Romeo and Juliet On Screen Now & Then

Like many of you, no doubt, we were perplexed when the BBC announced at the start of this year that the Royal Ballet would be staging a brand-new production of Romeo and Juliet.

For one thing, we had already booked tickets for what we understood to be Kenneth MacMillan’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 1597 play; for another, why on earth would the Company want to stage a different production? At the premiere in 1965, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev evidently received forty-three curtain calls (“The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet”).  Since then the work has been staged regularly, filling the Royal Opera House (we went to the 531st ROH performance, with the searing Mayara Magri dancing to a packed house).  Plus, despite the abundance of balletic Romeo and Juliets performed across the globe, as Emma Byrne of the Evening Standard points out, this adaptation is often considered to be the “definitive” ballet version of Romeo and Juliet.

From 1966 to the present day (Valentine’s Day this year, to be precise) MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet has also been screened in the cinema, on television, and since the 1980s reproduced on VHS tapes, and then DVDs.  And this is the topic of our discussion below …

Romeo and Juliet on Screen Now

Unlike the news that the Royal Ballet would be staging a new production of Romeo and Juliet, the announcement that a special screening of the ballet would be live-steamed in cinemas on 14th February this year came as no surprise: we have become accustomed to live cinema screenings and encore screenings, and Romeo and Juliet seems to be a favourite for this purpose. 

When the 2007 recording starring the celebrated dance partnership of Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta arrived in cinemas in 2008, it caused quite a stir, as well as a debate about the advantages of watching ballet in cinemas (Wilkinson).  Since then cinema screenings in the arts have become a regular occurrence, not only from the Royal Opera House, but notably from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and from the National Theatre here in London.  And no fewer than three live performances of Romeo and Juliet have been screened in cinemas since 2008, featuring the following principals: Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli (2012); Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball (2019); Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan (2022).  Apart from this year’s offering (which will presumably be released in due course), all of these recordings have been made commercially available as DVDs, and all have been directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon, former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and now a renowned filmmaker, specialising in dance and theatre.

In preparation for this post we studied all of the recordings available on DVD.  However, for the purposes of our discussion below we will focus on only one of these recordings.  We found it quite tricky to choose, but we decided that the ballet partnership of Rojo and Acosta made a neat parallel with the Fonteyn and Nureyev partnership featured in the Romeo and Juliet on Screen Then section of this post. 

By the time of filming, Rojo and Acosta were an established partnership in both the 19th century classics, particularly Giselle (Perrot/Coralli, 1841) La Bayadère (Petipa, 1877) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895), and in MacMillan’s Manon (1974), as well as Romeo and Juliet.  Described as taking the Royal Ballet “by storm” when they joined the company (Acosta in 1998, Rojo in 2000) (Guiheen), over time they became known on stage as the “Brangelina of ballet” (Tan).  This suggests that although they indubitably did not cause the sensation of Fonteyn and Nureyev (has any couple in the history of British ballet?), they were unquestionably a ballet partnership of glamour, and a force to be reckoned with.  Further, they had received outstanding notices for their performances.  John Percival, for example claimed that Rojo “must be the best Royal Ballet Juliet for a quarter century or more, since Gelsey Kirkland’s guest seasons”, adding that Acosta was “on equally fine form”, while according to Sarah Crompton, their performances “absolutely gleam[ed] with greatness” (qtd. In “Reviews 2004-2007”). In contrast, with the exception of Bonelli, all of the other protagonists filmed in Romeo are home grown, so to speak, all having had at least some training at the Royal Ballet School; neither were their partnerships celebrated to the same extent.  However, by the 2012 Bonelli-Cuthbertson performance, cinema screenings of ballet were well established, and consequently perhaps no longer needed the draw of an international star partnership.

By now you must be asking yourselves about surely the most publicised screening of the ballet in recent years, that is, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words … which we have of course not forgotten.  For their 2019 Beyond Words former Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt held auditions, resulting in the cast being led by two more home-grown talents: Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell.  Undoubtedly the reason for the additional publicity was that Nunn and Trevitt produced and directed an adaption of the ballet filmed on location.  Their choice of location was the Renaissance backlot of the Korda Studios in Hungary.  Constructed for the TV series The Borgias, the backlot is a magnificent and atmospheric set of buildings, courtyards, piazzas, alleys and interiors depicting historical Italy. 

Filming the ballet on location was of course not an original idea. As early as 1955, Lev Arnshtam directed the seminal Romeo and Juliet by Leonid Lavrovsky (1940) on location in the Yalta Film Studio.  Perhaps more important than this, however, is the film of Shakespeare’s play directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  We know that MacMillan had been inspired by Zeffirelli’s 1960 Old Vic staging.  Further, the naturalism emphasised by Zeffirelli in his direction leant itself well to an on-location filming, including the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, the streets of the medieval town of Gubbio, and the Basilica of St Peter in Tuscania.  Therefore, this way of breathing fresh life into MacMillan’s choreography and bringing the ballet to potential new audiences seemed to us entirely compatible with the choreographer’s own vision for his work. 

In all of the recent live recordings the familiar rich colour palette of Nicholas Georgiadis’ designs dominates: deep reds, browns and golds, with injections of white, noticeably in the costumes of the two Lovers.  In contrast to this, Beyond Words is altogether brighter and livelier in its initial visual impact, opening as it does on the sun beaming down on a courtyard scene of hens and a dog, a busy servant, and a small child running off on some errand.  Juliet’s room is no longer a minimally furnished vast stage space, but a chamber embellished with pale light drapes that let the sunshine in, and filled with various furnishings, including a chest, cushions, a settle, chairs and candles.   

