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 Dustan 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/

The Sleeping Beauty Now and Then

The Sleeping Beauty Now

When the Evil Fairy Carabosse’s strident chords open a performance of The Sleeping Beauty, they augur not only a magnificent evening of dance and music, but, as if her magical powers hold sway over the fate of not only Aurora but of the ballerina herself, Carabosse’s theme foreshadows one of the most fiendishly difficult feats in the repertoire for the classical ballerina: the “Rose Adagio”.  And indeed experience has taught us that the “Rose Adagio” can be nerve wracking not only for the dancer but also for the viewer.

The “Rose Adagio” comes at a point in the ballet when Princess Aurora is of an age to select a life partner, and as such the occasion should be an entirely joyous one.  Of course, as the audience we know that Aurora must suffer before she finds her beloved, but here Aurora is meeting her four suitors for the first time, and she is the person who gets to choose.  Consequently, although this is a momentous and exciting occasion, it is hardly the time for nervous nail biting or anxious butterflies in the stomach.  Both critics and dancers have emphasised the difficulty of the sequence.  Former Royal Ballet ballerina Deborah Bull describes it as “the most terrifying dance in the ballet repertoire” (qtd. in Jennings), while dance critic Judith Mackrell suggests that including so many unsupported balances in a single sequence of dancing “feels like cruelty”.

Structurally it is a major climax, because the audience has had to wait for an entire act for Aurora’s entrance, and then this entrance itself leads immediately into the celebrated attitude balances: firstly on their own, and then at the climax of the “Rose Adagio” itself, the promenades attitude followed by balances.  It is a symbolic pas d’action marking Aurora’s coming of age and new independence.  Tchaikovsky’s music is a glorious treat for the ears and Marius Petipa’s choreography an equally glorious sight.

Anyone who has watched Sleeping Beauty repeatedly will know that not only are different ballerinas more or less successful in making this passage appear joyful and easeful, but that the same ballerina on different nights might appear a lot more or less relaxed and confident in this same passage of the ballet. A cursory search on YouTube will testify to the frequent nervousness of the dancers, shown in their lack of interaction with their partners, their almost grim focus, visible reluctance to release the hand of their partner, or in contrast, their exaggerated smiles.

In Russia there is a tradition of the ballerina simply lifting the hand for the balances rather than taking the arm to fifth position, and indeed in our experience some of the most confident and elegant balances have been performed in this way.  One instance was one Monday evening in 1993 with the Mariinsky ballerina Irina Shapchits, not so well known in this country; but another was with their prima ballerina of that time Altynai Asylmuratova. However, not all Russian ballerinas always choose this version, and probably for some audience members these are simply not as exciting as long held balances with the arm taken to fifth position; some people even prefer the ballerina to hold the balances for as long as possible while ignoring both the music and her partners.

On occasion the anticipatory anxiety seems worth it, that is, when the ballerina shows a beautifully held clear attitude line through the leg and torso, and calmly raises and lowers her arm, while timing her balances with the music and acknowledging each of her four partners.  Lesley Collier in 1977 and Maria Almeida 11 years later are two former Royal Ballet ballerinas who dwell in my memory for achieving this breath-taking feat.  As Judith Mackrell points out, “Every dedicated balletgoer has a story to tell of the great and disastrous Rose Adagios they have seen”.

Just as the “Rose Adagio” is a highlight in the choreography of The Sleeping Beauty, it is also frequently highlighted in reviews of performances, either sympathetically pointing out the ballerina’s tension and the “sigh of relief” when it is over, or revelling in how she conquered the balances, as in Neil Norman’s 2011 review of Marianela Núñez, who delivered “the fiendishly difficult balancing act of the Rose Adagio with bravura style, leaning into her phrase like an Olympic swimmer”.

And it’s not only the technical difficulty of the “Rose Adagio” that the dancer has to deal with: there seems to be an external pressure associated with this dance. Deborah Bull maintained that the balances and promenades were quite achievable in the studio, but in performance “a combination of dazzling lights, jangled nerves, and the absence of the studio’s four comforting walls makes balance an impossibility” (qtd. in Jennings).  Hanna Weibye of The Arts Desk seems to empathise with this when she writes of the dancer waiting for an hour after the start of the performance until her entrance, when she has to “run on stage straight into the gimlet gaze of two thousand people watching for a wobble”.

