How does ballet function in lockdown? Julia and Rosie have been closely following the activities of British ballet companies during the COVID-19 lockdown. Here are our thoughts …
When people started to absent themselves from public places, and events started to be cancelled we became quite nervous, as we had various performances planned, including the Heritage programme in the Linbury Theatre (a programme of works by Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan), Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha created for Northern Ballet, and Akram Khan’s Creature choreographed for English National Ballet. We cheered when Geisha received its world premiere in Leeds, but once lockdown was announced, it was clear that the London performances would be cancelled. And even more devastating was the cancellation of Creature – Khan’s third collaboration with English National Ballet, featuring the extraordinary Jeffrey Cirio, who has excelled in roles as diverse as Ali in Le Corsaire, Des Grieux in Manon and Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
However, we were amazed at how quickly dancers and companies, in the face of a lockdown, started to organise a whole host of online activities, both for themselves and for their audiences.
The first event we recall was actually just prior to lockdown when Tamara Rojo both taught and did class herself with a small number of English National Ballet dancers at City Island, the Company’s new home. The class was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, and it was wonderful to see the comments – people were clearly so appreciative, not only of Tamara’s teaching and the skill and dedications of the dancers, but also of the music, as it was the amazing Nicki Williamson playing. After two classes, Tamara had to move what became daily streamed classes to her kitchen.
Although it’s a professional class, it’s still manageable for people who regularly take ballet class at an intermediate level, and Tamara explains really clearly, which makes it easy to modify exercises if necessary. Because she teaches from her kitchen, it has a very personal feel. This also came across in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s class, which launched their Home from Home series: you can see the dancers in different parts of their houses – Carlos Acosta at the banister, for example. It was a beautiful sunny day, so it was delightful to see Mathias Dingman doing the centre work in his garden with one of his small sons “joining in”. In fact, seeing dancers “make do” in their living rooms and dining rooms, holding on to various bits of furniture as makeshift barres and adapting to spaces quite different from a dance studio has become an inspiring symbol of these times. Beth Meadway of Ballet Cymru even demonstrated and danced a lovely “grand allegro” in a tiny space between bed and wardrobe.
But it’s not only ballet classes for professionals and experienced amateurs that are offered. English National Ballet was a pioneer of Dance for Parkinson’s, and other companies have followed suit, as well as developing other classes to support people with various health issues. And these members of the population have not been forgotten. English National Ballet Artist Kate Hartley-Stevens is teaching Dance for Parkinson’s classes, while Katie Mason delivers sessions for ballet lovers with restricted mobility. Meanwhile, Scottish Ballet live stream Health classes every week day, including Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland, Dance for Multiple Sclerosis, classes for people with dementia, and more generally for people over the age of sixty.
As we have been researching for this post and keeping our eyes open for new initiatives, it seems that each day brings something new, from English National Ballet’s array of ballet classes at various levels delivered by members of the Company, to Scottish Ballet’s Family Barre for parents and children led by Principal dancer Bethany-Kingsley-Garner, to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recently announced Baby Ballet uploaded on YouTube in bite-size chunks, including “Stretch those Feet”, “Butterflies” and “Fireworks”. As the country’s flagship opera house, the Royal Opera House have announced a more ambitious project which will run over the next twelve weeks entitled Create and Learn. Children are introduced to ballet and opera, if they are not already familiar with the art forms, and given the opportunity to write, make videos, engage in art, and make dances. The activities are very clearly structured with guidance regarding age suitability and time requirements. Learning outcomes are even provided.
Even smaller adult ballet enterprises, such as Everybody Ballet (led by Bennet Gartside of the Royal Ballet) and The Ballet Retreat, have now developed digital platforms. The Ballet Retreat, as the name suggests, is a little different from attending a regular ballet class. It was co-founded by Hannah Bateman of Northern Ballet and David Paul Kierce, formerly of the same company, and they run adult ballet intensives (from 1 to 3 days), where people are given the opportunity to learn extracts from the traditional ballet repertoire. Although they still have courses planned for late spring and summer in London and Leeds, currently they are offering a range of ballet classes run by members of Northern Ballet, which has included a Disney ballet barre by Gavin McCaig.
So far our focus has been very strongly on classes, with dancers being wonderfully creative in both doing class themselves and in teaching class, thereby developing additional skills. As lecturers ourselves, we know that teaching requires a range of intellectual, interpersonal and communication skills, and an extra layer of complexity is demanded for online delivery, we feel. However, performances of various types are also being offered online, from works previously released on commercial DVD, such as the Royal Ballet’s The Metamorphosis and The Winter’s Tale, and Northern Ballet’s 1984, to performances created in people’s homes for the specific purpose of bringing us cheer.
Northern Ballet are well known for their children’s ballets, such as Puss in Boots and The Ugly Duckling. These ballets are adapted for television in collaboration with CBeebies. This year it was heart breaking that they had to cancel the tour of their latest children’s production Little Red Riding Hood, but the show has been made available on BBC iPlayer with the usual supplementary activities on CBeebies, such as jigsaw puzzles at various levels and movement to try at home.
Without a doubt the most entertaining of the performances have been the films made by Sean Bates and Mlindi Kulashe of Northern Ballet in their flat and the adjacent car park. They made the news with their renditions of “The Greatest Show” and “Tomorrow”, evidently breaking some furnishings in the procedure.
At the other end of the scale, one of the most stirring performances was the except from Raymonda played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Music Director Gavin Sutherland. The orchestra members were all playing from their homes, and the film was beautifully edited to highlight different sections of the orchestra, enhancing the gorgeous melodies and sumptuous textures of Alexander Glazunov’s score. But what made this performance particularly rousing was its dedication to NHS Staff and its title “Play for our Carers”. While of the surface, this might seem quite random, let’s remember that Tamara Rojo’s new adaptation of Raymonda opening in the autumn is inspired by Florence Nightingale. Not someone to do things by halves, Tamara has been researching the life of Florence Nightingale for four years in preparation for this production, so the dedication was more than fitting.
As we were writing this post, English National Ballet announced the most exciting initiative yet – their Wednesday Watch Parties. Each Wednesday a full recording of a Company performance will be premiered online; no complete recordings of these works have ever been made available before. For the first two Wednesdays two jewels of their recent repertoire are being released on Facebook and YouTube for 48 hours: Akram Khan’s Dust (2014) and Anna Lopez-Ochoa’s Broken Wings (2016). And there will be more jewels to come no doubt …
At this time of crisis, British ballet companies are working assiduously to keep themselves fit and ready to return to work, but they are also demonstrating their creativity in ways that help to bolster the nation in body, mind and spirit. We hope that their generosity of spirit and invaluable contribution to people’s health and well-being at this time will be recognised and rewarded in both the short and the long term.
