Biographical Ballets Now & Then

Biographical Ballets Now

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.

Victoria and Albert on their Wedding Night –   Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as Albert in Victoria. Photo Emma Kauldhar
In the course of this pas de deux hardly a moment goes by without the couple stroking and kissing one another’s limbs, torsos, heads and faces. They spin and swoop together around the stage in arcs of elation; they wrap themselves around one another emanating exquisite sensual satisfaction. Even though Victoria’s decades of grieving for her husband are almost an historical cliché, we tend not to associate the figure in black with the physical passion that she clearly shared with Albert and that Marston has expressed with such ravishing eloquence.

The Wedding Night – Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as Albert in Victoria. Photo Emma Kauldhar

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.

Anastasia-24-10-16-Royal Ballet-5042 Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson by Tristram Kenton

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).

Mayerling Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera ROH 2017 Photographed by Alice Pennefather

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.

Afterthought

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.

©British Ballet Now & Then

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.

References

Dennison, Matthew. “Victoria through the eyes of her favourite child: how the life of Queen Victoria became a ballet”. The Telegraph, 25 Feb. 2019, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/victoria-eyes-favourite-child-life-queen-victoria-became-ballet/. Accessed 11 June 2019.

Freeman, Gillian. “The Uncertain Beyond”. Mayerling. Programme. Royal Opera House, 2018, pp. 9-12.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.

“King Edward VII – Part 1”, YouTube, 1 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdRddYn605c&t=1278s. Accessed 10 June 2019.

“King Edward VII – Part ”, YouTube, 1 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S-4veChkRA. Accessed 10 June 2019.

King, Tom. “Northern Ballet Victoria Festival Theatre Edinburgh”. Entertainment Edinburgh / Southside Advertiser, 10 April 2019, http://www.southsideadvertiser.biz/Northern-Ballet-Victoria=Festival-Theatre-Edinburgh-2019.htm. Accessed 11 June 2019.

Lowe, Philip. “Review: Victoria”. East Midlands Theatre, 2 April 2019, http://www.eastmidlandstheatre.com/2019/04/03/review-victoria-northern-ballet-touring-curve-leicester-2-6-april-2019/. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Mantel, Hilary. “Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist”. The Guardian, 3 June 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/03/hilary-mantel-why-i-became-a-historical-novelist. Accessed 10 June 2019.

“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 1, 1978”, YouTube, 10 Sept. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IntawIGac4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Monahan, Mark “Victoria, Northern Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, review: a fascinating tale of royal passion being struck from history”. The Telegraph, 27 March 2019, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/victoria-review-northern-ballet-sadlers-wells-fascinating-tale/. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Northern Ballet’s Victoria: behind the veil”. YouTube, uploaded by Northern Ballet, 13 Feb. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw0RF8xUzR8. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Parry, Jann “Creating Anastasia”. Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia, performance by The Royal Ballet. DVD notes. 2016, Opus Arte, 2016, pp. 4-6.

—. Different Drummer – The Life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2019.

“Private Lives of the Monarchs – Ep01The Secret Life of Queen Victoria”, YouTube, 22 July 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyVIPGcXMPo. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Letters – A Monarch Unveiled – Episode 2”, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7–sZ_kH0pI. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Letters – A Monarch Unveiled – Episode 1”, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7–sZ_kH0pI. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 1”, YouTube, 15 June 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv4RvQuCmR4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 2”, YouTube, 20 Dec. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hovoqQDllbw. Accessed 2 June 2019.

“Queen Victoria’s Children – Episode 3”, YouTube, 21 Sept. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv4RvQuCmR4. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Roy, Sanjoy, “Northern Ballet: Victoria review – royal story is a feast of brilliance”. The Guardian, 10 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/10/northern-ballet-victoria-review-  cathy-marston-ballet-queen-daughter-beatrice-choreography-grand-leeds. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Welch, Frances “The False Grand Duchess Anastasia”. Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia, performance by The Royal Ballet. DVD notes. 2016, Opus Arte, 2016, pp. 6-8. 

Winter, Anna. “Victoria review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘a ballet to treasure’”. The Stage, 27 March 2019, http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2019/victoria-review-sadlers-wells-london/. Accessed 2 June.

 

 

War Ballets Now & Then

 War Ballets Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Ballets Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill: Did you know about his wife?

Eve: Mm-hmm. You?

