ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET’S EMERGING DANCER 2022: IN CONVERSATION

At British Ballet Now & Then we have been writing posts on English National Ballet’s annual Emerging Dancer Competition since 2018.  To us it seems a really important event.  So often we have enjoyed watching the contestants participate in the competition and then seen them develop into versatile artists.  Winners that come to mind are Aitor Arieta, Dani Mccormick and Julia Conway.  But even participants who do not win any prize seem to gain from the experience.  One dancer who fits this description and shines in so many roles is Emily Suzuki.  Two years ago in Emerging Dancer she performed the Satanella pas de deux with pristine classical technique, as well as Stina Quagebeur’s moving choreography Hollow.  And she has an extraordinary ability to transform herself to dance with utmost conviction in a whole plethora of works in contrasting styles: The Chosen One in Pina Bausch’s visceral Rite of Spring (1975), the gentle Marie in Creature, (Khan, 2021), the enigmatic aura of William Forsythe’s 2016 Blake Works “The Colour in Anything” and the irrepressible exuberance of the “Ratchuli” in Raymonda (Petipa, 1898/Rojo, 2022).  This year Emily, like Aitor, Dani and Julia, were promoted, and Emily also won Emerging Dancer at the National Dance Awards.  

With the importance of the event in mind, BBNT would like to congratulate all of this year’s six finalists: Matthew Astley, Ashley Coupal, Noam Durand, Chloe Keneally, Eric Snyder and Angela Wood. This year’s winner of the Emerging Dancer Award was Eric Snyder, with Emilia Cadorin as the winner of the Corps de Ballet Award, and Precious Adams winning the People’s Choice Award. 

The programme consisted of three 19th century grands pas de deux (CoppéliaSleeping BeautyPaquita) and three duets created specifically for the competition: NEFES by Ceyda Tanc, Cha Cha and Tiara by Rentaro Nakaaki, and Interlude on the Jubilee Line by Hamish Longley.

Lauren: I am ashamed to say that I have not watched Emerging Dancer before …. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this first experience!

Rosie: Well that’s great to hear.  Usually I watch this event in the theatre, or at least on the livestream, but this year I wasn’t able to do this, so I cheated by checking out who the winner was.  On Instagram there was a short clip of Eric Snyder performing the Prince’s variation from The Sleeping Beauty, and I could immediately see why he had taken the Prize.  Then when I watched the full version it simply reinforced those qualities that I had noted in the extract.  No matter how virtuosic and demanding, every phrase is completed with extraordinary elegance, as if had been no effort, and presented like a gift to the audience with lovely relaxed hands and arms—this is very important to me as a viewer.  

Chloe Keneally and Eric Snyder performing The Sleeping Beauty in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Lauren: And to me, especially for this kind of purely classical role.  What I was also thinking about was that Eric’s style seemed very “English” with his clear lines and understated presentation.  Yet he’s from Arizona, though he did study at English National Ballet School before joining the Company in 2020.  

Rosie: Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and it’s so interesting.  We’ve written before about how versatile ENB dancers are in their ability to embody different styles.  I also noted the detail in his movement and phrasing and his ease of movement in Cha Cha and Tiara, although it was such a completely different style of moving.

Chloe Keneally performing Rentaro Nakaaki’s Cha Cha and Tiara in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Lauren: This was a really fun piece! Chloe Keneally starting the piece, dancing with no music, was extremely engaging and held my attention. I like that the mood of the piece changed once the music started. When Eric came on stage it made me smile. This was such a charismatic performance with excellent use of facial expressions. I think it was his performance in this piece which ultimately won him the competition.

Rosie: I’d already noted Eric in performance, as well as Noam Durand (in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth), Matthew Astley (for example in Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues) and Angela Wood (particularly in Blake Works). However, I wasn’t familiar with Chloe (even though she was Winner of the BBC Young Dancer Competition in 2019), or Ashley Coupal, so this was especially exciting for me. 

Lauren: Chloe and Eric Sleeping Beauty’s pas de deux was my favourite partnering.  Not only were they both very spirited dancers, but they also had great chemistry.  I was really pleased to see that in her review Vera Liber describes them as a “superlative couple”.

