In my tiny collection of CDs is an album entitled A Lasting Inspiration, a collection of Jacqueline du Pré recordings. It was probably a gift for my Father, a great admirer of the cellist’s. In the 1960s she became a household name, particularly in a family where every member played a musical instrument, we bought the The Great Musicians Weekly and were very happy to receive classical music LPs at Christmas and for birthdays. Listening to records was a regular family activity in the evenings and at weekends, as was watching the classical music quiz show Face the Music.
As well as CDs, I also own a few black vinyl records. Their now slightly tatty covers, the feel of the vinyl, the dust they attract and scratches they are prone to bring back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, the “golden age of record players” (“The History of the Record Player”). They also remind us of their power as a measure of the success of a musician, both within their lifetime and beyond.
In the opening scene of Cathy Marton’s The Cellist, based on the life of du Pré (frequently referred to as Jackie), dancers gradually bring black vinyl records on to the stage, roll them like wheels across the stage, hold them to their ears and swoop them through the air in circular pathways. The motion of the LPs draws us back into their era and their world of classical music.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” (Lewis 147)
As is the case in so many ballets, love features as a major theme in The Cellist. In fact, Marston herself describes her ballet as a “story of love and loss” (qtd. in Alberge). Although romantic love is the central concern of so many works, we are accustomed to the portrayal of other types of love in ballet: parental love (Giselle), filial affection (La Fille mal gardée), the love between siblings (A Winter’s Dream), the loyalty of friendship (Le Corsaire), the bond between a teenager and her nurse (Romeo and Juliet), the mature love between husband and wife (Onegin). In The Cellist too parental love is notable, as well as the intense passion that is ignited between Jackie and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. A more unusual type of love also emerges through the intermittent return to the stage of the records, tenderly handled by her fans. And this is inextricably bound to the great love at the heart of Marston’s ballet: du Pré’s lifelong love of music, and in concrete terms, her cello: not for nothing does Jenny Gilbert title her review “A grand love affair with a cello”.
Du Pré was celebrated for the passion of her playing. The 1967 video recording of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, (“Jacqueline du Pre & Daniel Barenboim Elgar Cello Concerto”), the musical composition most closely associated with her, shows her wrapping herself around her cello, gazing lovingly at its neck, and characteristically swaying from side to side, tossing her long golden hair back from time to time. The concerto ends with a triumphant flourish, immediately followed by a rhapsodic smile directed straight at her conductor Barenboim, conveying a palpable feeling of elation from the music they have just created together.
Adrian Curtin from Exeter University argues that du Pré’s “physical abandon” meant that “Her appeal derived not only from the sound of her playing; the sight of her playing was also an important element” (144). Given the significance of her physical style for audiences and the visibility of her deep and intense love for music, what better way to express this love in choreography than to cast a dancer as the Cello.
This decision was without a doubt a daring move on Marston’s part, although it is also a natural development in her choreographic style: dancers represent objects in Jane Eyre (2016), The Suit (2018) and Victoria (2019). Du Pré’s 1673 Stradivarius, however, is presented as an altogether more sentient being, and is of course, along with Jackie, the main protagonist. Not only did Marston want to explore the relationship between a human being and an object, but she wanted to investigate how the spirit of music represented by the Cello would feel looking back on its relationship with the musician (qtd. in Nepilova).
Given the sensuous nature of her choreography (think of the duets in Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria), Marston is the ideal choreographer to portray the vibrantly physical performer and her instrument. As Jackie and her Cello dance together they revolve around the stage, swirling, swooping, tumbling as one, only occasionally pausing for the Cello to admire the Cellist’s charismatic playing. Skimming across the stage together they bring to mind the notion of du Pré’s “close identification with the cello, as though performer and instrument were one” (Curtin 148). Once Barenboim is in the picture, Marston creates an exquisite metaphor for the bond between the three of them, as Jackie and her Cello rock forwards and backwards in a series of luscious, rapturous arabesques penchés and developpés devant, supported by Barenboim in the middle.
The magnificent climax to the ballet is in the form of the Elgar concert conducted by Barenboim, Jackie’s soon-to-be husband.
It is clear from the ebullience of Jackie’s behaviour that she has no idea how vulnerable her all-consuming love for her Cello has made her.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” (Didion 192)
Jackie stands with her Cello in front of an audience, poised and ready to perform. But no music is forthcoming. She is paralysed by the uncontrollable trembling of her right hand caused by the Multiple Sclerosis from which she is now suffering. The audience departs at the bidding of Barenboim.
Standing alone in front of her expectant audience, sitting alone desperate to come to terms with the disease, lying on the floor alone in despair, her world is empty. The Cello attempts to comfort her, repeating the embrace in which he initially held the Young Jackie. He tries to lift the ailing Adult Jackie in the same pose, holding his hands to her ears. But the movement that gave her life as a child she now rejects.
In his terse assessment of the situation, Adrian Curtin encapsulates its sheer brutality: du Pré “a musician known for her physical abandon was abandoned, as it were, by her own body” (148). The single missing “person” that makes her world empty is not the Cello itself, but her ability to make music with the Cello. As the Cello tries to repeat the rocking penché and developpé motion from the pas de trois with Barenboim, Jackie flounders, unable to execute the movements that once brought them both such joy.
Sitting alone in her chair, Jackie’s world looks empty.
And yet, her world isn’t quite empty.
Led by the Young Jackie, The Cellist comes to a quiet, but not silent, close with the return of the main characters to the stage. As the Cello slowly circles the space, he seems to be spinning the fabric of the ailing Jackie’s memories together. A dancer rolls a single LP across the stage once more. The LP is handed to the Young Jackie, a symbol of her lifelong love of music, her success and renown that survived her illness and death, and her extraordinary gift that is celebrated to this day. As our own memories of du Pré and her world have been rekindled, we are reminded that the past leaves behind traces, including glorious recordings of her work on vinyl, on CD and online in the form of television documentaries and recordings, as well as audio recordings.
In this cyclical structure, with its recollections of love and success and assurance that not all has been lost, lies resolution, even hope perhaps, as implied by Jenny Gilbert’s insightful closing remarks on the work: “Ultimately, the tone of The Cellist is celebratory, underlined by a closing image of Sambé slowly and dreamingly spinning like a vinyl LP”.
Undoubtedly Jacqueline du Pré will continue to be a “lasting inspiration” to lovers of classical music, “the music she made resonating onward, etched in the memories of those who heard her and the recordings she left behind” (Kemp). And in her new ballet The Cellist Cathy Marston has incalculably enriched our understanding of du Pré in the most poignant and inspirational way.
Curtin, Adrian. “‘O body swayed to music’: The allure of Jacqueline du Pré as spectacle and drama”. Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 9, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 143-59, Intellect, doi:10.1386/smt.9.2.143_1.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Harper Perennial, 2006.
This month Julia and Rosie attended two performances of English National Ballet’s (ENB) Le Corsaire at the London Coliseum. This production, first staged in 2013 for ENB by Anna-Marie Holmes remains the only production of the ballet performed by a British company, although both the Mariinsky and Bolshoi companies have performed their productions in London.
Le Corsaire is a preposterous tale of swashbuckling pirates, an avaricious slave trader, lascivious pasha, and the love of Medora, and Conrad, the Pirates’ Captain. Originally choreographed in 1856 by Joseph Mazilier and loosely based on Lord Byron’s 1824 The Corsair, it is a product of its time – a spectacular fantasy of romance and adventure set in the Ottoman Empire, complete with an onstage shipwreck. It also now includes some of the most beautiful and exciting choreography in the classical repertoire.
There were lots of possible topics of conversation raised in reviews by Emma Byrne, Mark Monahan, Graham Watts, Lyndsey Winship, for example, but we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the subject of the dancing itself and individual dancers’ styles and interpretation of character.
JULIA: So, this was the first time I’ve seen the full ballet live, but you’ve seen other productions, haven’t you, Rosie?
ROSIE: Oh yes, I still vividly remember the Mariinsky (at that time called the Kirov) Ballet coming to London in 1988 after an interlude of 18 years and performing their new production. I saw the same cast as on the DVD: Altyai Asylmuratova, Evgeni Neff, Farukh Ruzimatov Yelena Pankova, Konstantin Zaklinsky and Gennadi Babanin. I’d never seen a whole troupe of dancers so explosive, virtuosic and compelling before. It was electrifying. Dance critic John Percival wrote that after seeing it in Paris at the end of 1987 he had raved about it for months before the company brought it to London the following summer (28).
