Manon Designs Now & Then

Manon Designs Now

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

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

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

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

The lighting

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

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

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

The make-up

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

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

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

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

The dresses

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

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

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

Manon Designs Then

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

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

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

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

The rags

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

The richness

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

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

The dress

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

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

 

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

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

The Nutcracker Now

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

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

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

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

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

The Nutcracker Then

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

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

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

 

Share your thoughts!

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

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

We’d love to know what you think!

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Ballets Now & Then

 War Ballets Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Ballets Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo

On October 5th Julia and Rosie went to Markova House, headquarters of English National Ballet, to watch company class and talk to James Streeter.

In our last Britishballetnowandthen post we wrote about male dancers and their impact on the development of performance style and repertoire in British ballet.  One of the dancers we focussed on was James Streeter and the way in which he brings each character that he dances to life, no matter how varied or disparate.  As we researched, discussed and wrote about James, remembering his performances in various roles, we became increasingly intrigued … How does James ignite the choreography with such real-life substance? How does he give the characters their lifeblood? And what is it that makes James Streeter the dancer seem to disappear and leave us with the human being of the story?

Our curiosity led us to ask for an interview with him in which we discovered that his ability to inhabit a role seems to be intrinsically connected to a particular view of life: James sees life as a constantly evolving journey peopled by fascinating human beings all with their individual histories and ways of being.

James’ relish for life is evident in the bright enthusiasm of his features, and his love for his work permeated the discussion, which was continually peppered with lively gestures and facial expressions culminating in a demonstration of the different ways a man and woman might get up from the table – a mesmerising “performance” in itself.

Although James seemed unsure whether he has a natural thespian talent (a doubt not shared by ourselves, having watched him perform in numerous roles and now having sat for an hour seeing him spontaneously transform himself into a plethora of characters mid-sentence), the trajectory of his career from joining the English National Ballet straight from the school leaves no room for doubt as to his dramatic flair.  His first stage role was the Lead Capulet Servant in Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet (1977), but as a young Company member he was also given the role of Tybalt in the same ballet, as well as the Duke of Courland in the traditional version of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841).  This information was delivered to us accompanied by hilarious stories of puzzled looks from the wigs department or disgruntled remarks from more senior colleagues sharing the same role at the sight of so green a performer taking on roles of some maturity.

It seems clear that one of the keys to James’ success in giving life to characters is the fact that he recognises the complexity of human nature.  Tybalt, for example, he perceives not simply as the aggressive villain of Romeo and Juliet, but as a young man who loves his cousin Juliet, and is aware of his status within the family, even though he as yet lacks the maturity and stability of mind to be able to recognise the consequences of his seething temper.  James is very aware that what might feel right to him in terms of his reading of the character when preparing a role may not be clearly perceived by the audience, so he makes sure that checking his character in the mirror is integral to the preparation and rehearsal process.  And reviews of his performance in this role do suggest that his reading of Tybalt reaches over the footlights, with both Zoe Anderson and Mark Monahan recognising a duality within Romeo’s enemy: “James Streeter’s Tybalt has affection for Juliet as well as family pride” (Anderson); “Streeter dared to be almost sympathetic in an early scene with his cousin, but later tapped wells of white-hot ferocity in his disappointment at her choice of beau” (Monahan).

One of James’ most celebrated roles is Carabosse in the classical Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), a character who on the surface could be interpreted as a straightforward symbol of evil.  Although we didn’t manage to see James in this role in the recent run of performances at the London Coliseum, (we saw a terrifying, chilling Stina Quagebeur), we were captivated by Luke Jennings’ description of James’ “fabulously vicious Carabosse, who prowls the stage with the sallow features and madly crimped hair of a vengeful Tudor queen”.  We queried James about the reference to Elizabeth I, wondering whether he made a connection between the two women, their childlessness highlighted by the celebration of a long desired baby princess. He responded with a vision of Carabosse as an individual who has been ostracised for no good reason, maybe simply for being different, whose bitterness and desire for revenge are to some degree forgivable.  An evil fairy she may be, but one who experiences the depths of human disappointment and hurt, who can therefore give us insight into human nature, and for whom James clearly has some sympathy.

James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo

As we discussed the whys and wherefores of Carabosse’s nature, James showed us with ever-changing dynamics in gestures and mien the difference between a camp depiction of Carabosse and the same character portrayed through feminine body language. During the conversation he observed and mimicked to a T Julia’s hand and arm gestures, giving them as an example of how he draws on everyday life and people’s changing demeanour in creating believable and relatable characters.

From James’ perspective he has only a few weeks to create a whole life history for the character he is portraying and to discover ways of moving true to the character’s history and temperament.  He constantly asks himself how the person would react to everyday occurrences, such as being jostled in the tube.  Tube journeys are one daily opportunity to observe people’s body language, features of which he then incorporates into a reservoir of visible traits that he uses to depict character.  Early on in his career it was suggested to him that if he could behave in character during a tube ride without drawing attention to himself, he would know that he “had” the character, so to speak.

But this doesn’t quite address the question of exactly how James manages to look as if he is walking into a room rather than walking onto the stage, so real and apparently spontaneous is his demeanour.  So probably the most pressing question for us was the relationship between preparing for a role and allowing himself “to be truly in the moment” (qtd. in O’Byrne). In this part of the discussion James acknowledged the influence of both Akram Khan and Tamara Rojo.  He smiled at his younger self, remembering how after preparing and rehearsing with great rigour he then wanted every performance to be identical in accordance with his painstaking preparations, as if he wanted it to be “exactly right”.  But with experience came the confidence to be more spontaneous in performance.

We have experienced watching Tamara Rojo in a run of performances in the same ballet and revelled in the immediacy of her renditions, varying as they did from night to night, as if she were reborn into the role each time.  James explained to us that in rehearsals of Akram Khan’s Dust and Giselle Tamara Rojo and he would spend a lot of time discussing character, motivation and feeling, but also experimenting and discovering the limits of movement and emotion.  This then enabled them to give performances that were authentic to the characters, their feelings and relationships, without being overdramatised.

