Spotlight on British Ballet Lockdown

How does ballet function in lockdown? Julia and Rosie have been closely following the activities of British ballet companies during the COVID-19 lockdown.  Here are our thoughts …

When people started to absent themselves from public places, and events started to be cancelled we became quite nervous, as we had various performances planned, including the Heritage programme in the Linbury Theatre (a programme of works by Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan), Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha created for Northern Ballet, and Akram Khan’s Creature choreographed for English National Ballet.  We cheered when Geisha received its world premiere in Leeds, but once lockdown was announced, it was clear that the London performances would be cancelled.  And even more devastating was the cancellation of Creature – Khan’s third collaboration with English National Ballet, featuring the extraordinary Jeffrey Cirio, who has excelled in roles as diverse as Ali in Le Corsaire, Des Grieux in Manon and Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle.

However, we were amazed at how quickly dancers and companies, in the face of a lockdown, started to organise a whole host of online activities, both for themselves and for their audiences.

The first event we recall was actually just prior to lockdown when Tamara Rojo both taught and did class herself with a small number of English National Ballet dancers at City Island, the Company’s new home.  The class was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, and it was wonderful to see the comments – people were clearly so appreciative, not only of Tamara’s teaching and the skill and dedications of the dancers, but also of the music, as it was the amazing Nicki Williamson playing. After two classes, Tamara had to move what became daily streamed classes to her kitchen.

Tamara-Rojo-C-Paul-Stuart-2
Tamara Rojo – Photo by Paul Stuart

Although it’s a professional class, it’s still manageable for people who regularly take ballet class at an intermediate level, and Tamara explains really clearly, which makes it easy to modify exercises if necessary.  Because she teaches from her kitchen, it has a very personal feel.  This also came across in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s class, which launched their Home from Home series: you can see the dancers in different parts of their houses – Carlos Acosta at the banister, for example.  It was a beautiful sunny day, so it was delightful to see Mathias Dingman doing the centre work in his garden with one of his small sons “joining in”.  In fact, seeing dancers “make do” in their living rooms and dining rooms, holding on to various bits of furniture as makeshift barres and adapting to spaces quite different from a dance studio has become an inspiring symbol of these times.  Beth Meadway of Ballet Cymru even demonstrated and danced a lovely “grand allegro” in a tiny space between bed and wardrobe.

But it’s not only ballet classes for professionals and experienced amateurs that are offered.  English National Ballet was a pioneer of Dance for Parkinson’s, and other companies have followed suit, as well as developing other classes to support people with various health issues.  And these members of the population have not been forgotten.  English National Ballet Artist Kate Hartley-Stevens is teaching Dance for Parkinson’s classes, while Katie Mason delivers sessions for ballet lovers with restricted mobility.  Meanwhile, Scottish Ballet live stream Health classes every week day, including Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland, Dance for Multiple Sclerosis, classes for people with dementia, and more generally for people over the age of sixty.

As we have been researching for this post and keeping our eyes open for new initiatives, it seems that each day brings something new, from English National Ballet’s array of ballet classes at various levels delivered by members of the Company, to Scottish Ballet’s Family Barre for parents and children led by Principal dancer Bethany-Kingsley-Garner, to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recently announced Baby Ballet uploaded on YouTube in bite-size chunks, including “Stretch those Feet”, “Butterflies” and “Fireworks”.  As the country’s flagship opera house, the Royal Opera House have announced a more ambitious project which will run over the next twelve weeks entitled Create and Learn.  Children are introduced to ballet and opera, if they are not already familiar with the art forms, and given the opportunity to write, make videos, engage in art, and make dances.  The activities are very clearly structured with guidance regarding age suitability and time requirements.  Learning outcomes are even provided.

Even smaller adult ballet enterprises, such as Everybody Ballet (led by Bennet Gartside of the Royal Ballet) and The Ballet Retreat, have now developed digital platforms.  The Ballet Retreat, as the name suggests, is a little different from attending a regular ballet class.  It was co-founded by Hannah Bateman of Northern Ballet and David Paul Kierce, formerly of the same company, and they run adult ballet intensives (from 1 to 3 days), where people are given the opportunity to learn extracts from the traditional ballet repertoire.  Although they still have courses planned for late spring and summer in London and Leeds, currently they are offering a range of ballet classes run by members of Northern Ballet, which has included a Disney ballet barre by Gavin McCaig.

So far our focus has been very strongly on classes, with dancers being wonderfully creative in both doing class themselves and in teaching class, thereby developing additional skills.  As lecturers ourselves, we know that teaching requires a range of intellectual, interpersonal and communication skills, and an extra layer of complexity is demanded for online delivery, we feel.    However, performances of various types are also being offered online, from works previously released on commercial DVD, such as the Royal Ballet’s The Metamorphosis and The Winter’s Tale, and Northern Ballet’s 1984, to performances created in people’s homes for the specific purpose of bringing us cheer.

