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.

Spotlight on Luke Jennings

In response to Judith Mackrell’s announcement that she was leaving The Guardian, we wrote a post on British ballet critics now and then, comparing her writing with that of previous Guardian critics James Kennedy and Mary Clarke.  Disappointed as we were at Judith’s news, we were positively dismayed to discover that Luke Jennings was also giving up his role as dance critic of The Observer: two great dance writers gone in a single year…

Obviously we wanted to acknowledge Luke’s departure from The Observer in a similar way, but thought it would be interesting for our readers to learn something about his own thoughts on his role as a dance critic, his approach to writing and the decisions he makes when composing his reviews, as well as our views.  Rosie spoke to him in December, shortly after he had made public his resignation. 

From the start of the conversation Luke made it very clear that as a dance writer it is crucial to him to “transmit the essence of the experience of watching”. This is an idea that recurred through the course of the conversation, because the essence of the experience of watching ballet depends to a large extent on the type of work being performed. In Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the figure of Juliet is absolutely vital to the identity of the work, driving the action of the ballet as she does. Therefore, paying close attention to the ballerina’s performance is essential if the writer intends to create an impression of watching this ballet.  And in fact for us, the way in which Luke manages to bring dancers to life on the page is probably the most compelling aspect of his writing.  Take for example this ravishingly evocative description of Tamara Rojo as Juliet:

Tamara Rojo’s Juliet, meanwhile, is a creation of gentle and shimmering transparency. Like the surface of a lake, she seems to register every tremor, every whisper of breeze. At times, as in the balcony scene, she seems to phrase her dancing with her racing heartbeat; at others, as when Carlos Acosta’s Romeo leaves her alone in the bedroom, the light visibly ebbs from her body. (“Step into the Past”)

The images of light, air and water in this passage create a sense that Juliet’s encounter with Romeo has awoken something elemental within her, setting her aglow with new life, so that she becomes sensitive to everything around her. We see her light up the stage with her new-found love.  The rhythm of the language, with the repetition of “every” pushing the sentence forward, echoes the exhilaration that makes her heart beat so fast.  The parallel structure of the final sentence emphasises the stark contrast between “her racing heartbeat” with its vivid sense of movement, and the disappearance of light and movement at the close of the paragraph. 

Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of time was spent on discussing narrative in ballet.  However, in truth this should hardly have come as a surprise: concern for narrative clarity, logic and cogency are a theme that runs through Luke’s writing.  This can be seen, for example, in his initial comments on Akram Khan’s Giselle (“A Modern Classic in the Making”), and more recently in his review of Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier (“The Unknown Soldier”), in which he discusses in some detail problems that can occur when storytelling in ballets lacks consistency and logic.

British ballet has a strong tradition of narrative ballet dating back to Ninette de Valois’ creations, including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935), Checkmate (1937) and The Prospect Before Us (1940).  Luke pointed out that both Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan would seek advice regarding the libretti of their narrative ballets.  One specific example we discussed was MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978) for which the choreographer collaborated with Gillian Freeman, writer of novels, screenplays and non-fiction, to give shape to a complex story spanning a number of years and involving political intrigue, as well as multiple relationships between Rudolf and the various women in his life.  It should not be forgotten, however, that Freeman was also well versed in the subject of ballet, undoubtedly in part through her marriage with the dance writer and critic Edward Thorpe. 

Yet Luke is of the opinion that current ballet choreographers are in general not adept at constructing scenarios for their ballets, and even select (or have selected for them) narratives that are simply unsuited to ballet adaptation.  Examples are Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland (2011) and Liam Scarlett’s 2014 The Age of Anxiety, both of which are based on literary sources that depend on verbal language for their identity and meaning.  

So fiercely does Luke believe in the necessity of a tight narrative for a successful ballet, that he recommends that companies employ a resident librettist, or at least that libretti be approved by a committee that understands how both ballet and storytelling work.  And indeed, in his final review rounding off his time at The Observer, he asked the question: “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience?” (“Royal Ballet”).

At one point in our conversation there was an epiphany moment when the connection between Luke’s preoccupation with narrative, and our interest in the way in which he writes about the individual interpretation and movement style of dancers suddenly became clear.  This is when the conversation turned to “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  This is one of our very favourite reviews, one in which Luke compares the performances of Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.  The key is that for Luke the best dancers make choices when phrasing the choreography, and these choices illuminate the narrative: just as the way in which we enunciate and inflect our speech gives particular meaning to our words, so in dance the way the performers articulate and shape the choreography give it a particular meaning.  

In this review the contrast between Nuñez and Lamb, and the way in which they give particular meaning to the role of Juliet is epitomised by one specific single movement that each ballerina highlights in the Balcony Scene.  This movement is inextricably linked to the moment when Juliet abandons herself to her feelings for Romeo, come what may.

In Nuñez’s performances Luke focuses on the rond de jambe, drawing attention to the ballerina’s phrasing, how it makes him feel, and what it means in terms of the narrative – the shift from hesitation to affirmation:

… the segue from the racing blur of the pirouette into the rapturous precision of the rond de jambe is heart stopping. This is when the maidenly evasion ends.  This is when maybe becomes yes.