In my tiny collection of CDs is an album entitled A Lasting Inspiration, a collection of Jacqueline du Pré recordings. It was probably a gift for my Father, a great admirer of the cellist’s. In the 1960s she became a household name, particularly in a family where every member played a musical instrument, we bought the The Great Musicians Weekly and were very happy to receive classical music LPs at Christmas and for birthdays. Listening to records was a regular family activity in the evenings and at weekends, as was watching the classical music quiz show Face the Music.
As well as CDs, I also own a few black vinyl records. Their now slightly tatty covers, the feel of the vinyl, the dust they attract and scratches they are prone to bring back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, the “golden age of record players” (“The History of the Record Player”). They also remind us of their power as a measure of the success of a musician, both within their lifetime and beyond.
In the opening scene of Cathy Marton’s The Cellist, based on the life of du Pré (frequently referred to as Jackie), dancers gradually bring black vinyl records on to the stage, roll them like wheels across the stage, hold them to their ears and swoop them through the air in circular pathways. The motion of the LPs draws us back into their era and their world of classical music.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” (Lewis 147)
As is the case in so many ballets, love features as a major theme in The Cellist. In fact, Marston herself describes her ballet as a “story of love and loss” (qtd. in Alberge). Although romantic love is the central concern of so many works, we are accustomed to the portrayal of other types of love in ballet: parental love (Giselle), filial affection (La Fille mal gardée), the love between siblings (A Winter’s Dream), the loyalty of friendship (Le Corsaire), the bond between a teenager and her nurse (Romeo and Juliet), the mature love between husband and wife (Onegin). In The Cellist too parental love is notable, as well as the intense passion that is ignited between Jackie and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. A more unusual type of love also emerges through the intermittent return to the stage of the records, tenderly handled by her fans. And this is inextricably bound to the great love at the heart of Marston’s ballet: du Pré’s lifelong love of music, and in concrete terms, her cello: not for nothing does Jenny Gilbert title her review “A grand love affair with a cello”.
Du Pré was celebrated for the passion of her playing. The 1967 video recording of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, (“Jacqueline du Pre & Daniel Barenboim Elgar Cello Concerto”), the musical composition most closely associated with her, shows her wrapping herself around her cello, gazing lovingly at its neck, and characteristically swaying from side to side, tossing her long golden hair back from time to time. The concerto ends with a triumphant flourish, immediately followed by a rhapsodic smile directed straight at her conductor Barenboim, conveying a palpable feeling of elation from the music they have just created together.
Adrian Curtin from Exeter University argues that du Pré’s “physical abandon” meant that “Her appeal derived not only from the sound of her playing; the sight of her playing was also an important element” (144). Given the significance of her physical style for audiences and the visibility of her deep and intense love for music, what better way to express this love in choreography than to cast a dancer as the Cello.
This decision was without a doubt a daring move on Marston’s part, although it is also a natural development in her choreographic style: dancers represent objects in Jane Eyre (2016), The Suit (2018) and Victoria (2019). Du Pré’s 1673 Stradivarius, however, is presented as an altogether more sentient being, and is of course, along with Jackie, the main protagonist. Not only did Marston want to explore the relationship between a human being and an object, but she wanted to investigate how the spirit of music represented by the Cello would feel looking back on its relationship with the musician (qtd. in Nepilova).
Given the sensuous nature of her choreography (think of the duets in Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria), Marston is the ideal choreographer to portray the vibrantly physical performer and her instrument. As Jackie and her Cello dance together they revolve around the stage, swirling, swooping, tumbling as one, only occasionally pausing for the Cello to admire the Cellist’s charismatic playing. Skimming across the stage together they bring to mind the notion of du Pré’s “close identification with the cello, as though performer and instrument were one” (Curtin 148). Once Barenboim is in the picture, Marston creates an exquisite metaphor for the bond between the three of them, as Jackie and her Cello rock forwards and backwards in a series of luscious, rapturous arabesques penchés and developpés devant, supported by Barenboim in the middle.
The magnificent climax to the ballet is in the form of the Elgar concert conducted by Barenboim, Jackie’s soon-to-be husband.
It is clear from the ebullience of Jackie’s behaviour that she has no idea how vulnerable her all-consuming love for her Cello has made her.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” (Didion 192)
Jackie stands with her Cello in front of an audience, poised and ready to perform. But no music is forthcoming. She is paralysed by the uncontrollable trembling of her right hand caused by the Multiple Sclerosis from which she is now suffering. The audience departs at the bidding of Barenboim.
Standing alone in front of her expectant audience, sitting alone desperate to come to terms with the disease, lying on the floor alone in despair, her world is empty. The Cello attempts to comfort her, repeating the embrace in which he initially held the Young Jackie. He tries to lift the ailing Adult Jackie in the same pose, holding his hands to her ears. But the movement that gave her life as a child she now rejects.
In his terse assessment of the situation, Adrian Curtin encapsulates its sheer brutality: du Pré “a musician known for her physical abandon was abandoned, as it were, by her own body” (148). The single missing “person” that makes her world empty is not the Cello itself, but her ability to make music with the Cello. As the Cello tries to repeat the rocking penché and developpé motion from the pas de trois with Barenboim, Jackie flounders, unable to execute the movements that once brought them both such joy.
Sitting alone in her chair, Jackie’s world looks empty.
And yet, her world isn’t quite empty.
Led by the Young Jackie, The Cellist comes to a quiet, but not silent, close with the return of the main characters to the stage. As the Cello slowly circles the space, he seems to be spinning the fabric of the ailing Jackie’s memories together. A dancer rolls a single LP across the stage once more. The LP is handed to the Young Jackie, a symbol of her lifelong love of music, her success and renown that survived her illness and death, and her extraordinary gift that is celebrated to this day. As our own memories of du Pré and her world have been rekindled, we are reminded that the past leaves behind traces, including glorious recordings of her work on vinyl, on CD and online in the form of television documentaries and recordings, as well as audio recordings.
In this cyclical structure, with its recollections of love and success and assurance that not all has been lost, lies resolution, even hope perhaps, as implied by Jenny Gilbert’s insightful closing remarks on the work: “Ultimately, the tone of The Cellist is celebratory, underlined by a closing image of Sambé slowly and dreamingly spinning like a vinyl LP”.
Undoubtedly Jacqueline du Pré will continue to be a “lasting inspiration” to lovers of classical music, “the music she made resonating onward, etched in the memories of those who heard her and the recordings she left behind” (Kemp). And in her new ballet The Cellist Cathy Marston has incalculably enriched our understanding of du Pré in the most poignant and inspirational way.
