English National Ballet Now & Then

Introductory thoughts

English National Ballet dancers take a bow at the end of Etudes part of the 70th Anniversary Gala (C) Piers Allardyce

If you are a regular reader of British Ballet Now & Then, you will know that what we offer here is a personal perspective on British ballet based on our own experiences of watching various British ballet companies over the years, and in some cases over a number of decades.  Inevitably, therefore, readers will notice lacunae in our discussion of English National Ballet (ENB) now & then (and please feel free to object!), but part of what makes this particular post so personal to us is the selection of directors, dancers, and repertoire that are alive in our memories and consequently form the foundation of our tribute to the Company in its 70th anniversary year.

For our Now section we are focussing on the period from 2012, that is, the period of Tamara Rojo’s directorship, as the steady realisation of her vision for the Company has already had a significant impact on both ENB itself and on ballet as an art form in Britain. 

ENB Now

It comes as no surprise to us that as a director Rojo has a very clear vision for her company.  After all, as a ballerina she has always expressed exceptional vision, demonstrated in the distinctive way in which she shapes her articulation of choreography and character.  This is evident in recordings of her work portraying a gamut of complex characters, from Marius Petipa’s Nikiya (La Bayadère, 1877), Kenneth MacMillan’s Juliet (1965) and Manon (1974) to Ashton’s Isadora (1976) and Akram Khan’s Giselle (2016).  Rojo’s distinctiveness, the intensity of her commitment to performance and dramatic cogency in her repertoire, has been commented on by critics including Zoë Anderson, Sarah Crompton, Luke Jennings (“Step into the Past), and Judith Mackrell (“Giselle”).  These qualities seem to us to be integral to what dance writer Graham Watts describes as being “possessed of an exceptional independence of spirit and a remarkable enquiry into [her] art”.

As expressed in their 2017-2018 Annual Review, ENB aims to “develop the art form of ballet by commissioning new choreography, design and musical composition as well as cherishing the classical repertoire” (5).  So let’s have a look at how ENB’s choice of repertoire reflects these aims …

Rojo’s very first season as Artistic Director opened with Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, which had been in repertoire since 2005.  The Sleeping Beauty is widely perceived as the pinnacle of classical ballet (Dodge; “The Sleeping Beauty Live”; Speer), and indeed, when we witnessed its revival in 2018 with Jurgita Dronina in the title role, it did indeed look “cherished”, as also attested by the critics (Anderson; Gilbert; Jennings “English National Ballet”).  Something that is very noticeable about the 19thcentury repertoire when performed by this company is the attention paid to stylistic detail, with the result that each work makes a quite different visual impact, as we have written about previously.  In our view this makes for extremely satisfying watching: not only is there a visible distinction between Romantic and classical styles, but even within those eras, there is clear differentiation between the specific articulation of the choreographies.  For example, dance writer Judith Mackrell highlights some of the key features of Bournonville’s style in Isaac Hernández’ “beautifully filleted beats and bounding jetés” as James in La Sylphide, and in the way in which Daniel Kraus as Gurn “joyously embod[ies] the mobile twists and turns of Bournonville’s épaulement” (“Song of the Earth).  In contrast, Giselle is distinguished by the careful schooling of the corps de ballet in the 19th century French style “as is apparent in their softly rounded arms and restrained line” (Jennings “Giselle Review”), while performances of the Russian Imperial Sleeping Beauty “evince …an absolute commitment to classical style and stage manners …You can see the concentration on the placement of arms and shoulders, on the expressiveness of wrists and hands, on the line of the neck and precise direction of gaze” (Jennings “English National Ballet”).  

ENBS students peform La Sylphide as part of ENB’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

Like The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Russian Imperial court.  But unlike The Sleeping Beauty, which holds a special place in British ballet history, the complete Le Corsaire is a recent addition to the British repertoire, having been staged for the first time in this country by English National Ballet in 2013.  And unlike The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire requires the kind of extravagant bravura in both classical and character dancing that is not generally associated with English style ballet.  Yet the Company has risen to this challenge with great spirit and self-assurance.  This was noted in reviews (Byrne; Gilbert; Winship), as well as in our own “In Conversation” post. Emma Byrne’s headline description “A swaggering, bravura spectacle” already conveys a strong sense of the dancers’ bold commitment to the style, as does Jenny Gilbert’s rendition of Jeffrey Cirio’s Ali, who “wins the biggest cheers of the night for his aerial fireworks, explosive energy following through to the tips of his fingers”.  We found it fascinating to discover as part of our research that ENB President Beryl Grey had discussed her thoughts on the Russian tradition of performing as part of her “Desert Island Discs”.  These thoughts were based on her first-hand experiences of dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet (more of Beryl Grey in the “Then” section of this post):

The dancers, they lived every single small role up to the biggest role … And I think you have in the Russian dancers this tremendous capacity to make believe.  And they’re never embarrassed – the ones I worked with anyway were never embarrassed  – whereas, in England … in my days one sort of half acted … until the performance … but in Russia every single rehearsal was full out, like a performance, and they actually get into the roles and live them truly. (31:12-32:13)

Let’s turn to Jenny Gilbert once again to reaffirm the achievement of ENB in this ballet, and make a connection between their physical commitment to the style and Grey’s description above: 

The plot [of Le Corsaire] is, frankly, ridiculous … It’s the sort of hokum it normally takes a Russian company to bring off, but English National Ballet meets the challenge with a swagger in its revival of Anna-Marie Holmes’s 2013 production.

So while the collection of works itself is of course significant, the understanding of style conveyed through the performance of those works demonstrates a commitment to “cherishing” the choreography rather than simply maintaining the works within the repertoire.  Jennings attributes this commitment to Rojo and her teaching staff (“English National Ballet”), as do we ourselves, having had the opportunity to watch her in rehearsal as well as in performance.  Further, one of the benefits of the Covid-19 lockdown seems to have been an increased number of opportunities to hear discussions with Rojo on various aspects of her professional life as both director and dancer.  From one of these discussions we are given an insight into Rojo’s hunger for knowledge and understanding, and her creative thinking in the face of adversity:

One thing that I thought was a negative when I was young has turned out to be a great positive … I did not come from any consolidated, respected ballet school:  I did not come from Paris Opera, from the Bolshoi, from the Mariinsky, from the Royal Ballet School.  And I always felt that I did not belong to one particular school and that that was a minus.  But in a way that actually was a huge plus, because first of all it gave me this imposter syndrome that meant that I kind of researched like a crazy person every aspect of each style, feeling that I had to do extra work because I wasn’t part of it. (“Tom and Ty Talk 23:12-23:58”)

As for ENB’s aim to develop the art form of ballet, there is ample evidence of this.  Amongst the names of choreographers who have created new work for the Company are William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, Russell Maliphant and Yabin Wang, all of whom have demonstrated challenges to traditional ballet in their commissioned works for ENB.  This is completely in line with Rojo’s vision for her Company, her belief in ballet as an art form and her dedication to its continuing relevance. 

English National Ballet in Playlist (Track 2) as part of the Company’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

There is no doubt in our minds that the jewel in the crown of ENB’s new repertoire since 2012 is Akram Khan’s Giselle.  In an interview with Keke Chele of JoBurg Ballet, Rojo explained her decision to commission Akram Khan to reimagine the canonical Giselle:

I’ve always been fascinated by ballet history, and in my opinion it has been when our artform has been “polluted” (like the traditionalists would say) by other types of dance, whether that was folklore or musics that were not considered proper for ballet, or themes, you know like when Kenneth MacMillan started to introduce Manon, Mayerling, or you know, by different, like cross-fertilisation, is when I think cultures become better and arts become better, and that was my motivation to bring Akram.  This is an exceptional artist that I’ve admired for many years, that I’ve seen so many of his shows that had such capacity for story-telling and such strong technique of his own, that was kathak and contemporary, that I knew that he will understand an art form that is equally demanding in technique – the classical technique of ballet – but also that in itself it is a language to tell stories.  (“JoBurg Ballet Off Stage” 18:00-19:04 )

English National Ballet in Dust by Akram Khan © Bill Cooper

What we find extraordinary about Rojo is the way in which her insight into ballet history has driven her decisions as Artistic Director.  In her intrepid interrogation of ballet and its potential, she seems to have revived the spirit of Serge Diaghilev, the redoubtable impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, whose leadership and exceptional vision engendered such radical but enduring works as Bronislava Nijinka’s Les Noces (1923) and George Balanchine’s Apollo (1927).

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings part of English National Ballet’s 70th Anniversary Gala (c) Laurent Liotardo

ENB Then

We first encountered the Company in the 1970s.  Some of the ballets we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s have made an enduring impression on us.  We can still remember the curtain rising on the white opening tableau of Les Sylphides (Fokine, 1909) and the hushed atmosphere as the dancers seemed to float downstage.  The great Danish mime artist Niels Bjørn Larsen was unforgettable in his charismatic rendition of Madge in La Sylphide (Bournonville, 1836), as was the verve of the corps de ballet in the reel, and the poignancy of Eva Evdokimova’s Sylphide as her sight fails before her death.  And what a thrill was Etudes (Lander, 1948) with its seemingly inexorable build-up to the final climax and its sense of competition between the male dancers, particularly when performed by such brilliant virtuosi as Peter Schaufuss, Patrice Bart and Patrick Armand.