But where, we wonder, does this extra pressure come from? When the critic Konstantin Skalkovsky of the Saint Petersburg Gazette reviewed the premiere in 1890 he described Carlotta Brianza’s dancing in Act I as “extremely elegant, masterfully and freely performed” (374).  He referred to the “bright red costume which goes beautifully with the Italian ballerina’s black hair and eyes”, but there is nothing in the review that suggests that the choreography for Aurora in Act I is any more difficult than in the following two acts; and while the difficulty of the pirouettes and “steel points” are mentioned, there is no mention of perilous balances.  Similarly, when Serge Diaghilev mounted his production of The Sleeping Princess in London, 1921, the critics concentrated on Léon Bakst’s extravagantly opulent designs, some of them in addition complaining that the production gave Aurora little opportunity to shine (MacDonald 274-76).  In contrast, Cyril Beaumont wrote that Olga Spessivtseva, the first Aurora “had a splendid technique, poise, control which she displayed with art.  Style, line, timing, poise, control – such were her attributes.  Her pirouettes, her batterie, and her développés were models.  Her poise and control when extending her raised leg in a développé were quite remarkable” (The Diaghilev Ballet 203-04). So, still no mention of “Rose Adagio” balances and promenades

The question is then: when exactly did the “Rose Adagio” become so central to the meaning of the work, to the extent that in 2011 and 2012 Luke Jennings and Judith Mackrell respectively wrote a MoveTube just on this brief section of the ballet? We are suggesting that in this country it is inextricably bound up with the history of The Royal Ballet and the ballerina whose name became synonymous with the role of Aurora: Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Margot Fonteyn.

The Sleeping Beauty Then

In the 1930s the notion of British ballet, that is, the possibility of ballet becoming a part of British culture with its own repertoire, style and traditions, was just emerging.  To help her to build a repertoire for her fledgling company, at that time named the Vic-Wells Ballet, Ninette de Valois employed Nicholas Sergueyev who had escaped the Soviet Union bringing with him notation scores of ballets from the Russian Imperial (now Mariinsky) Ballet that later came to be regarded as the “classics”, among them The Sleeping Beauty.  The first production was staged in 1939 with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora.  During the course of World War II ballet as an art form blossomed in Britain as companies toured the country, bringing much-needed entertainment to new audiences, including the armed forces.  The prestige of de Valois’ company, now named the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, flourished, as the dancers’ stalwart persistence despite air raids, rationing and the daily toil of constant touring and performing was recognised as integral to the War effort.

During the War the Royal Opera House had functioned as a dance hall.  In 1946 it reopened as a performance venue for opera and ballet with a new lavish production of the balletThe Sleeping Beauty danced by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now the resident company of Covent Garden, again with Margot Fonteyn in the eponymous role.

Since 1939 Fonteyn had gained much performing experience, but neither she nor the other dancers were accustomed to dancing in such an enormous venue.  Frederick Ashton taught Fonteyn to hold positions so that they would register clearly throughout the house (Kavanagh 309).  It seems highly unlikely that those positions would not have included the “Rose Adagio” balances in attitude.  There are several recordings of Fonteyn dancing this scene, and on most occasions she lifts her arm swiftly, in response to Tchaikovsky’s score, holds it for a moment and then lowers it once the next prince has stepped forward to offer her his hand.  Her smile is radiant, and she gives no sense of being nervous.  The speed and ease of the port de bras together with her strong wrist control mean there is no distraction from the balances.  It could also be that the promenades are taken at a slightly more leisurely pace than is currently customary, because she doesn’t seem to spend so much time assuring herself of her balance before releasing her partner’s hand.

The gala opening night of The Sleeping Beautyat the Opera House has gone down in the annals of British ballet history as a triumph. With the Royal Family in attendance as well as the Prime Minster and his cabinet, and dignitaries from the arts world, the tale of Aurora, symbol of the dawn, seems to have been perceived as a metaphor not only for the coming of age of British ballet and the Sadler’s Wells company, but a reawakening of British culture (albeit based on a Russian ballet) in an appropriately grand setting, and a return of daylight for the whole country after the dark night of the long years of war.