Northern Ballet in Jonathan Watkins’ 1984. Photo by Emma Kauldhar

Northern Ballet are well known for their children’s ballets, such as Puss in Boots and The Ugly Duckling. These ballets are adapted for television in collaboration with CBeebies.  This year it was heart breaking that they had to cancel the tour of their latest children’s production Little Red Riding Hood, but the show has been made available on BBC iPlayer with the usual supplementary activities on CBeebies, such as jigsaw puzzles at various levels and movement to try at home.

Without a doubt the most entertaining of the performances have been the films made by Sean Bates and Mlindi Kulashe of Northern Ballet in their flat and the adjacent car park.  They made the news with their renditions of “The Greatest Show” and “Tomorrow”, evidently breaking some furnishings in the procedure.

At the other end of the scale, one of the most stirring performances was the except from Raymonda played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Music Director Gavin Sutherland.  The orchestra members were all playing from their homes, and the film was beautifully edited to highlight different sections of the orchestra, enhancing the gorgeous melodies and sumptuous textures of Alexander Glazunov’s score.  But what made this performance particularly rousing was its dedication to NHS Staff and its title “Play for our Carers”.  While of the surface, this might seem quite random, let’s remember that Tamara Rojo’s new adaptation of Raymonda opening in the autumn is inspired by Florence Nightingale.  Not someone to do things by halves, Tamara has been researching the life of Florence Nightingale for four years in preparation for this production, so the dedication was more than fitting.

ENB Philharmonic

As we were writing this post, English National Ballet announced the most exciting initiative yet – their Wednesday Watch Parties.  Each Wednesday a full recording of a Company performance will be premiered online; no complete recordings of these works have ever been made available before.  For the first two Wednesdays two jewels of their recent repertoire are being released on Facebook and YouTube for 48 hours: Akram Khan’s Dust (2014) and Anna Lopez-Ochoa’s Broken Wings (2016).  And there will be more jewels to come no doubt …

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Dust by Akram Khan – Photo by ASH

At this time of crisis, British ballet companies are working assiduously to keep themselves fit and ready to return to work, but they are also demonstrating their creativity in ways that help to bolster the nation in body, mind and spirit.  We hope that their generosity of spirit and invaluable contribution to people’s health and well-being at this time will be recognised and rewarded in both the short and the long term.

 

Kenneth MacMillan’s Choral Works Now & Then

The Choral Works Now

Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works Song of the Earth (1965), Requiem (1976) and Gloria (1980) must surely number amongst the choreographer’s most eloquent, moving and beautifully crafted ballets.  Ideally we would have preferred all three of these ballets to be staged during this season of celebrating MacMillan’s oeuvre.  Even though this was not to be, happily both Song of the Earth and Gloria were not only performed as part of the celebrations, but were staged for the first time by English National Ballet (ENB) and Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) respectively.

ENB’s first performance of Song of the Earth took place in October in a double bill with La Sylphide in Manchester, while Gloria opened with NBT in Bradford in a triple bill of MacMillan’s work.  The companies also performed the ballets at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, alongside performances by both Royal Ballet Companies and Scottish Ballet that spanned the decades of the choreographer’s creative life.  Fortunately there are still opportunities to see Song of the Earth at the London Coliseum (9th – 13th January) and Gloria at the Leeds Grand Theatre (16th – 17th March).

In case you’re not familiar with these ballets, here is a brief overview.  All three works are set to examples of iconic choral music that had lives of their own well before MacMillan created his choreography to them: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1909), Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1890) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloria (1959).  All of them deal with existential themes, including the omnipresence of death in our lives, the unnecessary loss of life, especially young life, to war, and the laying to rest of the soul in death.

Unlike MacMillan’s famous evening-length works, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon, these are not heavily narrative ballets and are relatively sparse in design.  In place of a narrative are intensely evocative images that arise from the themes, music score and lyrics.  An example is the famous image of eternity that closes Song of the Earth: to the elongated notes of the repeated word ewig, meaning forever, the three main figures (The Woman, The Man and The Eternal One or Messenger of Death) gradually move towards the audience, slowly rising and falling, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no break in the flow… Still rising and falling as the curtain falls.

Requiem was visually inspired by the drawings of William Blake.  Here the characters are more fluid than in Song of the Earth.  The central female character in white chiffon sometimes seems childlike, other times angelic (Parry 461-62); when she enfolds the male figure in a stylised embrace she appears maternal. Similarly, this male character can be interpreted in more than one way: in his loin cloth, is he a reference to Christ or to John the Baptist (462)?  Even the corps de ballet in Requiem can be perceived in contrasting ways, as both “mourners and blessed spirits” (462).