But in addition to the imprint these works made on our memories, within this tiny selection of repertoire we can see two distinct trends in the repertoire of London Festival Ballet: the highlighting of the Romantic heritage, and the connection with Danish ballet tradition – trends that Jane Pritchard, Archive Consultant to ENB, has drawn attention to.  This is also borne out by lists of repertoire in programmes from the 1950s and early 1960s.  These included Anton Dolin’s production of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841) and his reconstruction of Pas de Quatre (Perrot, 1844); the final act of Bournonville’s Napoli (1846) and the pas de deux from his 1858 Flower Festival in Genzano; and from 1909 and 1910 Fokine’s evocations of the Romantic era – Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la rose.

PAVLOVA on TV Alicia Markova and Milorad Miskovitch dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

As we wrote in our first Giselle post, Alicia Markova, who established the Company in 1950 with Anton Dolin, also performed the eponymous heroine in the first British production of the ballet in 1934, after which she became associated with the ballet through the course of her career.  Dolin’s production of the ballet was one of the first complete 19th century works to be mounted by Festival Ballet, and according to Pritchard, Markova’s initial involvement in the Company was dependent on having a new production of Giselle created specifically for her, thereby placing this work “at the heart of” ENB.   Mary Skeaping’s 1971 staging, commissioned by Beryl Grey,  was an extremely important production due the intensive historical research Skeaping had undertaken, which in our opinion gives the ballet more dramatic cogency, as well as a vivid sense of Romantic ballet style.  This, our favourite production of Giselle, has been performed by the Company with luminaries of the stature of Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, and still receives excellent notices (Crompton; Jays; Watts “English National Ballet’s Exceptional”; Watts “Review”).   

GISELLE Alicia Markova and Michael Somes Sadler’s Wells Ballet Royal Opera House – Covent Garden London – 1948 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

The first time Markova performed in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, his tribute to la danse ballonnée, she was only 15 or 16 years old.  However, only six years later, and only two months after her debut with the Company in 1932, she mounted the ballet for the Vic-Wells (later Royal Ballet) (Bland 30). Subsequently Markova staged further productions: for American Ballet Theatre (1964), Northern Ballet Theatre (1979), and for our present discussion most importantly her 1976 staging for London Festival Ballet.  Although we never saw Markova perform, Rosie has a memory of a photograph of Markova in Les Sylphides from her very first ballet book (which she still possesses), The Girls’ Book of Ballet by A. H. Franks, and was always struck by a quote from Markova about her relationship with the audience: “I do not try to reach out to them; I draw them in to me” (60).  In a way Markova continues to draw people to her through recordings of her performances in Giselleand Les Sylphides – recordings originally made in the early 1950s that therefore suggest the importance of these ballets for her career.  In fact, the 1951 film of Giselle, with Dolin as Albrecht, is also significant as the oldest surviving recording of English National Ballet.

Therefore, in our minds, through Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Mary Skeaping, English National Ballet is undeniably a curator of Romantic style repertoire.  As if to emphasise the importance of Romantic themes in the repertoire, Giselle was sometimes performed in a double bill with Le Spectre de la rose, as in the 1976 London Coliseum spring season.

BBC T.V. – LES SYLPHIDES – April 1953 Production and Rehearsals ALICIA MARKOVA / JOHN FIELD Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL Les Sylphides La Sylphide http://www.arenapal.com

In the early years, the Danish tradition was represented by the two dancers Flemming Flindt and Toni Lander, both of whom had trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School before being accepted into the Copenhagen company.  Additionally, in 1955 Lander’s husband Harald staged his work Etudes, which was chosen as the climax to the 70th Anniversary Gala performances, having become a signature ballet for the Company with a total of over 700 performances over the years.  Another delicious nugget of information we uncovered was that it was Harald Lander who mounted ENB’s first Coppélia.  This was a re-staging of the Danish production first performed in 1896 and “carefully preserved” first by Ballet Master Hans Beck and later by Lander himself (Hall 57). 

In the 1970s and 1980s Festival Ballet’s connection with the Romantic and Danish traditions was consolidated and enriched through the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss.  Son of two Royal Danish Ballet dancers, and another graduate of the Royal Danish Ballet School, Schaufuss danced with the Company for much of the 1970s and into the early 1980s before becoming Artistic Director.  In 1978 he mounted his production of La Sylphide for the first time, with the exquisite and ethereal Eva Evdokimova, renowned for her portrayal of Romantic roles, in the eponymous role, and the supreme Niels Bjørn Larsen as Madge.  Ten years later he bestowed another jewel from the Danish tradition on the Company: Bournonville’s three act Napoli (1842).

SLEEPING BEAUTY – ACT II (The Vision) 1946 MARGOT FONTEYN / BERYL GREY Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

In our very first British Ballet Now and Then post we explored how The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892) became a family Christmas tradition in this country, largely through the work of ENB, who began performing it in its very first season.  By the time Grey took over as Artistic Director in 1968, the Company were also performing full-length productions of The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895).  London Festival Ballet programme notes from 1976 emphasise Grey’s involvement in new productions of these works for the Company.  

SWAN LAKE, Photocall, Bryan Ashbridge and Beryl Grey, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, May 1960, Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

It seems that just as Markova had a special relationship with the ballets Giselle and Les Sylphides, Grey had a special relationship with the ballet Swan Lake, not only due to the extraordinary fact that she performed the dual role of Odette/Odile for the first time on her fifteenth birthday, but also because she was the first Western ballerina to dance in Soviet Russia and in Beijing, and danced this ballet on both occasions.

SLEEPING BEAUTY rehearsal March 1959 Sadler’s Wells Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey / Caj Selling with Errol Addison Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Grey had been a ballerina with the Royal Ballet and performed the Lilac Fairy to Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora at the famous reopening of the Royal Opera House after World War II.  Although Ninette de Valois evidently told Grey she would never dance Aurora as she was “far too tall to manage the attitude balances” of the “Rose Adagio”, Grey was determined to prove her wrong, and in fact she performed the role towards the end of that same season, just after her nineteenth birthday (Grey 51, 54).  When Grey performed in China, she also took the opportunity to assist in staging The Sleeping Beauty (195).  Although Grey first danced Giselle as a sixteen-year-old, and also performed the role in the Soviet Union, she is perhaps more associated with the character of Myrthe, which she danced to Fonteyn’s Giselle.  We loved the discovery that Grey performed the Queen of the Wilis when Markova and Dolin danced in Giselle at the Royal Opera House in 1948, bringing these three key figures together on the stage.  In the same year Swan Lake was added to the repertoire at Covent Garden.  In her autobiography Grey expresses her excitement at the prospect of dancing her favourite role on the Royal Opera House stage (68). 

SWAN LAKE – February 1959 Music: Tchaikovsky Royal Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey and Caj Selling Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

No doubt we take it for granted that the London Coliseum is a major venue for English National Ballet. However, it was not until Grey’s tenure as Artistic Director that the Company started to perform regular seasons there.  Having first-hand experience of The Sleeping BeautyGiselle and Swan Lake in large-scale productions at the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera House New York and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Grey understood the power of these ballets for the audience, and their importance for the prestige and development of a company.  Therefore, negotiating seasons at the Coliseum where spectacular productions could be presented in an appropriately lavish environment seems like a significant step to us.  

As performers, Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Peter Schaufuss were all international stars, intrepid individuals who went on to shape the repertoire of ENB by incorporating and highlighting specific traditions associated with their prestigious dancing careers, thereby contributing to the Company’s distinctive identity.  In addition, as directors, Grey and Schaufuss launched major initiatives to bring a greater stability and sense of permanence to the Company: Grey secured Markova House as the Company’s first permanent home in 1976, while twelve years later Schaufuss, coming from one of the oldest ballet schools in the world, established English National Ballet School.  

PAVLOVA on TV. Alicia Markova dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Concluding Thoughts on ENB Now and Then

In 1993 Pritchard wrote: “English National Ballet has never been a notably innovative company determined to challenge its audience” (450).  Sixteen years later Sanjoy Roy made a similar comment, but framed it in more specific terms, portraying the decision not to challenge audiences as a pragmatic choice: “Like many other big ballet companies, ENB is cautious about programming too many modern works in case it loses audiences”.   

In January 2020 however, at the English National Ballet Gala Celebration, the Company that we witnessed hardly seemed to be “cautious about programming” or unwilling to “challenge its audience”.  The celebration garnered glowing reviews attesting to both the strength and vigour of the dancers, and the diversity and richness of the repertoire (Gaisford; Guerreiro; Watts; Weiss).  For us the Gala marked not only seventy years of Company history, but also over seven years of Tamara Rojo’s leadership.  We not only witnessed a company at the top of its game, but were excited about the inventive and well-laid plans for the future, as ENB entered a new phase of development with brand new purpose-built premises.  

As we all know, the year has not gone to plan for any of us.  Nonetheless, with its forthcoming digital season, including works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Stina Quagebur, it would be difficult to recognise the Company in its current form from the words of Pritchard and Roy.  In our opinion it has now evolved into an innovative company that frequently challenges its audiences with unfamiliar movement and music styles, and subject matter, while still “delighting them with the traditional” (English National Ballet 4).  And in keeping with the optimism of their new address on Hopewell Square, we believe that ENB will continue to fulfil its vision of “celebrat[ing] the tradition of great classical ballet while embracing change, evolving the art form for future generations and encouraging audiences to deepen their engagement” (5).

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … This season English National Ballet planned a restaging of Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda based on a retelling of the narrative with Florence Nightingale at its heart.  In response to this we will consider how British ballet choreographers and directors have ensured the continuing relevance of ballet as an art form.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Zoë. “Marguerite and Armand”. Independent, 13 Feb. 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/marguerite-and-armand-the-royal-ballet-sergei-polunin-and-tamara-rojo-royal-opera-house-london-8492773.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Royal Opera House, 1981.