JULIA: I went to the RAD Library this morning and found out that when Rudolf Nureyev staged Le Corsairepas de deux for Margot Fonteyn and himself in 1962, Peter Williams noted certain technical skills and qualities that set Nureyev apart from “Western” male dancers. He says: “His variation … provided one of those frisson-making occasions – most exciting of all being a series of jumps in a manège in which he turned high in the air with his legs tucked under him. It is the ease, softness and panther-like grace with which he does everything that makes him so different …” (49-51).
ROSIE: But this description reminds me of Jeffrey Cirio’s performance of Ali, Conrad’s friend, on opening night. In the grand allegro sections, he created beautiful clean precise arabesque lines, and after enormous jumps he would land gently, gradually allowing his body to alight. I find this kind of virtuosity exhilarating!
ROSIE: Daniel McCormick as Ali was also spectacular, but had a quite different visual impact – the twist in his torso was so pronounced that he looked two-dimensional. Extraordinary. He won the 2018 Emerging Dancer Competition performing this role, but since then he has definitely refined and developed the stylistic characteristics of Ali. He drew me in like a magnet whenever he was on the stage, even when he wasn’t performing a dance as such.
JULIA: Another thing that I was particularly impressed by was the use of both personal and performance space. All the men were using the far reach space of their kinesphere; it looked like they couldn’t have reached any farther into the space – this added to the sense of power end elevation in their jumps.
ROSIE: Over the last few weeks I have been noticing the advertising poster with Brooklyn Mack as Conrad: it shows exactly this sense of broad kinesphere – breadth and length through the whole body – as well as strength in allegro. For me the hands are super important to the style. All the male dancers were showing openness and energy in their hand positions.
JULIA: Yes, and this was such as a contrast with Erina Takahashi’s use of personal space… As Medora she used a lot of near space making her port de bras look very delicate, which is also representative of her character. Medora seems quite gentle in comparison to her feisty friend Gulnare. I like the journalist Teresa Guerreiro’s description of Shiori Kase in that role as “sassy” and “resourceful”.
ROSIE: But I think we both found the personalities reversed with the other cast. Katja Khaniukova’s Medora was more spirited. You felt that was connected to her personal moment style, right?
JULIA: Yes, it’s not just a matter of acting, it’s that she highlights positions at the end of a phrase, and this gives her dancing a kind of boldness that makes Medora seem more assertive.
ROSIE: To be honest, when I watch this ballet, I don’t really pay much attention to the story line, as such. Nineteenth century ballets like Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1842), Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895) seem to hold a lot more symbolic significance within their narratives. But even still, the characters have to have life … Yes, for this ballet to work, the dancing has to be glorious and the acting has to resonate with me.
JULIA: I know what you mean about the libretto, but as I was watching I was seeing important themes emerge, like loyalty, betrayal, compassion. All of them tell us something about human nature. And I always think that the dancers in this Company are really convincing with their acting – even if they have a minor role or are milling around, like in the market scene in Act I of this ballet.
ROSIE: They are! When Jeffrey was performing Conrad, I was so captivated by his “conversation” with Birbanto, his second-in-command, at the side of the stage that I got distracted from the centre-stage dancing!
JULIA: You can even see this commitment to portraying character in the photos – people watching onstage events, showing their interest in different ways, engaging with other characters in really vivid ways, going about their business and so forth. It’s like people watching.
ROSIE: So I was really surprised when I read that Anna-Marie Holmes found teaching the mime the biggest challenge of staging the work. That makes me really appreciate what a skill it is.
JULIA: I know that the Odalisques pas de trois is one of your favourite parts …
ROSIE: I love it!
JULIA: Even here, where the dancers might focus solely on their technique, I noticed on the first night a true sense of character coming through. Julia Conway (she’s such a beautiful dancer – another winner of Emerging Dancer) seemed quite solemn, whereas Precious Adams appeared more agitated about her fate …
ROSIE: And Alison McWhinney was gently glowing, as if indulging in the sheer pleasure of dancing. I always admire her lovely neck line …But I want to go back to the male roles, because the two other male lead roles were performed by dancers that I don’t know at all well: Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad, and Erik Woolhouse as the scheming Birbanto.
JULIA: They were both a revelation to me too. They performed with such gusto and energy. I heard you whoop at their elevation.
ROSIE: Birbanto is a much more compelling character for me, though. When Erik Woolhouse slashed his way through the air it spoke of Birbanto’s personality as well as technical bravura. Erik really nailed it in both ways – he was on fire!
JULIA: As Jane Pritchard, ENB’s Archive Consultant, says, Le Corsaire “is a production that allows dancers the opportunity to display virtuosity and personality”.
We started this blog two years ago with The Nutcracker Now & Then. Last December we published a second Nutcracker post. However this year, Cinderella seems a more relevant ballet for our Christmas discussion.
On the other hand, Cinderella seems to be a ballet for all seasons: at the start of 2019 Scottish Ballet (SB) were performing their production by Christopher Hampson; in the summer English National Ballet (ENB) performed Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, but in the autumn toured the original version, choreographed on Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet for the proscenium stage; shortly after this Northern Ballet (NB) started to tour their 2013 production by David Nixon, which they will continue to perform over the Christmas period and then again in the spring months of 2020.
Of course, Cinderella adaptations that are based on the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev have the four seasons built into the structure of the work, if the choreographer chooses to employ the music in that way. Wheeldon and ENB took advantage of this structure when adapting his 2012 choreography for the huge arena of the Albert Hall by doubling the number of dancers for the Four Seasons divertissement making it into a magnificent spectacle. But nevertheless, with its magical tree, vibrant blues and greens, the fantastical birds and mythical Tree Gnomes, it seems to us to be imbued with a sense of warmth and fecundity that makes us associate it more with spring and summer.
The same might also be said for Hampson’s 2007 staging of Prokoviev’s Cinderella with SB, in which a rose planted by Cinderella …
… becomes the motif…, blooming into swirling curlicues and trailing blossom, becoming the backdrop of the ballet’s scenes of magic. There’s a corps de ballet of roses, and it’s a rose, as much as a dropped slipper, that reunite this Cinders with her prince. (Anderson)
In this way the magic of nature is woven into the fabric of the ballet, and more literally into the fabric of Cinderella’s gown for the ball, woven together by “silk moths, grasshoppers and spiders” as it is (Lowes).
In contrast to this emphasis on nature’s warmer months, NB’s Cinderella is set for the main part in a fantasy Moscow winter time, affording the opportunity for visits to the winter market populated by the likes of jugglers, acrobats and a magician, skating scenes on the Crystal Lake, and huskies for Cinderella’s sleigh to take her to the ball.
The atmospheric score composed by Philip Feeney, and Duncan Hayler’s sparkling set, with its Fabergé-inspired ballroom (new this year) create a quite different world of magic to that created by Daniel Brodie, Natasha Katz and Basil Twist for ENB, and the art nouveau realm of Tracy Grant Lord’s designs for SB.
One of the things that these three Cinderellas all provide is a back story that helps to create a sense of humanness in the characters, making them more than stock figures or archetypes.
Both Hampson (SB) and Wheeldon (ENB) show their heroine in childhood grieving over her Mother’s grave. But the everlasting bond between mother and daughter is symbolised by Cinderella’s tears generating new life: the blossoming of Hampson’s rose garden and the growth of Wheeldon’s magical tree. Hampson’s Prince is portrayed as lonely, without anyone to whom he can relate (“The Story of Cinderella”), while ENB’s Prince Guillaume seems to enjoy his life with his childhood friend Benjamin too much to want to commit to marriage – until, of course, he meets Cinderella. A delightful scene occurs in Act I as the result of the familiar trope of swapping identities: taking Guillaume for a destitute pauper, Cinderella offers him food, shelter and company – a mark of her compassionate nature. But as they clumsily dance together on the table, the attraction between them is unmistakable.
Nixon’s (NB) Cinderella meets Prince Mikhail in childhood, but the most significant thing we discover about her is that she is partially responsible for her Father’s accidental death; this perhaps accounts for her Stepmother’s antipathy towards her. Yet, despite her burden of guilt, the grown-up Cinderella radiates delight in the world of the market and the Crystal Lake. The innovations in characterisation that make this production feel fresh and closer to life, despite the wintry glitter and sparkle, are Cinderella’s eventual bold defiance of her Stepmother, and the Prince’s initial derisory rejection of Cinderella when he discovers her lowly status as a servant to the household. The Prince’s “upper-class bad-manners moment”, as Amanda Jennings calls it (37), felt quite uncomfortable to watch; however, so poignantly did Joseph Taylor portray Mikhail’s remorse at his own lack of empathy and insight, that there could be no doubting his love for Cinderella.