And just as our feelings, moods and behaviours as human beings fluctuate from day to day, James perceives each performance to be a new day for his character.  As he prepares for each performance a kind of transformation takes place, for which costume, wig and make-up are crucial.  Now he embodies all his ideas about the character’s history, temperament, status, mood, typical gestures, posture and facial expressions, using his observations from theatre, film, art, literature and daily life, and moves into the performance as if experiencing events and responding to the people around him for the first time – as if in real life. But James did also discuss a specific unknowable factor that feeds into this sense of spontaneity and freshness, that is, the energy of the audience, a phenomenon which James clearly feels keenly and that can give the performance an extraordinary sense of occasion.  A recent example that he cited was English National Ballet’s performance of Lest We Forget to the Royal British Legion, the memory of which noticeably still fills him with awe.

Amongst the dancers whose influence and support James talked about with visible ardour and gratitude were Michael Coleman, Lionel Delanoë, Frederic Jahn, Matz Skoog, Fabian Reimair, and above all David Wall.  Because James’ admiration for this great actor-dancer was so prevalent within the discussion, and we wrote about David Wall’s interest in theatre in our last post, we asked James more particularly about the importance of theatre for his work, and discovered that James not only enjoys both cinema and theatre, but has quite an analytical approach to acting, relishing the finer points of skilful acting.  The only point at which James hesitated in the course of our conversation was when we asked him about actors whom he particularly admired: he was clearly perplexed by the number of actors that inspire his admiration.  However, given that the British ballet world seems to be entranced by the BBC’s Killing Eve, based as it is on the fictional writing of The Observer dance critic Luke Jennings, it was apt that he then proceeded to describe a scene from Episode 2 of this drama (“I’ll Deal with him Later”).  Set in the pub, two of the protagonists, Bill and Eve, deliver a minimal script:

Bill: Did you know about his wife?

Eve: Mm-hmm. You?

Bill: Mm-hmm

Eve: Oh those poor kids …

Bill: Yeah.

Yet the delivery of the script is laced with sardonic, wry humour, and James’ appreciation for the skill of the actor David Haig in giving the scene its sharp wit flowed exuberantly through his description of this snippet of the episode that had lodged itself so firmly in his memory.

During our talk James was brimming with delight regarding this profession that allows him to create a “bubble”, a world for his character who lives a completely different life from his own.  Because he enters this bubble anew at each performance, he makes fresh “discoveries”, as he calls them, that he can use to enrich his understanding and portrayal of the character in subsequent performances.  As we have witnessed on stage, this is an approach that he takes to all of his roles. He explained that in the culture of English National Ballet, the notion of a minor character does not in fact exist. When the Company first staged Petipa’s classical Le Corsaire in 2013, as Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo insisted that the curtain rise on a bustling, vibrant marketplace teeming with folks of all kinds, some intent on going about their business, others more interested in the dramatic action going on around them.

As our conversation came to a close, like the gentleman he clearly is, James thanked Julia for the hand gestures she had inadvertently introduced to him, assuring her that he would make use of them one day.

We are very grateful for the support of Alice Gibson, PR Manager, and Laurent Liotardo, Staff Photographer, for their support in the production of this post.

References

Anderson, Zoe. “Romeo and Juliet, Royal Festival Hall, London, review”. Independent, 2 Aug. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/romeo-and-juliet-royal-festival-hall-london-review-an-uphill-struggle-a7872441.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

“I’ll Deal with Him Later”. Killing Eve, series 1 episode 2, BBC, 29 Sept. 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06kc8mb. Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

Jennings, Luke. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”.The Guardian, 10 June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 6 Oct. 2018.

Monahan, Mark. “ENB make Nureyev’s drama soar – Romeo and Juliet, Festival Hall, review”. The Telegraph, 2 Aug. 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/ballet/enb-make-nureyevs-drama-soar-romeo-juliet-festival-hall-review/. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

O’Byrne, Ellie. “Classic Love Story gets a Modern Twist”. Irish Examiner, 23 Apr. 2018, http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/culture/classic-love-story-gets-a-modern-twist-838618.html. Accessed 6 Oct. 2018.

Male Dancers in British Ballet Now & Then

Every year ballet lovers await with excited anticipation the announcement of promotions in the hope that there will be good news for their favourite dancers.  This year has seen some significant promotions amongst male dancers: Fernando Carratalá Coloma and James Streeter of English National Ballet, Mlindi Kulashe and Joseph Taylor from Northern, and The Royal Ballet’s Matthew Ball.  So altogether a good excuse for us to focus our attention on particular male dancers who have played a notable, even remarkable, role in British ballet companies and repertoire.  Although dancers often contribute in ways other than dancing, for example through choreographing, directing, coaching, and outreach programmes, we are concentrating on the influence of the dancing careers of our selected danseur son British ballet.  As our focus we have chosen three dancers who have until recently performed, or are still performing, with British companies, and three from an earlier generation.  In our male dancers now section we are discussing Carlos Acosta, Eric Underwood and James Streeter.  We hope that you will discover the reasons for our choices as you read on …

Male Dancers Now

Two years ago Carlos Acosta staged The Classical Farewell at the Royal Albert Hall, marking the end of one stage of his career.  This autumn sees a celebration of his 30-year career at the same venue, and on October 15thhe will be receiving a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award.  These events are tangible evidence of the importance of Britain to Acosta’s career as well as his influence on ballet in this country. Winner of the Prix de Lausanne competition at the age of 16, the Cuban Carlos Acosta became one of the most celebrated dancers of his generation.  He was still a teenager when Ivan Nagy, artistic director of English National Ballet at that time, invited him to perform with the company.  Despite enjoying an international career, Acosta’s dancing life was concentrated in London, at the Royal Ballet, where he was principal guest artist from 2003 to 2016.  As well as being an extraordinary dancer, Acosta was a wonderfully supportive, thoughtful and sensitive partner, known in particular for his partnerships with Tamara Rojo and Marianela Núñez.