Rosie: Sleeping Beauty was a good choice for Chloe too, I feel.  She does have a lovely classical line: no exaggeration—carefully placed arabesques and developpés that create a line through the whole body rather than emphasising the height of the leg (which is something I don’t like in this ballet).  And I noted a gentle lilt in her torso as she danced.  I think the importance of these qualities for Aurora can’t be overemphasised. 

Lauren: Yes, Chloe had a really nice demeanour. I particularly loved her arms—like we were saying before, good port de bras is really important to me, perhaps even my favourite thing about a dancer and something I look for. The feeling in her arms continued right to the ends of her fingertips. 

Matthew Astley performing Paquita in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Rosie: Yes, I agree with you about the placement and energy of Chloe’s port de bras.  And it did mean that she and Eric complemented one another well.   Nevertheless … the couple that for me seemed to have the best rapport were Ashley Coupal and Noam Durand.  This struck me immediately in the Coppélia pas de deux. This may have been because of the nature of Coppélia: it’s less formal than Sleeping Beauty, or even Paquita, even though it depends on the same kind of technique.  I thought the relationship between them was noticeable in obvious ways—such as taking the time for warm smiles and eye contact, the way they visibly paid attention to one another—but also in the ways in which Noam complemented Ashley’s line so well in the adage; and it’s a really challenging adage with its sustained pointework and promenades—they made it look easy. 

Ashley Coupal performing Coppélia in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Lauren: I think line is super important for you, isn’t it? I preferred their performance in the new piece NEFES. They really demonstrated a strong connection here (and I don’t think this was just because they were wearing identical costumes!).  There was all the unison, canon, mirroring, both of them dancing with the same dynamics, so a very different kind of working together from classical supported adage

Noam Durand and Ashley Coupal performing Ceyda Tanc’s NEFES in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Rosie: I found the sensing between them to be almost tangible.  They also looked quite different in this work, which I loved.  Ashley in particular looked almost unrecognisable (in a good way) because of the way she adapted her style.  Very impressive.  I’m looking forward to seeing her in future … But let’s talk about the final couple: Angela Wood and Matthew Astley.  I think that Angela possesses the kind of breadth and grandeur that Paquita requires.  This was also noted by Jim Pritchard in his write-up.

Angela Wood and Matthew Astley performing Paquita in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Lauren: Yes, I agree.  For me Angela has an authoritative stage presence that is impressive and captivating. She was particularly good at movements that required sharp dynamics. However, perhaps there could be more contrast for those movements which would have benefited from a softer quality—this would have given more light and shade to her performance. 

Rosie: In contrast to Angela, Matthew seemed very buoyant—perhaps accentuated by the sense of ease and ballon in his jumps—he looks at home in the air, although I did also note his use of épaulement and use of the back in his variation.  Matthew’s buoyant spirit seemed ideally suited to Interlude on the Jubilee Line, but here I enjoyed seeing a different side to Angela’s dancing: she engaged fully in the playfulness and quirkiness of the choreography.  

Lauren: Interlude on the Jubilee Line was a highlight for me.  I enjoyed the interviews with the choreographers where they spoke about the inspiration or story behind their choreography, but I didn’t need to hear the explanation for this piece, and as a London commuter myself, I really liked the concept of imaging a relationship growing between two people who initially meet on a station platform. I felt the style of this work really suited Angela. As such, I preferred her performance of this to her classical work. I enjoyed Angela and Matthew’s partnership in this—they had great eye contact throughout the piece. 

Rosie: I also thought they both gave the piece a touch of tenderness to reflect the hesitancy of the two characters who have just met … But the highlight of the evening for me was probably Ivana Bueno in Le Corsaire.  She was the winner in 2020, and we commented then on how much she had developed as a dancer since she joined the Company.  I can give no higher praise than to say she reminds me a bit of Tamara Rojo in this role with the general lusciousness of her dancing, her soft port de bras and seamless, silky turns; they both also convey a sense of enjoyment through their dancing in this role.  Ivana was dancing with Victor Prigent who won the People’s Choice Award the same year… I’ve noticed him since then.  He has a warm aura, and I particularly liked him in Creature as Creature’s friend.  It’s a really important role, because there are not many sympathetic roles in that work.    