MacMillan’s ballet began life in 1964 when he was commissioned to create a short work for Canadian television.  This work in fact became the Balcony pas de deux, which MacMillan created on his muses Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable.  This duet was the beginning of the full ballet that premiered the following year in London.  Given its place both within the narrative and as the culmination of Act I, it is of course one of the ballet’s main climaxes; but for us, the fact that the rest of the work emerged from this pas de deux gives it a special significance.  

At the start of the scene Tamara Rojo’s Juliet emerges from the darkness of the balcony, the whiteness of her skin and dress gleaming softly through the night air, and we think of Romeo’s wistful words …

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East and Juliet is the sun!

(11.2.2-3)

She looks down at the hand that Romeo touched when they first met in the Ballroom, brings her hands together and holds them to her cheek.  Again, we hear the voice of Romeo:

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!

Oh that I were a glove upon that hand,

That I might touch that cheek!

(11.2.23-25)

Given that MacMillan, Seymour and Gable worked with Shakespeare’s text, it seems reasonable to assume that these gestures were integral to the original choreography, but even if not, we know that Rojo studied Shakespeare’s text in her preparation for dancing the ballet, thereby rendering her approach to creating her own version of Juliet faithful to the spirit of the work (“Tamara Rojo on being Juliet”).  We also find that the resonances with Shakespeare’s soul-stirring verse, and the reference to their first meeting lend a palpable air of longing to the opening of the scene. 

At the end of the scene Juliet returns to the balcony, only to kneel down immediately and reach for Romeo, who is straining up towards her.  But despite their burning passion, their hands don’t quite meet—a reminder perhaps that the distance imposed upon them is simply too great; or maybe it is an expression of unfulfilled desire; or perhaps both.  Whatever our feelings about this moment, it is also a foreshadowing of the tomb scene where Rojo’s Juliet lacks the strength to keep hold of Romeo’s hand as she draws her last breath.

In an interview after the Beyond Words premiere, Hayward talked about how important the set was to her understanding and portrayal of Juliet.  At the start of the Balcony Scene music we see the Nurse (Romany Pajdak) brushing Juliet’s hair.  Juliet seems preoccupied, restless.  As she approaches her balcony, we watch her from behind, almost as if we are following her into another world.  But the scene is softly aglow with the light of the moon, so there is no sense of Juliet lighting up the darkness; neither are there any noticeable gestures referring to Juliet’s first meeting with Romeo or to Shakespeare’s text.  But what we are given here is a sense of being physically present in Verona, as we watch the Lovers through the foliage of the garden.  And at the end of the scene not only do their hands touch, but they are able to hold one another’s forearms before letting go again.  Although the scene is to us rather less poetic than the stage version, it recreates the sense of realism that MacMillan was so eager to effect in the work—a realism to which we have perhaps become too accustomed to fully appreciate.

At the end of the ballet our minds return to this moment of joy: looking through the grille enclosing the crypt, we witness Juliet’s failed attempt to reach Romeo’s hand.  In close-up shot all we can see in the final moments are her hands dangling over the tomb, almost as if they were disembodied.  It is well known that MacMillan wanted no sentimentality to be portrayed in this scene: “… the death scene was crucial to Kenneth.  His lovers were not reunited in death.  They did not die in each other’s arms” wrote Seymour (186).  As far as MacMillan was concerned the death of Romeo and Juliet was a complete waste of young life (qtd. in Seymour 186), and this ending seems to us a fitting indictment on all those involved in precipitating the death of the teenagers.

Another memory that Seymour writes about is the now iconic scene where Juliet sits alone and still on her bed in desperation until she resolves to visit Friar Laurence for help with her predicament.  Fifty-seven years after the premiere, this is still a suspenseful moment of high emotion in a live performance, a moment when we invariably reach for our opera glasses to experience more intensely Juliet finding a glimmer of hope through her despair.  As if mimicking our opera glasses, in both the recordings we’re analysing the camera moves in close, so that we can witness the expressivity of Rojo and Hayward in their near stillness, watch the quickening of their breath, the agitation in Hayward’s face, and the transformation from Rojo’s dark mien to the return of light to her face.  Fifty-seven years after the premiere, this must surely still constitute a challenge for the ballerina to project her interpretation of Juliet’s emotions through the most economical of means.  Rojo herself states, “The hardest thing is the moment when you sit in bed and you have no movement at all to express your feelings” (“Tamara Rojo on being Juliet”).

Romeo and Juliet on Screen Then

For commercial recordings of Romeo and Juliet from earlier years there is no problem of choice: as far as we are aware, there are only two.  These are the film versions made just one year after the creation of the work, starring Fonteyn and Nureyev, and the 1984 recording for BBC television featuring Wayne Eagling and a 21-year-old Alessandra Ferri.

We found comparing the two in terms of visual impact very interesting.  Although filmed in Pinewood Studios, there is an attempt to simulate a theatre experience with the opening and closing of the curtains at the start and end of each act, and curtain calls at the end.  The film was produced and directed by the film-maker Paul Czinner, and we would guess that the budget was quite substantial.  In contrast, the quality of the television film is rather poor, far from the high definition to which we have now become accustomed.  Although a sense of opulence is still conveyed with some imagination on the part of the viewer, the television production values are of the time, and we must confess that to us it is rather drab looking.  This MacMillan may of course have appreciated in a way, given his love for realism in the theatre.

On the other hand, from the start the Czinner film blazes with colour like a Renaissance painting, with bright blues and highly pigmented reds, striking yellows and dazzling golds and greens vying for attention.  For us these original sets and costumes provide an ideal frame for the kind of vibrancy that MacMillan had so admired in Zeffirelli’s Old Vic production of the play in 1960 and wished for his own ballet.  In fact he told Georgiadis, who often attended rehearsals, that he wanted a Verona “where young horny aristocrats roamed the town full of romantic, adventurous spirits” (qtd. in Seymour 181).