As the first three-act British ballet, Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella, still regularly performed by The Royal Ballet (RB), is without a doubt the most celebrated Cinderella in the history of British ballet. And without a doubt this is in part attributable to the number of prestigious ballerinas who have performed the eponymous role, amongst them Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Maria Almeida, Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru.
But despite its status in the British Ballet canon, Ashton’s Cinderella is to some extent an exception, especially for the year 1979, which is where we focus our attention now. We chose this particular year, because not only did the RB stage Ashton’s Cinderella that December, but both NB and SB mounted brand new productions – by Robert de Warren and Peter Darrell respectively.
It is no secret that Ashton choreographed his Cinderella as a tribute to late 19th century ballet. The divertissements of the Seasons are reminiscent of the Prologue Fairies from The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), with their quirky, idiosyncratic movements that portray the feel of the season, while the Stars remind us of Ivanov’s Snowflakes, with their sharp, spikey, shimmering movements and patterns that bring to mind the constellations of the night sky. The pantomime dame style “Ugly Sisters” could be comical renditions of Carabosse, as they plot to ensure Cinderella’s continued subjugation and to deny her her destiny, earned by the beauty of her being.
Like Desiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s Prince arrives late in the proceedings and has to pursue Cinderella through the Stars that form barriers between them. Like a 19thcentury classical ballerina role, Cinderella herself is the focus of the stage action and the narrative, with a string of solos and duets in different styles. No ballerina we have seen has ever competed with Tamara Rojo in portraying the two faces of Cinderella: the downtrodden but creative, imaginative and kindly young woman on the one hand, and the ideal vision of the fairy princess on the other.
But in 1979 NB offered a quite different interpretation of the Cinderella story. De Warren based his choreography on the 1901 score by Johan Strauss Jr., the only ballet score ever written by the composer, and adapted the scenario from Heinrich Regel’s original libretto. The theme of the seasons was retained in the name of the department store where the action is located. Here Cinderella is employed in the millinery workshop and bullied by her Stepmother, who is head of the department. However, as far as we can make out, there were no fairies representing the seasons, although magical doves (reminding us of Wheeldon’s fantasy birds) help Cinderella with her chores so that she can go to the ball.
The ball has been organised by Gustav, the owner of the Four Seasons, for his staff. What we find so enchanting about this telling of the story is that Gustav is so in love with Cinderella, despite her lowly position, that he makes excuses to go to the millinery department to catch a glimpse of her, and seeks her out at the ball, where everyone is disguised by masks.
Darrell’s 1979 SB Cinderella shared similarities with the NB production in that it also used an alternative musical score to Ashton’s, one arranged by Bramwell Tovey from music by Gioachino Rossini, including some numbers from his Cinderella opera La Cenerentola (1817). The libretto was also based loosely on the scenario to the opera (Tovey) and evidently foregrounded the Prince. The first source we found on this production was a review by John Percival which struck us with both its title “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, and with the first lines:
The Hero of Peter Darrell’s ballet Cinderella is the quiet, gentle Prince Ramiro, who is more interested in books than court occasions; you could almost imagine him talking to the plants in the palace gardens …
This version of Cinderella in fact started with the Prince, who, finding the preparations for the masked ballet tedious, changes places with his equerry Dandini; and as in the current production, an instant bond is kindled between Cinderella and the Prince, despite the disguise. As Percival emphasises “Cinderella knows real worth when she sees it” (“A Scottish Cinderella” 20). Once again, nature plays an integral part in the staging, with Exotic Birds, Fire Fairies and Dew Fairies listed in the cast, and Cinderella arriving at the ball in an exquisite cloak resembling butterfly wings.
Choreographers past and present have drawn on different sources and ideas in order to make their particular Cinderella fitting for their context.
Yet, no matter which adaptation you see, Cinderella is a ballet about different kinds of magic, love and beauty, as well as the everyday miracle of nature, with its message of hope and faith in the constant renewal of life. As such it as an ideal Christmas ballet, as well as a ballet for all seasons.
In September, Julia and Rosie presented a paper at the Theatre & Performance Research Association Conference in Exeter on Cathy Marston and the influence of Regietheater (directors’ theatre) on her choreographic style.
We thought we would share with our readers a version of our script as very little has been written about this aspect of Cathy’s work.
As you probably know, Cathy has been creating dance works for over twenty years and is in demand internationally. Predominantly she is known for her narrative ballets, adaptations of literature, drama and biography. Marston was brought up in the UK, the daughter of two English teachers, a background that led naturally to a love of literature. We really enjoyed her description of her birthday, when she was about 12 years old: evidently, instead of having a party, she requested a visit to Stratford to see The Merchant of Venice(“Interview with Cathy Marston”).
Of course, Marston was also drawn to ballet, and we find it interesting that at the age of around 14 she was already concerned about the meaning of movement and its potential for expression:
I actually took that [RAD] syllabus book to bed … and wrote next to every plié what the particular port de bras meant for me or what that frappé exercise was supposed to express to me. So I think it was always about what the dance was telling rather than how it was happening. (“Delving into Dance”)
After studying for two years at the Royal Ballet Upper School (1992-1994), Marston worked as a dancer in Switzerland (1996-1999) and during this period started to choreograph professionally. However, in addition to choreographing, Marston worked as artistic director of Bern Ballett for six years, from 2007 to 2013. As artistic director and choreographer, Marston was exposed to European theatre practices, in particular Regietheater, often translated as “directors’ theatre” (Boenisch 1).
In this Spotlight post we will examine Marston’s Juliet and Romeo, which she created in 2009 for Bern Ballett, and her biographical ballet Victoria, which premiered earlier this year in Leeds with Northern Ballet. In this way we can examine the negotiation in her work between her British roots and the strong influence of European theatre practice on her approach to adaptation for the ballet stage.
In a recent interview, Marston commented on her understanding of the term Regietheater:
The German attitude is something called Regietheater, which means director’s theatre: the director, and in this case the choreographer, should interpret the text, rather than put it on stage as written. … you can cut the text up inside out, upside down, you could do whatever you want with the source in order to convey your vision
Marston’s description of Regietheater as “cutting up the text inside out and upside down” is akin to Peter M. Boehnisch’s words: “I wonder whether precisely a genuinely emancipatory ‘messing up’ is not the briefest possible description of what the contested Regietheaterdoes …” (5).
In their outlining of Regie both Boenisch and Marvin Carlson highlight the director’s interpretations of “traditional” (Carlson 68), “older” (110) or canonical plays (Boenisch 1). Particularly in the Anglophone world, this is where the director’s role as “creative artist in his or her own right”, as Carlson expresses it (110), or Boenisch’s “messing up”, perhaps seems at its most radical and unsettling.
Amongst Marston’s over 60 choreographic works are adaptations of canonical works of literature and drama, including:
The adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another, is by its very nature a creative act, perhaps most obviously when a verbal form is being transposed to a non-verbal form, as in the case of an adaptation from a Shakespearean drama to a ballet. As you know, Romeo and Juliet is an extremely popular ballet across the globe, and the British ballet repertoire already includes a canon of three Romeo and Juliet choreographies, all of them using the score specifically composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935 and all of them following the clear structure provided by Prokofiev with its discrete acts and scenes, themes and leitmotifs. They are not the only ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s play performed by British companies (there is, for example, the innovative Ballet Cymru production from 2013), but these three were all created by revered British choreographers who are in addition identified as creators of an English style of ballet: Frederick Ashton, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.
These three Romeo and Juliet ballets were all created between 1955 and 1965 for the Royal Danish Ballet (Ashton), Stuttgart Ballet (Cranko) and Britain’s Royal Ballet (MacMillan). They are large-scale works of high drama that employ rich, colourful décor and costumes representative of the period; as such they complement the sumptuous music score. While each work is distinguished by the variations in choreographic style, there is a certain predictability in their characterisation and linear structure.
By the time Marston choreographed Juliet and Romeo she knew that such an approach would not have been well received well in Bern, where the theatre directorship, critics and audiences were accustomed to a more experimental approach on the part of a director, or choreographer in this case, towards a canonical work. Additionally, Bern Ballett is a small- to mid-scale company and would therefore be unable to provide large numbers of dancers for teeming market and ballroom scenes.
