War Ballets Now & Then

 War Ballets Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Ballets Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have experienced watching Tamara Rojo in a run of performances in the same ballet and revelled in the immediacy of her renditions, varying as they did from night to night, as if she were reborn into the role each time.  James explained to us that in rehearsals of Akram Khan’s 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.

 

Giselle Now & Then

Giselle Now 

We need to talk about Giselle! This ballet has recently been in the limelight in the UK, primarily because of Akram Khan’s imaginative and compelling 2016 reworking of the much-loved ballet for English National Ballet, quickly followed by the same Company’s restaging of their traditional Mary Skeaping production, first mounted in 1971, with all its beautiful attention to detail and period style. 

But in this post we’re going to focus on dancers rather than on productions.  Famously, Théophile Gautier, the Romantic ballet critic, poet and librettist of Giselle compared the two most celebrated ballerinas of the era, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in contrasting terms: Taglioni as spiritual, “Christian” and aerial, and Elssler as material, “pagan” and “voluptuous” (431, 433). It was thought by the creators of Giselle that the ballerina Carlotta Grisi who originated the role embodied both sets of qualities.  In the spirit and tradition of Gautier, some current critics also highlight contrasting qualities in the ballerinas’ portrayals of the character.  One of the most eloquent critics in this regard is Judith Mackrell, who in 2004 compared Alina Cojocaru with Tamara Rojo, and nine years later Olesya Novikova with Natalia Osipova.  Some of the contrasts she highlights are Cojocaru’s modesty and airiness pitted against Rojo’s “fizziness” in Act I and “radiant stillness” in Act II.  Similarly, Mackrell juxtaposes Novikova’s “fragility” “lightness” and “vulnerabilty” with Ospiova’s “terre à terre style”, “visceral portrait of pain” and “terrifying … supernatural force”.

For their run this season from 19th January to 9th March the Royal Ballet is offering no fewer than eight dancers in the role of Giselle, from established ballerinas Laura Morera and Marianela Núñez to the relative newcomers Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi, both making their debuts as Giselle this season.  Anton Dolin, who frequently danced Albrecht to Alicia Markova’s Giselle, describes the role of Giselle as “the supreme test for the classical ballerina” (A Portrait of Giselle).  So it’s exciting to anticipate which particular qualities Hayward and Naghdi will bring to the part.

Both young ballerinas have danced the Girl in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, as well as his eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, to critical acclaim, so we know that they are capable of conveying youthful love, desire, longing and tragedy through their dancing and of making their own mark on a role through their individual interpretations and the way in which they articulate movement in accordance with the personal movement styles that they have developed.

Yasmine Naghdi, who plays the piano, sings and composes her own music, is perhaps unsurprisingly known for the musicality of her dancing.  Kadeem Hosein  evocatively describes how she “gathered up the harp’s music and sent it spilling off the tips of her fingers” when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy.  With her generous port de bras and luscious lines, she has an amplitude that seems to fill the stage, and the poses that she strikes etch themselves on the memory. 

The fleet-footed Francesca Hayward has also been noted for her musical sensitivity.  Her coach Lesley Collier, herself known for her musicality, declares “you can feel the music travelling through her” (qtd. in Mackrell).  Speed of footwork is combined with a wonderful continuity of movement as she barely reaches a position before moving on to the next, thereby creating a seamless flow.  This quality is enhanced by the pliancy of her upper body and “hands and arms as light and sensitive as butterflies” (Ismene Brown). 

Giselle Then

Giselle was created in 1841 by the two choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam.  It was extremely successful and so was staged in various European cities and in America in the years immediately following the premier.  However, London’s first exposure to Giselle was in the form of a play based on the ballet, a mere two months after the first performance in Paris (Beaumont 126).  Although the ballet Giselle was staged in London as early as 1842, ballet as a national art form didn’t become established until the 20th century in this country, so the first British production wasn’t staged until New Year’s Day 1934.  The performance was by the Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet with Alicia Markova in the title role.  Since then Giselle has been performed by numerous British ballet companies, including Ballet Rambert, Festival (later English National) Ballet, International Ballet, the Markova-Dolin Company, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet.  Therefore, the ballet has become a staple of the repertoire in this country, and numerous ballerinas have moved audiences with their rendition of Giselle.