Curtin, Adrian. “‘O body swayed to music’: The allure of Jacqueline du Pré as spectacle and drama”. Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 9, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 143-59, Intellect, doi:10.1386/smt.9.2.143_1.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Harper Perennial, 2006.
In the annals of British ballet, Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, indubitably remains the most celebrated and revered ballerina. As you know, this year marks the centenary of her birth, and so, in recognition of this fact and of her status and role in the development of British ballet, our section on British ballerinas of the past in this post will be devoted entirely to Fonteyn.
It was a tricky task to select current British ballerinas to discuss, but we were led by the cast of Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration, the event organised by the Royal Ballet for June 8th of this year. The three ballerinas we decided to focus on not only displayed qualities reminiscent of Fonteyn during their performances at the celebration, but have on previous occasions all been noted for particular attributes connected to Fonteyn and the English style of performing ballet. Further, all three dancers are of British descent, which seems appropriate given that Fonteyn is the inspiration for this post and that from time to time concern is expressed regarding the number of ballerinas in the Royal Ballet who are British nationals. Our selected ballerinas are Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Even a modicum of research uncovers interesting parallels between the careers and development of these three ballerinas. All are principal dancers of the Royal Ballet (the highest rank), who attended both White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School, and joined the Company soon after graduation. In terms of career progression all three ballerinas were dancing with the Royal Ballet for between five and seven years before being promoted to Principal Dancer. There were two points that caught our eye: the early evidence and identification of talent; the particular qualities in their dancing that had an impact on the repertoire they perform, including the excerpts that were performed by them in the Fonteyn Celebration last season. While all three ballerinas won the Young British Dancer of the Year Competition before joining the Company, evidencing the calibre of their dancing, other accolades were signs of more specific characteristics: Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward were both presented with the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, whereas at the age of fifteen Yasmine Naghdi was recipient of the Royal Ballet School’s “Most Outstanding Classical Dancer” Award. So let’s think a little about this in relation to their individual repertoires …
Although Hayward and Naghdi are younger than Cuthbertson, both celebrating their 27th birthday this year, and their repertoires consequently not as broad as Cuthbertson’s, we feel we can make some valid comments on the repertoires of the three ballerinas. All of them performed Juliet early in their careers, Cuthbertson in fact debuting when she was still a teenager, and all have danced principal roles in some of the 19th century classics, which to this day still seem to be the ultimate measure of a ballerina’s mettle. However, it is noticeable that although Naghdi has been performing Odette/Odile since the age of 24, Hayward has not yet danced this crucial role; on the other hand, Hayward has won recognition for her interpretation of Manon, a role that requires sophisticated acting skills, and one that Naghdi still covets. It is also noticeable that Naghdi’s repertoire includes Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Matilda Kscheshinskaya in Anastasia, both of which require impeccable classical technique. In fact, even the way in which she performs Juliet accentuates her clarity of line, revealing this way of interpreting the choreography (“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”).
In the last two seasons Cuthbertson has added to her repertoire two of Frederick Ashton’s most important and celebrated creations for more mature ballerinas: the first Marguerite, choreographed on Fonteyn, in the 1963 Marguerite and Armand; the second Natalia Petrovna, created on Lynn Seymour, in A Month in the Country (1976). Although Seymour never reached the zenith of Fonteyn’s fame, in being Kenneth MacMillan’s muse she was nonetheless critical to the development of British ballet once ballet had been established as an indigenous art form: together they facilitated its evolution as a dramatic art form in response to the artistic and social upheaval that marked the late 1950s and 1960s. In a sense Cuthbertson recently also seems to have become an ambassador for British ballet. Last year she was invited by Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Sylvia, a major role created for Fonteyn by Ashton, in Saint Petersburg. This year she returned to the Mariinsky to dance in Marguerite and Armand and in The Sleeping Beauty, often described as the Royal Ballet’s signature work, a work integral to the development of British ballet and its international standing, and probably Fonteyn’s most celebrated role.
In 2013 Bryony Brind, former principal of the Royal Ballet, expressed her consternation about the lack of British dancers in the highest ranks of the Royal Ballet, Britain’s most renowned ballet company (qtd.in Eden). At Britishballetnowandthen we think of British ballet as the directors, dancers and choreographers and other collaborators working with companies in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or background. However, articles, reviews and interviews reveal the extent to which the issue of nationality looms large in the minds of some people who are interested in the status and development of ballet in this country. With the addition of Hayward and Naghdi to the list of Royal Ballet principals, headlines such as “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death” (Eden) have been replaced by “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas” (Byrne) and “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina” (Craine).
The term British or English is not restricted to the description of nationality, of course, but frequently used in association with a specific school of training and performance style. Interviews with both Hayward and Naghdi emphasise their English ballet training at the Royal Ballet School, as well as their sense of Britishness in everyday life (Cappelle; Crompton). This tends to be the aspect of their identity that they highlight rather than the fact that they are both mixed race, in contrast to the American ballerina Misty Copeland, also mixed race, who champions her identity as a black ballerina – the first black principal at American Ballet Theatre. For us, however, it seems important that they are mixed race (Hayward English and Kenyan, Naghdi Belgian and Iranian), as it means that the roster of principal dancers at the Royal Ballet is becoming more reflective of an increasingly mixed-race Britain.
In a 2014 review of Cuthbertson in The Sleeping Beauty, Graham Watts focuses strongly on the notion of English training and performance style, accentuating Cuthbertson’s articulation of English style in his description of her poses and lines as “disciplined”, “refined”, “traditional” and “elegant”. For Watts the maintenance of this style is vital for the continuity of tradition, which he links directly to Fonteyn:
… after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did.
References to Fonteyn also appear in writings about Hayward and Naghdi: Hayward has been directly compared to Fonteyn (Byrne “Dancing Queens”; Taylor), while descriptions of the impact of Naghdi’s “intense dark eyes” (Byrne, “Royal Ballet”), and the ferocity, energy and musicality of her Firebird (Dowler) are also reminiscent of both Fonteyn’s facial features and her qualities as a dancer.
The roles that were selected for our three chosen ballerinas for the Fonteyn Celebration capitalised on their particular talents. Naghdi was luminous in the classical Le Corsaire pas de deux in a replica of the tutu that Fonteyn wore in the celebrated recording with Rudolf Nureyev. Cuthbertson captured the mystique of the Woman in Ball Dress in Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions (1936). Hayward’s Ondine made us forget that we were watching a gala, so intensely did she draw us in water’s nymph’s world.