Victor Prigent and Ivana Bueno performing Le Corsaire in Emerging Dancer 2022 (c) Laurent Liotardo

Lauren: Obviously the Emerging Dancer Competition is primarily about the dancers, but as a first-time viewer, it struck me that it also provides a forum for Company members to explore other talents.  This year, for example Rentaro Nakaaki (who I notice himself competed as a dancer in 2019) choreographed Cha Cha and Tiara for Chloe and Eric, while Fabian Reimair composed the score for NEFES.  I’m looking forward to seeing next year’s competition to see how it compares.  And I’m glad I was able to take part in this conversation and contribute to making a record of Emerging Dancer 2022, as it will be the last competition under Tamara Rojo’s directorship, and we have noticed such a tremendous development in the Company since she took over ten years ago.

Epilogue

As we were completing this post, the news was announced that Tamara Rojo had received an outstanding achievement award for her “ten transformational years as artistic director of the English National Ballet” (Al-Hassan). BBNT would like to congratulate Tamara and thank her for everything she has done for ballet as both dancer and artistic director since she moved to the UK twenty-five years ago.

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Al-Hassan, Aliya. “Tamara Rojo and James Graham Triumph In Sky Arts South Bank Awards”. Broadway World, 11 July 2022, www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Tamara-Rojo-and-James-Graham-Triumph-In-Sky-Arts-South-Bank-Awards-20220711.

Liber, Vera. “ENB Emerging Dancer Award 2022”. British Theatre Guide, May 2022, www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/enb-emerging-da-mulryan-centre-20919.

Pritchard, Jim. “How Erik Snyder became the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2022”. Seen and Heard International, 25 May 2022, seenandheard-international.com/2022/05/how-erik-snyder-became-the-english-national-ballets-emerging-dancer-2022/.

Spotlight on Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda (2022)

Despite its sumptuous score by Alexander Glazunov, and Marius Petipa’s glorious choreography, the 1898 Raymonda is one of the 19th century classics that has rarely been performed in its entirety by British ballet companies.  Although there is a tradition of staging excerpts from the ballet, generally from the final act wedding celebrations of the eponymous Raymonda, English National Ballet’s announcement of a new full-length production of the ballet came as a surprise to us.  

RAYMONDA ( Act III ) ; Donald MacLeary and Svetlana Beriosova ( as Jean de Brienne and Raymonda ) ; The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House, London, UK ; March 1969 ; Credit: G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

Perhaps one of the reasons this ballet has up until now not joined the list of beloved 19th century classics in this country is the vagaries of its plot, which has been described as “foolish” (Anderson 64), “senseless” (Tomalonis, “The Mysteries”), “boring” (Sulcas), and “Devoid of suspense and romantic drama, … a mere pretext for a cornucopia of dancing” (Khadarina, “Mariinsky Ballet”).  While ballets such as Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895) can be perceived as divorced from contemporary life, their narratives and choreography are nonetheless replete with symbolic meanings with their tales of betrayal, remorse and revenge to forgiveness, redemption and renewal.  Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, who commissioned Akram Khan’s 2016 reimagining of Giselle, says “The beauty of these classics, whether it’s Giselle or Swan Lake, is that the core theme is timeless, that even though it was specific to that time, it is still relevant today” (01:35-01:53).  Evidently the same claim cannot be made in the case of Raymonda.

Tamara Rojo leads a Raymonda rehearsal © Laurent Liotardo

Devised by Countess Lydia Pashkova, a society columnist and novelist, the libretto of Raymonda is a tale of mediaeval romance set in Provence at the time of the Fifth Crusade.  The valiant French knight Jean de Brienne, who is betrothed to the Countess Raymonda, slays Abderrakhman, the Saracen rival for Raymonda’s love. From this slight pretext, Pashkova and Petipa created a ballet of three acts made up of multiple tableaux, and famously culminating in the Hungarian style nuptials of Raymonda and Jean de Brienne.  

