria’s life may come as a surprise. However, to us this seems to be at the heart of the ballet, not only in how it portrays the events of Victoria’s life, but how it challenges some of our preconceptions of Victoria, and therefore startles and stirs us in equal measure.
If you have been following the ITV series Victoria, you will be familiar with the passion of the young Victoria; however, we see nothing in the series to compare with the sheer sexual pleasure expressed by Marston’s choreography for Victoria and Albert’s wedding night duet (“Northern Ballet’s Victoria”), which on one occasion in our viewing elicited a “wow!” from the audience.
Similarly, our pervasive awareness of Victoria’s love for her consort may inhibit our ability to connect such passion with the disagreements over Albert’s role in politics. With characteristic economy of means Marston conveys these turbulent arguments through tussles over a red box symbolising affairs of state. But in the ballet Victoria’s intransigence is seen at its most passionate in her furious resistance to Beatrice’s desire to marry: bent over double with fists clenched, her rage is palpable. And while we may indeed envision Victoria as domineering and controlling, the ferocity of her physicality collides with the conventional image of Victoria.
Watching Marston’s Victoria makes us feel on the one hand that we’re learning more about the iconic monarch, but on the other hand the experience of having our well-worn vision of Victoria challenged is destabilising. Consequently, and counterintuitively, Victoria seems to become more of a mystery than previously. Perhaps this is because Marston presents her as a human being – as daughter, lover and mother, as well as queen and empress. But equally, because we so clearly witness her through layers of subjectivity. Marston makes this crystal clear through her words in interviews and rehearsals, and no less through the stage action itself. Victoria writes, and Beatrice reads, remembers, discovers, reacts and edits: the lives of Victoria and Beatrice written by Victoria and rewritten by Beatrice with nostalgia and longing on the one hand, and surprise, disapprobation and anger on the other.
Biographical Ballets Then
Unlike in the case of Queen Victoria, the royal lives that MacMillan chose to adapt are probably perceived by British audiences as more than usually mysterious. This is particularly the case for Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova, who was believed by some to have survived the massacre of the Imperial Russian family by the Bolsheviks in 1917. But the circumstances of Crown Prince Rudolf’s death, the last of the Habsburg dynasty, was deliberately covered up for political reasons and therefore also shrouded in mystery. This sense of mystery has perhaps been intensified by the highly romanticised 1956 Anastasia featuring Ingrid Bergman in the titular role, and Mayerling with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve (1968).
What probably attracted MacMillan to these two historical figures was his inclination towards sombre subject matter and characters who experienced a sense of being an outsider – a theme that MacMillan revisited repeatedly (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4). But in both cases, as we watch, we gain a sense that the creators were intent on revealing some kind of perceived truth through the ballets, that they were committed to uncovering a mystery and replacing it with historical “reality”.
MacMillan created what was to become the final act of Anastasia in 1967 during his time as Director of the Deutsche Oper Ballett in Berlin. The German city was rife with stories of a woman named Anna Anderson claiming to be Anastasia Romanova, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, a woman frequently referred to as “Fräulein Unbekannt” (“Miss Unknown”) (Welch 8). Anna had been saved from drowning in a Berlin canal in 1920 and had been living in Germany ever since, and from 1932 striving to legally prove her royal identity (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4).
This one-act ballet was set in a mental hospital, where Anna is seen reliving life as a member of the Imperial family before the Russian Revolution, and witnessing the assassination of her family before being rescued. Flickering film footage of the Imperial family and Russian political events accompanied by a musique concrète score of fractured, distorted voices and harsh, jarring sounds opens the work. This moves into Bohuslav Martinŭ’s dissonant Symphony No. 6 which complements MacMillan’s visceral, angular and splintered movement material, revealing Anna’s emotional turmoil. Her battle to be accepted as Anastasia is exacerbated by memories of her turbulent personal history, which includes the loss of a husband and child.
Figures from her past – her parents, siblings, Rasputin, Bolshevik soldiers –haunt her, randomly emerging and re-enacting crucial events; at times they are confused with her present alienating company of medical staff and visitors. The theme of the outsider is patently clear: Anna is segregated from any potential community in her current life by the four walls of her hospital room, and she is segregated from the community of her past through their death.
Four years later when MacMillan was working as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, the choreographer developed the one-act work into a three-act ballet, portraying the Imperial family in events leading up to World War I (Act I) and the 1917 Revolution (Act II). Although the flashbacks that fill Anna’s mind in the final act are fragmented and muddled, indicating her state of mind, the first two acts follow a clear chronology. Therefore, the characters who haunt her in Act III are initially presented logically and in context, conveying to the audience a sense of factual reality. This means that there is no disconnect between Anastasia’s historical past and Anna’s memories, giving credence to Anna’s claims. And the final moments seem to confirm this: “At the end of the ballet, she stands like a ship’s figurehead at the prow of her bed as it sails round the stage, a small defiant figure floating on a sea of darkness” (Parry Different Drummer 327).
Gillian Freeman, who wrote the scenario for Mayerling, organised three acts that cover the last eight years of Rudolf’s life from his wedding day to his suicide with his young mistress Mary Vetsera. Rudolf’s troubled relationships with women, from his mother and wife to his various mistresses provided rich material for transforming into expressive pas de deux, one of MacMillan’s great talents as a choreographer. It is abundantly clear that the choreographer wanted to portray Rudolf as a tormented human being who had been abused as a young boy, was emotionally neglected, suffered from venereal disease and was obsessed with death. Although MacMillan focused on the emotional aspects of his life, he also dealt with the political pressure that Rudolf faced from his friends campaigning for Hungarian independence.
What we find particularly fascinating is that Freeman insists that she wanted the ballet to be rooted in fact, and that all the events portrayed in the ballet can be historically verified (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 1, 1978”), including Mary Vetsera’s arrival at Rudolf’s quarters wearing only a coat and a nightdress, his fascination with guns and skulls , and bringing his wife to the tavern managed by his Mistress Mitzi Casper (Freeman “The Uncertain Beyond” 10-11).
Freeman was very insistent that the ballet portray the true circumstances of Rudolf and Mary’s death, so different from the sanitised version of events that was publicly announced in an effort to disguise the truth (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 4, 1978”).
Therefore, in the case of both Anastasia and Mayerling there is a sense of a mystery solved and a truth revealed: Rudolf’s nature and the events surrounding his death are revealed, as is Anna’s identity.
In 2017 historical novelist Hilary Mantel stated the following:
… history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past …It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them.