Beaumont states that the “Rose Adagio” “was well danced by Miss Fonteyn” (Dancers under my Lens 51).  Given the reputation that Fonteyn developed, this almost seems like damning with faint raise, so to speak, but here at least is a specific reference to what has become such an iconic passage of dance.  Fonteyn’s reputation was further boosted in 1949, when the company visited New York for the first time, again opening with The Sleeping Beauty, again with Fonteyn, and by all accounts scoring an even greater triumph.  And Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio” was no small part of this triumph, being elevated to the status of legend.  As if foretelling this victory, Richard Buckle had asserted about Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio”: “She supports the honour and glory of our nation and empire on the point of one beautiful foot!” (qtd. in Homans 428).

Robert Helpmann, Fonteyn’s long-time partner recalls the audience reaction on the opening night in New York to an unplanned moment: “When she came to the third prince, she’d caught such a miraculous balance that she didn’t even take his hand – she just smiled at him.  Well I thought the audience would explode” (Dance on 4).

In our opinion historian Jennifer Homans is the writer who most effectively expresses the significance of these performances for the reputation of the company that was to receive a Royal charter just seven years later: “This kind of history does not easily fade from collective memory.  In postwar Britain, ballet was recognised as a national art, a jewel in the (shrinking) British crown, and de Valois, Ashton and Fonteyn were its justly celebrated leaders” (428).  It seems to us that in its connection with the establishment of ballet as an art form and the early glory days of the Royal Ballet, the “Rose Adagio” has become a hurdle, even a millstone, for ballerinas who perhaps feel they need to live up to the image of Fonteyn, and in this way put additional pressure on themselves when performing what is already a huge technical challenge.

What are your thoughts on the “Rose Adagio”? Is Margot Fonteyn the ballerina who comes to mind? How do you prefer the balances to be performed? How important are musicality and characterisation to you? Do you have any “Rose Adagio” treasured memories? Join the conversation on Twitter #RoseAdagio.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic of The Guardian since 1995 and of The Independent for nine years prior to that, is leaving to pursue other projects. In recognition of her exceptional contribution to ballet criticism in this country, we will be thinking about ballet criticism now and then.

 

References

Beaumont, Cyril W. Dancers Under My Lens. C. W. Beaumont, 1949.

—. The Diaghilev Balletin London. New ed., Putnam, 1945.

Dance on 4: Margot Fonteyn. Directed by Patricia Foy, 1989.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Oxford, UP, 1989.

Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels: a history of ballet. Granta, 2010.

Kavanagh, Julie. Secret Muses: the life of Frederick Ashton. Faber and Faber, 1996.

MacDonald, Nesta. Diaghilev Observed. Dance Books, 1975.

Mackrell, Judith. “MoveTube: the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 25 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/25/movetube-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Jennings, Luke. “MoveTube: Alina Cojocaru dances the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/24/alina-cojocaru-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Norman, Neil. “Ballet Review – The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, Sunday Express, 27 Oct. 2011, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/280024/Ballet-review-The-Sleeping-Beauty-The-Royal-Ballet. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Weibye, Hanna. “The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, The  Arts Desk, 23 Feb. 2014, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/sleeping-beauty-royal-ballet-1. Accessed 5 June 2018.

 

ENB Voices of America: in conversation with British Ballet Now and Then

Last weekend Julia, Libby and Rosie went to the closing night of Voices of America at Sadler’s Wells. After discussion and reading reviews of the first night performance, here are our thoughts.

There was a lot of publicity around Forsythe’s new work Playlist (Track 1,2), and the reviews emphasised the strength and skills of the company in their performance of it. What are your thoughts on this?

Over the past few years, it’s become clear to us that the company has been growing in strength and becoming very versatile in adapting to different styles. Rosie has written about this in our recent post The Rise & Rise of ENB: Style Matched by Substance. Therefore, it came as no surprise to us that the dancers were able to show off a lot of tricks and that they also worked cohesively as a group to give the performance its exuberant ambiance.

Libby thought that the dancers’ ability to work as group was particularly evident in the first work Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton, where there was a collective energy between the dancers which united them. The unison sections evidenced precise movement and impressive timing that didn’t suffer from “over rehearsal” but rather remained fresh and vibrant.

 

Emma Byrne from the Evening Standard refers to Fantastic Beings as a “fantasy fairytale”. Did it strike you like that?

Yes, absolutely! It reminded Julia of watching Disney films as a child with all the stars in the backdrop, the glittery and magical feel in the music, and the black creatures creeping across the stage. For Rosie, in contrast to its first showing as the closing work of She Said in 2016, this worked much better as an opening piece, due to its fragmented, less climatic structure.