Marston’s approach to this situation was to create a work for 11 dancers representing 11 characters dressed in costumes that might be 21st century or could even be a reference to the 1950s. The stage is framed by scaffolding and stacks of posters that are moved around by the dancers in the course of the performance to create different spaces. The impression is distinctly monochrome. Some of the posters are moved individually and become visible to the audience as posters of Juliet from previous film, theatre, and ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, including Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 film. The conflicts take place between Mercutia, Benvolio and Romeo on the side of the Montagues, and Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Paris for the Capulets. Weapons and potions are replaced by a single shard of mirrored glass visibly located downstage when not in use.
We can compare Marston’s production to those of Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan by referring to different traditions of theatre practice. Boehnisch distinguishes the practice of “directing a play” in an English context and “making a performance” in Continental Europe (3). The choreographers Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan indubitably “made a performance” by the incontrovertible fact of having created ballet movement inspired by Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s music. However, because of their adherence to ballet codes of technique, gender, structure, characterisation and music-movement relationship, we argue that the process of creating these productions is also akin to “directing a play”, particularly when compared with Marston’s approach to the same task. The details of Marston’s set and costumes that we have outlined, and the re-gendering of Mercutio are consistent with the notion of “making a performance” and giving a specific direction or purpose to the “text” (5), as Boenisch puts it. Further, Marston as choreographer raises questions of patriarchy, gender, contemporary relevance and relationships between “texts” rather than choreographing the narrative to mirror the Prokofiev score. In this way she also “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties”, which is a significant aspect of Regie for Boenisch (10).
These properties of Regie – making a performance, giving the text a specific purpose and destabilising certainties – can be observed even more clearly in three striking features of Juliet and Romeo: the unusual structuring of the work, the foregrounding of Juliet and Friar Laurence, and the emphasis on the themes of authority and conflict.
In Prokoviev’s score and the three traditional British adaptations of the ballet, Friar Laurence is a minor and straightforward role. In stark contrast, Marston’s Juliet and Romeo both starts and ends with Juliet and Friar Laurence – the two characters who are in possession of all the facts pertaining to Juliet’s duplicitous “death”. The ballet opens with the scene where Juliet threatens to kill herself, and a motif is established between Juliet and Friar Laurence, whereby the Friar lifts Juliet away from the shard of glass, she pirouettes into him, he catches her and pulls her upstage right, away from the shard’s location.
Another motif is established where Laurence places his hands close to Juliet’s head, thereby drawing her back in time: from this scene in Juliet and Romeo the sequence of events follows the usual trajectory, beginning with the Montagues and Capulets’ initial brawl and ending with the double suicide.
The focus on Friar Laurence and Juliet, and their relationship, is developed as they spend time together at the start of the ballet watching the events that have passed, sometimes also walking amongst the Veronans. Juliet at times seeks to intervene in the action, and repeatedly returns to the thought of suicide. Through the course of the ballet the Friar frequently appears at moments of conflict, moves posters or rolls them up in an understated but deliberate way. At the end of the ballet he brings Juliet downstage, organises her body tidily and places the shard in its usual location, conveying a sense of inevitability to the narrating of this tragedy. Occasionally Juliet rebels against the Friar, pushing him away or running away from him. Ultimately, the conflict within Juliet it is resolved by her death. In our opinion, the prominence of Laurence, whose movements could be interpreted as either manipulative or protective, or both, seems to follow Shakespeare’s portrayal: a prominent figure of authority, an ambiguous character who constructs a dubious plan to reunite the lovers that ends with their death (Herman).
This fascinating restructuring and refocussing of the narrative is underpinned by Marston’s use of the Prokofiev score: appropriately, rather than starting with the love theme of the overture, Juliet and Romeo begins with the “Duke’s Command” that represents Prince Escalus’ warning to the Capulets and Montagues, and through this establishes an atmosphere of “conflict and tragic premonition” (Bennett). This approach is “radically at odds with” traditional ballet adaptations of the narrative, which emphasise the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet, a radicalism that is highlighted by Carlson as a feature of Regie (110). For us, the emphasis on conflict, the ambiguity of Friar Laurence’s actions and his role as narrator mark a welcome return to concepts central to Shakespeare’s text.
As we discussed in relation to the British ballet canon of Romeo and Juliet choreographies, the British ballet-going public, unlike the Bern audience, are accustomed to narrative ballets with realistic depiction of time and place and to a straightforward linear rendition of the storyline. We enjoy Marston’s description of this as the “BBC costume drama” approach to adaptation (“Delving into Dance”). Two recent examples of this approach are The Winter’s Tale (2014) and Frankenstein (2016), choreographed for Britain’s Royal Ballet by contemporaries of Marston, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett respectively, who, like Marston, are English graduates of the Royal Ballet School.
While Victoria, created for Britain’s Northern Ballet, appears to us less radical than Juliet and Romeo, neither does if conform to the “BBC costume drama” model: although relatively large-scale, with rich costumes recognisably representing the Victorian era, the influence of Regietheater is unmistakable in the structure and presentation of the narrative of Victoria’s life.
You may not be aware that over the course of her lifetime, Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic diarist. Upon her death her youngest child Beatrice took on the task of editing and rewriting the diaries from 122 to 111 volumes, a monumental enterprise that took her more than three decades. The ballet Victoria is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries, beginning shortly before Victoria’s death, ending with Albert’s death and spanning over sixty years. Therefore the narrative is presented in flashbacks as the audience witnesses Beatrice reading the diaries, the contents of which are simultaneously represented on the stage. Beatrice edits according to her to emotional reactions, including nostalgia and longing; surprise and delight; disapprobation and anger. For the purposes of this process two dancers portray Beatrice: one performs Beatrice as a young woman, and the other the older Beatrice, who is seldom absent from the stage.
There is an intriguing parallel between the way in which Beatrice furiously rips out segments from the journals and Marston “cuts up” and reassembles the “text” of Victoria’s life making a Regie performance. Further, by portraying her life to the audience through the eyes of Beatrice, Marston gives a specific direction and purpose to Victoria’s biographical narrative, a direction that “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties” (Boenisch 10) about Queen Victoria.
Marston herself refers to Beatrice as an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison). Her conscious choice of an “unreliable witness” is not only in line with current thinking about the writing of history, but also reflects the approach of Regietheater to the past, according to which the past cannot simply be brought into the present through straightforward representation (Boenisch 29). In discussing this issue Boenisch refers to the term “aesthetic mediation”, which emphasises the “distance and unavailability of the past” (9) integral to the philosophy of Regie. Through aesthetic mediation the past is “re-presented” (29), and the lacuna between the dramatic text (or in this case the dominant narrative of Victoria’s life) and its staging is exploited (30).
Integral to this “aesthetic mediation” in Marston’s ballet are the set and the corps de ballet of archivists: the stage is dominated by bookcases housing Victoria’s red volumes, which gradually over the course of the work the archivists replace with Beatrice’s edited blue volumes. In comparison with more orthodox productions of narrative ballets in this country, such as The Winter’s Tale and Frankenstein, this set is distinguished not only by its essential contribution to the action, but also its relative sparseness and ability to create a number of environments for the purpose of the narrative. In its relative minimalism Victoria cannot compare, for example, with the extreme bareness of Miki Manojlović’s 2015 Romeo and Juliet, set on a metallic cross. However, its imaginative and fluid use of stage space does seem to represent a negotiation between the general expectations of ballet in this country and the influence of Regietheater that has become integral to Marston’s choreographic style.
Echoing Boenisch’s words, Marston’s experience of encountering Regietheater she describes as liberating: “You can really take pieces, take traditional, archetypal works of literature or mythology and extract what inspires you, and that’s really given me the freedom to find my own voice (“Interview”). Victoria is an iconic monarch whose persona is indubitably imbued with the mythology of the “Widow of Windsor”, a queen grieving for her consort for almost four decades in her black bombazine, symbolic of the deepest mourning. In Act I the audience witnesses this well worn image of Victoria: in Act II the young Victoria emerges in all her ebullience, with her sense of fun, and the intense physicality of her passion, expressed both in abject rage and in the euphoria of sexual pleasure. By drawing an analogy between the myth of Victoria and a playtext, we can describe this production as what Boenisch terms a “play-performance” and conclude that “our perception and understanding [of Queen Victoria] is ultimately changed through the play-performance afforded by Regie” (9).