In our opinion, one of the aspects that distinguishes Marston’s approach to the creation of biographical ballets from MacMillan’s is her attitude to the past and to history. This reflects the shift in thinking about the past and how we construct both personal and public history that evolved over the second half of the 20th century, and is so wonderfully expressed by Mantel. Rather than attempting to discover unbiased facts, Marston recognises that history depends on “biased witnesses”. Nonetheless, whether consciously or subconsciously, in creating these ballets both choreographers have expertly and inventively deployed not only their choreographic imaginations but also their historical imaginations.
In 1994 DNA tests proved that Anna Anderson was not in fact Tsarevna Anastasia. Yet this is perhaps not the point. All of these ballets can be interpreted in a more open way, helping us to think about issues of identity, the way we see ourselves and make sense of our own pasts and to question assumptions that we make about the way we understand the past from the remnants it leaves behind.
We are very grateful for the support of Rachel Evans, Senior Communications Officer of Northern Ballet, and Ashley Woodfield, Head of Ballet Press of Royal Opera House in the production of this post.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … Last Saturday the Royal Ballet staged Margot Fonteyn a Celebration to mark the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth. In response we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in the celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Last week Julia and Rosie went to watch English National Ballet’s tenth Emerging Dancer Competition. Later in the week we talked about the role and impact of the competition, as well as discussing the actual performances. Here’s how our conversation went …
Rosie: This is the third year running that I’ve seen the competition, and what I’ve started noticing is how much the dancers develop through the process of investing in the preparations for the competition and the performance itself. You see them blossoming almost in front of you.
Julia: Yes, I’ve noticed this especially with Julia Conway, so I was really excited for her when she won. When we’ve seen her in class she’s always worked in such a focussed way and seemed so eager to take on feedback. She seems to shine on the stage, but nothing quite prepared me for her bravura attack in the Flames of Paris pas de deux.
Rosie: You could sense the confidence from both her and her partner Rentaro Nakaaki the moment they took to the stage. They blazed their way through the duet, and although their virtuosity was plain to see, it wasn’t in any way brash, as virtuosity can sometimes be. In this way Julia reminded me a bit of Katja Khaniukova. I saw Katja a few weeks ago at the Against the Stream gala tossing off scores of fouettés apparently with the greatest of ease, and with lovely elegant phrasing.
Julia: Julia’s coach Pedro Lapetra talks about how responsive and bright she is in their coaching sessions (“Coaching our Emerging Dancers”). I think it’s great that the dancers are coached by their peers.
Rosie: It does show what a significant role the competition plays in the development of the company: as well as nurturing young dancers, it helps to secure coaches for the future; and as we know, teaching brings greater understanding to the teacher as well as to the student.
Julia: And I noticed Fabian Reimair also choreographed and wrote the music for Emilia Cadorin’s solo. It’s a whole company enterprise.
Rosie: It’s a win-win!
Julia: Talking of winning, I was so impressed by the video of Daniel McCormick who was last year’s winner. He was talking about how he felt a sense of responsibility after winning the competition – he wanted to be sure that people would understand why he had been selected and would agree that he had deserved to win.
Rosie: Yes, I found that quite poignant. His partner Francesca Velicu was also quite spectacular in their Corsaire pas de deux last year. It’s fantastic that we get to see the previous year’s winner perform a pas de deux. For instance, this year Daniel and Francesca danced Don Quixote, and not only did he look marvellously self-assured in his dancing and his (sometimes daring!) partnering, but his épaulement was gorgeous, and he radiated character.
Julia: We saw Daniel as Lescaut in Manon, remember. The dancer has to have a lot of stage presence for that role, as well as really articulate technique and acting ability, because he starts off the whole ballet alone on the stage. He really held my attention from the start. The critics Maggie Foyer and Margaret Willis both noted these features of his performance.
Rosie: One of the dancers who played Lescaut’s Mistress was Rina Kanahera who won Emerging Dancer two years ago. I wouldn’t have thought that she would be such fun to watch in this role, although I wasn’t surprised at how musical she was, how she played around with the phrasing. I had already noticed a difference between the technical brilliance of her Esmeralda in 2017 when she was competing, and her regal but warm presence and lush, elegant port de bras in the Aurora Grand pas de deux that closed the evening in 2018.
Julia: The name Esmeralda makes be think about how the dancers often get the opportunity to perform pieces beyond ENB’s regular repertoire. Of course this is great for the dancers to challenge their technique and for the audience, because we get to see things that we don’t often get the chance to see, but it also brings out different qualities in the dancers. Alice Bellini and Shale Wagman opened the evening this year with Victor Gsovksy’s Grand pas Classique. We’re already familiar with Shale’s accomplished technique from performances, class, and the recording of his winning variation at last year’s Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition, but Grand pas classique includes that ferociously demanding variation for the ballerina with the diagonal of slow ballonnés and pirouettes sur pointe all on one leg. Alice had to be majestic and poised for this, but then her contemporary solo Clan B by Sebastian Klobborg was a quirky take on La Sylphide using music from the Løvenskiold score.
Rosie: She really showed versatility – the combination of gestures from La Sylphide like the fluttering hands and the signature Sylphide pose with angular, grounded and much more corporeal movement was very funny, and I thought Alice brought it off a treat.
Julia: The costume contributed to the humour as well, with her long socks, checked shorts and a sylph headdress. I loved the way Vera Liber described the performance: “Full of vigour and fighting fit, she seems to have taken over James’ human body”.
Rosie: “Full of vigour and fighting fit” is hardly what you have in mind when you picture a sylph! Graham Watts noticed this about Emilia Cadorin too – that she looked completely different in BAM!, the solo created for her; it seemed to suit her really well. And in fact I think it can be said of all the solos that there is a great contrast between them and the classical pas de deux.
Julia: Yes, although perhaps the choices that showed the least contrast were Coppélia and William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. Even though that sounds a bit crazy because musically and visually they’re so different, Rhys Antoni Yeomans got to perform bravura leaps and spins in both of them, whereas the other contemporary pieces were based more on characterisation and mood, and if they were virtuosic, the use of the body was quite different.
Rosie: When I was watching Rentaro performing Own by Nuno Campos, I couldn’t help admiring the fluency and articulation of his torso and thinking of Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
Julia: We could cast it with recent Emerging Dancer finalists and winners: maybe Francesca as Giselle and Aitor Arrieta as Albrecht (Aitor was joint winner with Rina two years ago) …
Rosie: … and Isabelle Brouwers has already performed Myrthe – I’m hoping we’ll get to see her this autumn. She was fabulous as the Queen in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage – chilling and imperious.