Brown, Ismene. “Rojo is Queen of the Swans”. The Telegraph, 29 Nov. 2002 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3586430/Rojo-is-queen-of-the-Swan-Queens.html, . Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Byrne, Emma. “English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle”. Evening Standard, 9 Jan. 2020, English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Crompton, Sarah. “Review: Giselle (English National Ballet, London Coliseum)”. WhatsOnStage, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/giselle-english-national-ballet-coliseum_42636.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Radiant Rojo Brings Fairytale Alive”. The Telegraph, 13 Nov. 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3656529/Radiant-Rojo-brings-fairytale-alive.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“Desert Island Discs: Dame Beryl Grey”. BBC Radio 4, 10 Mar. 2002, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0094805. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.

Dodge, Laura. “Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty – a lavish production of a magical fairy tale. bachtrack, 20 Oct. 2013, https://bachtrack.com/review-oct-2013-birmingham-royal-ballet-sleeping-beautny-sadlers-wells. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

English National Ballet. Annual Review 2017-2018. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Franks, A. H., The Girls’ Book of Ballet. Burke, 1960.

Gaisford, Sue. “English National Ballet 70th Anniversary Gala, Coliseum review – a fine celebration. The Arts Desk, 22 Jan. 2020, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/english-national-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-coliseum-review-fine-celebration. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Giselle recording with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 16 Jan. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HnNXvF0Kn0&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.

Gilbert, Jenny. The I newspaper, 9 Jan. 2020, https://inews.co.uk/culture/arts/le-corsaire-london-coliseum-review-this-flamboyant-ballet-is-a-tonic-for-the-january-blues-english-national-tickets-383518. Accessed 9 ug. 2020.

Grey, Beryl. For the Love of Dance. Oberon, 2017.

Guerreiro, Teresa.   “ENB’s anniversary gala review”. CutlureWhisper, 18 Jan. 2020, http://www.culturewhisper.com/r/dance/english_national_ballet_anniversary_galas_coliseum/14791 Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Hall, George A. London’s Festival Ballet Annual 1956-57. Gray’s Inn Press, 1957.

Jays, David. “Giselle review – Alina Cojocaru is sublime in signature role”. The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/12/giselle-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-review-alina-cojocaru. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Jennings, Luke. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”, The Guardian, June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 7 Aug., 2020.

—. “Giselle Review – Xander Parish Steals the Show”. The Guardian, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/22/giselle-review-english-national-ballet-coliseum-xander-parish-laurretta-summerscales. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“JoBurg Ballet Offstage: Tamara Rojo”. Instagram, 30 July 2020, http://www.instagram.com/tv/CDRo3OtFI1o/?igshid=up23dsd6movc. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020. 

Pritchard, Jane. “English National Ballet”. The International Dictionary of Ballet, edited by Martha Bremser, St James Press, 1993, pp. 450-5.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”. The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “Giselle- a Romantic Ballet”. English National Ballet, Programme, Belfast, 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth/La Sylphide review – Rojo powers a demanding double bill”. The Guardian, 10 Jan. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jan/10/song-earth-sylphide-review-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-rojo. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Step-by-step guide to dance: English National Ballet”. The Guardian, 16 Jun. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/jun/16/guide-dance-english-national-ballet. Accessed 16 Sept. 2020.

“THE SLEEPING BEAUTY LIVE from the Royal Ballet”. YouTube, uploaded by More2Screen, 8 Nov. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuncvxSDIiY&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Speer, Dean. “Pacific Northwest Ballet: the pinnacle”. CriticalDance, 2 Feb. 2019, https://criticaldance.org/pacific-northwest-ballet-pinnacle/. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 1”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqKyGBbYNXs. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 2”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AelTZYoc2_U&t=44s. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Tom and Ty Talk: ‘Ballet is honest’ with Tamara Rojo”. Tom and Ty Talk, 19 June 2020, https://pod.co/tom-and-ty-talk. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet’s Exceptional Giselle”. Backtrack, 14 Jan. 2017, https://bachtrack.com/review-giselle-skeaping-cojocaru-english-national-ballet-coliseum-london-january-2017. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review – English National Ballet – Giselle – London Coliseum”. Londondance, 23 Jan. 2017, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-giselle-london-coliseum-1/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review: Royal Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty – Royal Opera House”. Londondance, 24 Feb. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/royal-ballet-sleeping-beauty-2014/. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “A roller-coaster of diverse dance as English National Ballet celebrates its 70th anniversary”. Bachtrack, 19 Jan. 2020,  https://bachtrack.com/review-english-national-ballet-70-anniversary-gala-coliseum-london-january-2020. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Weiss, Deborah. “English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London”.  DanceTabs, 20 Jan. 2020, https://dancetabs.com/2020/01/englishnational-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-london/. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Winship, Lyndsey. “English National Ballet: Le Corsaire review – firecracker dancing”. The Guardian, 9 Jan. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jan/09/english-national-ballet-le-corsaire-review-firecracker-dancing. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

In Conversation: English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2020

To mark their first return to the stage since the 70th Anniversary Gala in January, ENB’s Emerging Dancer Competition was live streamed on Tuesday 22 September. This year the six finalists – Ivana Bueno, Carolyne Galvao, Miguel Angel Maidana, Victor Prigent, Emily Suzuki and William Yamada – were judged on a classical pas de deux, and a contemporary duet choreographed by ENB’s Associate Choreographer Stina Quagebeur, Lead Principal Jeffrey Cirio and choreographer Mthuthuzeli November.

Throughout you had to keep reminding yourself that they were all young dancers in the first stages of their careers, and that they’d had no proper intensive dancing for more than six months, such was the level of commitment and good dancing on show. (Guerreiro)

Julia: This quote from Teresa Guerreiro resonates with me – how hard did those dancers work on this project to reach the standards they showed in this competition? And in such demanding choreography?!

Rosie: Yes, it’s incredible. The dancer I really want to start off with is Emily Suzuki – not because she and Victor Prigent were the first couple to dance in each section, but because she came to my notice last year in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring as The Chosen One.  I felt very lucky to see three different dancers in the main role, Francesca Velicu, Precious Adams and Emily, but Emily was the one I wasn’t familiar with, so I’ve been looking out for her ever since.  But until now I don’t recall seeing her in a classical role – actually I could hardly imagine her in a classical role because her Chosen One was so raw. I was astonished at how exquisite she was in the Satanella pas de deux

Julia: Yes!  Also, the Satanella pas de deux is quite playful, and I think Emily’s lovely soft port de bras contributed to this light-hearted mood.  

Rosie: I like that the playfulness is visible in the tricky timing, where the dancer has to finish the phrase with a swift unexpected port de bras or little quick-fire steps. Emily nailed it every time – as she did with the series of pirouettes from fifth with développé in the coda. 

Julia: Throughout, her lines were wonderfully elegant and her upper body held with ease and poise.  It was lovely to watch these contrasting elements in her dancing – she makes it look very easy but I know from experience it is not easy at all!

Rosie: Ivana Bueno’s upper body was lush as well. 

Julia: Yes, I agree, but let’s go back to Emily and Victor for a moment…

What I liked about Victor was his light, buoyant jumps.  Sometimes his footwork could have been a bit more precise, but it didn’t really take away from the general joie de vivre of his performance.  

Rosie: Maybe this contributed to his winning the People’s Award. There were some beautiful moments, like the finish to his variation – his controlled landing from tour en l’air to the kneeling end position was very satisfying.  In fact Ivana has a similar moment at the end of her variation.  

Julia: I thought Emily and Victor’s partnering was impressive for dancers at this stage of their careers. Partnering is always challenging yet also so important in classical pas de deux, in part because it has to look seamless and effortless.

Rosie: Sometimes it’s also a challenge to bring a true sense of character to classical pas de deux, yet it wasn’t surprising to me that all three couples managed this so well – it seems to be integral to the identity of the Company.

Julia:  Yes, we’ve spoken and written about this before, and I remember we talked to James Streeter about it when we interviewed him for the Spotlight post. 

James produced this whole event. Despite the current situation ENB dancers are finding ways of developing their careers and exploring new skills. 

Rosie: Jeffrey Cirio is another dancer who has been exploring alternative skills: he choreographed the contemporary piece “both of two…”  for Carolyne Galvao and Miguel Angel Maidana. For me this couple not only illuminated their characters, but what was more unusual, I thought, was the way they accentuated the imagery through their articulation of the choreography in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux.  

Julia: Yes, I think they showed this in Jeffrey’s duet as well. Particularly during the first section when Carolyne is supported on Miguel’s back and the two dancers mirror one another’s arm gestures in varying ways … it seals the imagery of the title: “both of two…”

Rosie: There’s a lot of bow and arrow imagery in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, because it’s about Diana the Huntress. The imagery is always visible in performance, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it pervade the choreography to this extent before.  It was so clear not only in the shape but in the sharp dynamics of Carolyne’s  port de bras – just as if she were releasing the arrow from her bow.  She even embellished her fouettés with a port de bras that seemed to represent taking an arrow from her quiver and a preparing to draw back her bow before taking aim.  Quite extraordinary! So extraordinary in fact that I did some research and discovered that National Ballet of Cuba do that version of the fouettés. But I had never seen it before.