Just as there is such a dramatic contrast between the look of the two recordings, there are some equally alerting contrasts in the particular moments that we have discussed above in the Now section of this post.

When booking tickets at the Royal Opera House, we have always preferred to sit on the left side of the auditorium for this ballet, to ensure that we can watch Juliet on her balcony.  There seems to be a substantial amount of freedom from performer to performer with regard to how she uses the opening music of this scene, and very likely ballerinas won’t even perform exactly the same movements from one performance to the next; so this is another moment when the opera glasses come out.  Ferri appears with an air of blissful restlessness, looking up at the moon, down to her hands, over the balcony and up to the moon again.  Leaning her elbows on the balustrade, the most telling moment is when she holds her hands to her cheek, swaying her body gently from side to side with an ecstatic smile on her face.  But Fonteyn’s use of this moment of freedom to explore Juliet’s feelings we find almost disconcerting.  As in the 2012 and 1984 productions, she emerges from darkness to light up like Romeo’s “bright angel” (Shakespeare 11.2 26, p. 37), after which she gestures slowly upwards with her right arm towards the moon.  Although we know the moon to be significant to Shakespeare’s scene, in our opinion the gesture does not reveal much about Juliet’s thoughts and emotions.  This was contrary to the intentions of MacMillan, Seymour and Gable who had “tried to find steps and gestures to express the characters’ state of mind” (Parry 279).

The scandal of the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet being given to Fonteyn and Nureyev in favour of Seymour and Gable, who had contributed so much to the rehearsal process, is well documented.  Not only was Seymour cast as the fifth Juliet, but it was she who taught the role of Juliet to the other four ballerinas: “Margot … wanted to create her own Juliet”, she recalls (188).  This is particularly noticeable in some movements near the start of the Balcony Scene that are reminiscent of “The Kingdom of the Shades” from Marius Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadère, which Nureyev had staged in 1963: supported pirouettes ending in arabesque accentuate Fonteyn’s classical line, and were presumably chosen by her for this reason.  At the close of the scene Nureyev remains downstage right in a lunge, elegantly gesturing towards Juliet on the balcony as she reciprocates by unfolding her arm in his direction.  This approach does accentuate the irreconcilable distance that the family feud has imposed upon the Lovers; but the poses strike us as symbolic, rather than reflecting the naturalism and urgent emotion that MacMillan was after.  As Seymour put it during a coaching session on the Balcony Scene:

He wanted you to be a real pimply teenager, both of you, who bump noses when they first try to kiss and do all that sort of thing.  They didn’t do it beautifully … it was a little awkward, and a little wonderful, and a little gawky and a little this and a little that.  So try not to deal with it as if you’re some kind of ballerina.

(“Romeo and Juliet Masterclass”)

Another noticeable discrepancy that jars somewhat is Fonteyn’s choice of movement when her Juliet is trying to find a solution to her approaching marriage to Paris.  Rather than sitting on the bed facing directly downstage, she kneels by the bed facing downstage left and mimics crying before raising her head and slowly moving her gaze to downstage right, almost as if watching herself rushing to Friar Laurence.  Perhaps this worked at the time, but when the viewer is accustomed to the drama of being confronted with Juliet’s stillness face-on, it breaks the intensity of the moment.

Seymour recalls what a daring decision it was to reduce movement to a minimum at this climactic point in the narrative, and what a challenge it presented for her, but that MacMillan was convinced that she was capable of holding the audience (185-86).  And his belief in Seymour was justified: audiences and journalists alike were struck by the audaciousness of the sequence, Seymour claiming that it “had a singularly terrifying effect on the scalp of balletgoers” (193).

Presumably it was a combination of Fonteyn’s celebrity status and the challenge presented by the innovative choreographic and dramatic ideas conjured up by MacMillan, Gable, and Seymour that persuaded the other Juliets to adopt Fonteyn’s approach to interpreting the choreography and character, resulting in MacMillan’s fear that his vision of the ballet would not be realised onstage (189).  However, as the recording of Ferri’s 1984 performance testifies, MacMillan’s fears were ultimately unfounded.  The Balcony Scene ends with the Romeo and Juliet straining towards one another in their burning desire to touch one another’s hands just one more time before they part.  Ferri’s Juliet sits on the bed facing the audience as Colin Nears’ camera zooms out, thereby emphasising her aloneness in the vast stage space that represents her room.  And Ferri, who became such a long-standing interpreter of the role, showed no reluctance in the death scene to allow the weight of her body to hang in a precarious backbend over the sepulchre with no thought to elegance, unable to keep hold of Romeo’s hand.  Fonteyn’s Juliet, on the other hand, dies holding onto Romeo’s arm and with her body carefully arranged so we can still see her face, and with little sense of the precariousness that might disrupt the ballerina image. 

Ironically perhaps, the Czinner recording states overtly that the purpose of the film is twofold: to preserve the performance for a wider audience and as a record for posterity.  For us, however, the importance of the film is not so much in its preservation of the dancing of the two undisputed ballet stars of the era, but the way in which the reluctance of the performers to engage fully with MacMillan’s vision highlight the radical nature of MacMillan’s choreography seen both in performance and in the later films.

Concluding thoughts

Having grown up at a time when the only way to engage with ballet choreographies apart from seeing them live was through written materials, photos, LPs and the occasional television broadcast, we feel immensely privileged to have access to all of these recordings of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet

The films offer us an insight into the radical nature of the choreography, and ways in which the politics of power can have an impact on the nature of a choreographic work.  We can also re-evaluate the work after a long period of familiarity and find new ways of appreciating it through the imaginative work of directors and new casts that bring the work to life again.