This means that the reader understands the significance of the movement for both the plotline and the emotional resonance of the choreography.  

When writing about Lamb in the same scene, the emphasis is on the arabesque that follows this moment: “… she signals her surrender to destiny not with the rond de jambe but the plunging fatalistic arabesque that follows it”. So again the reader is given a sense of how the ballerina shapes the movement and its significance for the narrative in this particular performance: in this case the fearless downward trajectory of the arabesque indicates Juliet’s acceptance of her fate, creating a sense that there is no turning back, suggesting perhaps a Juliet of a more reckless temperament.

There is no doubt that Luke’s words convey something of the experience of watching the two different ballerinas, and he made it abundantly clear how important it is to him to achieve this in his writing.  Closely connected to this is his desire to enable his readers to see what he sees, thereby in a sense teaching viewers how to watch, what to look out for.  He referred to Nuñez’s rond de jambe and Lamb’s arabesque as “two concrete moments” that enabled him to give a clear impression of what he witnessed. However, we are also fascinated by how Luke conjures up such a vivid image of these moments.  So let’s take a closer look at his writing … 

When we read the description of Nuñez’s rond de jambe, we feel drawn in by the parallel sentence structure “This is when …” that culminates in “maybe becomes yes”, right at the end of the paragraph.  More than this, the single syllable of yes and the lasting unvoiced sound seems to reflect the impulse into and opening of the rond de jambe, so that the language phrase becomes mimetic of the movement – it seems to mirror the movement in time and space, so that we see the whole body opening out, saying “yes”.

And just as we see this opening of the body in the horizontal plane, Luke’s choice of vocabulary for Lamb’s arabesque accentuates the verticality of her movement: it is plunging, indicating a sudden forceful downward movement; it is fatalistic, suggesting that nothing can prevent the direction of movement.  From this a completely different image appears in our mind.    

You will notice from the passages we have quoted from Luke’s writing that he avoids using a lot of specialist ballet terminology and purposely selects vocabulary and imagery that is part of everyday language that readers of the newspaper will understand and relate to.  This is because he is acutely aware that his writings for The Observer are for a national newspaper, and so for a broad rather than specialist readership, even though ballet lovers and professionals of various kinds (like  ourselves) also read his articles.  He frequently therefore starts with some context, perhaps including some explanation of the narrative, necessary for newcomers before he moves on to detail, or highlighting the particular demands of a role if this is the focus of his discussion, as in the case of “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  After addressing the needs of the general public, he can “then speak to people who know the language”.  In this way he is able to attract a varied readership.  He described this tightrope act as a “constant pull” “between being comprehensible and being precise”, or “being impressionistic and presenting fact”.  

It was interesting to discover that the contextualisation at the start of the reviews is far more significant than we had supposed.  Luke explained that it’s not possible to tell how people are feeling, or what’s in their mind when they read his articles.  The contextual writing therefore helps the reader to get in the mood and be persuaded by the writing; this Luke likened to the title sequence of a film, where we are lured into another world.  Similarly, the use of second person, which Luke frequently uses in favour of either “I” or “we”, helps him to lead the reader into the experience he is aiming to convey. 

So far we have focussed on Romeo and Juliet, a work dependent on the ballerina for its emotional pull.  This is frequently the case in a dance genre which, since the Romantic era, has placed the ballerina both literally and metaphorically centre stage. However, it is not always the case.  For Luke, the essence of watching The Nutcracker, for example, lies in the whole experience rather than in the performance of particular dancers, even when it is enriched by a magnificent cast. Consequently, over the years reviewing different companies he has given an overview of the dancing, designs, music and narrative, drawing us in with an easy narrative style that evokes The Nutcracker atmosphere.  Here is an example from his 2012 review of English National Ballet’s production: 

The opening, with skaters gliding along the frozen Thames outside the icicle-hung Stahlbaum mansion, is magical. Inside the house we meet a familiar cast of fops and eccentrics, headed by Michael Coleman’s splendidly bonkers Grandfather.

Luke talked of the ballet almost like a ritual, with its “sense of time passing” and the feeling of “once again here we are”.  This is understandable for a critic or a ballet lover who attends the ballet on an annual basis, and the sentiment was reflected in the opening of his final Nutcracker review: “It’s Nutcracker season again”.  Judging from audience numbers and make-up, many are attending for the experience of seeing a version of The Nutcracker as part of their Christmas festivities, rather than as a trip to the ballet.  Therefore, in this scenario too, going to the venue and watching the performance perhaps takes on a different sense of celebration than would be usual when attending a ballet at a different time of year unconnected with a great annual festival. 

Despite the light touch of his Nutcracker reviews, Luke tends to offer the reader food for thought, once again walking the tightrope between appealing to those with a particular interest in ballet, and a more general readership.  He has, for example, questioned the cultural stereotyping of the Act II divertissements (“The Nutcracker – review”; “The Nutcracker review – ballet”) and poignantly drawn our attention to the “shadow aspect” of The Nutcracker: “For every Clara opening her presents beneath the Christmas tree, there’s a Little Match Girl freezing to death in the street outside” (“The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”).

