British Ballerinas Now & Then

British Ballerinas Now

We need to talk about Margot!

Margot Fonteyn in dressing room Photo Roger Wood.tif
Margot Fonteyn in Dressing Room – Photo by Roger Wood (c), ROH Collections

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).

Francesca Hayward in Ondine, photo Andrej Uspenski ROH
Francesca Hayward in “Ondine” – Photo by Andrej Uspenski, ROH

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.

Margot Fonteyn A Celebration. Yasmine Naghdi and Vadim Muntagirov. ©ROH, 2019. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski. (2)
“Margot Fonteyn A Celebration” – Yasmine Naghdi and Vadim Muntagirov. ©ROH, 2019. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski.

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.

Apparitions. Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball. ©ROH, 2019. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski. (2)
“Apparitions” Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball. © ROH, 2019. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski.

The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta

Margot Fonteyn as Ondine in The Royal Ballet production of 'Ondi
Margot Fonteyn as Ondine in The Royal Ballet production of “Ondine”, 1958 – Photo by Roger Wood

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.

Margot Fonteyn by Roger Wood (3)
Margot Fonteyn – Photo by Roger Wood

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)

Margot Fonteyn-Roger Wood
Margot Fonteyn – Photo by Roger Wood

 Concluding thoughts

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.

© British Ballet Now & Then

 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 …

 

References

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.

Byrne, Emma. “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas”. Spectator Life, 29 Nov. 2017, https://life.spectator.co.uk/articles/dancing-queens-meet-britains-next-great-ballerinas/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Cappelle, Laura. “Francesca Hayward: the Royal Ballet’s next crown jewel”. Pointe Magazine, Feb./Mar. 2016, http://www.pointemagazine.com/francesca-hayward-the-royal-ballet-2412851665.html. Accesed 19. Oct. 2019.  

Craine, Debra. “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina”. The Times, 2 Oct. 2015, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/waiting-in-the-wings-meet-francesca-hayward-our-best-young-ballerina-rr5jpfprs9z. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Crompton, Sarah. “Yasmine Naghdi Interview: the British ballerina on her stellar rise at the Royal Ballet”. The Sunday Times, 17 Dec. 2017, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/yasmine-naghdi-interview-the-british-ballerina-on-her-stellar-rise-at-the-royal-ballet-hpbhmlqmt. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Daneman, Meredith. Margot Fonteyn. Viking, 2004.

Dowler, G. J. “The Royal Ballet – Triple Bill – The Firebird/A Month in the Country/Symphony in C”. Classical Source, 4 June 2019, http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=16531. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Eden, Richard. “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death”, The Telegraph, 12 May 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/10051368/Why-British-ballet-is-dancing-with-death.html. Accessed date 19 Oct 2019.

Elliot, Karen. Albion’s Dance: British ballet during the second world war. Oxford UP, 2016.

Margot. Directed by Tony Palmer. Isolde Films, 2008.

Meisner, Nadine. “Talking Point”. Dancing Times, vol. 96, no. 1150, 2006, p. 11.

Money, Keith. Fonteyn: The Making of a Legend. Reynal and Company, 1974.

“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”. YouTube, uploaded by Royal Opera            House, 17 June 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zXfYygXX0I. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Taylor, Jeffery. “Is Francesca Hayward the New Margot Fonteyn?”. Express, 20 Feb. 2017, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/769489/Royal-Ballet-star-Margot-Fonteyn-Sleeping-Beauty. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Winter, Anna. “Royal Ballet Principal Lauren Cuthbertson: ‘I strive to improve, but I’m comfortable with who I am”. The Stage, 4 June 2019, http://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2019/royal-ballet-principal-lauren-cuthbertson/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Giselle Productions Now & Then

Giselle Now

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 Giselle Now & 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.

Tamara Rojo and Isabelle Brouwers in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo and Isabelle Brouwers in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

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.

Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

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).

James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

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.

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

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.

Giselle Then

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”.

Giselle-3000px -revised
Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Momoko Hirata © Bella Kotak

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.

Giselle
Giselle. Yasmine Naghdi as Giselle. Giselle. © ROH, 2018. Photographed by Helen Maybanks

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”).

Jurgita Dronina as Giselle and Isaac Hernandez as Albrecht in Skeaping's Giselle © Laurent Liotardo (5) (1)
Jurgita Dronina as Giselle and Isaac Hernandez as Albrecht in Skeaping’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

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.

© British Ballet Now & Then

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.

 

References

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative process”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 4 Oct. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs2nsC_pchw. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”. English National Ballet, http://www.ballet.org.uk/production/akram-khan-giselle/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the social context”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 7 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Amlg-vPC9xU. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

“Giselle”. Pacific Northwest Ballet, 2019, https://www.pnb.org/repertory/giselle/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Heine, Heinrich. “Elementary Spirits”. Giselle. Programme. Royal Opera House, 2001.