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Byrne, Emma. “Romeo and Juliet review: an inspired choice for the Royal Ballet’s return”. Evening Standard, 6 Oct. 2021, www.standard.co.uk/culture/dance/romeo-and-juliet-review-royal-opera-house-b959020.html.

Guiheen, Julia. “Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta in “Romeo and Juliet” (2007)”. Pointe Magazine, 20 Nov. 2019, pointemagazine.com/tbt-tamara-rojo-carlos-acosta/.

Parry, Jann. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber & Faber, 2009.

“Reviews 2004-2007”. Tamara Rojo, 7 Mar. 2006, www.tamara-rojo.com/reviews-2004-2007/.

“The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet: 50 years of star-crossed dancers – in pictures”. The Guardian, 2 Oct. 2015, www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2015/oct/02/royal-ballet-romeo-and-juliet-50-years-of-star-crossed-dancers-in-pictures.

Seymour, Lynn, with Paul Gardner. Lynn: the autobiography of Lynn Seymour. Granada, 1984.

—. “Romeo and Juliet Masterclass: Balcony pas de deux”. Revealing MacMillan, Royal Academy of Dance, 2002.

“Tamara Rojo on being Juliet”. Dance Australia, 26 May 2014, http://www.danceaustralia.com.au/news/tamara-rojo-on-being-juliet.

Tan, Monica. “Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta: the Brangelina of ballet on chemistry, ageing and loss of innocence”. The Guardian, 27 June, 2014, www.theguardian.com/culture/australia-culture-blog/2014/jun/27/tamara-rojo-carlos-acosta-brangelina-of-ballet.

Wilkinson, Sarah. “Why Watch Ballet on the Silver Screen?”. The Guardian, 15 Aug. 2008, www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2008/aug/15/whyshouldipaytoseeprerec.

In Conversation: English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2021

Emerging Dancer: a celebration

This year’s Emerging Dancer was a bit different to the usual event, in that it was a celebration of the competition, performed by past winners of both the Emerging Dancer Award and the People’s Choice Award. The programme was diverse, spanning the Romantic era to new commissions, and produced by James Streeter, First Soloist of English National Ballet, as part of the Dance Leaders of the Future programme. Julia and Rosie watched it on English National Ballet’s YouTube channel.

For us it’s really important that Emerging Dancer continues to give opportunities to choreographers and dancers to work together on new pieces.  Traditionally there’s been an emphasis on the stars of the future in terms of dancers, but it’s also great to see new choreographic works by lesser known and less experienced choreographers, who may become the choreographic stars of the future.  

Rosie: In 2018 there was an amazing work by Mthuthuzeli November called Point of Collapse that he created for Precious Adams.  I was transfixed by it.   Then last year Stina Quagebeur made a duet titled Hollow for Emily Suzuki (who has fast become one of my favourite ENB dancers—elegant, classical and dramatic in equal measure) and Victor Prigent, which they went on to perform as part of the Solstice programme at the Festival Hall in June of this year.  But it was also performed by Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza.  I was disappointed that I didn’t see this additional cast as well as the original dancers.

Julia: I was particularly taken by Alison and Junor’s performance of Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land pas de deux. Both dancers’ connection was so profound yet so subtle: you could really see their connection through the movement being performed, for example, the way Junor’s arms created harmonic lines framing the elegant curves of Alison’s upper body. 

Rosie: Sometimes you can really see how the choreographer uses the particular talents and personality of the dancer or dancers they use.  I felt this keenly in the case of Mlindi Kulashe’s Self Tape that he made for Rhys Antoni Yeomans. Mlindi is with Northern Ballet, although he studied at ENB School, and we saw his Mamela… in 2018.  That was about frustration and entrapment, but for Rhys he made a piece of a very different nature.  Rhys won the People’s Award last year, and I can see exactly why: he has an ebullient stage presence and is able to perform a lot of virtuosic “tricks”, as if to the manner born. 


Rhys Antoni Yeomans performs Self Tape as part of ENB’s Emerging Dancer – A Celebration photo: Laurent Liotardo

Julia:  I found the first section of this solo very quirky and humorous, perhaps reflective of his character, as he dances with a camera on a tripod, as if working out where best to place it to record his “performance”.  The second section was also quirky in its use of gesture and unusual rhythms, but in addition displayed Rhys’ technical facility with constant quick, unexpected changes of weight, and leaps and turns that seemed to appear from nowhere.

Rosie: A dancer who is very different to Rhys is Aitor Arrieta, another favourite of ours.  

Julia: Yes, indeed! He always strikes me as a very elegant and refined dancer, ideal for the classics, and princely roles.  He reminds me of James Streeter in the way he carries himself, and the style of the Grand pas classique that he danced with Julia Conway really highlighted these qualities of Aitor’s—as the title suggests, in fact. 

Rosie: We went to see him in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in Southampton, remember? I found him tender in this role. He won Emerging Dancer jointly with Rina Kanehara in 2017 performing the Esmeralda pas de deux. But he also has a lot of dramatic potential: we saw this in Manon, didn’t we? And even more so in Akram Khan’s Giselle. That performance of Giselle was very special, because it was Crystal Costa’s final performance with the Company.  I miss her—she was my number one Mistress in Manon.

Julia: Yes, she brought out a warmth in the character, as well as humour—she sometimes seemed a bit ditsy.  Remembering this performance of Giselle makes me really excited to see  Aitor in Akram Khan’s Creature at the start of next month. 

Rosie: Another dancer I love as Lescaut’s Mistress in Manon is Rina.  She has a natural radiance, but she is also very funny in that role.  


Julia; Yes, I enjoyed watching her in this year’s new commission by Nikita Goile, dancing with Georgia Bould and Alice Bellini. You can really see her own interpretation of Goile’s choreography, and personal choices performing the movement material, like the individuality of the hand gestures close to her face. 