Julia: Miguel was also very impressive rolling out all the virtuosic tricks that a pas deux of this kind relies on for its effect.  In fact I thought he might win the competition. But the winner was Ivana with her silky turns.  This makes her sound a bit like a one-trick pony, but nothing could be further from the truth…

Rosie: Yes, I noticed the quality of her turns during the first lockdown ballet class that Tamara Rojo taught online, when there were still a few dancers in the studio. But as you’ve implied, she has many other qualities that led to her winning the competition. We already mentioned the lushness of her upper body movement. Although I find both beautiful, I like the fact that she and Emily are quite distinct in style, with Emily having a more crystalline appearance – or at least that’s how I think of it. 

Julia: Ivana also seems to me more expansive in her lines and use of space than Emily.

Rosie: Yes, I was struck by her expansiveness in Mthuthuzeli November’s “FULL-OUT”. Seems like an appropriate title – she really was dancing full out.

Julia: I remember seeing Ivana in class when she first joined the company in 2018, and now I notice how much she’s developed over the last two years – she danced with such self-assurance and confidence. 

Rosie: She’s talked about the importance of the working relationship with her partner William Yamada throughout the preparation for the competition. It was noticeable in the Talisman pas de deux how he showed her to best effect, particularly in the big lifts, where he held her so strongly, and then gently and gradually lowered her down so she was able to maintain her serenity. 

Julia: I really appreciate that kind of skilled and considerate partnering. 

Rosie: Tamara said that it was incredibly hard for the panel to pick a winner (“The Winner”). I loved Ivana’s performance and there was lovely detail in her technique, like all her jetés fondu were so soft, as if she were walking on a cloud. Still, my favourite was Emily.  That’s just a personal thing.

Julia: Yes, her expressiveness in Stina Quagebeur’s “Hollow” is so clear even from this photo.

Rosie: We seem to have talked a lot more about the female dancers than the male dancers.  Well, we’ll see next year what happens – maybe the tables will be turned …

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Guerreiro, Teresa. “ENB: Emerging Dancer Review”. CultureWhisper, 23 Sept. 2020, www.culturewhisper.com/r/dance/enb_emerging_dancer_review/15879. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

“The Winner of Emerging Dancer 2020 is …”. English National Ballet, 2020, www.ballet.org.uk/blog-detail/winner-emerging-dancer-2020/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

Ballet at War Now & Then

Art does help you process; it does help you see your own situation from a different point of view; it does help you either process that situation or actually distract from that situation, which is equally valid.  Fantasy is again another of those human necessities, and to be able to disappear in an alternative reality is, I think, now certainly needed

(Tamara Rojo “The Art of Empathy” 13:25-14:22)

Ballet at War Now

Early 2020 was truly auspicious for British ballet.  It began with Northern Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala, featuring dancers from a range of British ballet companies: Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet  There were glorious performances of Le Corsaire by English National Ballet, followed by three performances of their 70th Anniversary Gala, highlighting the range of works in their repertoire over the years and the strength of the Company in terms of both technique and character. Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, her first work for the main stage at the Royal Opera House, premiered in February.  And then there was the promise of other major new works: Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha for Northern Ballet, and most excitingly Akram Khan’s much anticipated Creature for English National Ballet – their third collaboration.

With the announcement of COVID-19 as a global pandemic this promise was largely unfulfilled: although Geisha received its world premiere in Leeds to substantial acclaim (Brown, M.; Roy; Hutera), the tour was cancelled, along with all performances in April and May of Red Riding Hood; and to our utter dismay, Creaturewas postponed weeks before the premiere.  Since we wrote our spotlight post on British ballet in lockdown, further cancellations and postponements have ensued, including both English National Ballet’s and the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake and Scottish Ballet’s The Scandal at Mayerling, all of which are vital to the finances of the respective companies.  

It goes without saying that the primary purpose of any ballet company is to produce and perform live performances, and that these performances require daily training and rehearsals for the dancers and musicians, as well as work behind the scenes from a whole host of people of different skill sets, including set and lighting designers, wardrobe and technical staff, and physiotherapists, to say nothing of teachers, coaches and directors.  For all of these people, whose communities are sometimes referred to as a “family” (Weiss; Wulff 89), the current loss of this purpose must seem like a bereavement.  Further, for dancers and musicians in particular, who perform in groups as well as individuals and rely on the extreme skill of their bodies to fulfil their profession, being cut off from their working environment with the space and facilitates they require must feel far more disorienting, and constitute a far greater breach to their professional identity, than for those of us who are locked out of our offices. 

Understandably perhaps, the language of war pervades the discourse of the pandemic.  Journalists have highlighted vocabulary used to describe our relationship with the virus: Dominic Raab looked “shell-shocked” before chairing the “war cabinet” (Hyde); the virus is a “cruel enemy” that must be defeated in battle (Freedman).  The death toll is constantly updated in the news, and people are anxious about their loved ones, and lose them without being able to bid them a real farewell.  In addition, there is a sense of dislocation as we relocate our work to our homes; this sense of dislocation must be especially acute for dancers who have to practise, sometimes alone, in limited and limiting spaces at home.  And then there is time.  Literary scholarBeryl Pong describes wartime life as having “peculiar temporalities”: it is “a period when one feels that time has stopped, but also when it simply cannot pass by quickly enough” (93).  So we experience dislocation in both time and space, the two elements that choreographer Merce Cunningham regarded to be the only essentials to dance other than the moving body (qtd.in Preston-Dunlop).  This dislocation, the attendant physical restrictions and mental pain are in our opinion most movingly expressed in the film Where We Are.  Organised by Alexander Campbell of the Royal Ballet with choreography by Hannah Rudd of Rambert, the film features Campbell’s colleague Francesca Hayward, freelancer Hannah Sveaas, and Jeffrey Cirio of English National Ballet.  The movements are predominantly performed in the near space of the dancers’ kinesphere, arms folding over their bodies, hands across their mouths and necks, sometimes with tense fluttering gestures; all indicating both the restrictions and the anxiety experienced by the performers in their current situation.  

But despite the poignant message expressed by Where We Are, the film also symbolises hope.  It is not only that Cirio utters the words “I’m so hopeful”, but the film is one of the many activities undertaken by the dancers of this country that are witness to their resourcefulness and creativity.  In our last post we outlined some of these activities, from the practical, such as classes targeted at a wide range of demographic groups, to the highly entertaining films made by Sean Bates and Mlindi Kulashe of Northern Ballet.  Since we wrote that post, there have been many many other delightful offerings.  One favourite is English National Ballet’s Isabelle Brouwers’ Instagram video post in which she cooks a highly nutritious meal, while simultaneously explaining to us how to access the nutrients for optimising dancers’ performance and magic them up into a delicious meal.  This video was made after Brouwers gained a diploma in Sports Nutrition with distinction (Bellabrouwers).  Another favourite is completely different in nature, though equally upbeat: a compilation by no fewer than ten Royal Ballet dancers performing the “Fred Step”, Frederick Ashton’s signature movement phrase, in a variety of guises and locations (Frederick Ashton Foundation). 

Dancers’ projects are highly visible – they are ideal fare for social media, and their ventures also make for engaging feature articles in newspapers, magazines and news websites, garnering such catchy headlines as “How should everyone keep fit during lockdown? Just put on some music and move!” (Monahan), “These Ballet Dancers are Keeping Limber under Lockdown” (Rosado), “Dancing in the streets: Royal Ballet stars rock to new Rolling Stones song” (Wiegand).  For us, however, it was noticeable that later in May and well into June the focus of articles shifted towards the vexed question of reopening theatres and the arduous process of preparing dancers for a return to the stage (Craine; Crompton “What will it take?”; Mendes; Sanderson).  This development seemed to be a response to two events:  the first steps to the easing of lockdown with the opening of “non-essential shops”, and the establishment of a government Cultural Renewal Task Force, which notably included the presence of Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet.  The resultant growing concern about the future of the arts resulted in a series of petitions and an escalating flurry of anxious activity on social media leading up to a cautious sense of relief triggered by the announcement of a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts, culture and heritage industries from the Treasury. 

This situation calls for a different kind of creativity from company and theatre directors, one that is less visible, less immediately engaging and eye-catching than videos of performances (including cooking!).  Yet this kind of problem-solving creativity and resourcefulness is vital for the future of ballet in this country, and is crucially a long-term endeavour.  Someone who has brought greater visibility to this kind of creativity is Tamara Rojo, who is an avid theatre goer, as well as being passionate about the development of ballet as an art form and the part that her own company is playing in this.  In June, she participated in three events in which the repercussions of lockdown for the performing arts were included in discussion (“The Art of Empathy”; “The Future of Live Performance”, “Tom and Ty Talk”).  All of the conversations could be described as “equally sobering and optimistic” and “bittersweet” (@uk_aspen).  These oxymoronic phrases capture the predicament faced by artistic directors, who must be realistic in balancing the books as well as idealistic in holding on to their vision for their art form.  At this time, in the face of the plummeting UK economy and the uncertainty regarding the nature of the virus, artistic directors are confronted with a predicament of far greater proportions than is usually the case: depleted income, dancers who require months to return to full physical and mental preparedness for performance, and the likelihood of low box-office takings when theatres reopen, due to new social distancing regulations.   Exacerbating matters is the status of the arts in the UK, implied in Sarah Crompton’s statement: “with so many demands on the Exchequer, the needs of culture may seem low on the list” (“What will it take?”).