Bill: Mm-hmm

Eve: Oh those poor kids …

Bill: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

© Julia Delaney, Libby Costello, Rosie Gerhard

 

References

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

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

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

 

 

Female Choreographers Now & Then

Female Choreographers Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Choreographers Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cathy & Jane: A Review of Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre

When Shanghai Ballet visited London in 2013, they brought with them an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  In this production, the figure of Berthe Mason, Mr Rochester’s wife, is foregrounded, making the notion of a dualistic vision of womanhood central to the work.  However, three years later British choreographer Cathy Marston created a Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet offering a completely different perspective.  We went to see the ballet in Leeds, but from April to June it will continue to be performed in a number of UK locations: Belfast, Sheffield, Cardiff, London and Manchester.

Binary representations of women abound in 19th century ballet, for example the good, chaste, virginal and beautiful pitted against the evil, seductive, sexual and ugly: think of Effie and the Sylph, Giselle and Myrthe, Aurora and Carabosse, Odette and Odile.  However, Marston refreshingly eschews such tropes and places Jane herself right at the heart of the work, from start to finish.

The way in which the structure of the ballet hangs on Jane’s development is ingenious, opening as it does at that point in the narrative where she is at her most emotionally and physically vulnerable, alone and in a state of collapse on the moor, having fled Thornfield after discovering the existence of Rochester’s wife. From there the first act depicts scenes from her life as they pass through her memory – the death of her parents, her childhood and early adulthood at Lowood, the events at Thornfield – until the action reaches the starting point and the scene on the moor is repeated. This repetition is daring on Marston’s part, and it leaves the audience in no doubt as to the focus of this adaptation.

Jane’s physical weakness and emotional exhaustion in this crucial scene on the moors are clearly demonstrated through her drooping body and her reliance on her partner St. John Rivers to support her.  This dependency however is not characteristic of her duets with Rochester, each of them imaginatively and eloquently depicting the stages of their growing relationship.  From Jane’s awkward juddering movements suggesting her conflicting feelings for Rochester and humorous gestures, such as the sharp kick she gives him in the shin, the movement becomes more sensuous.  Support work, so integral to ballet pas de deux, is tellingly not restricted to Rochester, but shared, for example, when the couple tenderly lean against one another.   The duets are also unusual and revealing in being punctuated by Jane defiantly staring back at Rochester. In contrast, the duet between Blanche Ingram and Rochester is much more conventional, as Rochester supports Blanche in lifts and turns depicting traditional ballet gender relations, thereby suggesting a relationship that would be condoned by society but would be of little interest to Rochester.

Marston has created an extraordinarily rich and expressive gestural language that is based on neither everyday body language nor on traditional mime and is fully integrated into the choreography. These gestures convey character, emotion and circumstance to the audience. The mechanistic repetitive movements for the pupils of Lowood School suggesting the drudgery of their daily chores are reminiscent of Anna de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas.  The adult Jane shifts between reaching out as if grasping for freedom, and folding her arms over her torso, as if straitjacketed, bound to an existence that she is desperate to escape.  Rochester repeatedly holds one hand up to his face dividing it in two, left from right, implying something duplicitous in his nature, while Adele’s movements are all skittish with constantly varying gestures of excitement and glee. This gestural language is at its most eloquent in a circular wrapping movement of the arms for Rochester and Jane, symbolic of marriage, firstly initiated by Rochester, but then on Jane’s return to Thornfield initiated by her.

Patrick Kinmonth’s uncluttered designs and evocative costumes allow for seamless narration, and perhaps one of the reasons why he is so successful in this is that he was involved with Marston in writing the scenario. Moving wings represent the grimness of Lowood, the barrenness of the moors, and in contrast the fireplace and all-important entrance to the attic at Thornfield. The most striking costume is Berthe’s wildly flowing crimson red dress, which highlights her dangerous feral nature and connects her with the image of fire so crucial to the narrative.

But even more striking is the final mesmerising image of Jane on her own calmly walking towards the audience as the curtain falls. She has been reunited with Rochester in a soul-stirring duet of mutual love, passion and respect, but it is ultimately the trajectory of Jane’s life and personal journey that we are following, and the contrast between our first encounter with Jane as vulnerable, weak and lost to this final image of strength, independence and self-belief is a potent one indeed, and one befitting our times.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018