Julia: But going back to In the Middle, I’d like to see more of the contemporary solos for the competition taken from established choreographers like Forsythe.
Rosie: I’m torn, because it’s an opportunity to see work specifically capitalising on the dancers’ talents, but Graham Watts suggests that time and resources may be limited, so that the new pieces don’t always serve the dancers as well as they might.
Julia: I think the main thing for me this year was that the dancer we were rooting for gave such wonderful performances and was the winner. She was so characterful in Untiled Code (by Miguel Altunaga), as well as obviously giving a joyous rendition of Jeanne in Flames of Paris. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops and which major roles she’ll take on in the coming years – maybe Aurora or Giselle…
Rosie: As you know, I’ve been interested in Julia (Conway) since she joined ENB, because she studied with one of my ballet teachers, Olga Semenova, who herself studied at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg. Taking class with Olga has had a huge impact on what I appreciate in dancers. For example, Olga herself, Zhanna Ayupova (current Artistic Director of Vaganova) and Tamara Rojo all have exquisite necklines – it’s not all about the legs and feet!!!
Julia: You know that next year the competition will be in its second decade?
Rosie: In that case we should do a Now & Then post instead of an In Conversation.
Julia: We could do a Spotlight on one of the previous finalists during the run-up to increase the anticipation.
Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet – Emerging Dancer Competition 2019 – London”. Dance Tabs, 9 May 2019, www. dancetabs.com/2019/05/ english- national-ballet-emerging-dancer-competition-2019-london/. Accessed 16 May 2019.
Willis, Margaret. “A Fine Company Achievement: English National Ballet’s Manon”. Bachtrack, 18 Jan. 2019, http://www.bachtrack.com/review-manon-dronina- hernandez-macmillan-english-national-ballet-london-january-2019. Accessed 16 May 2019.
Rosie and Julia recently attended the premieres and Q&A of both The White Crow, a film depicting Rudolf Nureyev’s early life and his decision to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961, and Yuli: The Carlos Acosta Story, a film inspired by the life of Acosta from childhood up to the present day. We have written about both dancers before in our Male Dancers in British Ballet Now and Then post.
In this In Conversation we share some of our thoughts on common themes that we noticed in the films.
ROSIE: It’s interesting that both film titles are nicknames with specific meanings in Nureyev’s and Acosta’s lives. The Russian expression “white crow” suggests an unusual individual, an outsider. And the name “Yuli”, meaning youthful and powerful, was adopted by his Father, who thought of him as the son of Ogun, an African warrior god.
JULIA: Yes. It seems to me that The White Crow’s director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare intended to show Nureyev’s remarkable career but also his distinctive driven personality: his passion for ballet, determination and rebellious character were extraordinary. Matchless. And in that sense an outsider.
ROSIE: But Yuli, directed by by Icíar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty, seems to me to foreground Acosta’s relationship with his father – ballet comes a poor second, if a second at all! The drama in Yuli arises from Acosta’s troubled relationship with his Father, and from his reluctance to dance and to leave his family and country. Nonetheless, it is a very colourful film, perhaps reflecting Acosta’s love for Cuba; whereas in The White Crow colour is reserved for the scenes set in 1961 Paris, which represented freedom to Nureyev. The use of colour brings out some of the contrasts in the films.
JULIA: I think there’s a difference in political agenda too. The White Crow demonstrates the impact of socio-political norms established by the Soviet Union on the life of dancers at that time despite the relaxation under Nikita Khrushchev. In my opinion, this is one of reasons for its potential success in attracting diverse audiences to the cinema… that’s the vibe that I got from the Everyman premiere. But perhaps not the same can be said in relation of Yuli, a film that primarily attracts balletomanes… although it might have a wider appeal.
ROSIE: Overall, The White Crow strikes me as an exploration and musing on the first 23 year of Nureyev’s life. The drama arises from his struggle to catch up on lost time in his training, clashes with the authorities and the slow build-up to the climax of his defection at the airport. Although film critic Peter Bradshaw questions the relevancy of the dance scenes, I think theseare used to demonstrate Nureyev’s environment, ballet as the driving force of his life, his determination and dedication, and his talent. So they’re absolutely integral to the film, to the depiction of his character and circumstances.
JULIA: I agree. In my opinion Oleg Ivenko showed brilliant dancing and thoughtful, considered acting. In The White Crow’s Q&A, Ralph Fiennes commented that when casting for Nureyev’s role he wanted to find a dancer who was able to act so that this would be a more realistic representation on screen. For example, consider the ways in which a dancer stands and walks – this had to be captured. Yet, I wonder how Ivenko prepared for this role in terms of Nureyev’s personal style?
ROSIE: Yes, dancers move differently and look different in everyday life. Fiennes himself plays Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s ballet teacher in Leningrad. He was just as I imagined – taciturn, yet at the same time interested and kind. His body language too reminded me of snippets of Pushkin’s teaching that I’ve seen. I understand from the Q&A at the British Film Institute that the producers consulted Mikhail Baryshnikov – he was also pupil of Pushkin’s and has talked of his teaching with great admiration – so I’m convinced this helped Fiennes with his portrayal of Pushkin. I also admire Fiennes’ Russian, and the fact that all the scenes set in the Soviet Union were in spoken in Russian.
JULIA: The use of foreign language is particularly effective in both films. The Russian dialogue at the start of the The White Crow, when Pushkin is being interrogated in the aftermath of Nureyev’s jump to freedomsets a powerful tone and atmosphere. On the other hand, the dance scenes in Yuli don’t convey the same sense of ongoing daily discipline required to fulfil a talent such as Acosta’s. However, similarly to The White Crow, the soundtrack and notably the music in the dance scenes contributed to a more realistic representation of the atmosphere and environment of a ballet class and stage performances.
ROSIE: For ballet lovers I think that evoking the environment of the studio is really important. In Yuli the dance scenes are used for a range of purposes. Acosta’s initial reluctance to dance is made really clear in the ballet studio scenes; then his change of attitude towards ballet is shown through his reaction to a performance of Le Corsaire. These scenes are brilliantly acted by Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, who to me looked like he could have been Acosta as a child…. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was how family relationships were explored through dance as well as through spoken sequences. Acosta dancing the role of his father added a layer of poignancy here. But it also offered an opportunity for Acosta to showcase his company. So the role of dance was integral to both films but used rather differently.
JULIA: The flashback structure in Yuli and The White Crow allowed particular connections to both dancers’ upbringing, training, and success as professional dancers to be represented on the screen. For example, as The White Crow progressed it became really clear how Nureyev’s personality was gradually being shaped through the flashbacks portraying his childhood and relationship with his mother and teacher.