And so, just as Luke asks “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience? Where are the women in creative power roles? Where’s the vision?”, we have our own questions: Where are the writers who will bring the dancers we love to life on the page? Where are the critics who will teach us how to watch? And who will give food for thought when watching something as delectable as our annual Nutcracker?

© Rosemarie Gerhard

References

Jennings, Luke. “Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making”. The Guardian, 2 Oct. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/02/giselle-akram-khan-review-english-national-ballet. Accessed 30 Dec. 2018.

—. “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”. The Guardian, 15 June 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – ballet doesn’t come much more Christmassy”. The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/dec/07/the-nutcracker-review-birmingham-royal-ballet-christmassy. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “Royal Ballet: Les Patineurs, Winter Dreams, The Concert review – dreams and misdemeanours”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/23/royal-ballet-les-patineurs-winter-dreams-the-concert-review-triple-bill. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Unknown Soldier Review – when ballet loses its way”. The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/02/the-unknown-soldier-review-royal-ballet-triple-bill-alastair-marriott-first-world-war. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

Manon Designs Now & Then

Manon Designs Now

If you have seen the beautiful promotional video for English National Ballet’s Manon, with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, you cannot fail to have been struck by the location and designs: the building through which the dancers move, with their longing glances and soft sensuous caresses, is furnished with plush deep red drapes and sparkling chandeliers; and yet, at the same time, it shows signs of disrepair in the crumbling walls and ragged upholstery.

This video, lasting only 32 seconds, encapsulates some of the driving themes of the three-act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, choreographed in 1974.  Based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost entitled Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the ballet is frequently described as a tale of Manon’s struggle between love and riches, for example on the current ENB promotional flier: “The young and naïve Manon is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence with the wealthy Monsieur GM, or innocent love with the penniless student Des Grieux”.  Equally it could be interpreted as a battle for survival versus a desire for love.

manon-by-jason-bell-crop-square
English National Ballet, Manon. Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio.

Autumn 2018 saw a rare UK tour of the ballet, by ENB, and this month the Company brought it to the London Coliseum. But not with the original designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. Instead ENB uses the designs by Mia Stensgaard, which she created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2003, almost three decades after Manon’s premiere.  Although the choreographer’s widow Deborah MacMillan describes the production as “a very worthy alternative to Nicholas Georgiadis’s version performed by The Royal Ballet”, Stensgaard’s designs give the ballet a very different visual impact, and some aspects have come up against criticism.  However, being more familiar with the Georgiadis designs, and having now seen ENB’s production in both Milton Keynes and in London, we were struck by a number of design features that to us seemed to bring new life to the ballet.  Here are our thoughts …

The lighting

alina-cojocaru-and-fabian-reimair-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Fabian Reimair in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Stengaard’s sets and costumes are complemented by Mikki Kunytu’s evocative lighting.  Two moments in particular were literally and metaphorically illuminated by the lighting: the fight in Act II and the opening of Act III. As the swords clash and Monsieur GM’s rage flares up, shadows of the combatants loom over their brawl, making the tension palpable, creating a sense of foreboding, and highlighting the centrality of this scene for the narrative.

As the curtains rise on Act III a feeling of stifling heat seems to emanate from the stage and engulf the auditorium air.  In the narrative Manon is transported to New Orleans as a convict; in the theatre the audience is transported with Manon, as bright haze and shadows conjure up the heat and with it the sense of discomfort and alienation Manon feels in her new unknown environment.

The make-up

james-streeter-alina-cojocaru-jane-haworth-and-jeffrey-cirio-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, Jane Haworth and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Before tanned skin came into fashion in the early part of the 20thcentury, pale skin was prized.  The faces of 18thcentury portraits are pale, even white, the paleness accentuated by pink cheeks of various shades.  This look was fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie for men and children as well as for women.  It denoted a particular status, or at least aspiration to that status, as tanned skin was associated with outdoors manual labour of the lower classes that exposed them to the sun.

In this production artificial pale skin is prominent amongst The Clients perusing the prostitutes, but two pivotal characters stand out for us in particular: Monsieur GM and the Gaoler. As performed by Fabian Reimar and James Streeter respectively, even at a distance from the stage their white faces seemed mask-like; and in the production photographs by Laurent Liotardo, where the roles are reversed, equally so.  In performance their denaturalised/synthetic features remind us of the Diplomats from Kurt Jooss’ 1933 The Green Table, whose masks strip them of their humanity as they debate the fate of the land.  The 18thcentury trend for prominent dark eyebrows, particularly for men, is a conspicuous addition to the Gaoler’s make-up, starkly framing his features and hiding any emotion or compassion that might live beneath the surface, if indeed there is any.

Monsieur GM and the Gaoler (who are frequently performed by the same dancers on different nights) are both characters who benefit from the lot of the prostitutes and more particularly play a decided role in the events that lead to the doom of Manon and Des Grieux. Again, The Green Table springs to mind: the Profiteer, the figure who gains from the loss of others in war, has a painted white face that makes him more visibly impervious to the suffering of those around him.  In contrast to the depersonalised faces of Monsieur GM and the Gaoler, the faces of Manon and Des Grieux look natural and real, underlining their social status, as well as their humanity and vulnerability.