In fact, Jann Parry from DanceTabs comments on this saying “there’s no apparent structure, other than one quirky number following another for a different combination of dancers. The music keeps promising dramatic climaxes that come to nothing”.

For us this means that as a whole evening there’s a sense of moving up to a satisfying climax of the final Forsythe piece Playlist (Track 1,2).

So are you saying that these climaxes are partially dependent on the music choices?

We are sure they are. The audience reaction to Playlist (Track 1,2) was particularly interesting. There was already a sense of anticipation because Forsythe had not choreographed for a British company for more than 20 years, and after the premiere an online video of Forsythe himself freestyling with the dancers increased the anticipatory excitement making it palpable in the theatre.

Playlist is beautifully crafted and easily legible in terms of spatial patterning, rhythm, and vocabulary, despite some examples of typical Forsythe deconstruction of classical lines and codified steps. This is Forsythe at his most buoyant. Rosie went to see it twice and found it as delightful the second time around as the first time, but not as intellectually engaging. On both occasions, however, the audience as whole were clearly enthralled from start to finish.

 

Do you think then that the music is as important for the audience as the choreography?

Libby was the first to ask to what extent the audience reaction was dependent on the house and club music in Playlist.Would the work have had the same impact if danced to 19thcentury ballet music, like Le Corsaire for example, we wondered. Or if “Black Swan pas de deux” were danced to Playlist? It made us think of the YouTube clip of the Royal Ballet dancing excerpts of their repertoire to Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out.

As Julia pointed out, basically Forsythe’s vocabulary in Playlist (much more obviously than in Approximate Sonata 2016) is drawn from la danse d’écoleépaulement, tendus, brisés, and pirouettes are central to both Playlist and daily class. But the combination of the music and the way in which Forsythe inflects the movement gives a sexier quality to the classroom steps, like the sensuous skimming sideways courus.

For Rosie, the music scores were striking for the whole evening. The subject matter of predatory female insects in Jerome Robbins’ 1951 The Cage seemed oddly juxtaposed to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, which reminded her too much of Apollo, whereas Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring) with its ritualistic pounding force would have offered a more fittingly violent soundscape to the choreography, making the kind of fusion that Forsythe created in Playlist.

On the other hand, for Approximate Sonata 2016 Forsythe eschews this type of fusion, highlighting the independent rhythms of the movement.  For us, the complexity of movement, particularly in the duets, is counterbalanced by the bright costumes on the one hand and the understated music on the other. Here the technical challenges are presented in a much subtler and more fascinating way than in Playlist.

 

Three of the works are new to ENB, Barton’s Fantastic Beings is the only one that wasn’t – are there any of these works that you would like to see again? 

Yes, we really appreciated seeing the Forsythe works because there’s restricted opportunity to see his works in this country currently. How about an all-Forsythe evening? ENB already perform In the Middle Somewhat Elevated and it would be a delight to see perhaps the ebullient  The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (1996) or the witty pas de deux from Herman Schmerman (1992).

© Julia Delaney, Libby Costello, Rosie Gerhard

 

References

Byrne, Emma. “ENB – Voices of America review: Fast and furious movement from English National Ballet”. London Evening Standard, 16 Apr. 2018, http://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/enb-voices-of-america-review-fast-and-furious-movement-from-english-national-ballet-a3814641.html. Accessed 27 Apr. 2018.

Parry, Jann. “English National Ballet – Voices of America bill – works by Forsythe, Robbins & Barton – London”. DanceTabs, 16 Apr. 2018, http://dancetabs.com/2018/04/english-national-ballet-voices-of-america-bill-works-by-forsythe-robbins-barton-london/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2018.

“The Royal Ballet. Not What You Think” YouTube, uploaded 16 Feb. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-46BZD4zNlk. Accessed 27 Apr. 2018.