Happily, ballet audiences have all benefited from creative solutions already.  Initially companies shared previously recorded performances online.  More recently, the Royal Opera House “re-opened” with Live from Covent Garden, a concert series of ballet and opera streamed live from the Opera House, but minus the audience.  Members of the Royal Ballet danced Morgen, a new creation by Wayne McGregor, Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits (1978), and pas deux from Concerto (MacMillan, 1966) and Within the Golden Hour (Wheeldon, 2008).  Of necessity, these were small-scale performances danced by couples living together or individuals dancing alone.   Similarly, wife and husband Erina Takahashi and James Streeter of English National Ballet performed the “White Swan pas de deux” at Grange Park Opera House.     

Ballet companies do, of course, offer a lot of digital content on their websites in order to both inform and entice their audiences.   These include short dance films made specifically for the camera in a variety of settings, such as Ballet Black’s Mute, performed in the Thames Estuary as part of Mark Donne’s Listening with Frontiersman (2016), Scottish Ballet’s Frontiers (2019), filmed in outdoor locations around Glasgow, and the ambitious Ego from Northern Ballet, which moves from the home of the characters to the London tube, to Lytham St. Anne’s seafront. But since the middle of March, of course, the only way for companies to share content has been online.

We have no doubt all experienced how life under lockdown has expanded our use of technology, and the potential advantages of this, for example, in terms of the possibility for some of us to work from home for a portion of the week, and the positive impact a continuation of this practice may have on productivity, the environment and personal finance (Bayley; Courtney).  Similarly, Rojo believes that digital performances and events will, in the future, run in parallel with traditional live shows as part of the core business, rather than digital content on company websites and social media platforms being used predominantly as marketing tools (“The Art of Empathy”).  In our opinion, this is the kind of creative thinking that could bring a boost to ballet as an art form by attracting new audiences, making it more accessible and inclusive, while generating new channels of revenue for companies.  

Let’s finish this section with a war analogy from LBC’s radio presenter Nick Abbot.  He likens life in lockdown to being in a bunker: while we’re in the bunker we’re safe, but we are uncertain of what will meet us when we emerge, and what the repercussions will be of occurrences that have taken place while we have been sheltered in our bunker.  But we do know that as well as performing in theatres, albeit theatres bereft of audiences, dancers are starting to take class again in their company studios that have been made safe for them; and we have a date for the opening of indoor theatres with socially distanced audiences.   So step by step dancers are emerging from their bunkers, and Rojo is confident that we, their audiences, will follow suit once theatres have also been made safe (“The Art of Empathy”).   As far as we are concerned that will definitely be the case, as our thoughts are perfectly encapsulated by Crompton’s eloquent description of the current “absence” of live theatre performances as “an aching hole where something rich and vibrant used to live” (“What will it take?”). 

Ballet at War Then

To lovers of ballet, the story of how the infant British ballet flourished against all the odds during the course of World War II is now a familiar and triumphant episode in the history of the art form in this country (Brown, I.; “Dancing in the Blitz; Mackrell”).  In fact, we have written twice about this phenomenon in previous posts :“The Sleeping Beauty Now & Then”; “British Ballerinas Now & Then”. 

Given the current international standing of British ballet, it is easy to forget that ballet as an established art form with a national company and school and distinctive style of choreography and performance with internationally celebrated dancers does not have a long history in this country, in contrast to the case of France, Russia or Denmark.  As you are doubtless aware, the contemporary dance company Rambert started life as a ballet company named after its founder Marie Rambert, and in fact this was the first ballet company to be established here.  However, by the outbreak of war, Ballet Rambert was still only in its second decade, and Ninette de Valois’ Company, later to become the Royal Ballet, had been founded only eight years previously.

As in the current crisis, the War instigated debates regarding the function and value of the arts, and whether male dancers would serve their country more effectively by joining the armed forces, or in their highly skilled profession, which would allow them to bring the kind of benefits to their audiences that we experience through art, ranging from joy, solace and escapism, to emotional resonance and intellectual stimulation (Eliot 91).  Considering the early stage of British ballet’s development at the time, the advent of war could have been catastrophic for the art form.  Companies still needed to shape an identity through repertoire and the development of a distinctive style; and they needed to build a loyal following.  Even during the Phoney War, conscription, along with the day-to-day problems of rationing, blackouts and restrictions on public transport, all impacted on those involved in ballet, with potentially long-term devastating effects.  

At the start of the War, theatres were closed, causing problems with performing opportunities.  However, in the pithy words of Alexander Bland, “It soon became apparent to the authorities that a total cessation of normal recreation was more damaging to Londoners than a few bombs” (65).  Evidently, access to the arts, including ballet, was perceived as a necessity to the psychological wellbeing of the capital’s residents, and consequently a useful means of boosting the morale of the population, whether or not they were already familiar with ballet as a performance art.  Despite this, availability of suitable performance spaces continued to be a problem in London due to the repurposing of important venues: the Royal Opera House became a Mecca Dance Hall, and Sadler’s Wells (home of the Vic-Wells/Sadler’s Wells Ballet) was used as a centre for air raid-victims (Eliot 34).  

Two institutions were set up to promote and support the arts: CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) and ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association).  Although these organisations were privately run, both were supported by the government, indicating the value attributed to the arts at this time (Eliot 33).  In addition to addressing concerns about the mental health of both civilians and members of the armed forces, these organisations proved invaluable in ensuring work for artists in their different fields (34-35).  Over the years of the War ballet companies toured the provinces as well as larger cities, staging shows in an array of different venues in addition to theatres, including local halls, military bases, munitions sites, factories, and aircraft hangars, thereby bringing ballet to new audiences.  In fact, Ballet Rambert were performing for the Codebreakers of Bletchley Park as Germany surrendered in 1945 (Simpson).  There was also lunchtime ballet and teatime ballet, resulting in an increase in the usual number of performances (Eliot 52-3).  This combination of diversity of location and frequency of performance made ballet central to people’s everyday lives (58).  

The necessity and stringencies of touring, catering for new audiences, and producing performances with severely depleted numbers of male dances required imagination and resourcefulness from the various staff members of ballet companies.  Adapting the repertoire to such an assortment of unusual spaces must have called for constant thinking outside the box.  An orchestra was a luxury, so Constant Lambert, Music Director of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Hilda Gaunt, Rehearsal Pianist, accompanied the dancers on two pianos.   Absent male dancers were replaced by young inexperienced colleagues (Eliot 52), although sometimes they were able to participate in performances at short notice when they were on leave (90).  Repertoire was selected to accommodate the situation, with Les Sylphides (Fokine, 1909) a regular item in the performances of many companies:  it was already an audience favourite; it required only one male dancer; and Chopin’s music was originally composed for piano. 

For us, the image of Les Sylphides brings to mind the notion of escapism, and as Rojo says this is one function of art that is “now certainly needed” (“The Art of Empathy”).  Karen Eliot emphasises the importance of ballet’s ability to divert audiences’ attention away from everyday realities in her comments on the rising popularity of the 19th century repertoire during the War years: 

Unexpectedly, the multi-act 19th-century classical ballets that had earlier seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant during the war afforded both comfort and fascination to the diverse audiences who crowded theaters to see them …they opened up worlds of fantasy and colour, granting and audiences a few hours of visual sumptuousness that must have countered the gloom. (174)

However, in in addition to discussing art in terms of diversion, Rojo highlights its ability to help us to process situations we find ourselves in and to see them “from a different point of view”.  For some people this is perhaps more likely to occur when watching and contemplating a different type of work.  Known for the charm, vivacity and even frivolity of his choreographies in the 1930s, Ashton turned to more serious subject matter in the early 1940s in Dante SonataThe Wise VirginsThe Wanderer and The Quest.  In the words of Alexander Bland, “The international crisis seems to have opened up an emotional level in Ashtons’s artistic personality that had not previously been tapped” (59).  Rich in symbolism, these allegorical ballets dealt with such themes as the conflicts between light and darkness, good and evil, the weaknesses of human nature, and the workings of the psyche (Vaughan).

In 2007 an exhibition at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms entitled Dancing through the War: The Royal Ballet 1939-1946 showcased the contribution made by the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet towards the War effort.  This gave rise to dramatic broadsheet headlines paying tribute to the heroism and fighting spirit of the dancers: “As bombs fell, they danced on” (Crompton) and “Take that, Adolf!” (Mackrell).  Seven years later, a BBC 4 documentary on British ballet in the War years was released: “Dancing in the Blitz: how World War II Made British Ballet”.  As this title suggests, the focus this time was on the ways in which the conditions of war – or perhaps more accurately, the ways in which the government and those involved in ballet responded to those conditions – stimulated the development of ballet in this country in terms of the dancers’ performance and technical skills, the breadth of repertoire and the size and diversity of the ballet audience.  Once again, the company that was the subject of this documentary was the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

While it is understandable that what was to become Britain’s flagship ballet company would be the principal player in this narrative, we find these accounts problematic.  It is not difficult to locate evidence that the Sadler’s Wells Company was one amongst many contributing to both the War effort and the development of the art form in this country.  For example, Andrée Howard of Ballet Rambert provided “psychological realism” in her work, giving the audience insights into the “interior world” of her characters (Eliot 154-55).  In contrast, Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet toured Britain throughout the War years staging “lavish full-scale ballets and playing in cinemas where theatres weren’t available, taking ballet to the people at a price they could afford” (“Blackout Ballet”).  In fact, such was the prestige of International Ballet by 1951 that it was this company that was selected to perform at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall (Brown, I.).  And there was an array of other, smaller companies that expanded audiences for ballet in Britain through their commitment, fortitude and imagination, offering them (civilians and those involved in military action alike) much needed comfort and distraction on the one hand, and intellectual inspiration and spiritual resonance on the other.  These included Pauline Grant’s Ballet Group, Lydia Kyasht’s Les Ballets Jeunesse Anglaise, the Anglo-Polish Ballet, Les Ballets Trois Arts, the Ballet Guild and the Arts Theatre Ballet (Eliot 38).