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL BALLET TOUR ; Raymonda ; Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev ; at the New Victoria Cinema, London, UK ; December 1965 ; Credit : G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

Although, as far as we can tell, the character of Raymonda herself is not based on a real historical, both Raymonda’s fiancé, the French Knight Jean de Brienne, and King Andrei II of Hungary, who attends the wedding, are based on historical leaders of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221).  However, as critic Alexandra Tomalonis points out, it’s not entirely clear what either of these Crusaders or Abderrakhman are doing in Provence, so far from the action in the Middle East (“The Mysteries”).  The list of characters attached to the original libretto identifies Raymonda as the “Countess de Doris”, and the action of Acts I and II takes place inside and around the Countess’ castle, before moving to her Fiancé’s castle for the Act III wedding (Pashkova).  No parents are listed, but Raymonda does have an Aunt, the Canoness Sybille, and the House of Doris is protected by a mysterious “White Lady”, despite the fact that the name Raymonda itself means “wise protector” (“Raymonda Origin and Meaning”).  While some of this is quite confusing, we find it interesting that the House of Doris is indisputably depicted as a matriarchal establishment led by women very aware of their responsibilities. 

Where Raymonda’s Aunt and the White Lady are concerned, this notion of responsibility is clearly evident from the start of the ballet.  In the opening scene the Canoness Sybille reprimands Raymonda’s attendants for their indolence, warning them against punishment from the White Lady if they do not heed her words and consequently fail in their duties.  In the second scene the White Lady reveals the impending danger of Abderrakhman’s arrival to Raymonda in a vision.  Of course, far more interesting to us is how the concepts of duty and responsibility manifest themselves in the person of Raymonda herself.

But in a sense, herein lies the problem.  Choosing a life partner is the stuff of 19th century ballet.  Raymonda’s predecessors Giselle (Giselle, 1841), Kitri (Don Quixote, 1869), Nikiya (La Bayadère, 1877) and Aurora (The Sleeping Beauty, 1890) all follow the dictates of their heart.  Admittedly the results are sometimes disastrous, but at least they have made their own choice.  But who chose Jean de Brienne for Raymonda? He is described as her “beloved” (Pashkova 401), and Raymonda is “delighted” at the thought of him (397, 399).  On the other hand, she rejects Abderrakhman “indignantly” (399) and “contemptuously” (400), implying a more intense emotion towards the Saracen, despite, or perhaps because of, his “flaming passion” (Khadarina, “Mariinsky Ballet”), “sensual presence” (Smith) and “seductive power” (“Alexander Glazunov”).  Does Raymonda seriously feel no attraction towards him? It seems to us, the lady doth protest too much.  

Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio in rehearsal for Raymonda © Laurent Liotardo

As we were doing our research on Raymonda, watching performances and re-reading the libretto, we were reminded of dance historian Sally Banes’ discussion of Mikhail Fokine’s The Firebird, a ballet which premiered twelve years after Raymonda, under the aegis of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The way in which Banes interprets the contrast between the two female protagonists of The Firebird strikes a chord with us in connection with the two male protagonists of Raymonda.  

Here is a tale based on Russian folklore in which the hero Prince Ivan forms relationships with two vastly different female characters: the Princess, or Tsarevna, and the Firebird herself.  While Ivan is attracted to both characters, they represent two opposing images of womanhood.  Banes describes the Princess in The Firebird as “demure” (97), “nice” (98), “virginal” (98), and “a ‘true’ Russian maiden, an ideal of racial purity and national superiority” (99).  In stark contrast, she describes the Firebird as the polar opposite: “oriental, sexual, seductive, both powerful and submissive, she is everything desirable the ‘nice’ Russian Tsarevna cannot be” (98).  To us the Firebird seems to fit the mould of the Muslim Abderrakhman, who can be perceived as submissive as well as “oriental, sexual, seductive, … powerful”.  In the original libretto, for example, he suffers “despair” at Raymonda’s rejection of his gifts to her (398); he is unable to focus on the stage entertainment, so “lost in dreams of Raymonda” is he (398).  Dance writer Oksana Khadarina goes further in her review of Konstantin Zverev’s performance of Abderrakhman, who in his “agonizing heartbreak … was as pitiful as he was poignant, inspiring both empathy and regret” (“Elegance & Exuberance”).  An opposing image of manhood is portrayed in the figure of Jean de Brienne.  Olga Makarova has described him as “refined and classical”, and it is perhaps the restraint suggested by these words that has caused the phrase “milquetoast lad” to be used as a description of Raymonda’s fiancé (Dix).  Would Banes have referred to him as “nice”, like the “‘nice’ Russian Tsarevna” from The Firebird, we wonder? It goes without saying that both Prince Ivan and Raymonda favour the safe option for their marriage partners, that is, the racially pure but bland over the “dangerously attractive” (Sulcas).