Rosie: Yes, we saw a completely different side of her, which I’ve seen only in corps de ballet roles, such as Akram Khan’s Giselle.   But here, in Goile’s Lilith’s Voice she was the central figure and showed a dramatic, even tragic, weight in her dancing, as well as an intensity of presence.  This is another advantage of new choreographies—they can bring out unexpected qualities in dancers, thereby helping the dancer to develop, and helping us, the audience, to see the dancer in a different light and so not be tempted to typecast people in our minds.

Julia: Indeed – ENB dancers are incredibly fortunate to have such diverse experiences with the Company. 

Rosie: I thought the evening came to a rip-roaring climax with Shiori Kase and Dani McCormick in Flames of Paris.  One of the things I really enjoyed about watching this celebration was seeing some of the same pieces with different dancers. 

Julia: In 2019 we saw Flames of Paris with Julia Conway and Rentaro Nakaaki.  That was the last competition before the pandemic, and the performance was a clear winner for us.  I was so excited for Julia when she won. I think we have said this before—she has always worked in a focussed way and seems so eager to continue to develop her skills, using her personal talent and aiming to achieve her full potential.  But did you know that it was Shiori who coached Julia in 2019?

Julia Conway and Aitor Arrieta perform a Grand pas Classique, part of ENB’s Emerging Dancer: A Celebration photo: Laurent Liotardo

Rosie: No, I did not! That’s so interesting. I would love to see Julia as Aurora—she emits a sense of composure in the face of technical challenges that would suit the role, I think … This was abundantly clear in that fiendish diagonal of rélevés with développés and turns in her solo variation from Grand pas classique. But Shiori won the Emerging Dancer Award in 2011, the second year of the competition, and she has since shown herself to be a beautiful classical ballerina, most recently in Solstice, in which she danced both the Coppélia and Le Corsaire pas de trois; I mean, her technical assurance in Flames of Paris was just captivating.  Here she also showed a cheekiness in her dancing. And I loved her fouettés with changing port de bras from fourth position to fourth position with the other arm.  I found out from her Instagram that she and Dani (whose full name is Daniel Alejandro McCormick-Quintero) participated in the US International Ballet Competition in 2014, when she won the Gold Medal.  One of the joyful things about this performance was Dani’s full adoption of the role of Philippe, as well as his full engagement with all the technical and stylistic challenges of the role—and let’s face it, there are plenty.  In this he reminds me of Jeffrey Cirio; I can’t really give any higher accolade.

Shiori Kase and Daniel McCormick perform a pas de deux from Flames of Paris in ENB’s Emerging Dancer – A Celebration Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Julia: Indeed – it was a great performance from Dani! I particularly liked Ivana Bueno and Victor Prigent’s partnership in the extract from La Sylphide. Ivana’s phrasing was incredible; her épaulement was to perfection and the way in which she combined Bournonville’s small movements with more expansive turns and jumps was beautiful to watch. 

Ivana Bueno and Victor Prigent perform La Sylphide as part of ENB’s Emerging Dancer: A Celebration photo: Laurent Liotardo

Rosie: I always think that Bournonville choreography is deceptively simple.  Our students tend to think that Bournonville’s ballets are much easier to perform that the Petipa classics like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.  I was impressed by Victor’s articulation of all that intricate batterie, which is so challenging. I also felt that he and Ivana portrayed a wonderful sense of the human and supernatural worlds and their attraction for one another.

Julia: And finally, it was great seeing James Streeter at the end of the performance cheering his colleagues for their brilliant work and dedication toward this year’s performance. He made particular mention of the mentors, who are all dancers in the Company. For me, this shows that despite the challenges the Company faced during the pandemic, ENB dancers continue to find ways of developing their careers and exploring new skills.

© British Ballet Now & Then

Watching with British Ballet Now & Then: ENB’s Reunion

The day has come at last! Monday 17 May 2021, and theatres are reopening, so we are off to Sadler’s Wells to watch English National Ballet’s Reunion—the live performances of the five films created last autumn: Take Five BluesSenseless KindnessLaid in EarthEchoes, and Jolly Folly.

And it’s Tamara Rojo’s birthday.  What could be more serendipitous?

The day has come at last, and we are excited, but also a bit apprehensive, as if we’re emerging from a bunker where we’ve been sheltering, and we’re not sure of the damage that might await us.

Twitter is awash with tweets about preparing to go to the theatre, concerns about donning “real” clothes (conveyed with great humour) and good wishes from all and sundry to theatres and museums that are reopening.  

We have received a long and detailed missive from Sadler’s Wells Theatre about staying safe before, during and after the performance.  It makes us feel a tad nervous, but overriding the nervousness is the curiosity about how it will feel to put on glad rags, get on a train and then meet together with hundreds of people in the same building; but hundreds fewer than usual.  How will people look? What masks will they be wearing? (We have purchased brand-new silk masks for the occasion.) How will they negotiate the space? How even will the theatre smell?  

Overriding the curiosity is the sense of building anticipation, reminding us of how slow the hours would pass as a teenager waiting to see one of our first ballets, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, or great stars like Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland or Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Five works, all new to the stage, all to be performed in a single evening after over a year of absence from the theatre.  What better way to return to live performance? 

As we approach the theatre walking along Arlington Way, the area seems eerily still. But as soon as we turn the corner into Rosebery Avenue we are part of a milling crowd—not as big as usual, but enough to give us a familiar feel of the theatre.

Checking in is easy, and the staff are, as always, relaxed and friendly.

Everything seems just as usual—we’re so accustomed to people wearing masks by now that it doesn’t seem out of place, even in the theatre.  Once in the auditorium, there are little jokes about social distancing with the people sitting near us.  The Second Circle seems quite full, but with much more evenly spaced empty seats than those unfortunate occasions when not all the seats have been sold. 