As far as we can see, Cathy Marston’s approach to adapting narrative for the dance stage, wherever in the globe that might be, is driven by concepts and ideas rather than linearity and “fidelity” to the text being adapted (Hutcheon and O’Flynn). In the case of both Juliet and Romeo and Victoria, choreographed a decade apart in different contexts, what we thought we knew about figures from the canon of English literature and British history is questioned in a way that goes “beyond established paradigms of meaning” (Boenisch 5), revealing their “inherent contradictions ” (10). This is achieved through integrating features of the “emancipatory ‘messing up’” that is Regietheater (5).
Narrative ballets, mostly adaptations of existing narratives, have been crucial to the British ballet repertoire since its inception in the late 1920s. Now, in the 21st century, Marston has developed an approach to creating narrative choreographic works that on the one hand, as she says “respects” her sources, as in the British tradition (“Interview”), but on the other hand challenges audience perception of the subject matter, in a way the owes much to the influence of living and working in Continental Europe.
In February next year Marston’s The Cellist, a ballet about Jacqueline du Pré, premieres at Covent Garden. An imaginative subject matter, as so often. We look forward to seeing how Marston approaches her chosen topic, and wait with bated breath to see what she has in store for us in the future …
We would like to thank Cathy Marston for her help and support in the writing of this post, and of course for her marvellous choreography!
Bennett, Karen. “Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Socialist Realism: a Case-Study in Inter-semiotic Translation”. Shakespeare and European Politics, edited by Dirk Delabastita, Josef de Vos, Paul Franssen, U of Delaware P, 2008, pp. 318-28.
Boenisch, Peter. Directing Scenes and Senses: the thinking of Regie. Manchester UP, 2015.
Carlson, Marvin. Theatre: a very short introduction. Oxford, UP, 2014.
McCulloch, Lynsey. “’Here’s that shall make you dance’: Movement and Meaning in Bern: Ballett’s Julia und Romeo”. Reinventing the Renaissance: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Adaptation and Performance, edited by Sarah Brown, Robert Lublin, Lynsey McCulloch. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp. 255-268.
In the annals of British ballet, Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, indubitably remains the most celebrated and revered ballerina. As you know, this year marks the centenary of her birth, and so, in recognition of this fact and of her status and role in the development of British ballet, our section on British ballerinas of the past in this post will be devoted entirely to Fonteyn.
It was a tricky task to select current British ballerinas to discuss, but we were led by the cast of Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration, the event organised by the Royal Ballet for June 8th of this year. The three ballerinas we decided to focus on not only displayed qualities reminiscent of Fonteyn during their performances at the celebration, but have on previous occasions all been noted for particular attributes connected to Fonteyn and the English style of performing ballet. Further, all three dancers are of British descent, which seems appropriate given that Fonteyn is the inspiration for this post and that from time to time concern is expressed regarding the number of ballerinas in the Royal Ballet who are British nationals. Our selected ballerinas are Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Even a modicum of research uncovers interesting parallels between the careers and development of these three ballerinas. All are principal dancers of the Royal Ballet (the highest rank), who attended both White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School, and joined the Company soon after graduation. In terms of career progression all three ballerinas were dancing with the Royal Ballet for between five and seven years before being promoted to Principal Dancer. There were two points that caught our eye: the early evidence and identification of talent; the particular qualities in their dancing that had an impact on the repertoire they perform, including the excerpts that were performed by them in the Fonteyn Celebration last season. While all three ballerinas won the Young British Dancer of the Year Competition before joining the Company, evidencing the calibre of their dancing, other accolades were signs of more specific characteristics: Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward were both presented with the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, whereas at the age of fifteen Yasmine Naghdi was recipient of the Royal Ballet School’s “Most Outstanding Classical Dancer” Award. So let’s think a little about this in relation to their individual repertoires …
Although Hayward and Naghdi are younger than Cuthbertson, both celebrating their 27th birthday this year, and their repertoires consequently not as broad as Cuthbertson’s, we feel we can make some valid comments on the repertoires of the three ballerinas. All of them performed Juliet early in their careers, Cuthbertson in fact debuting when she was still a teenager, and all have danced principal roles in some of the 19th century classics, which to this day still seem to be the ultimate measure of a ballerina’s mettle. However, it is noticeable that although Naghdi has been performing Odette/Odile since the age of 24, Hayward has not yet danced this crucial role; on the other hand, Hayward has won recognition for her interpretation of Manon, a role that requires sophisticated acting skills, and one that Naghdi still covets. It is also noticeable that Naghdi’s repertoire includes Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Matilda Kscheshinskaya in Anastasia, both of which require impeccable classical technique. In fact, even the way in which she performs Juliet accentuates her clarity of line, revealing this way of interpreting the choreography (“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”).
In the last two seasons Cuthbertson has added to her repertoire two of Frederick Ashton’s most important and celebrated creations for more mature ballerinas: the first Marguerite, choreographed on Fonteyn, in the 1963 Marguerite and Armand; the second Natalia Petrovna, created on Lynn Seymour, in A Month in the Country (1976). Although Seymour never reached the zenith of Fonteyn’s fame, in being Kenneth MacMillan’s muse she was nonetheless critical to the development of British ballet once ballet had been established as an indigenous art form: together they facilitated its evolution as a dramatic art form in response to the artistic and social upheaval that marked the late 1950s and 1960s. In a sense Cuthbertson recently also seems to have become an ambassador for British ballet. Last year she was invited by Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Sylvia, a major role created for Fonteyn by Ashton, in Saint Petersburg. This year she returned to the Mariinsky to dance in Marguerite and Armand and in The Sleeping Beauty, often described as the Royal Ballet’s signature work, a work integral to the development of British ballet and its international standing, and probably Fonteyn’s most celebrated role.
In 2013 Bryony Brind, former principal of the Royal Ballet, expressed her consternation about the lack of British dancers in the highest ranks of the Royal Ballet, Britain’s most renowned ballet company (qtd.in Eden). At Britishballetnowandthen we think of British ballet as the directors, dancers and choreographers and other collaborators working with companies in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or background. However, articles, reviews and interviews reveal the extent to which the issue of nationality looms large in the minds of some people who are interested in the status and development of ballet in this country. With the addition of Hayward and Naghdi to the list of Royal Ballet principals, headlines such as “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death” (Eden) have been replaced by “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas” (Byrne) and “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina” (Craine).
The term British or English is not restricted to the description of nationality, of course, but frequently used in association with a specific school of training and performance style. Interviews with both Hayward and Naghdi emphasise their English ballet training at the Royal Ballet School, as well as their sense of Britishness in everyday life (Cappelle; Crompton). This tends to be the aspect of their identity that they highlight rather than the fact that they are both mixed race, in contrast to the American ballerina Misty Copeland, also mixed race, who champions her identity as a black ballerina – the first black principal at American Ballet Theatre. For us, however, it seems important that they are mixed race (Hayward English and Kenyan, Naghdi Belgian and Iranian), as it means that the roster of principal dancers at the Royal Ballet is becoming more reflective of an increasingly mixed-race Britain.
In a 2014 review of Cuthbertson in The Sleeping Beauty, Graham Watts focuses strongly on the notion of English training and performance style, accentuating Cuthbertson’s articulation of English style in his description of her poses and lines as “disciplined”, “refined”, “traditional” and “elegant”. For Watts the maintenance of this style is vital for the continuity of tradition, which he links directly to Fonteyn:
… after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did.
References to Fonteyn also appear in writings about Hayward and Naghdi: Hayward has been directly compared to Fonteyn (Byrne “Dancing Queens”; Taylor), while descriptions of the impact of Naghdi’s “intense dark eyes” (Byrne, “Royal Ballet”), and the ferocity, energy and musicality of her Firebird (Dowler) are also reminiscent of both Fonteyn’s facial features and her qualities as a dancer.
The roles that were selected for our three chosen ballerinas for the Fonteyn Celebration capitalised on their particular talents. Naghdi was luminous in the classical Le Corsaire pas de deux in a replica of the tutu that Fonteyn wore in the celebrated recording with Rudolf Nureyev. Cuthbertson captured the mystique of the Woman in Ball Dress in Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions (1936). Hayward’s Ondine made us forget that we were watching a gala, so intensely did she draw us in water’s nymph’s world.
The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta
It seems unlikely that any ballerina will ever compete with the status of Margot Fonteyn in terms of her significance in the history of British ballet. It was she who headed the triumphant Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty that reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after its transformation into a dance hall during World War II. It was she who repeated this triumph in New York three years later, earning Britain’s national ballet company the international reputation that it has enjoyed ever since.