The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta
It seems unlikely that any ballerina will ever compete with the status of Margot Fonteyn in terms of her significance in the history of British ballet. It was she who headed the triumphant Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty that reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after its transformation into a dance hall during World War II. It was she who repeated this triumph in New York three years later, earning Britain’s national ballet company the international reputation that it has enjoyed ever since.
Through the course of WWII Britain’s ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, toured Britain indefatigably bringing the art form to an enormously varied audience including troops, office and factory workers, and codebreakers, sometimes giving as many as four performances a day (“Wartime Entertainment”). The combination of dedication, determination and hard graft required for the continuous round of class, rehearsals, performances, packing, travelling and finding digs has been recognised as integral to the war effort on the home front, and the indomitable spirit of company members completely in tune with the patriotic mood of the nation. In fact, historian Karen Elliot goes as far as to claim that “the artform was deemed vital to the survival of the average British citizen” (4).
In addition to a swiftly growing audience for ballet, an English style of choreography and performance was being developed through the work of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn herself as Ashton’s muse and the ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s style of dancing was, and has continued to be, perceived as the essence of the English style, with her clean, unexaggerated lines, and with her musicality and focus on balance, poise and harmony rather than on a show of virtuosity.
But Fonteyn’s mother was half Brazilian, and from the ages of nine to fourteen she lived with her parents in China. So perhaps it is not surprising that back in London, when she first joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, Ninette de Valois famously referred to her as “the little Chinese girl in the corner” (Daneman 58). At the time when Fonteyn joined de Valois’ school there existed a prevalent notion that the British were incapable of performing ballet: ballet was a foreign art form, connected in people’s minds particularly to Russia, due to the influence of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and Anna Pavlova. Ballets Russes was firmly connected with the notion of exoticism, depicted in particular through works such as “The Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor, The Firebird, Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, Une Nuit d’Egypte, and Thamar, all choreographed by Michel Fokine from 1911 to 1912, and all performed in London. On the other hand, Anna Pavlova, who regularly toured Britain for two decades between 1910 and 1930, represented the ideal of the ballerina with her “fragility” dark hair, expressive eyes and long neck. It seems unquestionable therefore that Fonteyn’s dark almond eyes and black hair would have struck audiences as both rather exotic and quintessentially ballerina-like, thereby contributing to her persona as Britain’s undisputed queen of ballet.
Importantly, during the early decades of ballet’s development as an indigenous art form in Britain, proponents of British ballet were depicting it as “both exotic and homegrown” (Elliot 19). Fonteyn seemed to personify this twofold depiction of British ballet through her stalwart “British” approach to the War years coupled with her understated virtuosity on the one hand, and through the “foreignness” of her appearance and stage name on the other.
Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration gave some sense of the range of the ballerina’s repertoire, her versatility and dance qualities, but it would be impossible to pay tribute to this range in one evening: Fonteyn danced for more than four decades in over eighty works (Money). Let us not forget, however, that the length of her career, the huge number of performances she danced, and both her national and international status were in part at least due to historical circumstance. This included de Valois’ plan to establish a canon of “classics” to give ballet as an art form some gravitas, in addition to ensuring the creation of new choreographies with a distinctly British identity. In the early years of this Company this canon consisted of existing ballets from the 19th century that de Valois had access to – Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – as well as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Spectre de la rose. In addition to a repertoire, however, de Valois needed a ballerina who was capable of performing both these 19th century works and the new ballets being choreographed, initially primarily by herself and Ashton.
Fonteyn’s first substantial role was the Creole Girl in Ashton’s 1931 Rio Grande, which she danced in 1935, four years after de Valois had established her company, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later to become the Sadler’s Wells and finally Royal Ballet). At the tender age of sixteen she was replacing de Valois’ ballerina Alicia Markova, for whom the role had been created, because Markova had left the Company to establish her own company with Anton Dolin. As well as being a muse for early Ashton choreography, Markova was the first British Giselle, Sugar Plum Fairy and Odette/Odile. Now Fonteyn swiftly took on those roles, with the result that by the age of twenty she had performed all of them as well as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1936, after seeing the seventeen-year-old Fonteyn as Odette, the influential critic Arnold Haskell enthusiastically declared her to be a ballerina (qtd. in Bland 46). And over the following two decades and more, the collaboration between Ashton and Fonteyn flourished, becoming a major force in the expansion and style of the British ballet repertoire.
The extent of Fonteyn’s international status and her unassailable standing as the nation’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta is reflected in the words of Lynn Seymour, who grew up in the small town of Wainwright in Alberta, Canada:
She was a big name. She was as big a name as the Prime Minister of England, if not more; she was up there with Churchill in my remote little dot on the globe … She was a household word. She represented ballet; she was ballerina. (Qtd. in Margot chap. 1)
While British ballet may never again experience such a phenomenon as Fonteyn, the three current ballerinas we have highlighted in this post display qualities that are associated with Fonteyn and the “Britishness” of her style, as well as being British by nationality. In an era concerned about the impact of globalisation on the distinctiveness of national styles in ballet (Meisner 11) it feels to us important to note that the legacy of Fonteyn can still be recognised in today’s Royal Ballet ballerinas.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … As both English National Ballet and Northern Ballet have been performing their productions of Cinderella in 2019, we will make this the focus of our British Ballet Now & Then post for December. Perhaps we will have some surprises for you …
Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.
As lovers of the ballet Giselle, first created in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, we were beside ourselves with excitement when we learnt that Akram Khan was going to choreograph a re-envisioned adaptation of the Romantic work for English National Ballet. Our only concern was whether the Company would retain a traditional production of their work in the repertoire. Fortunately this fear was soon allayed when Artistic Director Tamara Rojo announced that Mary Skeaping’s Giselle would be revived in the very same season as the world premiere of what turned out to be a most extraordinary retelling of the work in an age of refugee crises and concerns about increasing social inequality and injustice both in the UK and globally.
This autumn, three years after the premiere of Akram Khan’s work, it is an ideal time for us to revisit Giselle. Not only has Khan’s adaptation returned to Sadler’s Wells, but two additional stagings are being shown in the same theatre: both Dada Masilo’s 2017 feminist reading of the work, which draws on her South African heritage, in October, and David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s 1999 Giselle for Birmingham Royal Ballet in November. Therefore, in this post we’re focussing predominantly on productions, rather than on what individual dancers bring to the role of Giselle, as we did in our first GiselleNow & Then post.
As you may know, while maintaining the broad outline of the plot, Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have based their narrative on a community of migrants who have lost their jobs in a garment factory and are now reduced to providing entertainment for the cruel Landlords (who replace the aristocrats of the original libretto). In Act II the ghosts of dead Factory Workers wreak revenge on those who caused their death through the appalling working conditions in the factory.