Everything seems just as usual … until the lights go down and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells Alastair Spalding arrives on the stage with Patrick Harrison, Executive Director of English National Ballet.  They greet us with emotion in their voices, whereupon the theatre erupts with joyous cheers, whoops, clapping and stamping, to which we enthusiastically contribute.  

The buoyancy of the atmosphere continues to simmer throughout the evening, bubbling up to moments of explosive jubilation.  We’re lucky to be sitting near Shevelle Dynott, until recently a dancer with the Company, rooting for his friends with unrepressed enthusiasm.

As we knew from the films, each piece creates a different world.  In order for us to transition from one to the other without an interval or even a break, short clips are shown of the choreographers and dancers speaking about the works, some of which we remember from the mini documentaries that accompanied the films.  These introductions facilitate the shift from one created world to the next, like the wardrobe opening into Narnia …

The worlds are the same as we remember from the films, and yet they are different.  Sometimes the dramatic use of space throws relationships into more vivid relief, as in Yuri Possokhov’s Senseless Kindness, even if moments of intimacy and quietness resonate with poignancy as much from our memories as from what we are seeing in front of us on the stage.  

Emma Hawes and Isaac Hernandez in Senseless Kindness by Yuri Possokhov part of ENB’s Reunion © Laurent Liotardo

The stage space throbs with dramatic energy in Sidi Larbi Cherakoui’s Laid in Earth where the film’s forest and lake are replaced by a kind of wasteland, and the use of physical three-dimensional space evokes the characters’ shadowy reflections in the lake’s murky waters.  

Erina Takahashi and James Streeter in Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui part of ENB’s Reunion © Laurent Liotardo
Jeffrey Cirio and James Streeter in Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui ©Laurent Liotardo

Stina’s Quagebeur’s work strikes as the most familiar, but we can see some of her witty groupings with greater clarity as individual dancers unexpectedly fire themselves up into the air above the cluster surrounding them.  Russell Maliphant’s masterly use of lighting seems even more hypnotic on stage, as pulsating lights enfold us like waves into his world of Echoes, where the swirling seamless motion of dancers and light fuse together to transform the stage space. 

Angela Wood in Take Five Blues by Stina Quagebeur © Laurent Liotardo

Knowing the dancers as she does, Quagebeur (a dancer with the Company herself) brings out their personalities and individuality.  Areille Smith builds on her dancers’ characters to reveal new qualities that we feel more intently in the live performances and without the addition of the special effects: writ large is the devilry of Joe Caley, Ken Saruhashi and Erik Woolhouse; while Julia Conway and Francesca Velicu once again break forth from the chrysalis of their young ballerinadom to enter Jolly Folly’s boxing ring with spunkiness to spare, and then some.  

On-demand films give us choice: we can decide to watch whenever we want in whichever order – to match our calendar and our mood – including filling an unexpected free evening, or bringing some life to a dull lunch break. 

Live performance gives us choice: we can bring our focus to whichever aspect of the performance takes our fancy or draws our interest; we can take up the opportunity to watch multiple performances from different parts of theatre, and with different casts.

And live performances grow organically.  Even over the two weeks of this first run, performances have the chance to evolve with the same casts as well as with the insight of new casts.

As we leave, the sounds of the theatre are still ringing in our ears, and the visual images resonating in our mind’s eye.  

To be honest, we didn’t notice the smells of the theatre, but we were very happy that our masks were admired.

As is our wont, we have returned to watch further performances—the final two of the run.  The whole process of attending the theatre in accordance with safety guidance now seems familiar and quite normal, and we have already experienced the works live, so our attention is now more focused on the specific performances of the work.  On the Saturday night the Company is on fire: Fernando Carratalá Coloma, Henry Dowdon, Shiori Kase visibly revel in the quick-fire repartee of Take Five Blues, taking exhilarating risks with timing, balance, moments of suspension; in Laid in Earth Erina Takahashi exudes the intensity of presence that mesmerised us in her performance of Medea in Yabin Wang’s M-Dao; Francesco Gabriele Frola sears his way through Senseless Kindness.  The energy of Jolly Folly is intoxicating.  So enthralled are we by Echoes, that we could sit here watching it for the rest of the evening …

English National Ballet in Echoes by Russell Maliphant © Laurent Liotardo

The delight of watching an alternative cast is in seeing more of our favourite dancers that we haven’t seen for over year—Aitor Arietta, Sarah Kundi, James Streeter, Emily Suzui—and being surprised and uplifted by dancers less familiar to us, like Rebecca Blenkinsop, Noam Durand, Matei Holeleu, Natascha Mair, Anna-Babette Winkler. And we are thrilled to notice a different ratio of female to male dancers in Jolly Folly, meaning that one of the female dancers has taken the role created by Erik Woolhouse.  She’s performing it with great gusto.

English National Ballet in Jolly Folly by Arielle Smith © Laurent Liotardo

In our opinion, it doesn’t take dramatic change for choreographic works to live, breathe and develop a life of their own: slight changes in the shaping of a gesture, a subtly different dynamic palette, a variation in the approach to space—all of these feed the work with new lifeblood. 

Attending live performances again, we realise how much we love the feeling of spontaneity both within and around us, as we catch our breath, laugh and cheer at various points in the show.  It’s all part and parcel of what make live theatre “so refreshingly uncertain”, as dance writer Graham Watts so aptly puts it.  