 

 

Female Choreographers Now & Then

Female Choreographers Now

At British Ballet Now and Then we have been following the debate on female choreographers.  In 2009 The Guardian critic and historian Judith Mackrell asked “Where are all the great female choreographers?”, and considered reasons why we see so few dance works choreographed by women, particularly on major stages by the world’s most prestigious companies.  Since then the question seems to have become simply “Where are all the female choreographers?”. Luke Jennings, author and dance critic of The Observer, has published thoughts on this topic on several occasions (“Female Choreographers”), highlighting work by Vanessa Fenton and Cathy Marston that he had admired in the smaller venues of the Royal Opera House that had not led to opportunities to create for the main stage (“Sexism in Dance”), and culminating in his response to Akram Khan’s position on redressing the gender balance in choreography (“You’re Wrong, Akram. We Do Need More Female Choreographers”).  Female ballet choreographers, including Cathy Marston (qtd. in Jennings), and Crystal Pite (qtd. in Mackrell), whose work we discuss below, have joined in the debate.

The current Artistic Directors of the UK’s two most prestigious companies have been tackling this conundrum.  As soon as Kevin O’Hare was in post as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet (RB) in 2012, he commissioned the much-sought-after Canadian Crystal Pite to choreograph a new work for his company.  By the time the work, Flight Pattern, premiered in March 2017, the company had not performed a work from a female dance maker for 18 years.  Under Tamara Rojo English National Ballet had already the previous year taken more radical action by staging a triple bill of new works created by female choreographers entitled She Said, thereby highlighting the voice of women in the creative process.  Mackrell referred to the programme as a “campaigning first for an industry in which most of the repertory is created by men”.  And indeed David Bintley, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, a company that already has a “strong record” of performing works by female choreographers (Anderson “Birmingham Royal Ballet”), has followed suit with plans for a triple bill of choreographies by Ruth Brill, Jessica Lang and Didy Veldman next season.

So, in case you haven’t had a chance to see Flight Pattern or She Said, here is a short outline of the works to at least give you some impression of their focus and diversity.

Characteristic of Pite’s oeuvre is her concern with the human condition, and the world as it is with all its conflict and trauma.  Referring to Flight Pattern she says: “This creation is my way of coping with the world at the moment” (qtd. in Spencer).  On this occasion, the plight of refugees is her theme.  But the work also demonstrates her skill in moving large numbers of dancers in imaginative and compelling patterns, groupings and configurations around the stage, ideal for a large-scale company such as the RB.

At the heart of She Said were two iconic women (one real, one mythological), and the act of dancing itself.  Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa portrayed the life of Frida Kahlo in a swathe of vibrant colours and imaginative stage sets evoking the artist’s work.  Kahlo’s life of love and suffering was portrayed in quite a literal way in terms of movement content, unlike Yabin Wang’s M-Dao, a sparse, pared down but searing account of the Medea myth, in which Medea’s dead children were represented by fallen drapes that she gathered in her arms, and her vulnerability portrayed by one bare foot. In stark and satisfying contrast, Aszure Barton’s virtuosic Fantastic Beings “inflects the classical language with a wonderful strangeness – brooding missed beats, skittering deviations, and an exhilaratingly bold eye for pattern” (Mackrell), and the choreography skilfully captures the unique movement style of each dancer (Kechacha).

The theme of strong women is an important focus for British choreographer Cathy Marston (qtd. in Winter), whose 2016 Jane Eyre is currently being performed by Northern Ballet (NB).  Marston has been choreographing professionally for almost two decades in this country and internationally, and Jane Eyre is her third work for NB, the first being Dividing Silence, as early as 2004.  Three years prior to this a pas de deux by the name of Three Words Unspoken was premiered in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House with Brian Maloney and a young Tamara Rojo whose intense and dramatic performance enriched the compelling choreography.  Nonetheless, even though Marston held the position of Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House from 2002 to 2006, she was not given the chance to create work for the main stage.

Happily, over the coming months two of Marston’s works will be touring in various locations throughout the UK, giving thousands of people the opportunity to see her work.  In addition to NB’s tour of Jane Eyre, Ballet Black is performing a brand new work that she has created for the company entitled The Suit.  This is based on a fable by South African author Can Themba, and has already received positive reviews highlighting her skill and inventiveness in conveying various relationships, emotions and dramatic situations (Anderson, Roy, Wonderful News).

Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet (SB) since 2012, has been proactive in expanding his company’s repertoire with works by female choreographers, including Kristen McNally from RB and former resident choreographer for the Atlanta Ballet, Helen Pickett.  Although he may not have commissioned choreography from Crystal Pite, in 2016, while the Royal Ballet were waiting for work to begin on Flight Patterns, SB in fact performed the European premiere of Pite’s 2009 Emergence, originally created for National Ballet of Canada (Crompton).  Four years previous to this SB had premiered A Streetcar Named Desire, created for them by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, later to choreograph Broken Wings for ENB.  This work has been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, and London.