ROSIE: Yes, you saw a real logic in the structure. Wendy Ide, in her review for The Guardian, suggests that The White Crow is an “uneven film” and “lacks the flowing logic” of ballet that Pushkin encourages in his students. In my opinion, however, Nureyev didn’t have a flowing logic in his life; rather, he found that through ballet. Therefore, it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t quite follow the logic of the structuring.
ROSIE: I was glad that The Guardian produced two reviews of The White Crow, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to compare one review by a film critic and one by a dance critic?
JULIA: Or even better, they could do an In Conversation review like the one we’ve done here!
Earlier this month Julia and Rosie travelled
with their friend Rebecca to Leeds to see Northern Ballet’s new ballet Victoria, choreographed by Cathy
Marston. The ballet offers a particular
perspective on the life of Victoria, based on the rewriting of the Queen’s
diaries by her youngest daughter, Beatrice.
It’s presented in flashbacks as Beatrice reads the diaries, both
remembering the mother she knew, and discovering the young Victoria, whom she
of course never knew.
On the journey back from Leeds we discussed
our initial thoughts, commenting firstly on the set, designed by Steffen
Aarfing, and the lighting, by Alastair West, then on aspects of
characterisation and choreographic structure that struck us, and the emotional
resonance of the work.
JULIA: Sandra Callard
of Yorkshire Magazine describes the
stage set as relatively simple but I see it as minimalist. I believe it is
carefully planned; it leaves space for the choreography and at the same time contributes
to the action on stage, supporting the flashback structure of the ballet; for
example, the white curtain that helps with the seamless transitions between the
past and present.
ROSIE: Yes, I agree,
the set is absolutely integral to the work. Although Sandra Callard says it
requires little attention, from reading about the ballet beforehand I knew that
the set was based on a library and that Victoria’s red diaries were going to be
replaced by Beatrice’s blue volumes. So I was always checking out what was
happening with the set during the different stages of Victoria’s and Beatrice’s
life. It’s a really fabulous set.
REBECCA: I also noticed
that before the shelves are filled with the blue books, they become windows.
This is when Beatrice is discovering her mother as a young woman, when Victoria
is falling in love with Albert, before her life is filled with the burden of
childbearing and when she is enjoying her early popularity as Queen. Her life
seems carefree and full of light.
JULIA: This makes me
think of the lighting in the opening scene, when the spotlight on Victoria is
surrounded by darkness. It seems such a
simple device, but I found it very powerful as an opening, especially the way
it was accompanied by that melancholic fanfare that starts off the music score
by Philip Feeney. Perhaps I would have liked to see more of this kind of
lighting. For example, in Act II when
Victoria and Albert consummate their marriage, it’s followed by the bright
light of the morning sun. I loved the
choreography for the pas de deux, but
it might look even more stunning with more distinctive lighting.
From the start of the ballet I could identify Victoria’s motif. It is a simple
motif which in ballet terms is a 2nd position of the feet, with the
arms in an open 5th position. This creates an X shape through the body, which to me seems to signify authority
and dominance. As Act I developed, it evolved and became more pronounced.
In Act II, there were all kinds of variations on this motif. This is when the
young Victoria has a lot of dancing, representing major events in her life,
like the coronation, her marriage to Albert, and growth of her empire. It’s like we’re watching Victoria develop her
identity as a human being and a queen before our eyes; whereas in Act I she is
already established as a character so the motif isn’t as varied. It works so well with this idea of Beatrice
discovering her mother’s youth through the diaries.
I wondered whether the X shape of
this motif can also be seen as two V
shapes, connecting to the name Victoria and the idea of victory. One of the variations that I found intriguing
was when Victoria plunged into a very deep 2nd position plié, slightly rocking from side to
side. This seemed to be when Victoria had to reach a difficult decision, for
instance, when she was obliged to go through documentation regarding matters of
Moments of emotional
For me one of these moments was directly connected to Victoria’s motif. I think
it was after Albert’s death when Victoria was literally crumbling, and so
losing her signature motif, almost as if she were losing her identity. Beatrice showed her emotional support by
physically enabling her mother to take up her Victoria stance once more,
regaining her identity and power. It was
like a labour of love.
I found the duet between John Brown and Victoria particularly touching, especially
when they were encircling the bust of Albert, as if he was included in this new
love. It was unexpected and made me well
up for a moment.
For me it was when Beatrice’s husband dies: she dons her widow’s weeds and
suddenly realises with dismay that she is turning into a version of her mother.
This makes the older Beatrice try to rip off the black dress which she’s been
One of the things I really appreciated was the seamlessness of the transitions,
because I find that when there are lots of scene changes it can be clunky and
disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. But as well as that, Beatrice is
seeing her mother through Victoria’s diaries, and when we see things in our
mind’s eye, they are not neatly compartmentalised. So the structure reflects
the free flow of our thoughts.
There was a real contrast between the two acts, with a lot more interaction
between Beatrice and Victoria in Act I; whereas in Act II Beatrice is watching
the Victoria she never knew, so she’s more distanced from the action.
Yes. This reminds me of Sanjoy Roy’s review which he starts off by commenting
on the fact that reading is the “driver” of the ballet – very unusual for choreographic
And writing too is a really important theme, I think. Cathy and her librettist Uzma Hameed enable
us to see how Beatrice edits Victoria’s writing. It’s altogether a fascinating ballet.
Yes, it’ll be great to see it again in London.
And with a different cast. Northern
Ballet dancers are very expressive, and the characters are rich and complex, so
it’ll be wonderful to see different interpretations.
Then we will have the cinema screening to look forward to in June. It’s bound
to highlight details we have missed in the theatre.
I hope it comes out on DVD. Then we can add Victoria
to our dance analysis modules.
In response to Judith Mackrell’s announcement that she was leaving The Guardian, we wrote a post on British ballet critics now and then, comparing her writing with that of previous Guardian critics James Kennedy and Mary Clarke. Disappointed as we were at Judith’s news, we were positively dismayed to discover that Luke Jennings was also giving up his role as dance critic of The Observer: two great dance writers gone in a single year…
Obviously we wanted to acknowledge Luke’s departure from The Observer in a similar way, but thought it would be interesting for our readers to learn something about his own thoughts on his role as a dance critic, his approach to writing and the decisions he makes when composing his reviews, as well as our views. Rosie spoke to him in December, shortly after he had made public his resignation.