When watching an adaptation, be it in the same medium, or book to film, play to ballet, the question of characterisation is always an intriguing one. There has been substantial discussion about the roles of Hilarion and Giselle herself. While Hilarion is absolutely crucial to the plot, in traditional versions he is not given extensive stage time or activity. In contrast, Khan’s Hilarion is a major character in terms of the stage action, and complexity of the role, as well as being a lynchpin in the storyline. A climax to Act I is the altercation between Hilarion and Albrecht, where they circle around one another like two stags fighting over their territory in a ritual of dominance creating a palpable tension with their glaring eyes drilling into one another. Hilarion is at the same time obsequious with the Landlords, supercilious with Albrecht and controlling with his fellow migrant Factory Workers. His skewed love for Giselle is bound to end in catastrophe.
Giselle herself is depicted by Khan as a leader (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”); her pride and defiance are writ large when she refuses to pick up the glove that Bathilde has deliberately dropped, and stubbornly resists bowing her head to the Landlords. Khan sees Giselle as an optimist in the face of the disastrous closing of the factory and consequential unemployment, so she has no need to kowtow to the Landlords. She is also in love and expecting Albrecht’s child, so she has broken the rules and rocked the boat of the precious status quo that Hilarion is so eager to hold in balance.
Because of Hilarion’s centrality to Act I and the waywardness of his character, he seems to us to be a counterpart to Myrtha. Dramaturg Ruth Little describes Hilarion as “both sinning and sinned against” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover”). Luke Jennings once found a libretto for a ballet about Myrtha’s backstory that accounts for her transformation from a loving, joyful and compassionate young woman to a vengeful wraith (“Who was Myrtha?”), and we can imagine reasons for Hilarion’s behaviour and his need to do anything to survive.
The 1841 Giselle is driven by dualisms: the daylight of the familiar village is pitted against the unknown of the dark forest; the poverty of the peasants is confronted by the blatant wealth of the aristocrats; a human community of corporeal beings is juxtaposed with the world of ethereal Wilis, where the relationship between flesh and spirit, body and soul is explored. Because of the spiritual element, Tamara Karsavina has referred to it as “a blessed ballet or an holy ballet” (A Portrait of Giselle). The spirit world is defined by a specific style of dancing, la danse ballonnée with its fleet lightness and Romantic tutus that balloon out to create the illusion that the dancers are hovering in the air. As Albrecht moves towards Giselle and fails to catch her, as she floats heavenwards in lifts and reaches away from Albrecht in arabesque, his longing for her is constantly met with confirmation of her unattainability. One of the reasons that Tamara Rojo chose Khan as the creative artist for this project was because of “the spirituality of the theme” and her belief that “he could find a different way of putting that on stage” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative”). The corporeal and ethereal worlds are clearly pitted one against the other by Khan, but the effect is strikingly different…
From the moment the curtain opens we sense the physicality of the dancers’ bodies as they push with all their might against a huge overwhelming wall (designed by Tim Yip).
Later, working as a group, they become the looms of their trade, mechanical pulsating machines; at other times they run in droves, almost like animals, as they escape their circumstances in search for new homes. In the radiant, sometimes playful, Act I duet between Giselle and Albrecht they orbit around one another and visibly enjoy their repeated moments of physical contact. Tenderly they touch one another’s head, neck, sternum, shoulders and palms, and Giselle places Albrecht’s hand on her abdomen to feel their child growing within her.
But the most intimate form of touch is when they touch one another’s faces with their hand – a movement reserved in Khan’s culture for husband and wife (Belle of the Ballet).
The Wilis of Act II wear pointe shoes, as a tribute to the Romantic tradition and the connection between pointe work and the notion of the otherworldly within that tradition. Moreover, the iconic scene where the Wilis cross one another in lines performing arabesque voyagé en avant is replicated. Originally this displayed their domination over the forest; in this case they preside over the abandoned factory. But these eldritch factory Wilis pound their canes threateningly and relentlessly into the ground, suggesting a less binary approach to the connection between flesh and spirit, the corporeal and ethereal, soul and body in this rendition of Giselle; and Giselle’s body is literally dragged into the factory by Myrtha – she may be dead, but she is in no way insubstantial.
This connection between body and spirit is demonstrated at its most poignant in the Act II duet between Giselle and Albrecht. For us Jennings’ description of Giselle’s state in Act II rings true: “She’s not dead, but she’s not quite alive, either” (Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making). The choreography for Giselle and Albrecht’s duet is physically intimate, the closeness of the bodies more continuous than in the Act I pas de deux. As they wrap themselves around one another, their touch is more sustained and prolonged. It is this very physicality that suggests to us that their souls inhabit the same realm. There are fleeting moments where Giselle seems to evaporate from Albrecht’s embrace, as if in memory of Giselle of old. But her body is often limp, no longer able to resist the force of gravity, so Albrecht bears her weight and seems to try and woo her spirit back through the warmth of his body. At one extraordinary moment he draws her up from the ground using the power of her hand on his face, as if the bond between them will return her to life, but she almost immediately sinks back down again. Despite the bond Giselle pushes his hand away from her stomach – a reminder that their child has died within her. This is far from Romanticism’s trope of representing the spiritual as insubstantiality of body. A final touch of the hand on the other’s face is the last instance of physical contact. Their final prolonged gaze at one another is so intense that Albrecht fails to notice the wall descending. This ultimate physical separation in the face of the unassailable wall is gut-wrenching.
The success of Khan’s Giselle with both critics and audiences in no way diminishes the power of traditional productions, so in this section we are discussing three traditional versions of Giselle performed by three major British ballet companies: David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s staging for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production, and the version mounted by Mary Skeaping for London Festival (now English National) Ballet. Even though they present “standard” versions of the narrative and choreography, there are differences in design, staging, characterisation and movement style. These differences may initially seem slight, but on closer inspection they have a significant impact on performances and enable this 1841 Romantic ballet to maintain its freshness, and to continue to capture the imagination of the audiences.
When the Bintley-Samsova production of Giselle was first staged in 1999, Bintley expressed the objective of creating a “proper” Giselle (Marriott), meaning that he wanted to recreate some of the excitement felt by the 1840s audiences (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). Part of this excitement was instigated by the designers’ realistic depiction of Giselle’s two contrasting worlds, including live animals in Act I and Wilis “flying” on wires in the second act. Consequently, one of the elements that was chosen as a focus was the visual element.