It would seem then that it is possible to see a variety of work created by female choreographers here in the UK, but it takes time, and either patience, or the willingness and means to travel.  Thanks to forward-looking directors, next season we have more to look forward to: as well as BRB’s triple bill of new choreographies by women, ENB are staging She Persists, a triple bill of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, Broken Wings and a new work by first artist Stina Quagebeur.

Female Choreographers Then

While we have been appreciating the opportunities we now have to experience a range of works by female choreographers (limited though it still is), as we ponder on two female choreographers from the past, we are focussing on the crucial contributions they made to shaping British ballet style, contributions that are perhaps not generally fully recognised or acknowledged.  One of them, Ninette de Valois, we tend to associate more with her crucial role in establishing the Royal Ballet; the name of the other, Andrée Howard, may even be completely unfamiliar to you.

Despite de Valois’ inestimable role in the establishment of British ballet and the fact that she was quite a prolific choreographer, few of her works are still performed.  Amongst her most celebrated ballets are The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937), available on DVD in a 1982 performance by Sadler’s Wells (now Birmingham) Royal Ballet, and her 1931 Job. With their moral themes of faith against all the odds, human frailty, and the battle of good against evil, these works are rather sombre in tone.  However, amongst her hundred or so works were a 1950 single act version of Don Quixote to a score by the Spanish Catalan Roberto Gerhard featuring Robert Helpmann as the Don and Margot Fonteyn as Dulcinea, as well as the comic 1940 Prospect Before Us about two rival 18th century theatre managers.

If you watch the scene with the Dancing Master from The Rake’s Progress, with its swift and intricate footwork complemented by quick changes in direction and bends and twists of the torso, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a ballet by Frederick Ashton, the Founder Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, who is generally thought of as the architect of the English style.  Critic Alastair Macaulay has pointed out the similarity in the styles of de Valois and Ashton in this scene (205), while Judith Mackrell has presented an intriguing and perspicacious argument that particular aspects of de Valois’ choreographic style were more inherently English in nature than were Ashton’s: “… De Valois’ choreography was in certain respects even more British in temper than Ashton’s – uncluttered, clear-eyed, and almost literary in its detailed realisation of character and plot” (“Vanishing Pointe?”).  So, even though most of her works are no longer performed, it seems that de Valois made a significant contribution to the development of a recognisably English style in her capacity as a choreographer as well as in her role of founder-director of Britain’s national ballet company.

And so to Andrée Howard.  Even though you are probably unacquainted with Howard’s choreography, she was in fact a founding member of The Ballet Club (later renamed Ballet Rambert, the company that eventually became Rambert Dance Company) and started choreographing in the 1930s.  In 2005 the RB revived her best known work, La Fête étrange (1940), and the following year Rambert Dance Company revisited her Lady into Fox, the work that initially made her name in 1939.  Other than these two ballets all of Howard’s works have been lost.  Nonetheless, she is a truly fascinating figure in British ballet; in fact historian and archivist Jane Pritchard describes her as a “key choreographer from the founding years of 20th century British ballet”.

Both La Fête étrange and Lady into Fox are characteristic of Howard’s oeuvre in that they deal with dark subject matter based on literary themes.  La Fête étrange tells the story of a young man who chances upon an engagement party and precipitates the break-up of the betrothal. More startling is the subject matter of Lady into Fox, as the title summarises exactly the narrative of the work: a young woman metamorphoses into a vixen.  Howard’s choice of daring subject matter is perhaps at its most pronounced in her 1947 adaptation of David Garnett’s novel The Sailor’s Return concerning a mixed race couple trying to settle in Victorian England.  Important for the current debate on female dance makers is Professor Susan Jones’ assessment of Howard’s oeuvre as “evoking in dance a specifically female experience” (261): “In several ballets Howard returned to the theme of the abandoned woman, isolated by social and patriarchal forces beyond her control, where the dissemination of narrative through choreographed movement principally charts the inner conflict of the female protagonist” (261-62).