Jennings, Luke. “Giselle review – uncontestable greatness from Marianela Núñez”. The Guardian, 28 Jan. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jan/28/giselle-review-royal-ballet-marianela-nunez. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle: Birmingham Hippodrome”. The Guardian, 4 Oct. 1999, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/1999/oct/04/artsfeatures2. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

—. “Giselle: Coliseum”. The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2007/jan/12/dance. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

—. “Giselle review – Muntagirov and Nuñez display absolute mastery”,The Guardian, 24 Mar. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/mar/24/giselle-review-muntagirov-and-nunez-display-absolute-mastery. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

Mead, David. “Birmingham Royal Ballet: Giselle”, Critical Dance, 21 June 2013, criticaldance.org/birmingham-royal-ballet-giselle/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Monahan, Mark. “Getting it Right”. Royal Opera House, http://www.roh.org.uk/news/getting-it-right-peter-wright-on-his-production-of-giselle. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Morris, Mark. “The Other Giselle”. The Creation of iGiselle, edited by Nora Foster Stovel, U of Alberta P, 2019.

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Watts, Graham. “An Indelible Performance”. Bachtrack, 21 Jan. 2018, https://bachtrack.com/review-giselle-royal-ballet-royal-opera-house-london-january-2018. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

—. “Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”. LondonDance, 19 Feb. 2011, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/giselle-at-royal-opera-house-3506/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

Weibye, Hanna. “Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”. The Arts Desk, 20 Jan. 2018, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/giselle-royal-ballet-review-beautiful-dancing-production-classic-good-taste. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

“Who Was Myrtha?”. Luke Jennings, Thirdcast.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/who-was-myrtha. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

 

 

 

 

In Conversation: Cinderella in-the-round, English National Ballet

Alina-Cojocaru-and-Isaac-Hernandez-in-Cinderella-in-the-round-c-Laurent-Liotardo-7
Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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.

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English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round (c) Ian Gavan

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. 

Alina-Cojocaru-and-Isaac-Hernandez-in-Cinderella-in-the-round-c-Laurent-Liotardo-5
Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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.

14.-English-National-Ballet-in-Christopher-Wheeldons-Cinderella-in-the-round-c-Ian-Gavan.jpg
English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round (c) Ian Gavan

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 …

English-National-Ballet-in-Cinderella-in-the-round-c-Laurent-Liotardo
English National Ballet in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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!!!

Alina-Cojocaru-in-Cinderella-in-the-round-c-Laurent-Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Emma Byrne. “Cinderella Review: English National Ballet goes Grimm with a story full of dancer fantasy”. Evening Standard, 7 June 2019, http://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/english-national-ballet-cinderella-review-royal-albert-hall-a4161961.html. Accessed 12 June 2019.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet – Cinderella – London”. DanceTabs,  6 June 2019, https://dancetabs.com/2019/06/english-national-ballet-cinderella-london/. Accessed 12 June 2019.  

Biographical Ballets Now & Then

Biographical Ballets Now

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.

Victoria and Albert on their Wedding Night –   Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as Albert in Victoria. Photo Emma Kauldhar
In the course of this pas de deux hardly a moment goes by without the couple stroking and kissing one another’s limbs, torsos, heads and faces. They spin and swoop together around the stage in arcs of elation; they wrap themselves around one another emanating exquisite sensual satisfaction. Even though Victoria’s decades of grieving for her husband are almost an historical cliché, we tend not to associate the figure in black with the physical passion that she clearly shared with Albert and that Marston has expressed with such ravishing eloquence.

The Wedding Night – Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as Albert in Victoria. Photo Emma Kauldhar

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.

Anastasia-24-10-16-Royal Ballet-5042 Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson by Tristram Kenton

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).

Mayerling Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera ROH 2017 Photographed by Alice Pennefather

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.

Afterthought

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.

©British Ballet Now & Then

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.

References

Dennison, Matthew. “Victoria through the eyes of her favourite child: how the life of Queen Victoria became a ballet”. The Telegraph, 25 Feb. 2019, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/victoria-eyes-favourite-child-life-queen-victoria-became-ballet/. Accessed 11 June 2019.

Freeman, Gillian. “The Uncertain Beyond”. Mayerling. Programme. Royal Opera House, 2018, pp. 9-12.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.

“King Edward VII – Part 1”, YouTube, 1 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdRddYn605c&t=1278s. Accessed 10 June 2019.

“King Edward VII – Part ”, YouTube, 1 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S-4veChkRA. Accessed 10 June 2019.

King, Tom. “Northern Ballet Victoria Festival Theatre Edinburgh”. Entertainment Edinburgh / Southside Advertiser, 10 April 2019, http://www.southsideadvertiser.biz/Northern-Ballet-Victoria=Festival-Theatre-Edinburgh-2019.htm. Accessed 11 June 2019.