Famed for being the first black principal at the Royal Ballet, his popularity as a dancer was perhaps fuelled by the stark contrast between the well documented poverty of his childhood in the backstreets of Havana and his technical ability in what is so often considered to be an elitist art form, lending a certain “exotic” element to his profile.  Tales of his breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s have been eagerly pitted against his fabulously successful career in ballet.  One of the reasons for this success was undoubtedly that despite his understandable protestations that he had “no clue” how to portray a prince onstage, he appeared to perform the classical roles with great ease, as if to the manner born.  The way in which he took to the stage with a nobility of bearing, combined with luscious épaulement and amplitude of movement was magnificently complemented his virtuosity.  The stylishness of his dancing was shaped by the ways in which he tempered the athletic thrust of his dancing.  This he achieved through his sophisticated control and phrasing, for example by decelerating at the end of multiple pirouettes in order to accentuate a clean finish, and through the easy rhythm of his dancing.  And unforgettable are his tours en l’air travelling downstage in the coda of Siegfried’s solo in the Black Act of Swan Lake, which despite the complexity of the setting chosen by Acosta communicate the ebullience and excitement felt by Siegfried at this point in the narrative.  This balance of bravura matched with elegant style and expressivity made Acosta a remarkable exponent of the 19thcentury repertoire so vital to large-scale companies such as the Royal Ballet.  In a review of Swan Lake Ismene Brown said of him: “This Cuban with the athlete’s body and the noble poet’s soul is a dancer one can hardly have enough of”. So fortunately Acosta’s repertoire was broad, including works by Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe.

James Streeter, who has just been promoted to First Soloist at English National Ballet, is striking in a different way from Acosta.  Firstly, in this age of transnationalism, multiculturalism and portfolio careers, it is noticeable that after completing his training at English National Ballet School, he entered the Company in 2004 and has remained there as a dancer, moving up the ranks and expanding his repertoire.  Perhaps this stability in his professional life is something that has enabled him to develop what appears to be a natural dramatic talent, but we are convinced that this must be an aspect of his work that he has striven to develop over time.  For the range of Streeter’s acting abilities seems to us to be unsurpassable.  No matter how minor the role, whether it be a mime or dancing role, comic, tragic or romantic, Streeter inhabits it, bringing the character to life.  “Minor” characters with whom we are so familiar that they almost seem to dissolve into the rest of the stage action suddenly emerge in graphic relief with an almost uncanny vividness.  We experienced this for example in his portrayal of the English Prince in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), whose main purpose is to support Aurora reliably and sensitively in the “Rose Adagio”. As important as this task is to the performance, Streeter in addition imbued the potentially cardboard cut-out Prince with credibility as a human being.  As he strode energetically across the stage, impressively flourishing his cavalier hat, the Prince sprang to life as a worthy contender for Aurora’s hand.  In stark contrast is Streeter’s “fabulously vicious Carabosse, who prowls the stage with the sallow features and madly crimped hair of a vengeful Tudor queen” (Jennings, “English National Ballet”).  Luke Jennings’ evocative description conveys the quality and force of Streeter’s movements and expressions that enable him to embody the evil nature of the Fairy and dominate the stage revealing her in all her crazed malevolence.  But even in MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, a work inclined towards more abstract representation, Streeter stands out as a member of the group in the Fourth Song “Of Beauty”, with the boldness and buoyancy of his dancing that imbues the role with character and makes the choreography seem fresh and vivid.

In our opinion Streeter’s ability to inject lifeblood into a role and project character, mood and emotion across the footlights has been brought to fulfilment in Akram Khan’s 2016 re-envisaging of Giselle in which he dances the role of Albrecht, a character torn by moral dilemmas, who in the course of the ballet is guilty of betrayal and cowardice, but at the same time is gripped by love, anger, jealousy, fear and remorse.  Although Streeter recognises that Albrecht’s infidelity and the part he plays in Giselle’s death “hardly makes him a likeable character”, he also regards Albrecht as a victim of the class system (O’Byrne).  And despite the technical challenges and stylistic hybridity of the choreography Streeter comes across above all as a human being expressing the emotions that have arisen in him from his situation.  This achievement was recognised in the 18thNational Dance Awards in November, when he was nominated for the Dance Europe Award for Outstanding Male performance (classical).

Of our three selected dancers, the one whose name is most closely associated with specific choreographers is Eric Underwood, who became celebrated as a muse for both Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet respectively.  Joining the Royal Ballet in 2006 from American Ballet Theatre, Underwood drew media attention for his ethnicity as an African American and a childhood dominated by violent crime, as well as for his modelling career (Rafanelli).  Due to his height (6 foot 2 inches) and quiet but magnetic energy, he cut an imposing figure on stage.  Like Acosta he formed significant partnerships, and the recording of McGregor’s Infra (2008) and Limen (2009) shows exactly why.  Not only is there an arresting contrast between the paleness in skin tone of Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton and the rich darkness of Underwood’s skin, but his attentiveness and skill in working together with the ballerinas gives seamless expression to the choreography, while the intensity of his gaze emphasises its sensuousness and dramatic potential.

The same works by McGregor reveal an interesting combination of features integral to Underwood’s individual movement style: on the one hand an exceptional ability to articulate the torso in fluid, rippling movements and to execute a huge range in extension; on the other, the ability to create long classical lines and sculptural poses of great beauty.

Underwood himself recognises the good fortune he has had in working with McGregor and the impact this collaboration has had on the development of ballet as an art form.  In a 2015 interview he stated: “Wayne’s work offers me great opportunities to explore new movements, new forms of ballet …These newer forms of ballet bring new vitality, a limitless sense of creativity to rejuvenate the art of ballet”.  We would go further than this and suggest that Underwood’s collaborations with two choreographers so central to the work of the Royal Ballet have created a new strand of the English style originally established by Ninette de Valois and Ashton. In his perceptive review of Limen, Luke Jennings draws our attention to a lineage we might not otherwise notice: “… when Lamb, lifted by Underwood, performs little gallops in the air, the sequence could have been created by Ashton”.

Yet as the Royal Ballet embarks on a run of MacMillan’s Mayerling, it is deliciously tempting to imagine what a performance of this led by Underwood and Hamilton would be like.  And picture Underwood’s Romeo opposite Sarah Lamb’s Juliet …These are roles that the dancer named in 2010 as Royal Ballet repertoire that he coveted the most.  Or what about Oberon in Ashton’s The Dream, a character that demands superb command of the stage in addition to great partnering skills, fluidity of movement and clean penché arabeques? We would have welcomed the opportunity to witness Underwood commanding the stage in a greater variety of roles.  Unfortunately, given that he left the Royal Ballet last year having reached the rank of soloist in 2008, it is unlikely that our wish-list for Underwood’s repertoire will be fulfilled.