Through the course of WWII Britain’s ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, toured Britain indefatigably bringing the art form to an enormously varied audience including troops, office and factory workers, and codebreakers, sometimes giving as many as four performances a day (“Wartime Entertainment”). The combination of dedication, determination and hard graft required for the continuous round of class, rehearsals, performances, packing, travelling and finding digs has been recognised as integral to the war effort on the home front, and the indomitable spirit of company members completely in tune with the patriotic mood of the nation. In fact, historian Karen Elliot goes as far as to claim that “the artform was deemed vital to the survival of the average British citizen” (4).
In addition to a swiftly growing audience for ballet, an English style of choreography and performance was being developed through the work of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn herself as Ashton’s muse and the ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s style of dancing was, and has continued to be, perceived as the essence of the English style, with her clean, unexaggerated lines, and with her musicality and focus on balance, poise and harmony rather than on a show of virtuosity.
But Fonteyn’s mother was half Brazilian, and from the ages of nine to fourteen she lived with her parents in China. So perhaps it is not surprising that back in London, when she first joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, Ninette de Valois famously referred to her as “the little Chinese girl in the corner” (Daneman 58). At the time when Fonteyn joined de Valois’ school there existed a prevalent notion that the British were incapable of performing ballet: ballet was a foreign art form, connected in people’s minds particularly to Russia, due to the influence of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and Anna Pavlova. Ballets Russes was firmly connected with the notion of exoticism, depicted in particular through works such as “The Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor, The Firebird, Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, Une Nuit d’Egypte, and Thamar, all choreographed by Michel Fokine from 1911 to 1912, and all performed in London. On the other hand, Anna Pavlova, who regularly toured Britain for two decades between 1910 and 1930, represented the ideal of the ballerina with her “fragility” dark hair, expressive eyes and long neck. It seems unquestionable therefore that Fonteyn’s dark almond eyes and black hair would have struck audiences as both rather exotic and quintessentially ballerina-like, thereby contributing to her persona as Britain’s undisputed queen of ballet.
Importantly, during the early decades of ballet’s development as an indigenous art form in Britain, proponents of British ballet were depicting it as “both exotic and homegrown” (Elliot 19). Fonteyn seemed to personify this twofold depiction of British ballet through her stalwart “British” approach to the War years coupled with her understated virtuosity on the one hand, and through the “foreignness” of her appearance and stage name on the other.
Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration gave some sense of the range of the ballerina’s repertoire, her versatility and dance qualities, but it would be impossible to pay tribute to this range in one evening: Fonteyn danced for more than four decades in over eighty works (Money). Let us not forget, however, that the length of her career, the huge number of performances she danced, and both her national and international status were in part at least due to historical circumstance. This included de Valois’ plan to establish a canon of “classics” to give ballet as an art form some gravitas, in addition to ensuring the creation of new choreographies with a distinctly British identity. In the early years of this Company this canon consisted of existing ballets from the 19th century that de Valois had access to – Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – as well as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Spectre de la rose. In addition to a repertoire, however, de Valois needed a ballerina who was capable of performing both these 19th century works and the new ballets being choreographed, initially primarily by herself and Ashton.
Fonteyn’s first substantial role was the Creole Girl in Ashton’s 1931 Rio Grande, which she danced in 1935, four years after de Valois had established her company, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later to become the Sadler’s Wells and finally Royal Ballet). At the tender age of sixteen she was replacing de Valois’ ballerina Alicia Markova, for whom the role had been created, because Markova had left the Company to establish her own company with Anton Dolin. As well as being a muse for early Ashton choreography, Markova was the first British Giselle, Sugar Plum Fairy and Odette/Odile. Now Fonteyn swiftly took on those roles, with the result that by the age of twenty she had performed all of them as well as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1936, after seeing the seventeen-year-old Fonteyn as Odette, the influential critic Arnold Haskell enthusiastically declared her to be a ballerina (qtd. in Bland 46). And over the following two decades and more, the collaboration between Ashton and Fonteyn flourished, becoming a major force in the expansion and style of the British ballet repertoire.
The extent of Fonteyn’s international status and her unassailable standing as the nation’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta is reflected in the words of Lynn Seymour, who grew up in the small town of Wainwright in Alberta, Canada:
She was a big name. She was as big a name as the Prime Minister of England, if not more; she was up there with Churchill in my remote little dot on the globe … She was a household word. She represented ballet; she was ballerina. (Qtd. in Margot chap. 1)
While British ballet may never again experience such a phenomenon as Fonteyn, the three current ballerinas we have highlighted in this post display qualities that are associated with Fonteyn and the “Britishness” of her style, as well as being British by nationality. In an era concerned about the impact of globalisation on the distinctiveness of national styles in ballet (Meisner 11) it feels to us important to note that the legacy of Fonteyn can still be recognised in today’s Royal Ballet ballerinas.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … As both English National Ballet and Northern Ballet have been performing their productions of Cinderella in 2019, we will make this the focus of our British Ballet Now & Then post for December. Perhaps we will have some surprises for you …
Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.
As lovers of the ballet Giselle, first created in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, we were beside ourselves with excitement when we learnt that Akram Khan was going to choreograph a re-envisioned adaptation of the Romantic work for English National Ballet. Our only concern was whether the Company would retain a traditional production of their work in the repertoire. Fortunately this fear was soon allayed when Artistic Director Tamara Rojo announced that Mary Skeaping’s Giselle would be revived in the very same season as the world premiere of what turned out to be a most extraordinary retelling of the work in an age of refugee crises and concerns about increasing social inequality and injustice both in the UK and globally.
This autumn, three years after the premiere of Akram Khan’s work, it is an ideal time for us to revisit Giselle. Not only has Khan’s adaptation returned to Sadler’s Wells, but two additional stagings are being shown in the same theatre: both Dada Masilo’s 2017 feminist reading of the work, which draws on her South African heritage, in October, and David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s 1999 Giselle for Birmingham Royal Ballet in November. Therefore, in this post we’re focussing predominantly on productions, rather than on what individual dancers bring to the role of Giselle, as we did in our first GiselleNow & Then post.
As you may know, while maintaining the broad outline of the plot, Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have based their narrative on a community of migrants who have lost their jobs in a garment factory and are now reduced to providing entertainment for the cruel Landlords (who replace the aristocrats of the original libretto). In Act II the ghosts of dead Factory Workers wreak revenge on those who caused their death through the appalling working conditions in the factory.
When watching an adaptation, be it in the same medium, or book to film, play to ballet, the question of characterisation is always an intriguing one. There has been substantial discussion about the roles of Hilarion and Giselle herself. While Hilarion is absolutely crucial to the plot, in traditional versions he is not given extensive stage time or activity. In contrast, Khan’s Hilarion is a major character in terms of the stage action, and complexity of the role, as well as being a lynchpin in the storyline. A climax to Act I is the altercation between Hilarion and Albrecht, where they circle around one another like two stags fighting over their territory in a ritual of dominance creating a palpable tension with their glaring eyes drilling into one another. Hilarion is at the same time obsequious with the Landlords, supercilious with Albrecht and controlling with his fellow migrant Factory Workers. His skewed love for Giselle is bound to end in catastrophe.
Giselle herself is depicted by Khan as a leader (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”); her pride and defiance are writ large when she refuses to pick up the glove that Bathilde has deliberately dropped, and stubbornly resists bowing her head to the Landlords. Khan sees Giselle as an optimist in the face of the disastrous closing of the factory and consequential unemployment, so she has no need to kowtow to the Landlords. She is also in love and expecting Albrecht’s child, so she has broken the rules and rocked the boat of the precious status quo that Hilarion is so eager to hold in balance.
Because of Hilarion’s centrality to Act I and the waywardness of his character, he seems to us to be a counterpart to Myrtha. Dramaturg Ruth Little describes Hilarion as “both sinning and sinned against” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover”). Luke Jennings once found a libretto for a ballet about Myrtha’s backstory that accounts for her transformation from a loving, joyful and compassionate young woman to a vengeful wraith (“Who was Myrtha?”), and we can imagine reasons for Hilarion’s behaviour and his need to do anything to survive.