For pianist and composer Stephen Hough the audience is part of the performance in a “really intense way” (05:44).  The commitment of watching and of performing live is bound up with Hough’s understanding the way in which the transience and uncertainty of live performing arts gets to the very heart of what it means to be human: 

Whatever we’re enjoying has to end so that we can enjoy it again … I’m enjoying this cup of coffee very much now, but I don’t want it to last forever, because then I won’t be able to have my next cup of coffee and enjoy that too.  So this is the wonderful conundrum … of being a human being, of wanting to live forever, and yet the only way we can experience life is with things failing and passing and crumbling, and it’s the autumn turning into spring.  That’s what art is all about in some ways, isn’t it—you could almost trace all of the arts back to this fragility of existence, this longing to hold on to something, realising that you can’t, and within that contradiction is everything that we do in our artistic lives. (9:05-9:54) 

Long may we enjoy this conundrum, with many more live performances from the wonderful variety of British ballet companies.

Dedicated to Carla Fracci, who danced Giselle with London Festival Ballet (now ENB) as a young ballerina, and who died on May 27th this year: 

You don’t need to fix things. I hate [to fix things].  It’s how you feel … It’s the moment, that is important, it’s what you create, and this creates the performance. (1:26, 1:28)

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Fracci, Carla. “’Giselle’ – A Documentary”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 14 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=–FVqDeLByY. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Hough, Stephen. “Music Matters: Music in the Moment”. BBC Sounds, 29 May 2021, www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wkcy. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Watts, Graham. “Live dance returns to London: English National Ballet’s Reunion”. Bachtrack, 27 May 2021, https://bachtrack.com/review-english-national-ballet-reunion-sadlers-wells-may-2021. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Watching with British Ballet Now and Then: English National Ballet’s New Dance Films

We are excited.  This year has seen so many performances cancelled, new productions put on hold, new choreographies postponed. And now, over the weeks leading up to Christmas, English National Ballet are releasing five brand new dance films …

Take Five Blues

Photos: English National Ballet in Take Five Blues, a film by Shaun James Grant, choreographed by Stina Quagebeur © English National Ballet

Choreography: Stina Quagebeur

Filmmaker: Shaun James Grant

On a gloomy, overhung Thursday afternoon we are eager to see some positive signs of hope, even if only on our screens.

Take Five Blues begins with some of our favourite dancers entering the space … casually, as if in anticipation of the energy to come: Aitor Arietta, a long-time favourite; Fernando Carratalà Coloma, whom we admired so much as the Messenger of Death in Song of the Earth; Rentaro Nakaaki, who impressed us so much last year in Emerging Dancer; Katya Kaniukova, sassy as ever, and Shiori Kase with her joyous turns and luminous presence.

Choreographer Stina Quagebeur wants it to feel like we’re in the room with the dancers, and in fact we are reminded of watching class.  The visible energy.  The audible energy.  Moments of relaxation to take breath.  The spurring on of colleagues.  Personalities gleaming through the movement.  But the globes of soft light hanging over the dark stage space evoke an ambiance of a different ilk.

There is a serendipitous moment when Fernando Carratalà Coloma and Henry Dowden reach the height of a jump in complete synchrony.

Unwittingly our lecturer hats are donned and we start to admire the structure of the work: individual dancers merge into clumps of synchronous movement – they scoop down and reach forward, scoop and reach in an easy rhythm – and then peel off one by one.  Breathtaking virtuosic display is juxtaposed with movements in slow motion.  Roaming camera angles lend added texture to the patterns and rhythms of the choreography.  

But ultimately we are captivated by the buoyant sway of the dancing to the familiar tones and rhythms of Paul Desmond’s Take Five and Bach’s Vivace in Nigel Kennedy’s ebullient arrangement. We laugh as all the male dancers collapse to the floor at the end.

The gloom of the Thursday afternoon is gone.  

Senseless Kindness 

Photos: Isaac Hernandez, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Alison McWhinney in Senseless Kindness a film by Thomas James with choreography by Yuri Possokhov © English National Ballet & Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Senseless Kindness a film by Thomas James with choreography by Yuri Possokhov © English National Ballet

Choreography: Yuri Possokhov

Filmmaker: Thomas James

From the trailer of Senseless Kindness we know that the tone is quite different from Take Five Blues.  Here darkness reflects a more melancholy and sombre mood.  While the whirling turns in Take Five Blues were exuberant in spirit, here Isaac Hernández spins himself into a vortex of frantic energy.

Monochrome hues, shafts of light steaming through the darkness create atmospheric spaces evoking sites of conflict and flight, fear and anxiety; and sites of momentary peace and joy.

The two couples, perfectly matched, conveying the sense of being connected by family, move fluidly together from shape to shape like kinetic sculpture.  Unison intensifies the sense of togetherness, but then the couples find their own spaces to express their own identities.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 catches at us with the tension of its edgy strings and percussive keyboard, giving rise to angular, staccato movement for the male dancers, performed with urgent attack and dramatic intensity.  Lyrical passages bring forth movements that melt into slow motion and blurred lines, like memories passing across the mind.  From time to time the dappled faces emerge and the camera hovers over tenderness, longing, sadness.  But then a smile crosses our lips at the warm playfulness of a pas de bourrée.

Speaking of the meaning of his work as a reflection of life, choreographer Yuri Possokhov muses: “so many negative things and so many positive things at the same time” (documentary 5:10-5:14).

Isaac Hernández’ vortical spins swiftly unravel into an ecstatic attitude reaching for the sky.

In Senseless Kindness everything is shadows and light.                  

Laid in Earth

Photos: James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio in Laid in Earth, a film by Thomas James, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui © English National Ballet

Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Filmmaker: Thomas James

Twenty-four hours on and we are still haunted by Laid in Earth.  Images of a Stygian forest and lake flit through our heads.  The underworld has been recreated for us, inhabited by four beings who twist and curl like the gnarled branches surrounding them.  Sometimes their limbs mutate into branches.  Sometimes they fuse spookily with the forest itself, their bodies becoming sites for forest growth.  Jeffrey Cirio’s character rarely moves far from the ground: he slides and spins seamlessly over it, sinks softly into it, allowing gravity to release him down.  Mesmerizing costumes and make-up seal the oneness of dancers and their environment.  