Male Dancers Then

From the 1960s to 1980s there were three prominent male dancers who played similar roles in the development of British ballet to Acosta, Streeter and Underwood: Rudolf Nureyev, the international ballet superstar who had such a monumental impact on the status of male dancing in the West (Freeman and Thorpe 116); the supreme dance-actor David Wall; and Anthony Dowell, one of Frederick Ashton’s muses, who personified the notion of the English style of ballet.

Surely no one could have foretold the arrival of Nureyev from the Soviet Union in 1961 and the stupendous impact that he would have on the world of ballet, including the development of the art form in this country.  By the time Nureyev defected, the Royal Ballet had established itself as a company of international repute with Margot Fonteyn still at its helm, London Festival Ballet was in its twelfth year, Rambert was still operating as a ballet company, and the troupe that was to become Scottish Ballet had already been formed.  In the course of his long and extremely active performing career Nureyev performed with all of these companies, undoubtedly raising their profile with his prodigious talent, energy and unrivalled fame.

De Valois and Ashton had led the development of a choreographic and performing style that had become recognisably “English”, embodied by the Royal Ballet’s internationally acclaimed Prima Ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Yet the arrival of Nureyev not only most famously prolonged and enhanced Fonteyn’s career, but also galvanised a generation of British male dancers to new technical and dramatic heights, thereby elevating the status of the male dancer in this country.  David Wall, who at the age of 20 became the Royal Ballet’s youngest male principal, declared that Nureyev had had a “life-changing effect” on his perception of male ballet dancers (“Obituaries”).

Nureyev took the British ballet audience by storm.  The combination of his glamour and charisma, his virtuosic Russian technique, voracious appetite for work, and the ferocity of his passion for the art form were unprecedented in British ballet, though it is important not to forget that ballet as a national enterprise was still a young art form when Nureyev became permanent guest artist with the Royal Ballet in 1962.  Both Ashton and MacMillan created roles for Nureyev, most famously the male protagonist partnering Fonteyn in Marguerite and Armand (Ashton, 1963).  However, we find it interesting that in 1960, the year before Nureyev’s arrival in the West, Frederick Ashton had already created a major role for a male dancer in his La Fille mal gardée.

Colas, the male protagonist in La Fille mal gardée, was choreographed on the British David Blair, and is a virtuoso role in comic disguise requiring enormous strength and dexterity in terms of both dance and partnering technique.  In fact over the following two decades, while Nureyev was still guest artist with the Company, both choreographers concentrated on the young British dancers, creating complex characters through inventive and challenging choreography that were at least as central to the works as the ballerina roles.  Striking examples of roles created on Dowell are Oberon in The Dream (1964) and Believe in A Month in the Country (1976), both created by Ashton, and Des Grieux from MacMillan’s 1974 Manon. For David Wall the creation of works, which included Lescaut, Manon’s scheming brother, culminated in the role of Rudolph in MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978), a prodigious role, still 40 years later, unsurpassed as a male dancing role.  Even though Nureyev controversially danced the eponymous hero on the first night of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, the three central male characters were created on three British dancers: Christopher Gable as Romeo, David Blair as Mercutio and Anthony Dowell as Benvolio.

As part of our research we discovered that Wall’s natural dramatic flair was noted by the critic Clive Barnes early on in his career when he performed the Persian Princein the “Rose Adagio” (Freeman and Thorpe 131), a wonderfully serendipitous parallel with our own experience of watching James Streeter. Wall had a passion for theatre that clearly fed into his approach to his roles, enhancing his instinctive talent and enabling him to create ambiguous characters such as Lescaut and Rudolf with consummate skill.  As stated in his Telegraph obituary, “MacMillan saw in Wall a performer brave and curious enough to develop a new kind of male ballet character, enabling more complicated and realistic storytelling than the traditional hero-heroine format”.  Very similar to Streeter’s interpretation of Albrecht, Wall went to pains to communicate what he perceived as Rudolf’s sympathetic side (“Mayerling”). Again The Telegraph highlighted his “ability to find pathos in even the most damaged of characters”.

Dowell was a dancer of a different ilk, specifically known for his embodiment of the English style of his era with its emphasis on refined classical lines, lyricism, musicality and understated virtuosity.  Both Ashton and MacMillan used these attributes in solos for Dowell in The Dream, The Sleeping Beauty (Ashton’s 1968 interpolation for the Prince), Manon and A Month in the Country with swooping, yearning or elegiac arabesques and elegantly challenging turns.  In his analysis of Dowell’s dancing Jennings accentuates his “impeccable technique and purity of expression”, the “supreme elegance” of his line and the “quiet finesse of his phrasing” (“MoveTube”).

The power of Dowell’s physicality was totally different from Nureyev’s, but power it was.  Jennings describes him as “perfectly proportioned … possessed of a dazzling tensile pliancy … the choreographer’s ideal instrument” (“Farewell”).  He was only 21 and a member of the corps de ballet when Ashton chose him to create the role of Oberon, an event that led to a fruitful creative collaboration between the two men for almost two decades.  According to Carrie Seidman, Oberon “set a new standard for male dancers of the day”. This can be seen in the speed and complexity of the Scherzo with its continuous variety of turning jumps, followed shortly afterwards by the pas de deux, which requires a quite different quality with its intricate partnering and luscious use of the body. Crucially, while Dowell himself referred to the role as “a real killer”, it was vital to him that audiences would never be aware of the effort necessitated by the deceptively challenging choreography (qtd. in Jennings, “Farewell”).