The dresses

english-national-ballet-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo-2
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Brightly coloured frou-frou dresses with their frills, flounces and ruffles fill the stage in Act II.  Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues vie for attention with lustrous whites.  The girls are adorned with cute hats and fascinators.  A sense of light and fun pervades.  And into this hive of colour and light walks Manon in her shimmering white cloak and gown bringing a focal point to the drama that radiates over the stage.

This atmosphere of frivolity and youthfulness never returns to Manon.  So, in our opinion, the costumes in this scene in all their decorativeness and blasts of colour serve a crucial purpose in highlighting the mood of this scene, which seems so distant from the dark drama of the ensuing scenes.

Manon Designs Then

Ballet productions are regularly redesigned to give them a fresh “look”, or when a work is taken into the repertoire of a different company.  Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella has acquired fresh sets and costumes several times over the years, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and La Scala Milan all have their own designs for MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).

The nineteenth century classics are sometimes retained in the same production for decades, as in the case of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake, replaced by Liam Scarlett’s production last year only after thirty-one years.  And a new production comes with a new design concept, which can suggest new meanings to the viewer.

The Royal Ballet has kept Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets and costumes for Manon, perhaps because choreographer and designer were frequent collaborators, working together over a substantial period of MacMillan’s choreographic career.  In addition to Manon, notable collaborations were The Burrow (1958), The Invitation (1960) Romeo and Juliet, and Mayerling (1978).

Like Romeo and JulietManon is a work performed by companies across the globe, including Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet.  Mia Stensgaard is not the first to have created new designs for the ballet, but Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes for the Australian and Mariinsky Companies strike us as closer to Georgiadis’ original concept than Stensgaard’s version of Manon’s world.  So let’s have a look at why that might be …

The rags

In the tradition of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, such an influence on the development of British ballet, MacMillan believed that design was absolutely integral to the identity and meaning of a choreographic work (Woodcock, 19).  One of the aspects of Manon’s story that he felt passionate about and wanted to convey in no uncertain terms was the poverty that was a driving force in her life and the decisions that she makes.  Therefore, crucial to Georgiadis’ décor is a cyclorama of rags cascading down the full height of the stage space.  Characters emerge on to the stage through these rags from their carriages, representing the poverty that divides the population of Manon: the Beggars and the Gentlemen; Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M.; the Gaoler and the deported Prostitutes.  Manon herself is a liminal character, who in the course of the ballet inhabits different worlds according to the decisions she makes.  But the rags are a recurring reminder of how fragile the border is between survival and destitution.

The richness

Critics have highlighted how rich the original designs are compared to Stensgaard’s more recent offerings, which in comparison can look quite sparse.  The word “sumptuous” has been used to describe both the costumes (Clarke 31) and the sets (Mead).  There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, the first being Georgiadis’ style. Consider the splendour of the ballroom scenes in both Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling for example.  You will probably be less familiar with his designs for Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker (1968), which have been described by critic and historian Jack Anderson as “far too grand”, “autumnal” and “somber” (168).

Manon was created for the UK’s premiere ballet venue – the Royal Opera House in London – and as full-evening narrative ballet of high drama, a certain degree of ostentation would be expected.  But also, in terms of the subject matter, Manon is a sombre tale, so that a heaviness of tone and hue – the burnt orange, dark brown and olive greens worn by Lescaut’s Mistress, for example – seems appropriate.  And the richness of the costumes makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the rags of the cyclorama.

The dress

Despite the fact that we love Stensgaard’s designs for Act II, and Manon’s light luminous dress is both in keeping with the colour palette and marks her out as the jewel in the crown onstage, we miss Georgiadis’ glorious gown for Manon.  Here she is at her most ravishing.  As she whirls seductively through her solo with Des Grieux and Monsieur GM circling around the rest of cast freezes.  The solo crystallises Manon’s predicament and the choices available to her. And the dress with its ornate black lace embellished with silver detail complements her tantalising but perturbing dance.

Georgiadis’ sets undoubtedly emphasise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in accordance with the choreographer’s wishes.  In Stensgaard’s designs this theme is perhaps not so prominent.  However, characterisation, drama and atmosphere, all vital to MacMillan’s oeuvreare writ large in her costumes and sets.  In our opinion, we are really fortunate to have both of these productions in the British ballet repertoire.   With two such distinct design concepts, the choreography is enriched, opening further opportunity for insight and interpretation from performers and audiences alike.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… March sees the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s new ballet Victoria commissioned by Northern Ballet to commemorate the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth.  So we will be discussing bio-ballets with some thoughts on this new work and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling based on the life of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary. “Manonin Copenhagen”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93, no. 1113, 2003, pp. 31-33.

MacMillan, Deborah. “Manon”. Manon, English National Ballet, Oct.-Nov. 2018.

Mead, David. “Jurgita Dronina Spellbinding in English National Ballet’s Manon”, SeeingDance, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.seeingdance.com/enb-manon-26102018/. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Woodcock, Sarah C. “MacMillan and Design”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93 no. 1108, 2002, pp. 19-25.