Concluding Thoughts

“We are in the business of mass gatherings”.  These straightforward and pragmatic  words from Gillian Moore, Director of Music of the Southbank Centre (“The Future of Live Performance”) highlight both the long-term quandary imposed on the performing arts by lockdown and social distancing, and the way in which the present “war” differs so radically from the situation experienced by ballet companies during World War II, when gatherings of people from all walks of life in a variety of environments and venues became new captive audiences for ballet.  With the emergence of new ballet companies there seems to have been constant work for dancers.  We are not as confident about the employment situation faced by today’s freelancers working in ballet in all their various capacities – freelancers who, in our opinion, should be treated as “the crown jewels” of the industry (Thompson).

Let’s finish by drawing on some words by Karen Eliot from her peerless research on British ballet in the Second World War:

Personnel with the companies was fluid as the smaller groups disbanded and reformed under new direction, or as dancers moved from one organization to another.  Throughout the period, dancers seem to have gamely carried on, moving through the daily regimen of their lives, making do with few resources, and mixing discipline and adventure.  In their various missions, the companies created during the war highlighted ballet’s relevance to new and eager audiences; they demonstrated ballet’s potential to entertain as well as to offer aesthetic stimulus; and they testified to its viability as an art form with a distinct British identity. (38)

As we know, ballet in Britain now has a long-established identity, to which the activity of the War years made a pivotal contribution.  However, since the beginning of lockdown, dancers, musicians, choreographers, film makers, amongst other ballet professionals, have engaged in new online endeavours in order to maintain both professional activity and their relationship with their audiences.  They have offered us entertainment and aesthetic stimulus through their efforts, sometimes collaborating with colleagues from other companies.  We have witnessed their sense of discipline, in particular through the sharing of online classes, and adventure in some of the enterprising videos we have relished.  And we hope that new audiences will be attracted by the current hive of online activity in the world of British ballet.        

But when those new audiences arrive, let’s not forget that the ballet world is an “ecology” comprising a plethora of establishments large and small, who are dependent on one another as well as on individual freelancers (Rojo “Tom and Ty Talk”).  Let’s remember to recognise the contribution of everyone to the development of our art form and how it is helping us through the COVID “war”.

Dedicated to everyone working in British ballet, with heartfelt thanks for their steadfast commitment to the art form that we all love.

© British Ballet Now & Then

Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … Let’s not forget that this year English National Ballet is celebrating their 70th anniversary, so we’ll be thinking about its directors, repertoire and dancers, and the way the company has evolved over time.  

Reference List

Abbot, Nick, and Carol McGiffin. What’s your Problem with Nick and Carol? Letting out gas on a planeGlobalPlayer, 30 June 2020, http://www.globalplayercom. Accessed 11 July 2020.

Apter, Kelly. “Eve McConnachie: ‘Dance Films can add something to the movement because you can isolate moments and play with time’”. The List, 16 May 2019,  www.list.co.uk/article/108535-eve-mcconnachie-dance-films-can-add-something-to-the-movement-because-you-can-isolate-moments-and-play-with-time/Accessed 18 July 2020.

“The Art of Empathy: Renée Fleming and Tamara Rojo on Creativity and Wellbeing”. The Female Quotient, 15 May 2020, https://www.facebook.com/FemaleQuotient/videos/172377800811211/?vh=e. Accessed 12 July 2020.

Bayley, Caroline. “The Highs and Lows of Working from Home”. BBC Radio 4, 2020, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2Mky6fvrChwCRd7fWQW8h9l/the-highs-and-lows-of-working-from-home. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Bellabrouwers. “The Quarantine Chronicles/Culinary Edition Pt1/2”. Instagram, uploaded 23 Apr. 2020, http://www.instagram.com/tv/B_VjsqSAme5/?igshid=1k1u993r4nt94. Accessed 5 July 2020.

“Blackout Ballet”. BBC Radio 4, 10 Dec. 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p704k. Accessed 22 July 2020.

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

Brown, Mark. “Geisha, Northern Ballet, review: ‘ambitious and accomplished’”. The Guardian, 15 Mar. 2020, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/geisha-northern-ballet-review-ambitious-accomplished/. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Brown, Ismene. “Black-Out Ballet: the invisible woman of British Ballet”. The Arts Desk, 11 Dec. 2012, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/black-out-ballet-invisible-woman-british-ballet. Accessed 23 July 2020.

Courtney, Emily. “The Benefits of Working from Home: why the pandemic isn’t the only reason to work remotely”. FlexJobs, 1 June 2020, http://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/benefits-of-remote-work/. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Craine, Debra. “Tamara Rojo: ‘It’s exciting for the dancers to have a date to work towards’”. The Times, 17 June 2020, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tamara-rojo-its-exciting-for-the-dancers-to-have-a-date-to-work-towards-7d0067cfx. Accessed 17 June 2020.

Crompton, Sarah. “As bombs fell, they danced on”The Telegraph, 5 Feb. 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3662992/As-bombs-fell-they-danced-on.html. Accessed 31 May 2020.

—. “What will it take to save British theatre?”. Vogue, 11 June 2000, http://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/uk-theatre-crisis-coronavirus. Accessed 14 June 2020.

“Dancing in the Blitz: how World War 2 Made British Ballet (BBC Documentary)”. YouTube, uploaded 9 May 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5xxPY8er7E. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Edgerton, David. “Why the Coronavirus crisis should not be compared to the Second World War”. New Statesman, 3 Apr. 2020, http://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2020/04/why-coronavirus-crisis-should-not-be-compared-second-world-war. Accessed 30 May 2020.

Eliot, Karen. Albion’s Dance. Oxford, 2016.

Frederick Ashton Foundation. “Fred step film”. YouTube, uploaded 27 May 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbiMm96_H2M&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 5 July 2020.

“Frontiers”, choreographed by Myles Thatcher. Scottish Ballet, 2019, http://www.scottishballet.co.uk/tv/frontiers. Accessed 18 July 2020.

“The Future of Live Performance”. Aspen Initiative UK,11 June 2020.

Hutera, Donald. “Geisha Review – supernaturally charged and unexpectedly touching”. The Times, 16 Mar. 2020, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/geisha-review-supernaturally-charged-and-unexpectedly-touching-g3xgrf557. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Mackrell, Judith. “Take that, Adolf”. The Guardian, 14 Feb. 2007, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2007/feb/15/dance. Accessed 22 July 2020. 

Mendes, Sam. “How we can save our theatres. Financial Times, 5 June 2020, http://www.ft.com/content/643b7228-a3ef-11ea-92e2-cbd9b7e28ee6. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Monahan, Mark. “‘How should everyone keep fit during lockdown? Just put on some music and move!’”. The Telegraph, 30 Apr. 2020, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/should-everyone-keep-fit-lockdown-just-put-music-move/. Accessed 14 June 2020. 

Donne, Mark. “PERFORMANCE: Mute”. BalletBlack. Performed by Circa Robinson, 2016, https://balletblack.co.uk/bb-on-film/. Accessed 18 July 2020.

Pong, Beryl. British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: for the duration. Oxford UP, 2020.

Rosado, Ana. “These Ballet Dancers are Keeping Limber under Lockdown”. 7News, 20 Apr. 2020, https://7news.news/these-ballet-dancers-are-keeping-limber-under-lockdown/. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Northern Ballet: Geisha review – potent fusion of romantic dance and Japanese horror”. The Guardian, 15 Mar. 2020. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Sanderson, David. “Ballet dancers need three months to get back in step after lockdown”. The Times, 15 June 2020, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ballet-dancers-need-three-months-to-get-back-in-step-after-lockdown-vnrhlw6z7. Accessed 17 June 2020. 

Simpson, Edward. “Solving JN-25 at Bletchey Park:1943-5”.  The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park, edited byRalph Erskine and Michael Smith, Biteback Publishing, 2011. 

Thompson, Tosin. “The real ‘crown jewels’ of the arts? An unprotected freelance workforce”. The Guardian, 22 July 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jul/22/the-real-crown-jewels-of-the-arts-an-unprotected-freelance-workforce.  Accessed 25 July 2020.

“Tom and Ty Talk: ‘Ballet is honest’ with Tamara Rojo”. Tom and Ty Talk, 19 June 2020, https://pod.co/tom-and-ty-talk. Accessed 19 July 2020.

@uk_aspen. “It’s not often”. Twitter 11 June 2020, 6:28pm, https://twitter.com/uk_aspen/status/1271132243000471555?s=20.

Vaughan, David. Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Rev. ed., Dance Books, 1999.

Weiss, Deborah. “English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London”. DanceTabs, 20 Jan. 2020, https://dancetabs.com/2020/01/english-national-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-london/. Accessed 31 May 2020.

“Where We Are: An original film by Alexander Campbell and Anthoula Syndica-Drummond”. YouTube, 11 June 2020, https://youtu.be/gN8mjOLU9Gg. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Wiegand, Chris. “Dancing in the streets: Royal Ballet stars rock to new Rolling Stones song”. The Guardian, 8 June, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jun/08/royal-ballet-rolling-stones-mick-jagger-living-in-a-ghost-town. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Wulff, Helena. Ballet Across Borders. Berg, 2001.