Given the enduring centrality of the pas de deux to ballet, we cannot omit the fact that celebrated partnerships were integral to the dancing careers of Nureyev, Dowell and Wall.  While the Fonteyn-Nureyev is probably the most famous partnership in British ballet, and perhaps internationally too, Jennings suggests that the Sibley-Dowell partnership, which began with The Dream, was equal to it “in its empathy and intensity” (“Farewell”).  Wall considered his partnering to be integral to communicating through movement (Freeman and Thorpe 138), and not only were his partnerships with Lynn Seymour and even Margot Fonteyn celebrated, but incredibly he had to partner six different ballerinas in Mayerling in addition to coping with extraordinarily demanding choreography.  The Dream pas de deux performed by Sibley and Dowell is indelibly imprinted on our memory for its sheer magic, as are the pas de deux in Mayerling for their blistering sensuality when danced by Seymour and Wall.

Unlike the three dancers whom we selected from more recent years in British ballet, these three dancers had similar repertoires with the Royal Ballet, all dancing the 19thcentury classics, in addition to a range of 20thcentury work. However, their distinctiveness as performers lent a richness to the performances of the Company, enabling audiences to see a variety of articulations and interpretations of the growing and increasingly interesting repertoire for male dancers.  The ways in which Dowell and Wall inspired Ashton and Macmillan, the two giants of British choreography, led to the creation of roles that continue to challenge male dancers of the highest calibre today, both in this country and internationally.  Further, and equally importantly, these collaborations between choreographers and dancers upheld and enhanced two hallmarks of British ballet: the distinctive English style and an emphasis on the dramatic expressiveness of ballet.

Concluding Thoughts on Male Dancers Now and Then

What has become very clear to us in doing our research for this post is that while the ballerina indubitably still dominates the ballet stage, male dancers too have made enormous contributions to the advancement of British ballet in the 20thand 21stcenturies.  However, it is not necessary for a dancer to reach the highest echelons of the ballet company hierarchy in order to make an impact on performances, the development of performance style, and repertoire.  In these days of celebrity culture we feel it is crucial to emphasise this.  We celebrate the momentous influence of Carlos Acosta, Anthony Dowell, Rudolf Nureyev and David Wall as dancers.  But simultaneously we also look forward to tracing the legacy of Eric Underwood in future performances by male dancers in British companies and to following the continued unfolding of James Streeter’s career.

© Rosie Gerhard

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… to mark the contribution of British ballet to the commemoration of the First World War Centenary, we will be writing a post on war ballets created by British choreographers.

 

 

References

Brown, Ismene. “Rojo is Queen of the Swan Queens”. The Telegraph, 29 Nov. 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3586430/Rojo-is-queen-of-the-Swan-Queens.html. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Freeman, Gillian, and Edward Thorpe. Ballet Genius: twenty great dancers of the twentieth century. Equation, 1988.

Jennings, Luke. “Agon/Sphynx/Limen; Mayerling”. The Guardian, 8 Nov. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/nov/08/royal-ballet-acosta-mcgregor-mayerling. Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.

—. “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 23 July, 2018.

—. “MoveTube: Anthony Dowell dances the Prince’s solo from Swan Lake Act I”. The Guardian, 10 Nov. 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/10/movetube-anthony-dowell-swan-lake. Accessed 23 July, 2018.

“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 3, 1978”. YouTube, uploaded 21 Sept. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m41t5OKA9Y0. Accessed 8 Sept. 2018.

“Obituaries: David Wall”. The Telegraph, 20 June, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10133035/David-Wall.html. Accessed 23 Sept. 2018.

O’Byrne, Ellie. “Classic Love Story gets a Modern Twist”. Irish Examiner, 23 Apr. 2018,  http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/culture/classic-love-story-gets-a-modern-twist-838618.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2018.

Rafanelli, Stephanie. “Royal Opera House ballet star Eric Underwood: ‘I want to be a great dancer regardless of my colour’”. Evening Standard, 15 Oct. 2015, http://www.standard.co.uk/es-magazine/royal-opera-house-ballet-star-eric-underwood-i-want-to-be-a-great-dancer-regardless-of-my-colour-a3091036.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.

Seidman, Carrie. “Anthony Dowell hands down his breakthrough role in Ashton″ ‘The Dream’ to Sarasota Ballet”. Herald Tribune, 24 Feb. 2018, http://www.heraldtribune.com/entertainmentlife/20180224/anthony-dowell-hands-down-his-breakthrough-role-in-ashton-the-dream-to-sarasota-ballet. Accessed 25 Sept. 2018.

Three Ballets by Wayne McGregor: Chroma, Infra, Limen. Performance by Eric Underwood, Melissa Hamilton, Sarah Lamb and The Royal Ballet, Opus Arte, 2011.

Trebay, Guy. “Eric Underwood, the American star of the Royal Ballet: ‘I never wanted to be the ‘black’ dancer – I wanted to be a great dancer’”. The Independent, 26 July 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/eric-underwood-royal-ballet-strictly-come-dancing-al-green-marvin-gaye-a7860836.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2018.

Underwood, Eric.Interview by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel.“In Conversation with Eric Underwood”.Network of Pointes, vol. 35, 2015, p.25, Society of Dance History Scholars.

Ballet Critics Now & Then

Ballet Critics Now

Those of us in the UK with a keen interest in ballet and dance are very fortunate in having easy access to a number of specialist dance critics’ writing for newspapers, magazines and websites.  At the start of a run of performances by either British or international companies we have the luxury of consulting a range of expert opinions on what we have seen or plan to see.  Typically, reviews will offer background information on the ballet and specific production and give opinions on the components of the work and the effectiveness of the performers, as well as analyses and interpretations of the work and performance.  While reviews always offer different perspectives and insights, sometimes they can even be almost diametrically opposed in their account and assessment of a performance.

So we find that reading reviews often engenders animated and interesting discussions in the bar or on our WhatsApp group or at coffee after a ballet class.  You may also have noticed that we have frequently referred to the writing of critics in this blog, including Zoe Anderson, Ismene Brown, Sarah Crompton and Hannah Weibye.  And this is not only a matter of supplying interesting information or a particular point of view, but sometimes these experts are able to express their thoughts in such pithy, vivid or enticing language that it enriches both our own understanding and our writing and is a pleasure to integrate into our posts. Reviews are also crucial sources for our lectures in their connection to live current performances and in bringing to life dancers and performances of the past in a more immediate way than in a traditional narrative history.