We have chosen to focus on three ballerinas from the past.  Although Alicia Markova is an obvious choice as the first British Giselle, Nadia Nerina and Eva Evdokimova may not seem such obvious choices.  However, these ballerinas all made their mark as Giselle with British ballet companies, and in their different approaches, temperaments and individual dancing styles reflect the richness of opportunity offered by the role.  These three ballerinas can all be seen dancing at least sections of Giselle online or on DVD.

Now, you may already have encountered the ballerina Alicia Markova on British Ballet Now and Then, as she featured in our very first post on The Nutcracker.  In Britain her name became practically synonymous with Giselle, as she was not only the first British ballerina to dance the role, but she continued to dance in this ballet until she was well into her 40s.  In recognition of the importance of this role for career she named her autobiography Giselle and I.  Anton Dolin describes her as “one of the greatest Giselles of all time” (A Portrait of Giselle).  Writing in 2006, the venerable ballet critic Clement Crisp still seemed to her as the standard set for the role, highlighting the “incomparable lightness and clarity in her dancing”, her “effortless” technical achievements and her dramatic “genius” (78).

Like Markova, Evdokimova was known for the otherworldliness that she conveyed in her dancing – she was one of those dancers who seemed to inhabit the ether by nature.  You may not be as familiar with this ballerina as with Markova or Nerina.  Evdokimova was an important ballerina in the 1970s and 1980s with London Festival Ballet.  Although half American and half Bulgarian, and trained in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg as well as in London, it was her idea to change the name of London Festival Ballet to English National Ballet in order to acknowledge the importance of the Company in bringing ballet to different regions of Britain at affordable prices. 

While Markova and Evdokimova were both known for the ethereal quality of their dancing, their ethereality was in no way identical.  Markova was tiny, quick and apparently weightless, like thistledown.  The lissom, willowy Evdokomova portrayed supernatural qualities perhaps more through her seemingly boneless body that appeared to glide through the air with no effort and without ever stopping.  Ballet writer Richard Austin encapsulates this continuity of movement when he refers to the “magical unfolding” of her arabesque (75), or her arms rippling like water (25). Even in Act 1 she appeared to belong more to another world than to the everyday reality of village life, her performance being imbued with “spiritual beauty” (Austin 50).

The South African Nerina, on the other hand, was known for her ebullient nature, virtuosic technique, speed and attack.  She excelled as Swanilda in Coppélia, and Frederick Ashton chose her to create the role of Lise in his La Fille mal gardée. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Nerina’s spirited and exuberant Giselle in Act I accentuates the character’s physical energy and human corporeality, and her expansive dancing in Act II seems more like an elemental force of nature arising from the wildness of the forest than a translucent wraith drawn from the ether (Giselle). 

Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova, all celebrated and individual exponents of Giselle, explain how their interpretations of Giselle continued to develop over the years, never remaining fixed (A Portrait of Giselle).  More recently, Tamara Rojo has stated that after over one hundred performances, she always finds something new in the role (Giselle: Belle of the Ballet).

So, it will not only be fascinating to see how Francseca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi approach the role Giselle with all its wonderful possibilities for interpretation, but also to see how they develop the role in years to come.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … in recognition of English National Ballet’s revival of  Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, we will be thinking about female choreographers in British ballet companies. 

References

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.

Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.

Brown, Ismene. “This Juliet Needs a New Romeo”. The Spectator,             http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/this-juliet-needs-a-new-romeo/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Crisp, Clement. “Alicia Markova: a sketch for a portrait”. Dance Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.  

Gautier, Théophile. “Fanny Elssler in “La Tempête””.What is Dance? Oxford UP, 1983, pp. 431-34.

Giselle. British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 Nov. 1958. ICA Classics, 2011.         

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Hosein, Kadeem. “Yasmine Naghdi’s Sugar Plum Shines in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker”. Online River, 26 Nov. 2016, http://riveronline.co.uk/review-yasmine-naghdis-sugar-plum-shines-in-the-royal-ballets-nutcracker/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”,The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

—. “The Mikhailovsky Ballet and a Tale of Two Giselles”,The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/25/mikhailovsky-ballet-london-season-giselle. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. Barry and Rockliff, 1960.

 © Rosemarie Gerhard 2018