From the start of the conversation Luke made it very clear that as a dance writer it is crucial to him to “transmit the essence of the experience of watching”. This is an idea that recurred through the course of the conversation, because the essence of the experience of watching ballet depends to a large extent on the type of work being performed. In Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the figure of Juliet is absolutely vital to the identity of the work, driving the action of the ballet as she does. Therefore, paying close attention to the ballerina’s performance is essential if the writer intends to create an impression of watching this ballet. And in fact for us, the way in which Luke manages to bring dancers to life on the page is probably the most compelling aspect of his writing. Take for example this ravishingly evocative description of Tamara Rojo as Juliet:
Tamara Rojo’s Juliet, meanwhile, is a creation of gentle and shimmering transparency. Like the surface of a lake, she seems to register every tremor, every whisper of breeze. At times, as in the balcony scene, she seems to phrase her dancing with her racing heartbeat; at others, as when Carlos Acosta’s Romeo leaves her alone in the bedroom, the light visibly ebbs from her body. (“Step into the Past”)
The images of light, air and water in this passage create a sense that Juliet’s encounter with Romeo has awoken something elemental within her, setting her aglow with new life, so that she becomes sensitive to everything around her. We see her light up the stage with her new-found love. The rhythm of the language, with the repetition of “every” pushing the sentence forward, echoes the exhilaration that makes her heart beat so fast. The parallel structure of the final sentence emphasises the stark contrast between “her racing heartbeat” with its vivid sense of movement, and the disappearance of light and movement at the close of the paragraph.
Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of time was spent on discussing narrative in ballet. However, in truth this should hardly have come as a surprise: concern for narrative clarity, logic and cogency are a theme that runs through Luke’s writing. This can be seen, for example, in his initial comments on Akram Khan’s Giselle (“A Modern Classic in the Making”), and more recently in his review of Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier (“The Unknown Soldier”), in which he discusses in some detail problems that can occur when storytelling in ballets lacks consistency and logic.
British ballet has a strong tradition of narrative ballet dating back to Ninette de Valois’ creations, including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935), Checkmate (1937) and The Prospect Before Us (1940). Luke pointed out that both Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan would seek advice regarding the libretti of their narrative ballets. One specific example we discussed was MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978) for which the choreographer collaborated with Gillian Freeman, writer of novels, screenplays and non-fiction, to give shape to a complex story spanning a number of years and involving political intrigue, as well as multiple relationships between Rudolf and the various women in his life. It should not be forgotten, however, that Freeman was also well versed in the subject of ballet, undoubtedly in part through her marriage with the dance writer and critic Edward Thorpe.
Yet Luke is of the opinion that current ballet choreographers are in general not adept at constructing scenarios for their ballets, and even select (or have selected for them) narratives that are simply unsuited to ballet adaptation. Examples are Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland (2011) and Liam Scarlett’s 2014 The Age of Anxiety, both of which are based on literary sources that depend on verbal language for their identity and meaning.
So fiercely does Luke believe in the necessity of a tight narrative for a successful ballet, that he recommends that companies employ a resident librettist, or at least that libretti be approved by a committee that understands how both ballet and storytelling work. And indeed, in his final review rounding off his time at The Observer, he asked the question: “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience?” (“Royal Ballet”).
At one point in our conversation there was an epiphany moment when the connection between Luke’s preoccupation with narrative, and our interest in the way in which he writes about the individual interpretation and movement style of dancers suddenly became clear. This is when the conversation turned to “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”. This is one of our very favourite reviews, one in which Luke compares the performances of Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. The key is that for Luke the best dancers make choices when phrasing the choreography, and these choices illuminate the narrative: just as the way in which we enunciate and inflect our speech gives particular meaning to our words, so in dance the way the performers articulate and shape the choreography give it a particular meaning.
In this review the contrast between Nuñez and Lamb, and the way in which they give particular meaning to the role of Juliet is epitomised by one specific single movement that each ballerina highlights in the Balcony Scene. This movement is inextricably linked to the moment when Juliet abandons herself to her feelings for Romeo, come what may.
In Nuñez’s performances Luke focuses on the rond de jambe, drawing attention to the ballerina’s phrasing, how it makes him feel, and what it means in terms of the narrative – the shift from hesitation to affirmation:
… the segue from the racing blur of the pirouette into the rapturous precision of the rond de jambe is heart stopping. This is when the maidenly evasion ends. This is when maybe becomes yes.
This means that the reader understands the significance of the movement for both the plotline and the emotional resonance of the choreography.
When writing about Lamb in the same scene, the emphasis is on the arabesque that follows this moment: “… she signals her surrender to destiny not with the rond de jambe but the plunging fatalistic arabesque that follows it”. So again the reader is given a sense of how the ballerina shapes the movement and its significance for the narrative in this particular performance: in this case the fearless downward trajectory of the arabesque indicates Juliet’s acceptance of her fate, creating a sense that there is no turning back, suggesting perhaps a Juliet of a more reckless temperament.
There is no doubt that Luke’s words convey something of the experience of watching the two different ballerinas, and he made it abundantly clear how important it is to him to achieve this in his writing. Closely connected to this is his desire to enable his readers to see what he sees, thereby in a sense teaching viewers how to watch, what to look out for. He referred to Nuñez’s rond de jambe and Lamb’s arabesque as “two concrete moments” that enabled him to give a clear impression of what he witnessed. However, we are also fascinated by how Luke conjures up such a vivid image of these moments. So let’s take a closer look at his writing …
When we read the description of Nuñez’s rond de jambe, we feel drawn in by the parallel sentence structure “This is when …” that culminates in “maybe becomes yes”, right at the end of the paragraph. More than this, the single syllable of yes and the lasting unvoiced s sound seems to reflect the impulse into and opening of the rond de jambe, so that the language phrase becomes mimetic of the movement – it seems to mirror the movement in time and space, so that we see the whole body opening out, saying “yes”.
And just as we see this opening of the body in the horizontal plane, Luke’s choice of vocabulary for Lamb’s arabesque accentuates the verticality of her movement: it is plunging, indicating a sudden forceful downward movement; it is fatalistic, suggesting that nothing can prevent the direction of movement. From this a completely different image appears in our mind.
You will notice from the passages we have quoted from Luke’s writing that he avoids using a lot of specialist ballet terminology and purposely selects vocabulary and imagery that is part of everyday language that readers of the newspaper will understand and relate to. This is because he is acutely aware that his writings for The Observer are for a national newspaper, and so for a broad rather than specialist readership, even though ballet lovers and professionals of various kinds (like ourselves) also read his articles. He frequently therefore starts with some context, perhaps including some explanation of the narrative, necessary for newcomers before he moves on to detail, or highlighting the particular demands of a role if this is the focus of his discussion, as in the case of “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”. After addressing the needs of the general public, he can “then speak to people who know the language”. In this way he is able to attract a varied readership. He described this tightrope act as a “constant pull” “between being comprehensible and being precise”, or “being impressionistic and presenting fact”.