Erina Takahashi’s distilled energy gives an eerie glow to her being, drawing us to her as the central figure. She almost takes the hand of her shadow Precious Adams, but they seem wary.  They reflect one another in the dark waters. James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio mirror one another on the dark ground.  In the duet Erina Takahashi and James Streeter coil around one another in a dance of sorrow. 

Laid in Earth brings Giselle to mind – the Wilis inhabiting the shadowy forest, their hems damp from the water of the lake above which they hover, and maybe from the early morning dew as they dissolve into the morning’s mist.  Hearing Dido’s plangent tones “Remember me”, we recall the rosemary branch that transforms Giselle into a Wili

If everything in Senseless Kindness is shadows and light, then everything in Laid to Earth is shadows and darkness.

Echoes

Photo: Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Russell Maliphant’s Echoes a film by Michael Nunn & William Trevitt © English National-Ballet

Choreography: Russell Maliphant

Filmmakers: Michael Nunn & William Trevitt

Over the weeks we have noticed that all the new choreographies have different casts, so every week we are seeing different dancers.  For us it feels like a big bonus to see a range of dancers from the Company (not to mention its egalitarian spirit).  But it’s also exhilarating to watch the dancers being challenged by movement styles that are unfamiliar to them.  This is noticeable to us this week in Russell Maliphant’s Echoes.  In the documentary we particularly enjoy Fabian Reimar and Fernanda Oliviera talk about both the challenges and the satisfaction of working with Maliphant in the studio with his task-based approach to the creative process, the groundedness of his choreography, the liquid dynamic of his movement – “like the ocean”, as Fernanda says (1:00-1:02).

Fernanda and Fabian dancing together is like a pas de deux of the ocean waves.  Moving seamlessly together as one, waves of motion repeatedly merge into one another.

Along with Fabian Reimar, Isabelle Brouwers is a dancer whom we admire greatly.  Both can bring vibrant drama to the simplest of movements.  This we have witnessed in Akram Khan’s Giselle when they perform the Landlord and Bathilde respectively.  In Echoes we witness it once again as Fabian looms on the screen with his rich and resonant presence.  

When Isabelle dances in classical pas she radiates an incandescent glow.  In Echoes her glow is hushed, softly diffused, though ever present, subsumed in the hypnotic swirling of the group.

Again and again we note the soft passive weight of the dancers.  Then the movement accelerates, becoming electrifying as the dancers swiftly free flow between heavier passive weight and strong active weight.  The dance reaches its whirling crescendo.

As the piece moves to a close, alone on the stage, Junor Souza spirals continuously, an echo of what has passed that reverberates into the future as the image hovers in our minds …

And once again we leave our screen with optimism, not only about the survival of ballet, but even about its potential revival. 

Jolly Folly

Photos: English National Ballet in Jolly Folly, a film by Amy Becker-Burnett, choreographed by Arielle Smith © English National Ballet & Francesca Velicu, Ken Saruhashi and Julia Conway in Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly a film by Amy Becker-Burnett © English National Ballet

Choreography: Arielle Smith

Filmmakers: Amy Becker-Burnett

Boxing Day.  Jolly Folly was released almost a week ago, but anything with the name Jolly Folly just seems to be made for Boxing Day.  And we’re told that this piece is reminiscent of “Old Hollywood”, and what else is Boxing Day for but whiling away the hours, spinning out the nostalgia over well loved classic movies?  The trailer has already revealed fantasy locations, and a single row of dancers scooting away from the line, one by one, in precise canon.  Busby Berkeley comes to mind …

We chuckle at the of irony in this 16-minute dance film being divided into three acts – that iconic structure that we tend to associate with the grandeur and scale of the late 19th century classics and the “full-length” dramas of Kenneth MacMillan.   Each act is announced by the flickering sound of a film projector … 

Quizzical looks and quirky walks on the black-and-white screen remind us of Charlie Chaplin.  We’re not well versed in Chaplin’s films, but the dim street lighting of Act I makes us think of the waterfront in his 1931 City Lights, while the boxing ring shenanigans are an unmistakable reference to the prize fight from the same film.  Dinner jackets, white tie and tails worn by the dancers are all part of the “Gentleman Tramp’s” wardrobe.  

From gentle-smile to laugh-out-loud, the humour is enhanced by Arielle Smith’s use of the score – the Klazz Brothers’ Classic Meets Cuba.  Joseph Caley and Ken Saruhashi sashay and pirouette to “Cuba Danube”. All nonchalance, they press up and sway from side to side in a backbend bridge, then leap and cartwheel over one another to the reworking of Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube”.  

Act II brings us an exquisite fulfilment of our Boxing Day thinking, as the chimes of the Sugar Plum Fairy morph into a paradoxically unsettling accompaniment to a world of grey clouds and craggy rocks, where the dancers strut across the space, hands in pockets, in a slightly menacing way, almost as if we’ve strayed into film noir territory. 

But with ever-changing vistas, coat-tails flying in elegant chaînés and suspended arabesques, Act III takes us back to the safe shores of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire.  Dancers skitter lightly across the space to the whimsical rendition of Mozart’s speedy “Rondo à la Turque”.  Jolly Folly ends in a gleeful final pose.

Epilogue

We were sorely disappointed.  Having booked our tickets to see these new choreographies onstage, we were “only” able to watch them on our screens.  But we were wrong … or at least half wrong …

In the end we discover that it’s not “only” on our screens.  These films are something to be treasured as a development in ballet making and ballet performance – they are not simply something to fill the gap left by the lack of live performances.  

Nonetheless, we can’t wait to see them live on the theatre stage. That moment can’t come too soon.