The 1841 Giselle is driven by dualisms: the daylight of the familiar village is pitted against the unknown of the dark forest; the poverty of the peasants is confronted by the blatant wealth of the aristocrats; a human community of corporeal beings is juxtaposed with the world of ethereal Wilis, where the relationship between flesh and spirit, body and soul is explored. Because of the spiritual element, Tamara Karsavina has referred to it as “a blessed ballet or an holy ballet” (A Portrait of Giselle). The spirit world is defined by a specific style of dancing, la danse ballonnée with its fleet lightness and Romantic tutus that balloon out to create the illusion that the dancers are hovering in the air. As Albrecht moves towards Giselle and fails to catch her, as she floats heavenwards in lifts and reaches away from Albrecht in arabesque, his longing for her is constantly met with confirmation of her unattainability. One of the reasons that Tamara Rojo chose Khan as the creative artist for this project was because of “the spirituality of the theme” and her belief that “he could find a different way of putting that on stage” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative”). The corporeal and ethereal worlds are clearly pitted one against the other by Khan, but the effect is strikingly different…
From the moment the curtain opens we sense the physicality of the dancers’ bodies as they push with all their might against a huge overwhelming wall (designed by Tim Yip).
Later, working as a group, they become the looms of their trade, mechanical pulsating machines; at other times they run in droves, almost like animals, as they escape their circumstances in search for new homes. In the radiant, sometimes playful, Act I duet between Giselle and Albrecht they orbit around one another and visibly enjoy their repeated moments of physical contact. Tenderly they touch one another’s head, neck, sternum, shoulders and palms, and Giselle places Albrecht’s hand on her abdomen to feel their child growing within her.
But the most intimate form of touch is when they touch one another’s faces with their hand – a movement reserved in Khan’s culture for husband and wife (Belle of the Ballet).
The Wilis of Act II wear pointe shoes, as a tribute to the Romantic tradition and the connection between pointe work and the notion of the otherworldly within that tradition. Moreover, the iconic scene where the Wilis cross one another in lines performing arabesque voyagé en avant is replicated. Originally this displayed their domination over the forest; in this case they preside over the abandoned factory. But these eldritch factory Wilis pound their canes threateningly and relentlessly into the ground, suggesting a less binary approach to the connection between flesh and spirit, the corporeal and ethereal, soul and body in this rendition of Giselle; and Giselle’s body is literally dragged into the factory by Myrtha – she may be dead, but she is in no way insubstantial.
This connection between body and spirit is demonstrated at its most poignant in the Act II duet between Giselle and Albrecht. For us Jennings’ description of Giselle’s state in Act II rings true: “She’s not dead, but she’s not quite alive, either” (Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making). The choreography for Giselle and Albrecht’s duet is physically intimate, the closeness of the bodies more continuous than in the Act I pas de deux. As they wrap themselves around one another, their touch is more sustained and prolonged. It is this very physicality that suggests to us that their souls inhabit the same realm. There are fleeting moments where Giselle seems to evaporate from Albrecht’s embrace, as if in memory of Giselle of old. But her body is often limp, no longer able to resist the force of gravity, so Albrecht bears her weight and seems to try and woo her spirit back through the warmth of his body. At one extraordinary moment he draws her up from the ground using the power of her hand on his face, as if the bond between them will return her to life, but she almost immediately sinks back down again. Despite the bond Giselle pushes his hand away from her stomach – a reminder that their child has died within her. This is far from Romanticism’s trope of representing the spiritual as insubstantiality of body. A final touch of the hand on the other’s face is the last instance of physical contact. Their final prolonged gaze at one another is so intense that Albrecht fails to notice the wall descending. This ultimate physical separation in the face of the unassailable wall is gut-wrenching.
The success of Khan’s Giselle with both critics and audiences in no way diminishes the power of traditional productions, so in this section we are discussing three traditional versions of Giselle performed by three major British ballet companies: David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s staging for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production, and the version mounted by Mary Skeaping for London Festival (now English National) Ballet. Even though they present “standard” versions of the narrative and choreography, there are differences in design, staging, characterisation and movement style. These differences may initially seem slight, but on closer inspection they have a significant impact on performances and enable this 1841 Romantic ballet to maintain its freshness, and to continue to capture the imagination of the audiences.
When the Bintley-Samsova production of Giselle was first staged in 1999, Bintley expressed the objective of creating a “proper” Giselle (Marriott), meaning that he wanted to recreate some of the excitement felt by the 1840s audiences (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). Part of this excitement was instigated by the designers’ realistic depiction of Giselle’s two contrasting worlds, including live animals in Act I and Wilis “flying” on wires in the second act. Consequently, one of the elements that was chosen as a focus was the visual element.
For this mounting of the work designer Hayden Griffiths created a waterfall, vineyards and mountains as the background for Act I, an environment that David Mead likens to “a Victorian painting come to life”. The waterfall may also remind viewers of William Wordsworth’s The Waterfall and the Eglantine (1800), thereby making a satisfying connection with Romantic literature. The verisimilitude of Act I includes “a pig’s bladder football … a dead hare, two live beagles and a real horse” (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). The village is also brought to life by the inclusion of children in the cast (because why wouldn’t a village have children?) and by ensuring that the dancers emphasise the individuality of each villager. The bustling liveliness of this act, enhanced by the bright colours of the costumes, provides a striking contrast with the ballet blanc of Act II, with its “flying” aerial Wilis and its ruined abbey, in keeping with the tastes of the Romantic audiences, who relished the successful theatrical fashioning of the mystical and otherworldly. David Mead captures the atmosphere: “Gothic arches soar heavenwards above the ruined choirs. Lit by a full moon, peeking through what is left of the windows, it is spookiest of atmospheres”.
The waterfall of the first act is particularly significant, as water is an essential element in the legend of the Wilis – in Heinrich Heine’s Über Deutschland, one of the sources used for the original libretto of Giselle, Heine explains that their hems are constantly damp, as they dwell close to or even on the water. In Giselle; or The Phantom Night Dancers, the play based on the ballet that was produced in London shortly after the ballet’s premiere in Paris, the inclusion of “Fountains of Real Water” in Act II provided a major attraction and was therefore highlighted on playbills in no uncertain terms (Morris 53). Therefore, it’s interesting that Hanna Weibye incorporates water imagery in her writing to convey the effect of the corps de ballet as the Wilis in Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet, to convey the impression that they create: “In John Macfarlane’s creamy Romantic tutus they cross the stage in serried ranks like swells on the open ocean, seemingly unstoppable” (“Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”).
It is this staging of Giselle by Wright for the Royal Ballet that is undoubtedly the most celebrated British production of the ballet. Wright has been producing Giselle since as long ago as 1966. We were fascinated to discover that when he first saw the ballet in the 1940s, he could not take it seriously. Once he had witnessed Galina Ulanova perform the title role on the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to London, however, he understood its potential; subsequently when John Cranko asked him to produce it for Stuttgart Ballet, Wright discovered (as we do!) that the more he researched, the more fascinated be became (“Getting it Right”). The current production is the second version that Wright has created for the Royal Ballet, and they have continued performing it regularly since 1985.
Wright’s approach to producing Giselle was to ensure that the characters and the drama made complete sense in his mind. To this end he made Bathilde into a more haughty, even heartless, character than she was in the original libretto, thereby creating a more sympathetic portrayal of Albrecht. This characterisation is often commented on by critics (Jennings “Giselle Review”; Mackrell “Giselle review”; Watts “An indelible performance”). Jennings’ comments on Olivia Cowley’s performance is particularly telling: “Realising that Albrecht has broken the village girl’s heart, Cowley’s Bathilde appears not so much wounded as faintly nauseated”. For Wright it is also essential that Giselle commits suicide, rather than dying of a broken heart, in order to account for her burial in the woods, outside the bounds of the churchyard and therefore unprotected from the Wilis (Monahan).
As in the case of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, design is a feature of the work that is essential to the creation of atmosphere, which has been described as “eerie”, with a “threatening” (Weibye) and “brooding” forest (Jennings). Macfarlane demonstrates a different approach to that of Griffiths, with a more uniform colour palette, but Graham Watts’ vivid description of the Act II décor shows how imaginative design can recreate an atmosphere by bringing new ideas to work that conjure up fresh images in the minds of the audience:
The woods … with their uprooted trees and a ceiling of scrambled, entwined branches provide the perfect lair for the ghostly Wilis to take their revenge on the carefree men who foolishly pass by in the dead of night (“Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”).
And now to our favourite traditional Giselle …Like Peter Wright, Mary Skeaping spent years researching the ballet, but she also had the added advantage of dancing in Anna Pavlova’s company, when Pavlova herself was performing Giselle. In addition, Skeaping saw Olga Spessivtseva dance the role, and she received a great deal of support and guidance from Tamara Karsavina to help with her first staging of the ballet in 1953 for the Royal Swedish Ballet. In 1971 Skeaping mounted a production on London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), which is their current traditional Giselle. Undoubtedly the most authentic of the British versions, this production is probably exceeded in authenticity internationally only by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011 reconstruction based on primary sources including two 19th century notation scores and the research of historian Marian Smith’s (“Giselle”).