The work of a critic is extremely skilled, a fact we perhaps forget, surrounded as we are by such an array of accomplished reviewers.  Candace Feck of Ohio State University expresses the complexity of writing about dance performance succinctly, but leaving the reader in no doubt as to the challenges of this kind of writing:

In lecture halls and dorm rooms, in library cubicles, newspaper offices and behind internet blog sites, laments are raised about the challenges of witnessing a fleeting and non-verbal art form and wresting from it the elements of verbal expression. Once likened to the act of placing a tattoo on a soap bubble, the task of writing about performance requires close attention to the unfolding event, a process of reflective engagement afterward and finally, the daunting business of choosing and organizing words that will convey an accurate and persuasive account of the experience to a reader once-removed. (412)

Luckily, if we want to write about a particular performance on this our Britishballetnowandthen blog, while we still experience a restless fishing for words and a struggle to get a written text to convey what we saw and our assessment of it, we only need to please ourselves and whomever we think might read our posts.  Not so for writers of established newspapers, magazines and websites, who have stringent deadlines to meet and are obliged to abide by editorial constraints, for example a specific word count and brief. Therefore, it is all the more astonishing that critics are able to convey choreography and dancers with such vividness.

Critics often publish books related to dance (more of this below), but some are also celebrated for their writing beyond the realms of ballet and dance.  Recently Luke Jennings of The Observer has been in the media frequently due to this year’s dramatisation of his novel Codename Villanelle by BBC America. Meanwhile, Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic for The Guardian since 1995, published her Unfinished Palazzo last year, portraying the lives of Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim, three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier at different points of the 20thcentury.  The spring of 2021 will see the release of her Going with the Boys, a group biography of six female war correspondents during World War II.  Perhaps it is this involvement in depicting other worlds and connecting with a variety of readerships that lends particular vibrancy and resonance to the writing of Jennings and Mackrell.

Recently Judith Mackrell announced that she will be leaving The Guardian.  Therefore, in recognition of her contribution to dance criticism through her 32 years of being a dance critic first at The Independent, then at The Guardian, we are now going to spend some time focussing on her reviews. Obviously, we can’t in a few paragraphs do justice to her work, so in order to keep it current, we are looking specifically at some of her reviews of the Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake over the last six years, including her write-up of the Company’s new production of Swan Lake, which premiered in May of this year.

Once a production is well established, critics tend to focus on the technical performance and interpretations of the dancers.  Therefore, Mackrell’s 2012 and 2015 reviews of Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production concentrate on the principal roles, in particular Odette/Odile, in both cases danced by a Russian guest – Natalia Osipova in 2012 and Evgenia Obraztsova three years later.  One of the points that Mackrell highlights is the atypical approach to aspects of the dual role from both ballerinas. Our reading of Mackrell’s words is that she has distinct reservations about these particular aspects.  The anger she perceives in Osipova’s Odette is deemed to create an “odd interpretation” at times, although “there are brilliant compensations” (“Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”).  Meanwhile, Obraztsova and Steven McRae’s portrayal of Odette and Siegfried’s love is “a beautifully intimate portrait of a love affair, but it lacks the high stakes of tragedy that normally define this ballet” (“Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”).

So far nothing unusual, you may think.  However, Mackrell’s use of language is so evocative, her manipulation of words so sophisticated that the reviews draw us in.  She builds up a vivid picture of Osipova’s Odette with carefully selected vocabulary: the words “defending”, “warrior”, “rage”, “urgent”, “disrupt” give the impression of an energetic Odette fighting for justice. On the other hand, when executing small steps, her speed produces “a magical, floating quality”. In her account of Obraztsova’s Odette, it’s not only the vocabulary, but the undulating rhythm that creates the image of the ballerina’s articulation of the choreography and McRae’s partnering: “With every delicate inflection of her foot, every ripple of her arm, she shows him how to read her; and with every touch, glance and breath he responds”.

The effect of this wonderfully expressive writing is that despite the author’s reservations, we are intrigued and see that the ballet has perhaps more possibilities for interpretation than we had imagined.  So through her perceptive viewing and eloquent writing that strikingly captures the ballerinas’ unusual renditions, we are suggesting that Swan Lake itself as a choreographic work could be said to evolve.

The review of the Royal Ballet’s new Swan Lake, produced by Liam Scarlett, has a different balance, in that it is much more focussed on the production itself.  Nonetheless, interwoven into the comments on the production are descriptions that give a clear impression of the interaction of the performers being tender and emotionally driven, while Marianela Núñez is singled out for her exquisite musicality (“Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”). Indeed, in all three reviews the way in which commentary on staging and dancers are integrated gives the reader a sense of the experience of watching the performance as a complete phenomenon. This means that whether you’re a ballet novice or a seasoned viewer, you will gain something from reading Mackrell’s reviews, particularly if you also appreciate the finer points of language.

In an age where anyone can write reviews online (and this democratisation is to be welcomed), it is crucial to appreciate the skill of expert ballet critics such as Judith Mackrell and recognise their contribution to our own understanding of ballet and the understanding of future audiences, students, dancers and scholars.

Ballet Critics Then

In order to maintain a sense of parity, we are focussing on Judith Mackrell’s predecessors at The Guardian and some of their Royal Ballet Swan Lake reviews.

In case some of you are unfamiliar with these critics, here is a bit about them.

Before becoming Director of the Royal Ballet School in 1977 James Kennedy (aka James Monahan) was dance critic of The Guardian. He also wrote books on ballet, for example Fonteyn: a study of the ballerina in her settingin 1957 and Nature of Ballet: a critic’s reflectionsin 1976.  Mary Clarke, who was already editor of The Dancing Times, followed him as Guardian critic while maintaining her role at The Dancing Times.  Clarke was also a known for her work with the eminent Clement Crisp on a number of historical and dance appreciation texts, such as Ballet, an Illustrated History (1973), Design for Ballet (1978), The Ballet Goer’s Guide (1981), The History of Dance (1981) and Ballerina: the art of women in classical ballet (1987).