Watching with British Ballet Now & Then

MacMillan offerings from English National Ballet and Scottish Ballet, June 2020

Julia and Rosie have been watching some of the ballets being streamed by British ballet companies and have some thoughts on three works by Kenneth MacMillan shown in June: Scottish Ballet’s The Fairy’s Kiss, and English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth and Manon.

There is so much to watch online in lockdown – an overwhelming choice of offerings from companies all over the world.   But for our blog we need to focus on British ballet.  We notice that there is a cluster of MacMillan ballets available to watch that we are really interested in: we’re not familiar with The Fairy’s Kiss; we love Song of the Earth; and the performance of Manon being streamed is a cast we didn’t get to see live and features Jeffrey Cirio, one of our favourite dancers.   

Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Before watching The Fairy’s Kiss from our respective homes, we discover that it’s quite an early work, from 1960 (MacMillan started choreographing seven years previously, for the Sadler’s Wells Choreographic Group).  We wonder whether we will be able to notice any particular MacMillan characteristic features; it seems likely, as he had already made his renowned The Burrow in 1958, and he created his seminal The Invitation later in 1960, so only months after the premiere of The Fairy’s Kiss (originally known by its French title, Le Baiser de la fée).  There’s a connection between the three ballets too, in that they all had major roles for MacMillan’s most important muse, the incomparable Lynn Seymour, originator of Juliet, Anastasia and Mary Vetsera, some of his most significant ballerina creations.  

Constance Devernay and Andrew Peasgood of Scottish Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Fairy’s Kiss. Photo by Andy Ross

So we watch The Fairy’s Kiss and notice how important the establishment of character is through the use of movement style. The three female protagonists are all quite different in their styles, which is crucial to the narrative: the Fairy is a combination of glittering spikiness and sparkling sensuality; the Fiancée is more free flow and buoyant, gentle in her port de bras, while the Gypsy is all voluptuousness with her ample use of the arms and back, and flirtatious in the detail of her footwork.  Rosie tells Julia about the webinar she attended when Bethany Kingsley-Garner (who dances the Fiancée) talked about building character through the rehearsal process.  She focussed specifically on the role of the Mother, a significant but small role whose past is not explained.  Consequently the dancers were encouraged to ask questions about her backstory to give the movements more meaning.  This is a clear indication to us that MacMillan thought it vital for his choreography to express situation, narrative, feeling, even for more minor characters. 

Dancers of Scottish Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Fairy’s Kiss. Photo by Andy Ross

But we’re a bit perplexed.  Wasn’t MacMillan famous for saying that he was sick of fairy tales?  The basis of the narrative is The Ice-Maiden written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1861; so perhaps we can think of it more as a work of Romantic literature, with its melancholy tale of forbidden love, shattered dreams, loss and grief.  We discover that Andersen claimed “Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself. Every character is from life. I know and have known them all” (qtd. in Silvey, 25).  So these concerns in fact seem to be entirely compatible with MacMillan’s choreographic voice.  A bit of research uncovers the fact that between 1955 and 1962 MacMillan created a total of four works to the music of Stravinsky: in addition to The Fairy’s Kiss, there was Danses Concertantes (1955), Agon (1958), and most famously The Rite of Spring (1962).  We conclude that some important factors drove MacMillan to tackling The Fairy’s Kiss, uncharacteristic though it may seem. 

Tamara Rojo, Joseph Caley and Fernando Carratalá Coloma in Song of the Earth © Laurent Liotardo

Then we watch Song of the Earth.  This is a ballet that we know.  We decide we think of it as a “plotless” work, for want of a better term: it doesn’t trace a linear narrative, but neither is it completely abstract.  The characters are fascinating; in fact, despite their overtly archetypal nature, the Man, Woman and Messenger seem more real to us than the protagonists from The Fairy’s Kiss.  We always enjoy discussing dancers’ individual interpretations of their roles.  How does this work with this plotless ballet? For sure, The Messenger of Death requires a dancer with charisma.  Julia finds Jeffrey Cirio to be quite menacing in the role: the harbinger of death – the abiding inevitable of life, who can arrive unexpectedly at any moment.  Rosie also compares him with Carlos Acosta in the same role.  Carlos’ interpretation seemed to be more of a reflection of the original title for the character – Der Ewige, meaning The Eternal One.  His presence was portentous, but it felt like a constant companion who would continue to accompany The Man and Woman into the next world.  We agree that a role of this complexity and depth is a treasure trove for both the performer and the audience.

As we watch Song of the Earth, we realise that we notice things on a recording that we don’t necessarily take in during a performance.  Do we perhaps tend to watch recordings in a more analytical way, because we know we can re-watch the same recording to pick up other aspects we’re interested in? Or maybe because of the choices made in the process of filming and editing? Rosie’s attention is drawn to the partner work for the male dancers in the opening section “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow”.  Julia notices another point about partnering.  In the third song (“Of Youth”) the main female dancer of the section is supported in a series of playful cartwheels by four male dancers.  Julia makes a connection with a supported cartwheel that is repeated from arabesque to arabesque in an adagio manner in one of the duets for the Fairy and the Young Man in The Fairy’s Kiss.  The “Of Youth” cartwheels are also clearly an expression of the lyrics about the surface of the pond showing the world in mirror image, so that everything is standing on its head.  We recognise MacMillan as a master in the creation of pas de deux, but seeing these works within such a short space of time makes us more alert to how innovative some of his movement ideas for partnering were, and how imaginatively he reworked them to fit the context of the ballet he was in the process of creating. 

Thinking ahead to Manon, we acknowledge that MacMillan created some extraordinary female roles.  As well as Manon, our list includes Juliet, Anastasia, Lady Capulet, The Chosen One in The Rite of Spring, the Sisters in Winter Dreams.  This list covers almost three decades.  But thinking back to The Fairy’s Kiss and Song of the Earth, we remember that the Young Man from The Fairy’s Kiss is involved in multiple pas de deux, and both the Man and The Messenger of Death are protagonists.  And on consideration, this development of male choreography is also characteristic of MacMillan’s oeuvre.  We think of the male protagonists in Romeo and Juliet and Gloria, and his most developed male role, Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, who has duets with his Wife, and his Mother, as well as with various Mistresses.  

James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, Jane Haworth and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

As the curtains open on Manon, named after its female protagonist, it is of course her brother Lescaut who sits alone on the stage in a pool of light surrounded by his cloak.  Perhaps because it’s his shenanigans that drive the narrative to disaster?  He is the first to dance a solo, and his conniving character is conveyed through the steps themselves as well as through mime, meaning that the dancer has to be very skilful technically as well as being a great actor – like David Wall, the originator of the role.  This first solo establishes his personality with those tricky entrechats.  Of course Jeffrey Cirio is an exceptional actor-dancer and makes for a real wheeler-dealer Lescaut right from the start, articulating the choreography with fantastic finesse.  The entrechats are performed with bent legs.  We’re unsure about the correct terminology for the movement.  We think maybe Italian entrechats, like Italian assemblés.  In trying to find an answer we discover Edmund Fairfax’s Eighteenth-Century Ballet.  According to this research, the execution of movements with bent legs was quite prevalent in 18th century ballet in comic and what they called “grotesque” styles, by which we believe they meant dancing with lots of acrobatic elements performed by Commedia dell’arte figures, such as Harlequin and Scaramouche.  We don’t know whether these particular entrechats were MacMiIlan’s idea, or if he knew the history of the step and connected it to Manon’s 18th century Paris.  We consider whether MacMillan saw Lescaut as a kind of Harlequin with his agility, wiliness and high spirits.  It may seem fanciful, but it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of the possible.

Looking back, this particular selection of MacMillan ballets highlights the choreographer’s deep concern with creating complex characters, his innovative approaches to partnering, and his gift of superb roles for male as well as female dancers.  

References

Fairfax, Edmund. “The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet”. Eighteenth-Century Ballet, 16 Feb. 2016, https://eighteenthcenturyballet.com/2019/02/16/bent-legged-jumps-of-eighteenth-century-ballet/. Accessed 25 June 2020.

Kingsley-Garner, Bethany. “The Fairy’s Kiss Post-Show Conversation”. Arts Alive. Webinar, 18 June 2020.

Silvey, Anita, editor. Children’s Books and their Creators. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

In Conversation: Le Corsaire English National Ballet January 2020

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.

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Artists of English National Ballet in Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo.

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 Corsaire pas 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!

Jeffrey Cirio in Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo

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.

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Brooklyn Mack as Lankendem in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo.

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.

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Precious Adams, Alison McWhinney and Julia Conway in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo.

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 …

Francesco-Gabriele-Frola-as-Conrad-in-English-National-Ballets-Le-Corsaire-c-Laurent-Liotardo
Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo

 

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.

Alison-McWhinney-in-Le-Corsaire-c-Laurent-Liotardo
Alison McWhinney in Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo.

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!

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Erik Woolhouse as Birbanto in English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire © Laurent Liotardo.

JULIA: As Jane Pritchard, ENB’s Archive Consultant, says, Le Corsaire “is a production that allows dancers the opportunity to display virtuosity and personality”.

ROSIE: Hear, hear!

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Guerreiro, Teresa. “ENB’s Le Corsaire Dazzles at the Coliseum”. Culture Whisper, 9 Jan. 2020, http://www.culturewhisper.com/r/dance/enb_le_corsaire_coliseum/14728. Accessed 10 Jan. 2020.

Holmes, Anna-Marie. “Conversation with Anna-Marie Holmes”. Le Corsaire. Programme. English National Ballet, London Coliseum, 2020.