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

The Nutcracker Now

It strikes us that despite its ever-growing popularity, The Nutcracker presents something of a conundrum.  As last year, all the major ballet companies in the UK are performing runs of The Nutcracker, which stretch from the end of November into the new year. Of the three Tchaikovsky ballets Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), and The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892), with their magnificent scores, the Christmas ballet is the work with the least dramatic coherence and the most varied choreography from production to production.  The result of this is that the identity of the work relies predominantly on the musical score, made famous by the suite of numbers performed in the concert hall, used for Disney’s 1940 Fantasia and numerous television adverts, and perhaps on a few key figures and events, such as Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the battle between the Toy Soldiers and Mice, and the growing Christmas Tree.

One problem for lovers of narrative ballet is that we are accustomed to works that offer the ballerina a central role combining complexity and variety in choreography, and development and contrast in characterisation.  Just think of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), Swan Lake, Onegin (Cranko, 1965), and Manon (MacMillan, 1974), to name but a few examples. In fact, the original production of The Nutcracker was criticised for including “only one classical pastor the ballerina, and this near the end of the second act” (Wiley 199).  Yes, it’s a long time to wait, if you have booked a ticket specifically to see a beloved ballerina dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy …

In the eyes of some audience members this situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that the main character, Clara, is a child, and Act I is populated by children.  Dick Godfrey highlighted this issue in his review of Scottish Ballet’s performance last year, a revival of Peter Darrell’s 1973 production after over forty years: “Darrell’s bold – and in many ways admirable – decision to cast children in the roles of the children instead of the more commonly found young professionals limits the amount of dance he offers”.  The Royal Ballet production addresses this dilemma by casting a young-looking company member as Clara.  This can be seen in recordings on DVD, for example with Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Alina Cojocaru as Clara in 2001, and Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward in the same roles in 2016.  And in truth the opportunity to see a budding star of the calibre of Cojocaru or Hayward can imbue the performance with a wonderful sense of excitement.

In English National Ballet’s current production staged by Wayne Eagling in 2010 the child Clara dreams of growing up and falling in love, and consequently dances the grand pas de deus that concludes the ballet.  In this case we can gain an enormous amount of pleasure from seeing a ballerina capable of expressing both Clara’s teenage youthfulness and the grandeur required of the grand pas de deux.  Describing Tamara Rojo’s performance at the end of Act I Graham Watts writes: “it is astonishing how Rojo peels away the years to become an excited, wide-eyed teenager on stage”.  In contrast, by the end of Act II, “her experience shows in the way that she deploys contrast, from the soft-backed swoop of her promenades with Berlanga in their opening duet to the steely verticality of her triple fouettés in the coda” (Jennings).

At the start of December we saw Northern Ballet perform their production in Woking.  One of the delightful features of the performance was the fact that the children were notably of different heights, creating a vivid sense of a family gathering in the first act.  The production is similar to the Royal Ballet’s in that Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are danced by two different performers, but the two acts are securely connected not only through the figure of Clara, but through the resemblance between the characters of her life in Act I and her dream in Act II, for example between her elder sister and the Sugar Plum Fairy, both performed by the same dancer. However, this in no way makes the libretto complex, and David Nixon, Artistic Director and creator of this production, is keen to emphasise his desire “not to change the story drastically or to bring a psychological overtone.  I wanted it to be festive and joyous … It is based on a dark story, but … I kept my version simple and childlike” (qtd. in Monahan 12).

The Nutcracker Then

If you think of The Nutcracker more as family entertainment than as high art, you might think it odd to question the practice of including child dancers as principal characters in the ballet, and you might be puzzled or even perplexed by the decision to bring greater depth to the work with a “psychological overtone”.  Yet there have been two British productions that have notably aimed to give the ballet more gravitas, both in part by aligning the narrative more closely to E.T.A Hoffmann’s 1816 Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the story that inspired the ballet’s original libretto.  These were Rudolf Nureyev’s version, performed by the Royal Ballet from 1968 into the early 1980s, and the version created by Peter Schaufuss for London Festival Ballet in 1986, which remained in the repertoire until 1992.

Nureyev is known for his eagerness to expand male roles, having choreographed additional solos for the male protagonist in The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, for example, and changing the end of Swan Lake to highlight the fate of Siegfried in preference for either Odette or the love between Odette and Siegfried.  Therefore, Nureyev’s decision to combine the role of Clara’s Godfather Herr Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince could simply be considered as a way of creating a role equal in substance to that of the ballerina. But the fact that Drosselmeyer, with his eccentric mannerisms, is so very different from the Nutcracker Prince offers an arguably greater challenge to the male protagonist than to the ballerina, who portrays Clara maturing into a young woman. For the dancer it affords the opportunity to bring out different facets of the old magician and his relationship with his Goddaughter; for the audience it adds an interesting dramatic layering and the rare chance to see male dancer in a dual role   Apart from Nureyev himself, notable exponents of the role were Anthony Dowell and David Wall, both of whom we discussed in our Male Dancers Now & Then post.  On the other hand, historian and critic Jack Anderson has criticised Nureyev’s production quite bluntly for its sombre atmosphere, its Freudian overtones and its pervasive “images of cruelty” (149).