One of the reasons we favour this production is pure sentimental nostalgia – in particular memories of Eva Evdokmova and Peter Schaufuss as the protagonists, Maina Gielgud as Myrtha and Matz Skoog in the Peasant Pas de deux, as well as the first performance of Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev dancing the ballet together. However, we are also fascinated by the impact of recreating period style, so evident in the curved asymmetrical port de bras and posture of the Wilis. It draws us into another era with its distinctive aura, “antique sense of the supernatural” (Mackrell “Giselle: Coliseum”) and restored sections, such as the complete Pas de vendages for Giselle and Albrecht. Giselle’s solo in this particular section gives a taste of a more authentic Romantic ballet style with its skimming terre-à-terre petit allegro, the batterie and ballon and quick changes of direction, all enhanced by gentle épaulement. Not only do we appreciate the understated virtuosity of such passages and the way they extend our understanding and knowledge of ballet, but when we watched performances by English National Ballet in 2017, we were struck by the contribution the full Pas de vendages makes to the dramatic climax of Act I. In comparison with the truncated version that is generally presented, the full Pas brings all the focus of both the onstage audience and the audience in the auditorium, to Giselle and Albrecht. It is playful and tender in its inclusion of the usual game of kisses, but also in the joie de vivre of the dancing style. Consequently, it distracts us from the plot, giving no warning or sense of the impending disaster. When Hilarion suddenly challenges Albrecht, it seems to cut like a razor through the celebrations. After such idyllic moments of love witnessed by her community, Giselle’s isolation in her distress is all the more raw and brutal. Perhaps it was this dramatic effect that inspired Bintley and Samsova to reinstate some of the usual musical cuts to their interpretation of the work, particularly with Samsova’s personal experience of dancing the title role in a number of different productions.
In our opinion all of these productions are relevant today. Tamara Rojo herself highlights the impact of the social context on people’s behaviour when their actions are driven by their emotions (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: The Social Context”), a theme that is of course evident in both the 1841 Giselle and the 2016 reinterpretation. Writing of the Royal Ballet’s production Hannah Weibye considers the added import of the ballet in the #metoo era, emphasising the themes of “abuse of power for sexual gratification” and questioning whether Albrecht deserves Giselle’s forgiveness. Khan’s interpretation of Giselle is a monumental work of art in its own right. As an adaptation, moreover, it provides us with a new lens through which to watch the Romantic work, find fresh insights, new emotional resonance, and to appreciate once again its own singular portrayal of love, betrayal and the beautiful, dangerous undead.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … To mark the start of the Royal Ballet’s new season and pay tribute to the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth, we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in June’s Margot Fonteyn a Celebration at the Royal Opera House celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Last Friday Julia and Rosie attended English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round, specially adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by the award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Although we knew the production would be spectacular, it exceeded our expectations!
On the way into the auditorium we were delighted to meet the dancer James Streeter whom we interviewed last autumn. He was clearly very excited about the production.
JULIA: An evening full of great surprises! ENB’s dancers filled the Royal Albert Hall’s grand arena with such energy that the venue’s atmosphere seemed to be enchanted… full of magic.
ROSIE: For me the magic starts right at the beginning, even before the performance begins: you walk into the auditorium and there’s the huge projection of a blue sky with white clouds, and then you hear birds and see them fly over the “sky” just before Sergei Prokofiev’s score starts. So I felt that nature was going to play a really important role in the production.
JULIA: Well it does, doesn’t it? In the original Wheeldon production the stage is dominated by the tree created by Julian Crouch, which apparently had to be “pruned” (as Graham Watts appropriately put it) when Dutch National Ballet brought it to the Coliseum four years ago. Although the actual tree isn’t there in the Albert Hall, it’s still present in the projections onto drapes gathered in the shape of a tree.
ROSIE: It’s all about illusion, isn’t it? It says in the programme that there are over 370 costumes – and they include outfits for fantastical white birds, tree gnomes, and the Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, all connected to the tree, as if it’s some magical life force.
JULIA: The idea of the tree came from the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, so written in the Romantic era. In fact they seem to have produced two adaptations of the story, seven years apart (1812, 1819) but both featuring the tree.
ROSIE: So there’s no Fairy Godmother and pumpkin, as in the Charles Perrault version (1697).
ROSIE: And Cinderella is held aloft “in” the coach by one of the dancers and holding billowing silk fabric above her head, almost as if she’s flying – she really is being transported! I find this kind of theatre really imaginative, and I love the way that you can see detail because there’s no orchestra pit separating the audience from the performers. You really liked the Fates, didn’t you?
JULIA: Yes, I found them very striking… I often caught myself directing attention to their moves on stage. In my opinion they were telling the audience the fairy tale from Cinderella’s perspective. Because they are so integral to the production: they are always present; they don’t suddenly appear from nowhere in terms of the narrative…
ROSIE: No they don’t, but they do often move in a soft, almost stealthy way, at times performing low level circular and undulating movements in their dark clothes, so that they seem to emerge organically from Cinderella’s surroundings. Sometimes, because of the way they were positioned around the space, I connected them to the idea of representing the four compass points, so that Cinderella is protected from every direction. I’m sure that being performed in the round encouraged this notion.
JULIA: Their movement was such a contrast to the corps de ballet who moved with such overt energy. They really made me sit up in my seat with their constant shift of imaginative patterns. But they also contributed to the narrative in that they framed Cinderella’s entrance to the ball, for example, and then with their angular staccato clockwork movements as the scene built up to Cinderella’s exit.
ROSIE: Of course the energy is enhanced by the large number of dancers – 48 corps de ballet dancers in the ballroom scene, I believe – and by fact that, as always, the ENB corps are so well rehearsed. The cohesion seemed even more important than usual in the round – somehow it’s more exposing. One of the things I liked so much about our Cinderella, Erina Takahashi, is that she has a very distinctive quality of serene stillness that I find draws me in when she performs. And in this ballet with all its wonderful buoyant energy, it seemed important to have a still centre to give it a contrasting focus.
JULIA: On another topic, I love theatre that moves seamlessly from one environment to another, like the columns that are drawn out to represent the palace and the kitchen table that glides round the performance area.
ROSIE: The projections on the floor (designed by Daniel Brodie) like the rain, the dappled light beneath the tree, the decorative marble floor of the ballroom, the clockwork wheels. These all enhance the atmosphere of each scene. I almost fell off my seat when the orchestra was lit up during the ball scene; up to that moment it had been hidden. It really intensified the illusion of being present in a beautiful grand ballroom. And the dancers entering and exiting through the auditorium makes me feel invited into Cinderella’s world.
JULIA: Yes, the orchestra was hidden behind the projections. Those projections were really vital to my appreciation of the ballet; for me they contribute to the darkness that Emma Byrne mentions in her review: “[a] story full of dark frivolity and fantasy, high on romance yet with a strong original feel”. Indeed, there is an element of dark fantasy to the story, and this, for me, combined with the dreamy, mystical set and costumes transform the characters and Cinderella into other-worldly beings. Reminded my of a Tim Burton film…
ROSIE: I agree with Emma Byrne the idea of darkness as far as the dark colour palette is concerned (Cinderella really stands out in her light-coloured costumes), but I was relieved that not all of the gruesome details of the Grimm versions were included. The ones that make me feel queasy are the Stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet (which consequently bleed profusely) to try and force them into the shoe, and then at the wedding the birds pecking the Sisters’ eyes out for their wickedness.
JULIA: Stepmother Hortensia does try to hammer their feet into the shoe, though …
ROSIE: Yes, with distinct glee as well as determination, if I remember rightly. But it seemed to me to be comedic, or at least satirical, rather than truly grisly. There was a lot of light-hearted comedy, I thought, and Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia looked like she was having outrageous fun “momanaging” her daughters and getting deliciously drunk at the ball.
JULIA: : I think the production reflects ENB’s culture as a company – a sense of togetherness, team work and effort is repeatedly expressed on stage. This reminded me of our conversation with ENB’s first soloist James Streeter when he said that “in the culture of ENB, the notion of a minor role does not in fact exist”; all characters are equally important in setting the scene and atmosphere in their productions.
ROSIE: There are more Cinderellas coming up. I’m looking forward to revisiting the topic later in the year with a Now & Then post. Watch this space!!!