It was interesting to discover that the contextualisation at the start of the reviews is far more significant than we had supposed. Luke explained that it’s not possible to tell how people are feeling, or what’s in their mind when they read his articles. The contextual writing therefore helps the reader to get in the mood and be persuaded by the writing; this Luke likened to the title sequence of a film, where we are lured into another world. Similarly, the use of second person, which Luke frequently uses in favour of either “I” or “we”, helps him to lead the reader into the experience he is aiming to convey.
So far we have focussed on Romeo and Juliet, a work dependent on the ballerina for its emotional pull. This is frequently the case in a dance genre which, since the Romantic era, has placed the ballerina both literally and metaphorically centre stage. However, it is not always the case. For Luke, the essence of watching The Nutcracker, for example, lies in the whole experience rather than in the performance of particular dancers, even when it is enriched by a magnificent cast. Consequently, over the years reviewing different companies he has given an overview of the dancing, designs, music and narrative, drawing us in with an easy narrative style that evokes The Nutcracker atmosphere. Here is an example from his 2012 review of English National Ballet’s production:
The opening, with skaters gliding along the frozen Thames outside the icicle-hung Stahlbaum mansion, is magical. Inside the house we meet a familiar cast of fops and eccentrics, headed by Michael Coleman’s splendidly bonkers Grandfather.
Luke talked of the ballet almost like a ritual, with its “sense of time passing” and the feeling of “once again here we are”. This is understandable for a critic or a ballet lover who attends the ballet on an annual basis, and the sentiment was reflected in the opening of his final Nutcracker review: “It’s Nutcracker season again”. Judging from audience numbers and make-up, many are attending for the experience of seeing a version of The Nutcracker as part of their Christmas festivities, rather than as a trip to the ballet. Therefore, in this scenario too, going to the venue and watching the performance perhaps takes on a different sense of celebration than would be usual when attending a ballet at a different time of year unconnected with a great annual festival.
Despite the light touch of his Nutcracker reviews, Luke tends to offer the reader food for thought, once again walking the tightrope between appealing to those with a particular interest in ballet, and a more general readership. He has, for example, questioned the cultural stereotyping of the Act II divertissements (“The Nutcracker – review”; “The Nutcracker review – ballet”) and poignantly drawn our attention to the “shadow aspect” of The Nutcracker: “For every Clara opening her presents beneath the Christmas tree, there’s a Little Match Girl freezing to death in the street outside” (“The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”).
And so, just as Luke asks “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience? Where are the women in creative power roles? Where’s the vision?”, we have our own questions: Where are the writers who will bring the dancers we love to life on the page? Where are the critics who will teach us how to watch? And who will give food for thought when watching something as delectable as our annual Nutcracker?
If you have seen the beautiful promotional video for English National Ballet’s Manon, with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, you cannot fail to have been struck by the location and designs: the building through which the dancers move, with their longing glances and soft sensuous caresses, is furnished with plush deep red drapes and sparkling chandeliers; and yet, at the same time, it shows signs of disrepair in the crumbling walls and ragged upholstery.
This video, lasting only 32 seconds, encapsulates some of the driving themes of the three-act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, choreographed in 1974. Based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost entitled Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the ballet is frequently described as a tale of Manon’s struggle between love and riches, for example on the current ENB promotional flier: “The young and naïve Manon is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence with the wealthy Monsieur GM, or innocent love with the penniless student Des Grieux”. Equally it could be interpreted as a battle for survival versus a desire for love.
Autumn 2018 saw a rare UK tour of the ballet, by ENB, and this month the Company brought it to the London Coliseum. But not with the original designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. Instead ENB uses the designs by Mia Stensgaard, which she created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2003, almost three decades after Manon’s premiere. Although the choreographer’s widow Deborah MacMillan describes the production as “a very worthy alternative to Nicholas Georgiadis’s version performed by The Royal Ballet”, Stensgaard’s designs give the ballet a very different visual impact, and some aspects have come up against criticism. However, being more familiar with the Georgiadis designs, and having now seen ENB’s production in both Milton Keynes and in London, we were struck by a number of design features that to us seemed to bring new life to the ballet. Here are our thoughts …
Stengaard’s sets and costumes are complemented by Mikki Kunytu’s evocative lighting. Two moments in particular were literally and metaphorically illuminated by the lighting: the fight in Act II and the opening of Act III. As the swords clash and Monsieur GM’s rage flares up, shadows of the combatants loom over their brawl, making the tension palpable, creating a sense of foreboding, and highlighting the centrality of this scene for the narrative.
As the curtains rise on Act III a feeling of stifling heat seems to emanate from the stage and engulf the auditorium air. In the narrative Manon is transported to New Orleans as a convict; in the theatre the audience is transported with Manon, as bright haze and shadows conjure up the heat and with it the sense of discomfort and alienation Manon feels in her new unknown environment.
Before tanned skin came into fashion in the early part of the 20thcentury, pale skin was prized. The faces of 18thcentury portraits are pale, even white, the paleness accentuated by pink cheeks of various shades. This look was fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie for men and children as well as for women. It denoted a particular status, or at least aspiration to that status, as tanned skin was associated with outdoors manual labour of the lower classes that exposed them to the sun.
In this production artificial pale skin is prominent amongst The Clients perusing the prostitutes, but two pivotal characters stand out for us in particular: Monsieur GM and the Gaoler. As performed by Fabian Reimar and James Streeter respectively, even at a distance from the stage their white faces seemed mask-like; and in the production photographs by Laurent Liotardo, where the roles are reversed, equally so. In performance their denaturalised/synthetic features remind us of the Diplomats from Kurt Jooss’ 1933 The Green Table, whose masks strip them of their humanity as they debate the fate of the land. The 18thcentury trend for prominent dark eyebrows, particularly for men, is a conspicuous addition to the Gaoler’s make-up, starkly framing his features and hiding any emotion or compassion that might live beneath the surface, if indeed there is any.
Monsieur GM and the Gaoler (who are frequently performed by the same dancers on different nights) are both characters who benefit from the lot of the prostitutes and more particularly play a decided role in the events that lead to the doom of Manon and Des Grieux. Again, The Green Table springs to mind: the Profiteer, the figure who gains from the loss of others in war, has a painted white face that makes him more visibly impervious to the suffering of those around him. In contrast to the depersonalised faces of Monsieur GM and the Gaoler, the faces of Manon and Des Grieux look natural and real, underlining their social status, as well as their humanity and vulnerability.