With its Gingerbread Men and Lemonade Sea, Peter Schaufuss’ 1986 production was not pervaded by the same dark atmosphere, but through both including added detail from Hoffmann’s story and introducing Tchaikovsky and his family into the libretto, the narrative became quite complicated and perhaps even burdened with additional elements.  This included a toy theatre where the Tale of the Nut “Krakatuk” was played out, the illness of Tanya, (the character usually known as Clara, and in this version also Tchaikovsky’s niece), and a prologue with Tchaikovsky working on the Nutcracker score, learning of the death of his beloved sister Sasha, and reminiscing about a past Christmas spent at her family home.  The premise for the production was Schaufuss’ idea that “Tchaikovsky may have seen himself as the central figure, Drosselmeyer” (Clarke 400), and indeed one of the joys of these performances was watching Christopher Bruce as the Tchaikovsky/Drosselmeyer figure.  The programme notes included a Tchaikovsky family tree to clarify the various familial relationships.  We could argue that, as with Nureyev’s version, this approach helped to bring more substance to the ballet, giving it more gravitas as an art work, and perhaps making it seem more historically and artistically significant.

 

Share your thoughts!

In a brilliant review of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker this year Observer critic Luke Jennings noted that the only thing lacking in the “dreamlike perfection” of the production is the sense of melancholy so integral to Tchaikovsky’s score.  Similarly, film critic Ryan Gilbey criticises Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for “failing to acknowledge the darker side of Christmas”.

So how do you prefer your Nutcracker? How important is the ballerina role to you? Are you interested in producers incorporating the “darker side of Christmas”? Is dramatic cogency important to you? Are you keen to see a romantic plot? Are you more in favour of a Nutcracker with lots of children and a simple clear storyline?

We’d love to know what you think!

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary. “The Nutcracker Season”. Dancing Times, vol. 77, no. 917, pp. 400-01.

Gilbey, Ryan. “No wonder Disney’s Nutcracker is a flop – festive films thrive on despair”. The Guardian, 8 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/dec/08/nutcracker-christmas-films-need-darkness-as-well-light. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Godfrey, Dick. “Scottish Ballet’s revival of Peter Darrell’s Nutcracker restores the famous sparkle”. ChronicleLive, 2 Feb. 2018, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-news/scottish-ballets-revival-peter-darrells-14232709. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Jennings Luke. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Monahan, Mark. “An Awfully Big Adventure”. The Nutcracker, Winter 2018, New Victoria Theatre, pp. 12-13.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Alina Cojocaru, Miyako Yoshida and Royal Ballet. 2001, Opus Arte, 2001.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Francesca Hayward, Lauren Cuthbertson, and Royal Ballet. 2016, Opus Arte, 2017.

Watts, Graham. “Review: English National Ballet – The Nutcracker- London Coliseum”. londondance.com, 15 Dec. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-the-nutcracker-2014/.. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky’s Ballets. Clarendon Press, 1985.

War Ballets Now & Then

 War Ballets Now

Over the last four years the arts have played an inestimable role in the commemoration of the First World War Centenary, notably the poppy installations and tour, and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast on national television on Armistice Day.  New ballets have been created by British choreographers for British companies dealing specifically with aspects of the Great War. This month sees the premiere of a new work by Alastair Marriott, The Unknown Soldier, for the Royal Ballet, while in September English National Ballet repeated its 2014 programme Lest We Forget comprising No Man’s Land by Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath, and Akram Khan’s Dust.

But as we revaluate this War and its significance a century on, how can choreographers in an art form known for its conservative traditions and codes engage with the topic to make it meaningful and relatable to contemporary audiences?

We have chosen two of the ballets from ENB’s Lest We Forget for our discussion, No Man’s Land and Dust, because they approach this task in very different ways.  In many regards No Man’s Land is quite traditional, with costumes clearly representing the era, and its choreography based on classical ballet vocabulary and technique, with emotion-laden pas de deux incorporating sweeping runs, lifts and catches, embraces and swoon, supported pirouettes and promenades.  However, there are less traditional choreographic features, which in conjunction with an ingenious set create a work that starts to question the role of experience of men and women in the War and the spaces they occupied.

Even on its own the set, designed by Jon Bauser, ingeniously represents the title of the work No Man’s Land: “Disputed ground between the front lines or trenches of two opposing armies” (“no man’s land def. 1.1”).   Only in this case the dispute seems to be where exactly the men and women belong and where the War is being fought.  A shattered opening in a partially destroyed munitions factory upstage leads to and from the battlefields. Ramps and steps connect the opening to the empty downstage area which serves as a fluid location where life both at home and life at war are depicted.

When the women are working in the factory, fatigued and lethargic in their repetitive, mechanical movements, they are in fact preparing explosives to destroy enemy soldiers while their own beloved soldiers are in their line of vision; and they are poisoning themselves in the process.  This appalling irony is encapsulated in the incisive words of Luke Jennings, who describes the women as “separated from their loved ones even as they themselves fed the production line of slaughter”. Both the men and the women walk wearily along the ramps, and the women sit in stillness waiting on the steps. For news. For the inevitable. For dreaded confirmation of the worst.  In this way movement and design create a synergy that emphasises the everyday anxiety and repetitive monotony of war life as well as its extreme emotions.