So we return to our idea of Raymonda’s sense of duty and responsibility being a problem for us.  The patent inevitability of Raymonda’s union with the safe option seems to rob her of personal agency over her own destiny: the lack, or denial, of any attraction towards the incandescent Abderrakhman smacks of docility, even submissiveness.  This lack of agency is exacerbated at the climax of the narrative.  At this point, far from Raymonda being given a choice (even the choice to marry the partner who has presumably been selected for her), King Andrei insists that the two rivals fight a duel.  Khadarina hits the nail on the head: “The winner (Jean de Brienne) gets the fair lady” (“Elegance and Exuberance”).  Raymonda may be a countess, but to all intents and purposes, where finding a life partner is concerned, she is reduced to a mere trophy.

RAYMONDA Act lll ; Galina Samsova ; Choreographed by Petipa / Nureyev ; Music by Glazunov ; Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet ; London, UK ; 1984 ; Credit: G.B.L. Wilson / Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

Despite all these concerns regarding Raymonda’s lack of agency, we cannot but agree with critic Tomalonis’ assessment of the ballet, after she has analysed the anomalies of the libretto in some detail: 

Another way to look at it is that “Raymonda” can be seen as a great gift to us: it’s living dance history. “Raymonda” received its premiere two months before Petipa’s 80th birthday, and everything he knew about ballet and its history is contained in it. (“The Mysteries”)

And here we find another striking connection with Banes’ writing.  In her consideration of female agency Banes shifts the focus away from the narrative and “marriage plot” as she calls it, and onto the stage action.  Let’s look at what she has to say:

The issue of looking at plot in relation to performance has enormous consequences for interpreting representations of women in choreography.  The plot may verbally describe the female character as weak or passive, while the physical prowess of the dancer performing the role may saturate it with agency.  Thus, even dances with misogynist narratives or patriarchal themes tend to depict women as active and vital. (8-9)  

The opportunity to “saturate” the choreography with agency is particularly noticeable in Raymonda.  In his “great gift to us” (Tomalonis, “The Mysteries”), Petipa gave an even greater gift to the creator of the eponymous role, Pierina Legnani, that is, no fewer than five solo variations, suggesting a range of moods, and a complexity and boldness of character belied by the narrative.  So now we’re going to outline these dances to give a sense of the richness and variety of Raymonda’s dances and the way in which they provide a platform for a ballerina to display her “physical prowess”.  For this outline we’ve used the recording of Sergei Vikharev’s 2011 reconstruction of the ballet for La Scala with Olesya Novikova in the ballerina role, in an attempt to reflect as accurately as possible the original choreography.

The variations start with a pizzicato solo involving lots of pointe work—piqués, hops and brushes—mirroring the delicacy and playfulness of the music.  The Scarf Solo (named Fantaisie in the original libretto, and also known as the Harp, Shawl or Veil Solo Variation) is more expansive, incorporating bolder movements, and far-reach leg gestures such as arabesques and developpés, highlighted through the fine articulation of contrasting smaller, subtler movements.  The “Dream Scene” solo is characterised by grand legato movements, such as grands ronds de jambe, and a series of renversés travelling across the stage, followed by a closing section of unexpected speed and vivacity.  Undisguised virtuosity marks the penultimate solo with its pirouettesfouettéspiqués turns en dehors and en dedans, and chaînés, with a magnificent highlight of entrechats quatres sur pointe.  The final, and most famous, variation oozes virtuosity of a different order, in the sophisticated use of the upper body: the lush épaulement, curves and tilts of the torso, and the fluid rotation of the arms as they carve their way through the various pathways of the kinesphere.  

Throughout these dances Raymonda commands the stage, exerting a level of agency denied her by the libretto that bears her name.  And now we turn to a third aspect of Banes’ discussion (8-11), one with which we are very familiar, that we wrote about in our first Giselle post, in fact.  This is the importance of each individual ballerina’s shaping of the choreography, for example, in terms of rhythm, use of space, line, articulation and dynamics.