For this mounting of the work designer Hayden Griffiths created a waterfall, vineyards and mountains as the background for Act I, an environment that David Mead likens to “a Victorian painting come to life”. The waterfall may also remind viewers of William Wordsworth’s The Waterfall and the Eglantine (1800), thereby making a satisfying connection with Romantic literature. The verisimilitude of Act I includes “a pig’s bladder football … a dead hare, two live beagles and a real horse” (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). The village is also brought to life by the inclusion of children in the cast (because why wouldn’t a village have children?) and by ensuring that the dancers emphasise the individuality of each villager. The bustling liveliness of this act, enhanced by the bright colours of the costumes, provides a striking contrast with the ballet blanc of Act II, with its “flying” aerial Wilis and its ruined abbey, in keeping with the tastes of the Romantic audiences, who relished the successful theatrical fashioning of the mystical and otherworldly. David Mead captures the atmosphere: “Gothic arches soar heavenwards above the ruined choirs. Lit by a full moon, peeking through what is left of the windows, it is spookiest of atmospheres”.
The waterfall of the first act is particularly significant, as water is an essential element in the legend of the Wilis – in Heinrich Heine’s Über Deutschland, one of the sources used for the original libretto of Giselle, Heine explains that their hems are constantly damp, as they dwell close to or even on the water. In Giselle; or The Phantom Night Dancers, the play based on the ballet that was produced in London shortly after the ballet’s premiere in Paris, the inclusion of “Fountains of Real Water” in Act II provided a major attraction and was therefore highlighted on playbills in no uncertain terms (Morris 53). Therefore, it’s interesting that Hanna Weibye incorporates water imagery in her writing to convey the effect of the corps de ballet as the Wilis in Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet, to convey the impression that they create: “In John Macfarlane’s creamy Romantic tutus they cross the stage in serried ranks like swells on the open ocean, seemingly unstoppable” (“Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”).
It is this staging of Giselle by Wright for the Royal Ballet that is undoubtedly the most celebrated British production of the ballet. Wright has been producing Giselle since as long ago as 1966. We were fascinated to discover that when he first saw the ballet in the 1940s, he could not take it seriously. Once he had witnessed Galina Ulanova perform the title role on the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to London, however, he understood its potential; subsequently when John Cranko asked him to produce it for Stuttgart Ballet, Wright discovered (as we do!) that the more he researched, the more fascinated be became (“Getting it Right”). The current production is the second version that Wright has created for the Royal Ballet, and they have continued performing it regularly since 1985.
Wright’s approach to producing Giselle was to ensure that the characters and the drama made complete sense in his mind. To this end he made Bathilde into a more haughty, even heartless, character than she was in the original libretto, thereby creating a more sympathetic portrayal of Albrecht. This characterisation is often commented on by critics (Jennings “Giselle Review”; Mackrell “Giselle review”; Watts “An indelible performance”). Jennings’ comments on Olivia Cowley’s performance is particularly telling: “Realising that Albrecht has broken the village girl’s heart, Cowley’s Bathilde appears not so much wounded as faintly nauseated”. For Wright it is also essential that Giselle commits suicide, rather than dying of a broken heart, in order to account for her burial in the woods, outside the bounds of the churchyard and therefore unprotected from the Wilis (Monahan).
As in the case of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, design is a feature of the work that is essential to the creation of atmosphere, which has been described as “eerie”, with a “threatening” (Weibye) and “brooding” forest (Jennings). Macfarlane demonstrates a different approach to that of Griffiths, with a more uniform colour palette, but Graham Watts’ vivid description of the Act II décor shows how imaginative design can recreate an atmosphere by bringing new ideas to work that conjure up fresh images in the minds of the audience:
The woods … with their uprooted trees and a ceiling of scrambled, entwined branches provide the perfect lair for the ghostly Wilis to take their revenge on the carefree men who foolishly pass by in the dead of night (“Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”).
And now to our favourite traditional Giselle …Like Peter Wright, Mary Skeaping spent years researching the ballet, but she also had the added advantage of dancing in Anna Pavlova’s company, when Pavlova herself was performing Giselle. In addition, Skeaping saw Olga Spessivtseva dance the role, and she received a great deal of support and guidance from Tamara Karsavina to help with her first staging of the ballet in 1953 for the Royal Swedish Ballet. In 1971 Skeaping mounted a production on London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), which is their current traditional Giselle. Undoubtedly the most authentic of the British versions, this production is probably exceeded in authenticity internationally only by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011 reconstruction based on primary sources including two 19th century notation scores and the research of historian Marian Smith’s (“Giselle”).
One of the reasons we favour this production is pure sentimental nostalgia – in particular memories of Eva Evdokmova and Peter Schaufuss as the protagonists, Maina Gielgud as Myrtha and Matz Skoog in the Peasant Pas de deux, as well as the first performance of Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev dancing the ballet together. However, we are also fascinated by the impact of recreating period style, so evident in the curved asymmetrical port de bras and posture of the Wilis. It draws us into another era with its distinctive aura, “antique sense of the supernatural” (Mackrell “Giselle: Coliseum”) and restored sections, such as the complete Pas de vendages for Giselle and Albrecht. Giselle’s solo in this particular section gives a taste of a more authentic Romantic ballet style with its skimming terre-à-terre petit allegro, the batterie and ballon and quick changes of direction, all enhanced by gentle épaulement. Not only do we appreciate the understated virtuosity of such passages and the way they extend our understanding and knowledge of ballet, but when we watched performances by English National Ballet in 2017, we were struck by the contribution the full Pas de vendages makes to the dramatic climax of Act I. In comparison with the truncated version that is generally presented, the full Pas brings all the focus of both the onstage audience and the audience in the auditorium, to Giselle and Albrecht. It is playful and tender in its inclusion of the usual game of kisses, but also in the joie de vivre of the dancing style. Consequently, it distracts us from the plot, giving no warning or sense of the impending disaster. When Hilarion suddenly challenges Albrecht, it seems to cut like a razor through the celebrations. After such idyllic moments of love witnessed by her community, Giselle’s isolation in her distress is all the more raw and brutal. Perhaps it was this dramatic effect that inspired Bintley and Samsova to reinstate some of the usual musical cuts to their interpretation of the work, particularly with Samsova’s personal experience of dancing the title role in a number of different productions.
In our opinion all of these productions are relevant today. Tamara Rojo herself highlights the impact of the social context on people’s behaviour when their actions are driven by their emotions (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: The Social Context”), a theme that is of course evident in both the 1841 Giselle and the 2016 reinterpretation. Writing of the Royal Ballet’s production Hannah Weibye considers the added import of the ballet in the #metoo era, emphasising the themes of “abuse of power for sexual gratification” and questioning whether Albrecht deserves Giselle’s forgiveness. Khan’s interpretation of Giselle is a monumental work of art in its own right. As an adaptation, moreover, it provides us with a new lens through which to watch the Romantic work, find fresh insights, new emotional resonance, and to appreciate once again its own singular portrayal of love, betrayal and the beautiful, dangerous undead.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … To mark the start of the Royal Ballet’s new season and pay tribute to the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth, we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in June’s Margot Fonteyn a Celebration at the Royal Opera House celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
When we started researching biographical ballets, we were under the impression that such ballets were a rarity. Fortunately however, discussions with friends and colleagues revealed a multitude of works, including forgotten and unknown examples, demonstrating that, as in cinema, people’s lives offer a rich source for creation in ballet.