Brightly coloured frou-frou dresses with their frills, flounces and ruffles fill the stage in Act II. Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues vie for attention with lustrous whites. The girls are adorned with cute hats and fascinators. A sense of light and fun pervades. And into this hive of colour and light walks Manon in her shimmering white cloak and gown bringing a focal point to the drama that radiates over the stage.
This atmosphere of frivolity and youthfulness never returns to Manon. So, in our opinion, the costumes in this scene in all their decorativeness and blasts of colour serve a crucial purpose in highlighting the mood of this scene, which seems so distant from the dark drama of the ensuing scenes.
Manon Designs Then
Ballet productions are regularly redesigned to give them a fresh “look”, or when a work is taken into the repertoire of a different company. Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella has acquired fresh sets and costumes several times over the years, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and La Scala Milan all have their own designs for MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).
The nineteenth century classics are sometimes retained in the same production for decades, as in the case of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake, replaced by Liam Scarlett’s production last year only after thirty-one years. And a new production comes with a new design concept, which can suggest new meanings to the viewer.
The Royal Ballet has kept Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets and costumes for Manon, perhaps because choreographer and designer were frequent collaborators, working together over a substantial period of MacMillan’s choreographic career. In addition to Manon, notable collaborations were The Burrow (1958), The Invitation (1960) Romeo and Juliet, and Mayerling (1978).
Like Romeo and Juliet, Manon is a work performed by companies across the globe, including Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet. Mia Stensgaard is not the first to have created new designs for the ballet, but Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes for the Australian and Mariinsky Companies strike us as closer to Georgiadis’ original concept than Stensgaard’s version of Manon’s world. So let’s have a look at why that might be …
In the tradition of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, such an influence on the development of British ballet, MacMillan believed that design was absolutely integral to the identity and meaning of a choreographic work (Woodcock, 19). One of the aspects of Manon’s story that he felt passionate about and wanted to convey in no uncertain terms was the poverty that was a driving force in her life and the decisions that she makes. Therefore, crucial to Georgiadis’ décor is a cyclorama of rags cascading down the full height of the stage space. Characters emerge on to the stage through these rags from their carriages, representing the poverty that divides the population of Manon: the Beggars and the Gentlemen; Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M.; the Gaoler and the deported Prostitutes. Manon herself is a liminal character, who in the course of the ballet inhabits different worlds according to the decisions she makes. But the rags are a recurring reminder of how fragile the border is between survival and destitution.
Critics have highlighted how rich the original designs are compared to Stensgaard’s more recent offerings, which in comparison can look quite sparse. The word “sumptuous” has been used to describe both the costumes (Clarke 31) and the sets (Mead). There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, the first being Georgiadis’ style. Consider the splendour of the ballroom scenes in both Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling for example. You will probably be less familiar with his designs for Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker (1968), which have been described by critic and historian Jack Anderson as “far too grand”, “autumnal” and “somber” (168).
Manon was created for the UK’s premiere ballet venue – the Royal Opera House in London – and as full-evening narrative ballet of high drama, a certain degree of ostentation would be expected. But also, in terms of the subject matter, Manon is a sombre tale, so that a heaviness of tone and hue – the burnt orange, dark brown and olive greens worn by Lescaut’s Mistress, for example – seems appropriate. And the richness of the costumes makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the rags of the cyclorama.
Despite the fact that we love Stensgaard’s designs for Act II, and Manon’s light luminous dress is both in keeping with the colour palette and marks her out as the jewel in the crown onstage, we miss Georgiadis’ glorious gown for Manon. Here she is at her most ravishing. As she whirls seductively through her solo with Des Grieux and Monsieur GM circling around the rest of cast freezes. The solo crystallises Manon’s predicament and the choices available to her. And the dress with its ornate black lace embellished with silver detail complements her tantalising but perturbing dance.
Georgiadis’ sets undoubtedly emphasise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in accordance with the choreographer’s wishes. In Stensgaard’s designs this theme is perhaps not so prominent. However, characterisation, drama and atmosphere, all vital to MacMillan’s oeuvreare writ large in her costumes and sets. In our opinion, we are really fortunate to have both of these productions in the British ballet repertoire. With two such distinct design concepts, the choreography is enriched, opening further opportunity for insight and interpretation from performers and audiences alike.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… March sees the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s new ballet Victoria commissioned by Northern Ballet to commemorate the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth. So we will be discussing bio-ballets with some thoughts on this new work and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling based on the life of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary.
On October 5th Julia and Rosie went to Markova House, headquarters of English National Ballet, to watch company class and talk to James Streeter.
In our last Britishballetnowandthen post we wrote about male dancers and their impact on the development of performance style and repertoire in British ballet. One of the dancers we focussed on was James Streeter and the way in which he brings each character that he dances to life, no matter how varied or disparate. As we researched, discussed and wrote about James, remembering his performances in various roles, we became increasingly intrigued … How does James ignite the choreography with such real-life substance? How does he give the characters their lifeblood? And what is it that makes James Streeter the dancer seem to disappear and leave us with the human being of the story?
Our curiosity led us to ask for an interview with him in which we discovered that his ability to inhabit a role seems to be intrinsically connected to a particular view of life: James sees life as a constantly evolving journey peopled by fascinating human beings all with their individual histories and ways of being.
James’ relish for life is evident in the bright enthusiasm of his features, and his love for his work permeated the discussion, which was continually peppered with lively gestures and facial expressions culminating in a demonstration of the different ways a man and woman might get up from the table – a mesmerising “performance” in itself.
Although James seemed unsure whether he has a natural thespian talent (a doubt not shared by ourselves, having watched him perform in numerous roles and now having sat for an hour seeing him spontaneously transform himself into a plethora of characters mid-sentence), the trajectory of his career from joining the English National Ballet straight from the school leaves no room for doubt as to his dramatic flair. His first stage role was the Lead Capulet Servant in Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet (1977), but as a young Company member he was also given the role of Tybalt in the same ballet, as well as the Duke of Courland in the traditional version of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841). This information was delivered to us accompanied by hilarious stories of puzzled looks from the wigs department or disgruntled remarks from more senior colleagues sharing the same role at the sight of so green a performer taking on roles of some maturity.