Like Judith Mackrell, both James Kennedy and Mary Clarke focussed on guest artists and international stars in their reviews of Swan Lake as well as on the production.  Kennedy’s review of March 4th 1964, when Robert Helpmann’s production was but a few months old, is squarely focussed on the performance of Rudolf Nureyev, who had caused such a sensation on defecting from the Soviet Union in June 1961, but had been unable to dance the role of Siegfried during the first run of the production on account of injury.  While Kennedy comments on choreographic changes, costuming and his partner Margot Fonteyn, the whole performance is seen through the lens of Nureyev’s performance – his virtuosity and stage presence, his characterisation and partnering, his alterations to the choreographic text and selection of costume. By using phrases such as “not entirely for the better”, “it is a pity”, “certainly spoils the pictorial effect”, it is patently clear that Kennedy regarded some features of the performance with disapprobation.  However, such is the strength of Nureyev’s classical technique, commanding stage presence and uniqueness in characterisation that Kennedy nonetheless finds his performance “outstanding”.  Kennedy sets himself up as a judge of sorts, “pardoning” and “forgiving” aspects of Nureyev’s performance of which he disapproved. Consequently, when reading this review we gain an immensely strong sense of the critic’s opinion, indeed his judgement on what he sees, but not a very clear impression of the performance – either dancers, or production.  This is also the case in his review of Swan Lake with Nadia Nerina as Odette/Odile (“Swan Lake at Covent Garden”).

It is noticeable that of the reviews we researched, James Kennedy’s were the shortest, which may have had some impact on the style and focus of writing.  In contrast, when Dowell’s 1987 production was first staged, Mary Clarke devoted a whole review to the production itself, including the process and philosophy of the producers in their attempt to return to a more authentic version of the choreography than had previously been the case.  Less than two weeks later Clarke wrote another column including comments on audience reaction to the new production and with her opinions of two different casts.  While her writing is similar to Kennedy’s in her use of evaluative vocabulary such as “brilliance” (“Lake Lustre”), “scintillating” and “magnificently” (“Swan Lake”), she seems less dogmatic to us, paradoxically perhaps through making herself more openly visible in her writing by using the first person: the words “I think he’s right” (“Lake Lustre”) and “I marvelled at” (“Swan Lake”), while expressing approval and enthusiasm respectively,  seem to leave room for alternative views.

What is of most interest to us, however, is a common attitude that Kennedy and Clarke seem to share in relation to the performances with the Royal Ballet of international star dancers celebrated for their virtuosity and individuality, their non-conformism even.  Emblazoned across the page in huge letters, “The 6 o’clock star”, Clarke’s title to her review of Sylvie Guillem’s Royal Ballet debut as Odette/Odile in 1989, gives a clear indication of how she perceives the ballerina’s rendition of the choreography.  Nonetheless, with commentary on the dancing of the corps de ballet and Jonathan Cope as Prince Siegfried, the conducting of Mark Ermler, as well as the general atmosphere and audience reaction, we do gain an impression of the event as a whole, unlike from Kennedy’s write-up of Nureyev’s debut in Helpmann’s Swan Lake.  But rather than creating a vivid account of her movement style, Clarke accentuates Guillem’s technical prowess on the one hand and on the other hand pronounces that Guillem “needs to be shaped into that real ballerina mould where beauty of line and deeply expressive feeling take precedence over physical feats of virtuosity”.  And this is reminiscent of Kennedy’s extraordinary opinion that “a little more conformism would improve” Nureyev’s performance of Siegfried. Therefore, both of these critics leave us in no doubt that as remarkable as these two enormous talents are, their performances would improve if they would restrain themselves and comply with specific balletic ideals.

In our opinion this attitude is quite distinct from Judith Mackrell’s approach, where rich and detailed description stimulates our curiosity, and non-conformism can seem intriguing and liberating.  In researching ballet reviews from other eras, we found that they are fascinating to read as much for the opportunity to encounter different perspectives and ways of viewing as for discovering information about past performances.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… in recognition of the upcoming documentary on Rudolf Nureyev and important promotions at the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, we will be considering some male dancers who have made their mark on British ballet style and repertoire.

© Rosie Gerhard

References

Clarke, Mary. “Lake lustre”. The Guardian, 14 Mar. 1987.

—. “The 6 o’clock star”. The Guardian, 17 Apr. 1989.

—. “Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 27 Mar. 1987.

Feck, Candace. “What’s in a Dance? The complexity of information in writings about dance”. Dance on Its own Terms, edited by Melanie Bales and Karen Eliot, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 411-30.

Kennedy, James. “This Month in the Theatre: Nureyev in Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 4 Mar. 1964, p. 9.

—. “Swan Lake at Covent Garden”. The Guardian, 19 Jan. 1965, p. 7.

Mackrell, Judith. “Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”, The Guardian, 11 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/11/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”,The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/mar/17/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review-royal-opera-house. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”, The Guardian, 18 May 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/may/18/swan-lake-review-royal-ballet. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET’S EMERGING DANCER: IN CONVERSATION

On Monday 11th June ENB’s Emerging Dancer Competition took place for the ninth year.  The six finalists are judged on classical pas de deux and contemporary solos.  Rosie watched the competition live at the Coliseum, while Julia and Libby watched the live stream on YouTube.  Then we all shared our thoughts …

Libby

For me two dancers stood out for their technical ability and artistry in the pas de deux: Daniel McCormick performing Le Corsaire (with Francesca Velicu), and Connie Vowles dancing William Tell (with Giorgio Garrett).

It was interesting that of the three pas de deux two were created by Marius Petipa choreographed at the turn of the 19th-20th century: Le Corsaire (1899), and Harlequinade (1900).  The William Tell pas de deux by August Bournonville was originally choreographed not so much earlier than this, in 1873, but required quite a different style to the Petipa work.  Precious Adams and Fernando Carratalà Coloma created playful Harlequins, although unfortunately neither dancer fully embodied the roles – the movement looked a little studied, as if imposed on them, so it didn’t quite correlate with their personal styles.

Rosie

Yes, I really appreciated the fact that we saw not only a variety of styles from the 19th century, but also pieces that are quite unfamiliar – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either the Harlequinade or the William Tell pas de deux.  Thankfully it wasn’t like one of those galas where you’re fed Don Quixote, Black Swan and Corsaire pas de deux and then go home reeling from an overindulgence in fouettés!