To illustrate this idea we have selected a few examples that you can check out online.  Two of the Raymondas who caught our eye particularly in the Scarf Variation were Maria Alexandrova and Olga Smirnova of the Bolshoi Ballet.  When reviewing Smirnova’s debut, critic Janet Ward marvelled at the “breathtaking” harmony of her movement, created through a combination of “musicality, exquisite line, elegant bearing, supple back, and beautiful arms”.  This harmony was unmistakable to us in her performance to Glazunov’s harp music, in her accentuation of classical line in her developpésarabesques and attitudes, and her use of the veil to complement the purity of her lines.  On the other hand, Alexandrova seems to be more playful in her approach to the choreography: she gains visible pleasure from swaying and bending her body, rippling and waving her arms to give life to the scarf, sweeping it close to her face and holding it high with her left hand as she bourrées.  Therefore, even through this one single dance, ballerinas are able to make a distinctive impression, telling us something about how they perceive Raymonda as a character.

We have given you examples of Bolshoi ballerinas above because the complete Raymonda hasn’t been performed by a British company since 1964, whereas this Moscow Company has a strong tradition of performing the complete ballet.   Happily, however, there is footage available of two exceptionally influential ballerinas in the realm of British ballet dancing the Act III variation.  They are Sylvie Guillem, and Tamara Rojo.  As in the case of Alexandrova and Smirnova, their individual shaping of the choreography reveals different facets of Raymonda’s persona: while Guillem accentuates Raymonda’s sway over the audience through her expansive use of the kinesphere and impactive phrasing, Rojo creates a sense of mystery and suspense with mesmerising gestures that trace their way through the space more gradually, and keep us guessing when she may deign to bring her movement to a close.

If any of you are still in doubt about the potential power of Raymonda’s choreography, just take a look at the coda to the Grand Pas.  Here the ballerina demonstrates her authority through a succession of commanding retirés passés en arrièretempi, rate of acceleration, rhythm and dynamics vary enormously from dancer to dancer, as do the accompanying port de bras, despite the apparent simplicity of the vocabulary.  The radiant energy with which two of our favourite Raymondas, Altynai Asylumuratova and Maria Alexandrova, take charge of the choreography and fashion it to their desire brings to mind the determination, resilience, vision and zest for life that we associate with some of the most celebrated queens of the 12th and 13th centuries, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Berenguela of Castile (1179-1246) and Tamar of Georgia (1166-1213).  For us, therefore, despite the ballet’s perplexing scenario, Petipa, Glazunov and the ballerinas bringing flesh to the “skeleton” they created (Banes 9) transform Raymonda herself into a person of prowess in body, mind and spirit.

In 2002 Tomalonis asked the question “Can this story be saved?”.  Well, it looks like saved is exactly what it’s going to be.  

Prior to the planned premiere in the autumn of last year, Tamara Rojo, who is mounting the new production, had been conducting research in preparation for her production of Raymonda for no less than four years.  She had researched not only the ballet itself, but also, in a flight of creative imagination, the life of Florence Nightingale, who has inspired the reimagining of the titular protagonist.  

So what do the fictional 13th century French countess, and the 19th century English middle-class founder of modern nursing have in common? Well, perhaps the point is that in order to “save” the narrative, Raymonda needs to be seen through a radical new lens.  There is no doubt that Florence Nightingale was a woman of high intelligence, extraordinary vision and resilience, willing to take risks in her fierce determination to pursue her vocation; “safe option” was undoubtedly not a phrase in her vocabulary.

Rojo has reconceived Raymonda as a young woman who makes the decision to leave her home in England to become a nurse at the frontline of the Crimean war.  Not only is the background of war maintained in this way, but the context facilitates the creation of two contrasting love interests: the English soldier John and the Ottoman Commander Abdur.  This Raymonda is described as a “heroine in command of her own destiny” (“Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda”).  It is her decision to leave home, to become a nurse, and to become a nurse in a danger zone: we assume that she will also make her own decisions when it comes to affairs of the heart …

Tamara Rojo leads a Raymonda rehearsal with Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo

We began this post with a conundrum: a ballet with a sumptuous score, glorious choreography, and a highly problematic plot.  Rojo recognises this conundrum only too well:

Raymonda is a beautiful ballet – extraordinary music, exquisite and intricate choreography – with a female lead who I felt deserved more of a voice, more agency in her own story (“Tamara Rojo’s New”).

Raymonda by English National Ballet © Jason Bell, Creative Direction by Charlotte Wilkinson Studio

We are looking forward to Raymonda finally joining the canon of beloved 19th century classics in this country, with a new identity through which the Raymonda of the narrative and the Raymonda of the choreography are reconciled.