In the late 1940s to early 50s Howard staged works for both Sadler’s Wells Opera/Theatre Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now BRB and RB).  It is very interesting to us that a young Kenneth MacMillan was performing with these companies at that time and even danced in her ballets Assembly Ball (1946) and La Fête étrange (Parry 64, 71). This means that he had plenty of exposure to her work.  With her penchant for disturbing, or at least unsettling, subject matter, it seems inconceivable that Howard would not have made a lasting impact on this giant of British ballet, celebrated for bringing realism to the art form. (You can read about MacMillan’s choral works in our January 2018 post.)

Therefore, in our opinion, it not only important to give female choreographers opportunities to create ballets, but also to ensure that their most effective works are preserved and that their influence as choreographers appropriately acknowledged.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … Next month, just one year after its creation, Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings will be the first of the three works from ENB’s She Said to be revived (with some reworking).  It is being performed as part of the Voices of America bill, which will be reviewed by our editor, Libby Costello.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

References

Anderson, Zoë. “Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, London, Review”. The Independent, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/birmingham-royal-ballet-a8040666.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.

—. “Ballet Black, Barbican Theatre, London, Review”. The Independent, 20 Mar. 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/ballet-black-review-barbican-a8264861.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.

Crompton, Sarah. “Scottish Ballet: Crystal Pite; Angelin Preljoçaj review – one great, one good”, The Guardian, 21 Aug. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/aug/21/scottish-ballet-crystal-pite-emergence-angelin-preljocaj-mc-14-22-edinburgh-festival-review. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.

Jennings, Luke. “Female Choreographers: further thoughts”, Luke Jennings, 2 Mar. 2015, https://thirdcast.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/female-choreographers-further-thoughts/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.

—. “Sexism in Dance: where are all the female choreographers?”, The Guardian, 28 Apr. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/apr/28/women-choreographers-glass-ceiling. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.

—. “You’re Wrong, Akram. We Do Need More Female Choreographers”, The Guardian, 18 Jan. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jan/18/akram-khan-more-female-choreographers-for-the-sake-of-it-luke-jennings-reply. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.

Jones, Susan. Literature, Modernism and Dance. Oxford UP, 2013.

Kechacha, Rym. “She Said: the enduring power of the female voice in dance at ENB”. Bachtrack, 14 Apr. 2016, https://bachtrack.com/review-she-said-lopez-ochoa-wang-barton-english-national-ballet-sadlers-wells-april-2016. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.

Macaulay, Alastair. “Ashton and De Valois”. Ninette de Valois, Adventurous Traditionalist, edited by Richard Allen Cave and Libby worth, Dance Books, 2012, pp. 199-208.

Mackrell, Judith. “Crystal Pite: ‘In ballet, girls are less likely to be prized for being mavericks’”. The Guardian, 2 May 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/12/crystal-pite-girls-ballet-choreographer-prized-mavericks. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

—. “English National Ballet: She Said review”. The Guardian, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/14/english-national-ballet-she-said-review-sadlers-wells-london. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

—. “Vanishing Pointe: where are all the great female choreographers?”. The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/oct/27/where-are-the-female-choreographers. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

—. “Where would we have been without her?”. The Independent, 6 June 1993, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dance-where-would-we-have-been-without-her-dame-ninette-de-valois-celebrated-her-95th-birthday-1490132.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2018.

Masterpieces of British Ballet: Checkmate, The Rake’s Progress. Choreographed by Ninette de Valois , performance by Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. 1982, VAI, 2006.

Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Pritchard, Jane.  “Women Choreographers and English National Ballet”. ENB, 8 Mar. 2018, http://www.ballet.org.uk/blog-detail/women-choreographers-english-national-ballet/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Ballet Black review – Shakespeare in tutus for enchanting double bill”. The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/mar/18/ballet-black-review-shakespeare-in-tutus-for-enchanting-double-bill. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.

Spencer, Mel. “Crystal Pite: Flight Pattern is my way of coping with the world at the moment”. Royal Opera House, 9 Mar. 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/news/crystal-pite-flight-pattern-is-my-way-of-coping-with-the-world-at-the-moment. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.

Winter, Anna. “Cathy Marston: ‘Many of my works are led by strong women’”. Exeunt, 28 June 2016, http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/cathy-marston-many-works-led-strong-women/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.

Wonderful News. “Ballet Black’s The Suit & A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an emotional and joyous journey”. The Wonderful World of Dance, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.thewonderfulworldofdance.com/ballet-blacks-suit-dream-within-midsummer-nights-dream-emotional-joyous-journey. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.