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

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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. 

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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 …

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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!!!

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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.