Internationally a number of recent biographical ballets have been based on the lives of iconic figures from the arts, amongst them Broken Wings (Lopez Ochoa, 2016), based on the life and work of Frida Kahlo; John Neumeier’s Nijinsky and Yuri Possokhov’s Nureyev, both from 2017; and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back (2018) about the relationship between Mozart’s elder sister Nannerl, also a composer, Mozart himself and their father.
Our focus for this post is of course driven by the successful addition to the British ballet repertoire that is Cathy Marston’s Victoria for Northern Ballet. Monarchs and royals are no strangers to the ballet stage. Kenneth MacMillan devoted full-evening works to exploring the lives of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna of Russia (Anastasia, 1971) and Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (Mayerling, 1978) in his inimitable full-blooded style. Between these two ballets, in 1976, came Peter Darrell’s Mary Queen of Scots, while in 1995 David Bintley tackled the subject of Edward II through the lens of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play. On a smaller scale is the more recent Elizabeth by Will Tuckett (2013), but this choreography incorporates spoken and sung text, as well as onstage musicians.
Like Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria is such a familiar figure to us. Even if we never learnt about her in school, there are documentaries and films available, as well as the current ITV series Victoria, now having completed a third series. Literature is aplenty in the form of both biographies and fiction, diaries and letters, and a Christmas never goes by without a reminder of how she and Albert established family traditions such as gathering round a decorated Christmas tree. In everyday London life their names crop up repeatedly: Victoria Station, the Victoria line, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, the Victoria Memorial. To say nothing of the numerous statues of Victoria throughout the UK …
But Queen Victoria reigned for over six decades, and writings by her and about her were carefully edited. She had a hugely important public persona to develop and project, as well as a private life to lead with its famed tragedies. Consequently, she is frequently portrayed in conflicting ways, which we definitely experienced as we watched documentaries in preparation for this post (“Queen Victoria’s Letters” 1&2; “The Secret Life of Queen Victoria”; “Queen Victoria’s Children 1,2,3”; “King Edward Parts 1&2”). So how can a choreographer create a ballet about Victoria, who was celebrated as wife, mother and widow, as well as empress and queen, over so many years of political change, in a single evening?
The solution that Cathy Marston and librettist Uzma Hameed came up with was to portray Victoria from a very specific perspective – that of Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest daughter. This enabled a sufficiently narrow focus for a two-act ballet, with a selection of a restricted number of characters and events covering the many decades from Victoria as a young woman prior to ascending the throne right up to her death.
While the notion of “narrowness” and “restriction” may initially seem limiting, if you think about it, this process of paring down is absolutely essential in any adaptation that involves a change of medium necessitating any substantial change in length or duration, such as the adaptation of an 800-page book into a 100-minute film, or years of a person’s life into a 300-page volume. Such are the skills necessary to achieve a process of adaptation of this kind, that they have been referred to as a “surgical art” (H. Porter Abbott qtd. in Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn 19).
Victoria premiered on March 16th of this year, and has received a substantial amount of media attention, including interviews with the choreographer, articles, and numerous reviews. Therefore, the fact that the ballet is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries and presented in flashbacks following Beatrice’s reading in the diaries is well documented. Some of the reviews stand out to us in the way they highlight the writing and rewriting of history (King, Lowe, Monahan, Roy, Winter). Unsurprisingly, this topic of how history is written is close to our hearts, although for some Marston’s delight at finding an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison) to Victoria’s life may come as a surprise. However, to us this seems to be at the heart of the ballet, not only in how it portrays the events of Victoria’s life, but how it challenges some of our preconceptions of Victoria, and therefore startles and stirs us in equal measure.
If you have been following the ITV series Victoria, you will be familiar with the passion of the young Victoria; however, we see nothing in the series to compare with the sheer sexual pleasure expressed by Marston’s choreography for Victoria and Albert’s wedding night duet (“Northern Ballet’s Victoria”), which on one occasion in our viewing elicited a “wow!” from the audience.
Similarly, our pervasive awareness of Victoria’s love for her consort may inhibit our ability to connect such passion with the disagreements over Albert’s role in politics. With characteristic economy of means Marston conveys these turbulent arguments through tussles over a red box symbolising affairs of state. But in the ballet Victoria’s intransigence is seen at its most passionate in her furious resistance to Beatrice’s desire to marry: bent over double with fists clenched, her rage is palpable. And while we may indeed envision Victoria as domineering and controlling, the ferocity of her physicality collides with the conventional image of Victoria.
Watching Marston’s Victoria makes us feel on the one hand that we’re learning more about the iconic monarch, but on the other hand the experience of having our well-worn vision of Victoria challenged is destabilising. Consequently, and counterintuitively, Victoria seems to become more of a mystery than previously. Perhaps this is because Marston presents her as a human being – as daughter, lover and mother, as well as queen and empress. But equally, because we so clearly witness her through layers of subjectivity. Marston makes this crystal clear through her words in interviews and rehearsals, and no less through the stage action itself. Victoria writes, and Beatrice reads, remembers, discovers, reacts and edits: the lives of Victoria and Beatrice written by Victoria and rewritten by Beatrice with nostalgia and longing on the one hand, and surprise, disapprobation and anger on the other.
Biographical Ballets Then
Unlike in the case of Queen Victoria, the royal lives that MacMillan chose to adapt are probably perceived by British audiences as more than usually mysterious. This is particularly the case for Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova, who was believed by some to have survived the massacre of the Imperial Russian family by the Bolsheviks in 1917. But the circumstances of Crown Prince Rudolf’s death, the last of the Habsburg dynasty, was deliberately covered up for political reasons and therefore also shrouded in mystery. This sense of mystery has perhaps been intensified by the highly romanticised 1956 Anastasia featuring Ingrid Bergman in the titular role, and Mayerling with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve (1968).
What probably attracted MacMillan to these two historical figures was his inclination towards sombre subject matter and characters who experienced a sense of being an outsider – a theme that MacMillan revisited repeatedly (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4). But in both cases, as we watch, we gain a sense that the creators were intent on revealing some kind of perceived truth through the ballets, that they were committed to uncovering a mystery and replacing it with historical “reality”.