For me it was a bit of a different experience, because I watched the performance in the theatre.  The two dancers who stood out for me are dancers that I already enjoy watching.  I always notice Francesca in the corps de ballet, no matter the style – whether it be in Akram Khan’s Giselle or Sleeping Beauty.  Although she has a very particular style of her own, that I personally find very harmonious, she adapts to suit the style of the work she is dancing.  I think this is really interesting, because more and more I am finding this to be a trait of the company as a whole.   As far as Francesca is concerned, it was most evident in her performance of the Chosen One in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring performed by ENB last year.  It’s so impressive that in this way she is representative of the company, even though she only joined in 2016.  In Le Corsaire, as well as being very secure in the more obviously technical aspects, like pirouettes à la seconde, fouettés, she individualised her dancing through her phrasing, varying the speed of her movements, lingering in balances, her musicality and expressive use of head; her port de bras is always beautifully held and co-ordinated with the rest of her movement. Her entrance was accompanied by rapt hush in the audience (at least, where I was sitting).

Julia

What I noticed was the attention to detail in the upper body, particularly from Francesca, Daniel and Fernando.  I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Francesca and Fernando as the Bluebird and Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty last Saturday.

Rosie

I was lucky enough to see Fernando as the Messenger of Death in Song of the Earth in January this year, where I noticed his ease of movement.  His youthfulness also seemed to lend poignancy to the role.  Through the pyrotechnics of Harlequin, I saw this same ease – it’s as if he’s doing nothing! And the characterisation was equally engaging. 

Libby

Yes, I can see that, but I enjoyed Daniel’s partnering in Le Corsaire – it was excellent – but when he performed the solo that Rudolf Nureyev made famous in the West after his defection from the Soviet Union, he really came into his own – the energy and height of his leaps, the security, speed and number of turns.  But neither did he lose character at the expense of spectacle, remaining poised and commanding as Conrad the Pirate at all times.  Connie’s performance in William Tell stood out due to her exquisite footwork.  Whilst the characterisation was a little “added on” the technical aspect had mesmerising moments.  You could easily picture her dancing any of Frederick Ashton ballets. 

Rosie

Yes, I can see what you mean about Connie, and in fact Jann Parry describes her as a natural Bournonville dancer, saying “she has the ballon and the neat footwork for the girl’s role, as well as a deceptively modest charm”. 

Julia

I can imagine her as the Katia or Vera in A Month in the Country, or as Lise in La Fille mal gardée.  It always seems to me that there’s a bond between the choreographic styles of Bournonville and Ashton, despite the distance in time and so in influences; it’s that combination of nuanced and intricate movement simultaneously in the torso and lower legs, as well as a particular lively aura.  Although Giorgio Garrett wasn’t as polished or “natural” in the Bournonville choreography, I felt a lovely rapport between the dancers and an effervescence in his personality, which was built upon in his quirky solo Fraudulent Smile created by Ross Freddie Ray.  It made much of his expressive talents – not only did his facial expressions changed dramatically, but even when he had his back turned to the audience, he seemed to be able communicate with us.

Libby

Francesca’s solo, Toccata, choreographed by Nancy Osbaideston, was another work that really felt like it was choreographed with the dancer in mind.  It suited Francesca, whose neat steps and precise movements punctuated the choreography in a harmonious way.

Rosie

So we’re back to harmony again with Francesca …

Libby

We are, although saying that, it didn’t have the visual impact of A Point of Collapse choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November from Ballet Black and performed by Precious.  Unlike in Harlequinade, here Precious fully engaged with every iota of the choreography, like the movement was right in the marrow of her bones.  It was utterly compelling.

Rosie

Yes, looking back over more than a week, it was the most memorable and striking performance.  Precious completely transformed herself from the coquettish Columbine to a distraught human being, conveyed through the use of her whole body: sweeping mournful arcs of motion were contrasted with nervous hand and head gestures, culminating in jerky, convulsive movements.  Jann Parry also noted this transformation, in fact questioning whether this achievement should have singled her out as the winner of the competition. 

Julia

There was support on social media for Precious Adams from professional dancers, for example, Hannah Bateman from Northern Ballet, and from Madison Keesler, who was with ENB until last season.  I particularly enjoyed James Streeter’s interview available on the live stream on YouTube. As a finalist in the competition in 2011, James commented on how dancers support each other as they go through the rehearsal process and preparation for the final performance. I believe this has been nurtured over Tamara Rojo’s directorship in the last few years and this is something that really excites me about ENB.  The finalists are selected by their colleagues and judged by a panel (this year Julio Bocca, Lauren Cuthbertson, Johan Kobborg, Kerry Nicholls and Tamara Rojo).  However, as well as the Emerging Dancer Award, the other awards – Corps de Ballet Award and People’s Choice Award – give dancers the opportunity to receive recognition and an award from members of the company and from the audience.

Rosie

I was so impressed by the progress made by last year’s winners, Aitor Arrieta and Rina Kanehara.  They both danced the Grand pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty with markedly greater sophistication than their performances in the 2017 competition.  Not only did they complement one another beautifully, but Aitor’s bearing and posture were very regal, and Rina’s port de bras was exquisite.  It seems to me that the dancers really gain from this process and experience.  And this doesn’t only apply to the winners.  Take for example Isabelle Brouwers.  She has been a finalist for the past three years, and like Francesca, she’s very noticeable in a group of dancers, with her striking arabesque, lovely use of the upper back and general radiance.  I’m convinced that she has learnt a lot from this process.

Libby

Next year will be a landmark – the tenth competition!

Rosie

Yes, I am excited! I think we should all go together.  It was a great atmosphere – so positive, with students from the school and members of the company rooting for their role models, their friends and colleagues.

Julia 

Next year we hope to watch the live performance together!

© Julia Delaney, Libby Costello, Rosie Gerhard

References

Parry, Jann “2018 English National Ballet Emerging Dancer Competition – performance and results” http://dancetabs.com/2018/06/2018-english-national-ballet-emerging-dancer-competition-performance-and-results/