Central to No Man’s Land are three duets that express these extreme emotions.  The first and third represent parting: parting for the battlefield and parting for the grave.  The middle duet, however, is more distinct in character.  Here a soldier returns from war to a difficult homecoming, but clearly doesn’t feel that he belongs at home any more; for us this was the most poignant of the duets.   As is still traditional in ballet, the women are the emotional heart of the work, but the men also make emotional bonds with their fellow fighters, with the result that their home relationships are also unsettled, disrupted, under dispute – it’s not clear where their hearts belong – and the bonds they made on active service, the losses they endured are disrupting the lives they knew and longed to return to.

Of all the war themed dance works we have seen created within this centenary period, in our opinion Akram Khan’s Dust offers the most modern representation of the conflict with his radical portrayal of the female role in particular, providing an alternative to the male-centric narrative traditionally told. Throughout the piece, the female dancers demonstrate physical strength through firm, decisive movements, alongside a sense of independence reinforced through the absence of men within the large female-only section of the piece. Here the female dancers deliver sharp, percussive, grounded movements which complement, even embolden the strong accents of the accompanying drum beat. The repetition of their movement, along with their regimented unity and “piston-pumping arms” (Mackrell), provide the feeling that they are working with machinery, without the need for props; in fact, they almost seem to become machines themselves. Not only does this demonstrate, as articulated by Zoë Anderson, the notion of “growing independence” (65) for women during this time, but also shifts the female WWI role away from being confined to grief, to being active contributors to the war effort. This is further enhanced through the use of the famous WWI song, “We’re here, because we’re here” within the closing duet. These words, usually associated with male soldiers in the trenches, accompanying a duet performed by both a male and a female dancer, points towards the idea that women should be included within this use of the word “we’re” and that their contribution to the war effort should be equally valued.

Raised in South London as the son of Bangladeshi parents, Khan’s cultural identity is complex.  As a result, immigrant identity is often central to his work (Patterson).  Our knowledge of this fact invites a reading of Dust in relation to the ethnic pluralisation of British national identity; an identity which both World Wars have played a large part in constructing. For instance, when the piece was first performed in 2014, Khan offered an alternative to the overriding image of the white western male solider dominant within British collective remembrance by performing the lead male role himself. Similarly, Japanese ballerina Erina Takahashi performed the lead female role when the piece was performed on the Pyramid Stage of Glastonbury Festival in 2014, again presenting an alternative to the dominant image of the war as a solely westernised conflict.

When considering the ever increasing awareness of mental health in recent years, Khan’s focus on what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder, again demonstrates how Dust offers a 21st Century understanding of the conflict. The male soloist’s sharp, erratic twitching motions, which appear to be beyond his control, arguably make for uncomfortable viewing, yet poignantly bring the horrors of this conflict to life. We find this even more visceral than Wilfred Owen’s Mental Cases (1918), which graphically describes soldiers suffering from shell shock.

War Ballets Then

One of the war ballets from the past we are sure you will be very familiar with.  Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria, inspired by Testament of Youth and an overt memorialisation of World War I, has been staged by the Royal Ballet repeatedly since its premiere in 1980, and has been staged across the globe. Last year for the first time Northern Ballet took the work into its repertoire.

Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets, created for Royal Swedish Ballet in 1963, will be less familiar to the British ballet public, although it was performed by London Festival Ballet (later ENB) from 1973 to 1990. The visual impact of Echoing of Trumpets and No Man’s Land is similar, in that again the stage is dominated by an evocative set, this time representing a destroyed village, with stone ruins, archways, and again with ramps, and a view through a barbed wire fence into a bleak barren distance. Judith Chazin-Bennahum describes it as “harsh, jagged, multi-level” and notes that one of the women oversees the surroundings from a higher level (432).  This is also a “no man’s land” in the sense that the village is bereft of its male inhabitants – only the women remain.

The work has a connection to a particular incident from World War II – the destruction of a Czechoslovakian village and brutalisation of its female inhabitants by Hitler’s forces in 1942.  While there seems to be some contention as to whether or not the women are raped by the soldiers (Kisselgoff; Perlmutter 272), there is no doubt that the women are depicted as human beings of enormous strength, courage and willpower, capable of intense rage that leads them to commit acts of violence, and intense grief that equips them with preternatural physical strength.  After the soldiers viciously hang a villager who has returned to see his beloved, the women wreak their revenge by strangling one of their tormentors with their scarves.  The bereaved woman hauls the corpse around the stage in her searing anger and despair. Footage of the ballet shows the women to be forceful in their movements, conspiratorial, bold, united and unhesitant in their decision making (Antony Tudor; “Antony Tudor’s Echoing of the Trumpets”).  So the women are victims, but not completely devoid of power over their situation.  And they don’t align with typical representations of women in ballet whose power lies in their ethereality, seductiveness or desire and ability to wreak havoc and cause evil.