Gloria, inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, clearly references the trench warfare of World War I.  Sacrifice and loss are suggested by the configuration of the dancers in the shape of crucifixes.  Towards the end of the ballet the lead female dancer is supported by the two main male characters in a similar pose; in her ethereality and with her elongated but soft arms draped along their arms, she is also reminiscent of Giselle in Act II protecting Albrecht by the cross on her grave.

In recent years the principal roles in these choral ballets have been performed by such Royal Ballet luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Marianela Núñez, Tamara Rojo, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson. In fact, Song of the Earth was chosen by Darcey Bussell for her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007.

But Song of the Earth did not always enjoy the status it has nowadays. In 1965 it was quite a different story …

 

The Choral Works Then

Song of the Earth, Requiem, and Gloria are without doubt compelling works due to the imaginative and expressive choreography and perhaps because they are so rich in symbolism and allusion. And their history is equally compelling.

MacMillan is celebrated as a choreographer who was eager to extend ballet where subject matter was concerned, for example through the portrayal of rape in The Invitation (1958) or the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp in Valley of Shadows (1983).  However, the themes explored in the choral works were hardly new to ballet.  What was new was the treatment of those themes, how they were expressed.

In the Romantic era, when ballet enjoyed a great flourishing, themes of death, love, loss, evil, the spirit world, the afterlife, and the human soul were integral to ballet. These themes were expressed through symbols and metaphors in the narratives and characters of the ballets, and are still clear to see today in the two most celebrated works of the era: La Sylphide created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, and Giselle choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. Nowadays we might perceive the treatment of those themes to be rather quaint or naïve, although if we use some historical imagination, facilitated by last year’s documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet introduced by Tamara Rojo, with contributors David Allen (historian) and Marina Warner (mythologist), we might gain some insight into the kind of unsettling impact those works may have made in their early years.

It seems that the Royal Opera House Board members were similarly unsettled when MacMillan approached them about choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, as they rejected the idea on the grounds that “great music addressing elevated subjects, such a Mahler’s Song of the Earth, was unsuitable for ballet” (Parry 459).  If they did not recognise the similar “elevated subjects” within the Romantic repertoire, you would think that they might have been aware of them in Frederick Ashton’s wartime ballets, most famously Dante Sonata (1940). Evidently neither did they perceive the ballet music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Ravel to be “great music”.

The rejection from the Board was the reason why MacMillan mounted Song of the Earth on Stuttgart Ballet, where his friend John Cranko, another British choreographer, and mentor to MacMillan, was Artistic Director.  In Stuttgart the work proved to be a success.  So, only six months after the premiere in Stuttgart, the Royal Ballet staged Song of the Earth at Covent Garden, where it was “hailed as a major achievement” (Parry 305).

It would seem logical therefore that when MacMillan approached the Board in the mid-70s as Director of the Royal Ballet and Principal Choreographer, about creating a ballet to Fauré’s Requiem, that the response would be more positive than the reaction to the proposed Song of the Earth ballet.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fearing that such a ballet might “offend the religious beliefs of the public at large” (MacMillan qtd. in Parry 459) the Board again refused to commission the work.   Again MacMillan staged the work in Stuttgart; and again the work entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, though not before he had staged his third choral work, Gloria, for the Royal Ballet, this time with no objection from the Board.  Interestingly, MacMillan had decided to give exclusive performance rights to Requiem to Stuttgart Ballet for six years, by which time Beryl Grey had requested it for London Festival Ballet (Parry 464), suggesting the growing significance of these choreographic works by the early 1980s.  In fact, in 1982, Gloria was recorded by Granada Television for transmission on Remembrance Sunday 1982 (556).

Currently the Royal Opera House website describes Song of the Earth in proud and glowing terms as “Kenneth MacMillan’s powerful exploration … of love, loss and renewal”; Requiem is described as “moving” and “boldly inventive” “with some striking pas de deux”.  In our opinion MacMillan’s persistence in following through his choral projects resulted in some of the most distinctive, innovative and expressive additions to the British ballet canon, and we are indeed fortunate not only in being given the opportunity to see two of these works, but also in benefitting from the ENB billing of  La Sylphide from the Romantic era juxtaposed with Song of the Earth – two works that demonstrate such contrasting approaches to themes of human frailty, love, loss and transcendence in the art form that we love.

This post is dedicated to Helen Boyle and Andrew Dilworth.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … to coincide with the young Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmi Naghdi dancing the title role in Giselle, we will be thinking about celebrated Giselles of the past in British ballet companies.

References

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

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

Royal Opera House. “Requiem”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017