Lowe, Philip. “Review: Victoria”. East Midlands Theatre, 2 April 2019, http://www.eastmidlandstheatre.com/2019/04/03/review-victoria-northern-ballet-touring-curve-leicester-2-6-april-2019/. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Mantel, Hilary. “Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist”. The Guardian, 3 June 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/03/hilary-mantel-why-i-became-a-historical-novelist. Accessed 10 June 2019.

“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 1, 1978”, YouTube, 10 Sept. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IntawIGac4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Monahan, Mark “Victoria, Northern Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, review: a fascinating tale of royal passion being struck from history”. The Telegraph, 27 March 2019, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/victoria-review-northern-ballet-sadlers-wells-fascinating-tale/. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Northern Ballet’s Victoria: behind the veil”. YouTube, uploaded by Northern Ballet, 13 Feb. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw0RF8xUzR8. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Parry, Jann “Creating Anastasia”. Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia, performance by The Royal Ballet. DVD notes. 2016, Opus Arte, 2016, pp. 4-6.

—. Different Drummer – The Life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2019.

“Private Lives of the Monarchs – Ep01The Secret Life of Queen Victoria”, YouTube, 22 July 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyVIPGcXMPo. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Letters – A Monarch Unveiled – Episode 2”, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7–sZ_kH0pI. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Letters – A Monarch Unveiled – Episode 1”, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7–sZ_kH0pI. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 1”, YouTube, 15 June 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv4RvQuCmR4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 2”, YouTube, 20 Dec. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hovoqQDllbw. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 3”, YouTube, 21 Sept. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv4RvQuCmR4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Roy, Sanjoy, “Northern Ballet: Victoria review – royal story is a feast of brilliance”. The Guardian, 10 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/10/northern-ballet-victoria-review-  cathy-marston-ballet-queen-daughter-beatrice-choreography-grand-leeds. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Welch, Frances “The False Grand Duchess Anastasia”. Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia, performance by The Royal Ballet. DVD notes. 2016, Opus Arte, 2016, pp. 6-8. 

Winter, Anna. “Victoria review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘a ballet to treasure’”. The Stage, 27 March 2019, http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2019/victoria-review-sadlers-wells-london/. Accessed 2 June.

 

 

ENB Emerging Dancer 2019

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’s 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.

Rosie: Let’s do it!

References

“Coaching our Emerging Dancers”. YouTube, uploaded by English National   Ballet, 7 May 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ygnp_QmH8uY. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Foyer, Maggie. “English National Ballet: Emerging Dancer Award”. Critical Dance, 7 May 2019, http://www.criticaldance.org/english-national-ballet-emerging-dancer-award/. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Liber, Vera. “ENB Emerging Dancer 2019”. British Theatre Guide, 7May 2019, http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/enb-emerging-da-sadler-s-wells-17540. Accessed 16 May 2019.

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.

In Conversation with British Ballet Now & Then: Dance Biopics – The White Crow and Yuli

Rosie and Julia recently attended the premieres and Q&A of both The White Crowa 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!

References

Bradshaw, Peter. “The White Crow review – Ralph Fiennes brings poise to ballet biopic”. The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/20/the-white-crow-review-ralph-fiennes. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Ide, Wendy. “The White Crow review – a jumpy spin on Nureyev”, The Guardian, 24 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/the-white-crow-review-rudolf-nureyev. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019. 

“Yuli”. The Royal Opera House,  www.roh.org.uk/productions/yuli-the-carlos-acosta-story-by-iciar-bollain. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019. 

Cathy Marston’s Victoria: in conversation with British Ballet Now and Then

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.  

The set

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.

Victoria’s motif

JULIA: 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.

ROSIE: 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.

REBECCA: 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 state.

Moments of emotional poignancy

ROSIE: 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.

JULIA: 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.

REBECCA: 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 wearing throughout.

Structure and transitions

ROSIE: 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.

REBECCA: 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.

JULIA: 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 works.

ROSIE: 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.

REBECCA: Yes, it’ll be great to see it again in London.

JULIA: 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.

REBECCA: 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.

JULIA: I hope it comes out on DVD. Then we can add Victoria to our dance analysis modules.

ROSIE: That would be great!

© British Ballet Now and Then & Rebecca Jukes

References

Callard, Sandra, “Victoria (Northern Ballet) – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre”.  Yorkshire Magazine, March 2019, http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-  theatre/victoria-northern-ballet-review-leeds-grand. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Roy, Sanjoy, “Northern Ballet: Victoria review – royal story is a feast of brilliance”.   The Guardian, 10 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/10/northern-ballet-victoria-review-  cathy-marston-ballet-queen-daughter-beatrice-choreography-grand-leeds. Accessed 25 March 2019.