MacMillan created what was to become the final act of Anastasia in 1967 during his time as Director of the Deutsche Oper Ballett in Berlin. The German city was rife with stories of a woman named Anna Anderson claiming to be Anastasia Romanova, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, a woman frequently referred to as “Fräulein Unbekannt” (“Miss Unknown”) (Welch 8). Anna had been saved from drowning in a Berlin canal in 1920 and had been living in Germany ever since, and from 1932 striving to legally prove her royal identity (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4).
This one-act ballet was set in a mental hospital, where Anna is seen reliving life as a member of the Imperial family before the Russian Revolution, and witnessing the assassination of her family before being rescued. Flickering film footage of the Imperial family and Russian political events accompanied by a musique concrète score of fractured, distorted voices and harsh, jarring sounds opens the work. This moves into Bohuslav Martinŭ’s dissonant Symphony No. 6 which complements MacMillan’s visceral, angular and splintered movement material, revealing Anna’s emotional turmoil. Her battle to be accepted as Anastasia is exacerbated by memories of her turbulent personal history, which includes the loss of a husband and child.
Figures from her past – her parents, siblings, Rasputin, Bolshevik soldiers –haunt her, randomly emerging and re-enacting crucial events; at times they are confused with her present alienating company of medical staff and visitors. The theme of the outsider is patently clear: Anna is segregated from any potential community in her current life by the four walls of her hospital room, and she is segregated from the community of her past through their death.
Four years later when MacMillan was working as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, the choreographer developed the one-act work into a three-act ballet, portraying the Imperial family in events leading up to World War I (Act I) and the 1917 Revolution (Act II). Although the flashbacks that fill Anna’s mind in the final act are fragmented and muddled, indicating her state of mind, the first two acts follow a clear chronology. Therefore, the characters who haunt her in Act III are initially presented logically and in context, conveying to the audience a sense of factual reality. This means that there is no disconnect between Anastasia’s historical past and Anna’s memories, giving credence to Anna’s claims. And the final moments seem to confirm this: “At the end of the ballet, she stands like a ship’s figurehead at the prow of her bed as it sails round the stage, a small defiant figure floating on a sea of darkness” (Parry Different Drummer 327).
Gillian Freeman, who wrote the scenario for Mayerling, organised three acts that cover the last eight years of Rudolf’s life from his wedding day to his suicide with his young mistress Mary Vetsera. Rudolf’s troubled relationships with women, from his mother and wife to his various mistresses provided rich material for transforming into expressive pas de deux, one of MacMillan’s great talents as a choreographer. It is abundantly clear that the choreographer wanted to portray Rudolf as a tormented human being who had been abused as a young boy, was emotionally neglected, suffered from venereal disease and was obsessed with death. Although MacMillan focused on the emotional aspects of his life, he also dealt with the political pressure that Rudolf faced from his friends campaigning for Hungarian independence.
What we find particularly fascinating is that Freeman insists that she wanted the ballet to be rooted in fact, and that all the events portrayed in the ballet can be historically verified (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 1, 1978”), including Mary Vetsera’s arrival at Rudolf’s quarters wearing only a coat and a nightdress, his fascination with guns and skulls , and bringing his wife to the tavern managed by his Mistress Mitzi Casper (Freeman “The Uncertain Beyond” 10-11).
Freeman was very insistent that the ballet portray the true circumstances of Rudolf and Mary’s death, so different from the sanitised version of events that was publicly announced in an effort to disguise the truth (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 4, 1978”).
Therefore, in the case of both Anastasia and Mayerling there is a sense of a mystery solved and a truth revealed: Rudolf’s nature and the events surrounding his death are revealed, as is Anna’s identity.
In 2017 historical novelist Hilary Mantel stated the following:
… history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past …It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them.
In our opinion, one of the aspects that distinguishes Marston’s approach to the creation of biographical ballets from MacMillan’s is her attitude to the past and to history. This reflects the shift in thinking about the past and how we construct both personal and public history that evolved over the second half of the 20th century, and is so wonderfully expressed by Mantel. Rather than attempting to discover unbiased facts, Marston recognises that history depends on “biased witnesses”. Nonetheless, whether consciously or subconsciously, in creating these ballets both choreographers have expertly and inventively deployed not only their choreographic imaginations but also their historical imaginations.
In 1994 DNA tests proved that Anna Anderson was not in fact Tsarevna Anastasia. Yet this is perhaps not the point. All of these ballets can be interpreted in a more open way, helping us to think about issues of identity, the way we see ourselves and make sense of our own pasts and to question assumptions that we make about the way we understand the past from the remnants it leaves behind.
We are very grateful for the support of Rachel Evans, Senior Communications Officer of Northern Ballet, and Ashley Woodfield, Head of Ballet Press of Royal Opera House in the production of this post.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … Last Saturday the Royal Ballet staged Margot Fonteyn a Celebration to mark the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth. In response we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in the celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
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.
As we discussed the whys and wherefores of Carabosse’s nature, James showed us with ever-changing dynamics in gestures and mien the difference between a camp depiction of Carabosse and the same character portrayed through feminine body language. During the conversation he observed and mimicked to a T Julia’s hand and arm gestures, giving them as an example of how he draws on everyday life and people’s changing demeanour in creating believable and relatable characters.
From James’ perspective he has only a few weeks to create a whole life history for the character he is portraying and to discover ways of moving true to the character’s history and temperament. He constantly asks himself how the person would react to everyday occurrences, such as being jostled in the tube. Tube journeys are one daily opportunity to observe people’s body language, features of which he then incorporates into a reservoir of visible traits that he uses to depict character. Early on in his career it was suggested to him that if he could behave in character during a tube ride without drawing attention to himself, he would know that he “had” the character, so to speak.
But this doesn’t quite address the question of exactly how James manages to look as if he is walking into a room rather than walking onto the stage, so real and apparently spontaneous is his demeanour. So probably the most pressing question for us was the relationship between preparing for a role and allowing himself “to be truly in the moment” (qtd. in O’Byrne). In this part of the discussion James acknowledged the influence of both Akram Khan and Tamara Rojo. He smiled at his younger self, remembering how after preparing and rehearsing with great rigour he then wanted every performance to be identical in accordance with his painstaking preparations, as if he wanted it to be “exactly right”. But with experience came the confidence to be more spontaneous in performance.
We have experienced watching Tamara Rojo in a run of performances in the same ballet and revelled in the immediacy of her renditions, varying as they did from night to night, as if she were reborn into the role each time. James explained to us that in rehearsals of Akram Khan’s Dust andGiselle 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?
Eve: Oh those poor kids …
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.
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.
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.