It seems clear that one of the keys to James’ success in giving life to characters is the fact that he recognises the complexity of human nature. Tybalt, for example, he perceives not simply as the aggressive villain of Romeo and Juliet, but as a young man who loves his cousin Juliet, and is aware of his status within the family, even though he as yet lacks the maturity and stability of mind to be able to recognise the consequences of his seething temper. James is very aware that what might feel right to him in terms of his reading of the character when preparing a role may not be clearly perceived by the audience, so he makes sure that checking his character in the mirror is integral to the preparation and rehearsal process. And reviews of his performance in this role do suggest that his reading of Tybalt reaches over the footlights, with both Zoe Anderson and Mark Monahan recognising a duality within Romeo’s enemy: “James Streeter’s Tybalt has affection for Juliet as well as family pride” (Anderson); “Streeter dared to be almost sympathetic in an early scene with his cousin, but later tapped wells of white-hot ferocity in his disappointment at her choice of beau” (Monahan).
One of James’ most celebrated roles is Carabosse in the classical Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), a character who on the surface could be interpreted as a straightforward symbol of evil. Although we didn’t manage to see James in this role in the recent run of performances at the London Coliseum, (we saw a terrifying, chilling Stina Quagebeur), we were captivated by Luke Jennings’ description of James’ “fabulously vicious Carabosse, who prowls the stage with the sallow features and madly crimped hair of a vengeful Tudor queen”. We queried James about the reference to Elizabeth I, wondering whether he made a connection between the two women, their childlessness highlighted by the celebration of a long desired baby princess. He responded with a vision of Carabosse as an individual who has been ostracised for no good reason, maybe simply for being different, whose bitterness and desire for revenge are to some degree forgivable. An evil fairy she may be, but one who experiences the depths of human disappointment and hurt, who can therefore give us insight into human nature, and for whom James clearly has some sympathy.
As we discussed the whys and wherefores of Carabosse’s nature, James showed us with ever-changing dynamics in gestures and mien the difference between a camp depiction of Carabosse and the same character portrayed through feminine body language. During the conversation he observed and mimicked to a T Julia’s hand and arm gestures, giving them as an example of how he draws on everyday life and people’s changing demeanour in creating believable and relatable characters.
From James’ perspective he has only a few weeks to create a whole life history for the character he is portraying and to discover ways of moving true to the character’s history and temperament. He constantly asks himself how the person would react to everyday occurrences, such as being jostled in the tube. Tube journeys are one daily opportunity to observe people’s body language, features of which he then incorporates into a reservoir of visible traits that he uses to depict character. Early on in his career it was suggested to him that if he could behave in character during a tube ride without drawing attention to himself, he would know that he “had” the character, so to speak.
But this doesn’t quite address the question of exactly how James manages to look as if he is walking into a room rather than walking onto the stage, so real and apparently spontaneous is his demeanour. So probably the most pressing question for us was the relationship between preparing for a role and allowing himself “to be truly in the moment” (qtd. in O’Byrne). In this part of the discussion James acknowledged the influence of both Akram Khan and Tamara Rojo. He smiled at his younger self, remembering how after preparing and rehearsing with great rigour he then wanted every performance to be identical in accordance with his painstaking preparations, as if he wanted it to be “exactly right”. But with experience came the confidence to be more spontaneous in performance.
We have experienced watching Tamara Rojo in a run of performances in the same ballet and revelled in the immediacy of her renditions, varying as they did from night to night, as if she were reborn into the role each time. James explained to us that in rehearsals of Akram Khan’s Dust andGiselle Tamara Rojo and he would spend a lot of time discussing character, motivation and feeling, but also experimenting and discovering the limits of movement and emotion. This then enabled them to give performances that were authentic to the characters, their feelings and relationships, without being overdramatised.
And just as our feelings, moods and behaviours as human beings fluctuate from day to day, James perceives each performance to be a new day for his character. As he prepares for each performance a kind of transformation takes place, for which costume, wig and make-up are crucial. Now he embodies all his ideas about the character’s history, temperament, status, mood, typical gestures, posture and facial expressions, using his observations from theatre, film, art, literature and daily life, and moves into the performance as if experiencing events and responding to the people around him for the first time – as if in real life. But James did also discuss a specific unknowable factor that feeds into this sense of spontaneity and freshness, that is, the energy of the audience, a phenomenon which James clearly feels keenly and that can give the performance an extraordinary sense of occasion. A recent example that he cited was English National Ballet’s performance of Lest We Forget to the Royal British Legion, the memory of which noticeably still fills him with awe.
Amongst the dancers whose influence and support James talked about with visible ardour and gratitude were Michael Coleman, Lionel Delanoë, Frederic Jahn, Matz Skoog, Fabian Reimair, and above all David Wall. Because James’ admiration for this great actor-dancer was so prevalent within the discussion, and we wrote about David Wall’s interest in theatre in our last post, we asked James more particularly about the importance of theatre for his work, and discovered that James not only enjoys both cinema and theatre, but has quite an analytical approach to acting, relishing the finer points of skilful acting. The only point at which James hesitated in the course of our conversation was when we asked him about actors whom he particularly admired: he was clearly perplexed by the number of actors that inspire his admiration. However, given that the British ballet world seems to be entranced by the BBC’s Killing Eve, based as it is on the fictional writing of The Observer dance critic Luke Jennings, it was apt that he then proceeded to describe a scene from Episode 2 of this drama (“I’ll Deal with him Later”). Set in the pub, two of the protagonists, Bill and Eve, deliver a minimal script:
Bill: Did you know about his wife?
Eve: Mm-hmm. You?
Eve: Oh those poor kids …
Yet the delivery of the script is laced with sardonic, wry humour, and James’ appreciation for the skill of the actor David Haig in giving the scene its sharp wit flowed exuberantly through his description of this snippet of the episode that had lodged itself so firmly in his memory.
During our talk James was brimming with delight regarding this profession that allows him to create a “bubble”, a world for his character who lives a completely different life from his own. Because he enters this bubble anew at each performance, he makes fresh “discoveries”, as he calls them, that he can use to enrich his understanding and portrayal of the character in subsequent performances. As we have witnessed on stage, this is an approach that he takes to all of his roles. He explained that in the culture of English National Ballet, the notion of a minor character does not in fact exist. When the Company first staged Petipa’s classical Le Corsaire in 2013, as Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo insisted that the curtain rise on a bustling, vibrant marketplace teeming with folks of all kinds, some intent on going about their business, others more interested in the dramatic action going on around them.
As our conversation came to a close, like the gentleman he clearly is, James thanked Julia for the hand gestures she had inadvertently introduced to him, assuring her that he would make use of them one day.
We are very grateful for the support of Alice Gibson, PR Manager, and Laurent Liotardo, Staff Photographer, for their support in the production of this post.