Yet, while the women’s dancing in Echoing of Trumpets is emotionally resonant at the deepest level, the movement is also stark, and in this way the work is reminiscent of Tudor’s 1937 Dark Elegies, which also deals with devastating loss and grief. Jennifer Homans describes the choreography as without “hysteria or emoting” and highlights the simplicity of the closing scene: “a few desolate gestures, such as a woman cradling a friend’s head in her hands” (481).  Tudor’s extraordinary gift for expressing the very depth of emotion by such economy of means can perhaps be seen to a lesser degree in the stillness of Scarlett’s women sitting on the steps of No Man’s Land.

Before 2014 and the creation of the Lest We Forget ballets, notably Dust, Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria was indubitably the most prominent British war ballet.  MacMillan had deeply personal reasons for wanting to create a war ballet, particularly one evoking the First World War, as his father was gassed at the Battle of the Somme, but the catalyst was the 1979 BBC TV dramatisation of Testament of Youth.  As in the case of Dust, the music score is highly significant – Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, after which the ballet is named, is in essence a celebratory piece of music written for the Catholic Mass, and as such there is a painful irony about its use in juxtaposition to the visual impact of the ballet.  As the curtain rises and the dancers emerge from the back of the stage walking up over Andy Klunder’s sparse slanting construct, reminiscent of both trench and grave, images of World War I start to flood the stage: the men’s Brodie helmets, the sombre hues of their tattered costumes and the scenery, dark with the reds and browns of the bloody trenches; and later on the pointing finger of Lord Kitchener’s iconic recruitment poster.

In this work there is a distinct differentiation between the movement dynamics choreographed for the men and women: in accordance with traditional ballet values, the men use stronger weight, and are far more grounded than the women, whose light-weight movements and wraith-like appearance resemble the ethereality of Romantic ballet’s sylphs and wilis from La Sylphide (F. Taglioni, 1832) and Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841) respectively.  Elizabeth Robinson draws a vivid picture of the gendered movement and costume working in conjunction with one another: “The men appear to be part of the earth, with rust coloured unitards and grounded movement, whilst the women offer an ethereal contrast: white, shining unitards beneath a gauzy, flowing, chiffon skirt, with vertical, high level choreography” (24).  The women appear as phantoms, haunting visions of a young life of hopes and dreams lost forever, perhaps, and consequently physically absent from both battlefield and the war effort.  This does not however fully represent the reality of the female experience in WWI: Brittain herself, for example, was a military nurse throughout the War, as well as losing both her brother and her fiancé.  Robinson recognises this and offers an interpretation of the women’s choreography as symbolic of psychological and emotional trauma:

The often calmer and higher movement vocabulary arguably aligns their movement with the psychological trauma of war, as a representation of another, less visceral, but still traumatic war experience. Their height and verticality suggests a distance away from the frontline of fighting, so closely aligned with the ground, but their calm movement vocabulary betrays a lethargy that suggests another type of battle-weary sorrow. (33)

We find it interesting that the representation of women in these ballets varies so markedly from one work to the next.  Women’s contribution to the war effort has been highlighted in documentaries and news bulletins during these centenary years, and as such it is completely appropriate that their physical and emotional strength, their courage and endurance has been recognised in the two Lest We Forget ballets, as well as in Echoing of Trumpets. But it is Dust that also foregrounds other hidden and forgotten aspects of the War – the extreme trauma, the invaluable contribution made by people of diverse backgrounds – and in so doing demonstrates how ballet, conservative and tradition-bound though it can be, is an art form for our times.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… English National Ballet has been touring MacMillan’s Manon this autumn, and there will be performances in the new year at the London Coliseum.  However, Mia Stensgaard’s designs are markedly different from the originals by Nicholas Georgiadis.  Therefore we will be thinking about how this affects the interpretation of the ballet in “Manon Designs Now and Then”.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Zoë.  “Lest We Forget”. Dancing Times, vol. 106, no. 1262, 2005, pp. 65.

Antony Tudor. Directed by Viola Aberlè and Gerd Andersson. Dance Horizons Video, 1992.

“Antony Tudor’s Echoing of the Trumpets”. YouTube, uploaded 11 Mar. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWCcbv7UtOo. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. “Echoing of Trumpets”. International Dictionary of Ballet, vol. 1, St. James Press, 1993.

Jennings, Luke. “La Fille mal gardée; Lest We Forget – review”. The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/apr/06/fille-mal-gardee-mikhailovsky-lest-we-forget-enb-review. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Reviews/Dance; Tragedies that Follow the Trumpets of War”. The New York Times, 6 May 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/26/arts/reviews-dance-tragedies-that-follow-the-trumpets-of-war.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.

Mackrell, Judith. “English National Ballet: Lest We Forget review – Compelling quartet on war”, The Guardian, 3 Apr. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/apr/03/enb-lest-we-forget-review. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

“No man’s land”.English Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/no_man’s_land. Accessed 26 Oct 2018.

Perlmutter, Donna. Shadowplay: the life of Antony Tudor. Viking, 1991.

Robinson, Elizabeth. Dancing Remebrance: examining the intersection of Romantic ideas and First World War memoralisation in Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria (1980). Royal Academy of Dance, 2018. Unpublished dissertation.