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

“Alexander Glazunov ‘Raymonda’ (Ballet in three acts)”. UVisitRussiahttps://www.uvisitrussia.com/theaters/theater/mariinsky/mar_raymonda/2015-05-09/19:01/.

Alexandrova, Maria. “Maria Alexandrova – Raymonda”. YouTube, uploaded by BalletForever, 23 Jan. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1adEbQrdGE&t=691s.

Anderson, Zoë. The Ballet Lover’s Companion. Yale UP, 2015.

Asylmuratova, Altynai.  “Раймонда фрагменты – Алтынай Асылмуратова”. YouTube, uploaded by Stanislav Belyaevsky & Anastasia Dunets, 19 July 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AweKN-R9-Dc

Banes, Sally. Dancing Women: female bodies on stage. Routledge, 1998. 

Dix, Laurel. “Raymonda an Exercise in Elegance”. SeattleDances, 9 Aug. 2012, http://seattledances.com/2012/08/raymonda-an-exercise-in-elegance/.

Guillem, Sylvie. “Sylvie Guillem Raymonda”. YouTube, uploaded by braga144 b, 17 Mar. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHZTTYmuCNk

Khadarina, Oksana. “Elegance & Exuberance”. Fjord Review, 2 June 2020, fjordreview.com/mariinsky-ballet-raymonda/.

—. “Mariinsky Ballet – Raymonda – Washington”. DanceTabs, 28 Feb. 2016, dancetabs.com/2016/02/mariinsky-ballet-raymonda-washington/.

Makarova, Olga. “Alexander Glazunov ‘Raymonda’ (Ballet in three acts)”. Ballet and Opera, 2018, https://www.balletandopera.com/classical_ballet/mar_raymonda/info/.  

Pashkova, Lydia Alexandrovna. “Libretto of Raymonda”. A Century of Russian Ballet, edited by Roland John Wiley, Dance Books, 2007, pp. 393-401.

Raymonda. Choreographed by Marius Petipa, reconstructed by Sergei Vikharev, performance by Olesya Novikova, and La Scala Ballet. 1999, Arthaus Musik, 2001. 

“Raymonda Origin and Meaning”. NameBerry, 2021, https://nameberry.com/babyname/Raymonda.

Rojo, Tamara. “Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan on this reimagined Giselle”. English National Ballet, 2017, www.ballet.org.uk/production/akram-khan-giselle/.  

—. “Raymonda:Tamara Rojo”. YouTube, uploaded by Kabaiivansko2, 8 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQxlfxqOtIU

“Tamara Rojo’s new Raymonda and ENB in 2020-2021”. Seen and Heard International, 30 Jan. 2020, seenandheard-international.com/2020/01/new-tamara-rojos-new-raymonda-and-enb-in-2020-2021/.

“Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda shortlisted for the FEDORA VAN CLEEF & ARPELS Prize for Ballet 2021”. English National Ballet, 2 Feb. 2021, www.ballet.org.uk/blog-detail/tamara-rojos-raymonda-fedora-prize-2021/.

Smirnova, Olga. “Olga Smirnova – Raymonda Act I”. YouTube, uploaded by BalletForever, 9 Jan. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAPL7bO1J1E&t=260s.

Sulcas, Roslyn. “Saracens, Hungarians and Knights who just happen to be in  Provence”. New York Times, 2 Dec. 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/dance/03raym.html.

Tomalonis, Alexandra. “Can this story be saved?”. Ballet Alert!, 6 Mar. 2002, balletalert.invisionzone.com/topic/1903-can-this-story-be-saved/.

—. “The Mysteries of ‘Raymonda’”. Danceviewtimes, 9 Mar. 2016, www.danceviewtimes.com/2016/03/the-mysteries-of-raymonda.html.

Ward, Janet. “Olga Smirnova Debuts in Raymonda at the Bolshoi Ballet”. Bachtrack, 15 Feb. 2016, bachtrack.com/review-raymonda-smirnova-bolshoi-ballet-new-stage-moscow-february-2016.    

Watching with British Ballet Now and Then: Akram Khan’s Creature

It’s been a long time coming.  After being cancelled in both the spring and the autumn of 2020, Akram Khan’s Creature for English National Ballet has finally arrived on the stage. 