Percival, John. “Recollections of Summer’s Rapture”. Dance and Dancers, no. 455, 1988, pp. 26-28.

Pritchard, Jane. “The Creation of Le Corsaire”. Le Corsaire. Programme. English National Ballet, London Coliseum, 2020.

Williams, Peter. “London: Ballerina and Pirate 1”. Dance and Dancers, vol. 13, no. 12, 1962, pp. 49-51.

 

Cinderella Now & Then

Cinderella Now

It’s been a year of Cinderellas!

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.

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English National Ballets Cinderella / Photo: Laurent Liotardo

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.

Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor in Cinderella. Photo Guy Farrow copy
Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor in NB’s Cinderella / Photo: Guy Farrow

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.

Araminta Wraith in Scottish Ballet's Cinderella by Christopher Hampson. Credit Andy Ross copy
Araminta Wraith in Scottish Ballet’s Cinderella by Christopher Hampson / Credit Andy Ross

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.

Erina-Takahashi-and-Joseph-Caley-in-English-National-Ballets-Cinderella-c-Laurent-Liotardo-5
Erina Takahashi and Joseph-Caley in English National Ballets Cinderella / Photo: Laurent Liotardo

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.

 

Cinderella Then

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.

Sibley_Fairy Spring_GBL Wilson
Annette Page ( as The Fairy Godmother ) ; Antoinette Sibley ( as Fairy Spring ) ; Vyvyan Lorrayne ( as Fairy Summer ) ; Merle Park (as Fairy Autumn ) ; Deanne Bergsma ( as Fairy Winter ) ; Royal Opera House, December 1965 ; Credit : G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance

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.

Ugly sisters_Ashton & Helpmann_GBL Wilson
Robert Helpmann ( as the Ugly Sister ) & Frederick Ashton (as the Ugly Sister ) Royal Opera House, December 1965 ; Credit : G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance

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.

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Alexandra Worrall and Serge Lauoie in Robert de Warren’s Cinderella (1979) for Northern Ballet. Photo Ken Duncan.

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 …

Scottish Ballet present Peter Darrell's Cinderella. Credit Bill Cooper (1)
Scottish Ballet – Peter Darrell’s Cinderella/ Credit Bill Cooper

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

© British Ballet Now & Then

Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … It’s an exciting anniversary season for English National Ballet, so we must take a look at the history of the company – its directors, repertoire and dancers.  

This post is dedicated to Kelly Kilner, Rosie’s Angel of Islington – a living example of everyday magic.

We would like to thank Graham Watts for his help with our research on Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella.

 

References

Anderson,Zoë.  “Cinderella, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, review: Romantic            production combines glamour and liveliness”. The Independent, 24 Dec. 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-     dance/reviews/cinderella-festival-theatre-edinburgh-review-romantic-          production-combines-glamour-and-liveliness-a6785011.html. Accessed 22            Dec. 2019.

Jennings, Amanda. “Cinderella”. Dance Europe, no. 244, Nov. 2019, pp. 35-37.

Lowes, Susan. “Cinderella”, All Edinburgh Theatre, 8 Dec. 2015, http://www.alledinburghtheatre.com/cinderella-scottish-ballet-review-2015/. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.

Percival, John. “A Scottish Cinderella”. Dance and Dancers, vol. 30, no. 12, 1979, pp. 18-22.

—. “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, The Independent, 17 Dec. 2019, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dance-she-knows-a-good-un-when-she-sees-him-1191878.html. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.

“The Story of Cinderella”. Scottish Ballet, 2019, https://www.scottishballet.co.uk/tv/the-story-of-cinderella. Accessed 22 Dec. 2019.

Tovey, Bramwell. “The Music for Cinderella”. Cinderella. Programme. His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 1979.

 

 

 

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

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

Last Friday Julia and Rosie attended English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round, specially adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by the award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

Although we knew the production would be spectacular, it exceeded our expectations!

On the way into the auditorium we were delighted to meet the dancer James Streeter whom we interviewed last autumn.  He was clearly very excited about the production.

 

JULIA: An evening full of great surprises! ENB’s dancers filled the Royal Albert Hall’s grand arena with such energy that the venue’s atmosphere seemed to be enchanted… full of magic.

ROSIE: For me the magic starts right at the beginning, even before the performance begins: you walk into the auditorium and there’s the huge projection of a blue sky with white clouds, and then you hear birds and see them fly over the “sky” just before Sergei Prokofiev’s score starts.  So I felt that nature was going to play a really important role in the production.

JULIA: Well it does, doesn’t it?  In the original Wheeldon production the stage is dominated by the tree created by Julian Crouch, which apparently had to be “pruned” (as Graham Watts appropriately put it) when Dutch National Ballet brought it to the Coliseum four years ago.   Although the actual tree isn’t there in the Albert Hall, it’s still present in the projections onto drapes gathered in the shape of a tree.

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

ROSIE: It’s all about illusion, isn’t it?  It says in the programme that there are over 370 costumes – and they include outfits for fantastical white birds, tree gnomes, and the Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, all connected to the tree, as if it’s some magical life force.

JULIA: The idea of the tree came from the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, so written in the Romantic era.  In fact they seem to have produced two adaptations of the story, seven years apart (1812, 1819) but both featuring the tree.

ROSIE: So there’s no Fairy Godmother and pumpkin, as in the Charles Perrault version (1697).

ROSIE: And Cinderella is held aloft “in” the coach by one of the dancers and holding billowing silk fabric above her head, almost as if she’s flying – she really is being transported!  I find this kind of theatre really imaginative, and I love the way that you can see detail because there’s no orchestra pit separating the audience from the performers.  You really liked the Fates, didn’t you?

JULIA: Yes, I found them very striking… I often caught myself directing attention to their moves on stage. In my opinion they were telling the audience the fairy tale from Cinderella’s perspective. Because they are so integral to the production: they are always present; they don’t suddenly appear from nowhere in terms of the narrative…

ROSIE: No they don’t, but they do often move in a soft, almost stealthy way, at times performing low level circular and undulating movements in their dark clothes, so that they seem to emerge organically from Cinderella’s surroundings.  Sometimes, because of the way they were positioned around the space, I connected them to the idea of representing the four compass points, so that Cinderella is protected from every direction. I’m sure that being performed in the round encouraged this notion. 

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

JULIA: Their movement was such a contrast to the corps de ballet who moved with such overt energy.  They really made me sit up in my seat with their constant shift of imaginative patterns.  But they also contributed to the narrative in that they framed Cinderella’s entrance to the ball, for example, and then with their angular staccato clockwork movements as the scene built up to Cinderella’s exit.    

ROSIE: Of course the energy is enhanced by the large number of dancers – 48  corps de ballet dancers in the ballroom scene, I believe – and by fact that, as always, the ENB corps are so well rehearsed.  The cohesion seemed even more important than usual in the round – somehow it’s more exposing.  One of the things I liked so much about our Cinderella, Erina Takahashi, is that she has a very distinctive quality of serene stillness that I find draws me in when she performs. And in this ballet with all its wonderful buoyant energy, it seemed important to have a still centre to give it a contrasting focus.

JULIA: On another topic, I love theatre that moves seamlessly from one environment to another, like the columns that are drawn out to represent the palace and the kitchen table that glides round the performance area. 

ROSIE: The projections on the floor (designed by Daniel Brodie) like the rain, the dappled light beneath the tree, the decorative marble floor of the ballroom, the clockwork wheels.  These all enhance the atmosphere of each scene.  I almost fell off my seat when the orchestra was lit up during the ball scene; up to that moment it had been hidden.  It really intensified the illusion of being present in a beautiful grand ballroom. And the dancers entering and exiting through the auditorium makes me feel invited into Cinderella’s world.

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

JULIA: Yes, the orchestra was hidden behind the projections.  Those projections were really vital to my appreciation of the ballet; for me they contribute to the darkness that Emma Byrne mentions in her review: “[a] story full of dark frivolity and fantasy, high on romance yet with a strong original feel”. Indeed, there is an element of dark fantasy to the story, and this, for me, combined with the dreamy, mystical set and costumes transform the characters and Cinderella into other-worldly beings. Reminded my of a Tim Burton film…

ROSIE: I agree with Emma Byrne the idea of darkness as far as the dark colour palette is concerned (Cinderella really stands out in her light-coloured costumes), but I was relieved that not all of the gruesome details of the Grimm versions were included.  The ones that make me feel queasy are the Stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet (which consequently bleed profusely) to try and force them into the shoe, and then at the wedding the birds pecking the Sisters’ eyes out for their wickedness. 

JULIA: Stepmother Hortensia does try to hammer their feet into the shoe, though …

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

ROSIE: Yes, with distinct glee as well as determination, if I remember rightly. But it seemed to me to be comedic, or at least satirical, rather than truly grisly.  There was a lot of light-hearted comedy, I thought, and Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia looked like she was having outrageous fun “momanaging” her daughters and getting deliciously drunk at the ball.  

JULIA: : I think the production reflects ENB’s culture as a company – a sense of togetherness, team work and effort is repeatedly  expressed on stage. This reminded me of our conversation with ENB’s first soloist James Streeter when he said that “in the culture of ENB, the notion of a minor role does not in fact exist”; all characters are equally important in setting the scene and atmosphere in their productions.

ROSIE: There are more Cinderellas coming up.  I’m looking forward to revisiting the topic later in the year with a Now & Then post.  Watch this space!!!

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

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

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

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

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.