In preparation for watching Creature we have familiarised ourselves with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and wracked our brains for memories of studying Georg Bűchner’s 1837 Woyzeck at university.  To our consternation we have discovered that our image of Frankenstein’s Creature was totally askew, being associated in our minds with the horror genre of literature and film, and consequently with gratuitous savagery and cruelty.  Of course, both of these literary works deal with savagery and cruelty, but the vulnerability and pathos of Frankenstein’s “Monster” is something that had passed us by until now …Having watched the miniseries (Connor, 2004) and the National Theatre’s streaming of Danny Boyle’s 2011 production last year, and subsequently read the novel, our eyes have been opened …

English National Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

As usual, English National Ballet have produced teasers, and videos discussing aspects of the work and preparations for the premiere.   

The extract with Jeffrey Cirio in the Arctic station dancing to Richard Nixon’s voice sends chills down our spine:

Because of what you have done

Because of what you have done

Because of what you have done

Nixon’s words, delivered to the Apollo 11 Astronauts in 1969, were intended as a message of pride and peace: “I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done … it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to earth”.  

But in front of us the movements of Khan’s Creature are spasmodic, fragmented, jittery, oscillating constantly between childlike curiosity and pride, fear and pain.  This Creature is a combination of Frankenstein’s Creature, and Woyeck, the impoverished and degraded military barber who submits himself to medical experiments, such as the indignity and pain of consuming a diet of peas alone, in order to earn some much-needed extra cash.  Juxtaposed to the Creature’s movements Nixon’s triumphant words take on a sinister meaning: “Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world”.  We hear echoes of the repugnant arrogance of Victor Frankenstein and the Doctor in Woyzeck, arrogance that results in such cruel behaviour as to drive the victims of their cruelty to brutal, murderous acts.   

From the 19th century classics to Khan’s own works for English National Ballet, we know the power of group movement: the menace of Jean Coralli’s Wilis in Giselle (1842); the sheer transcendental beauty of “The Kingdom of the Shades” from Petipa’s 1877 La Bayadére; Khan’s human waves of mourning in Dust (2014).  Now we catch glimpses of such power again in the snippets of Creature that we’ve seen: a brigade of soldiers travelling swiftly through the space, consuming it through frequent changes of direction, attacking it through repeated thrusting and pulling movements as if they’re digging, mining the earth, hauling great weights.  Machine-like in their precision and strength.  We discover later the weakness hidden beneath such strength, the extent to which unison can be used to convey conformity—conformity, and fear of being different, of not belonging.

English National Ballet in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo
 

The opening scene of the ballet is dominated by Creature’s solo to Nixon’s words, and over the evening it transpires that this is the key to the whole work. The Soldier Astronauts enter the stage with huge slow-motion steps, pressing their way through the atmosphere to invade the space.  Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” passes through our minds.

Like labourers in a penal colony, they continue with their relentless thrusting and hauling.  At other times they slither, slide and wriggle like animals, or pay obeisance to the Major, the symbol of ultimate control and power in the work.  Like automatons, their movements are frequently fragmented, stiff, constricted.  Fear ensures they seldom step out of line.  Creature suffers torture as the guinea pig of scientific experimentation.  Fear ensures that the soldiers fail to show him the empathy that would make them truly human: they seem to have been robbed of every human emotion save the fear of non-compliance.  We feel the looming presence of Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kafka …  

English National Ballet in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

Bűchner’s Doctor, so full of his own importance, has become a liminal figure in Creature.  In her behaviour the Doctor shows how failure to show empathy is a process of erosion.  Her behaviour towards Marie, Creature’s keeper, and occasionally even towards Creature himself, demonstrates her potential for empathy; but her responses to the Major show that her status is too precarious for her to be able to indulge in such humane sentiments. 

The work is quite desolate where human kindness, feeling or responsibility are concerned. Although there are exceptions.  

English National Ballet’s Victor Prigent and Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Creature performs tender and playful duets with his friend Anders and with Marie—here unison suggesting friendship, mutual understanding and affection, while free flow in the movement and music conveys a rare feeling of joyfulness.  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Like Frankenstein’s Creature, he is eager to learn from Anders and Marie; like Frankenstein’s Creature, he is longing to give as well as to receive affection.

But the abuse of power seeps through the very pores of the work, and the performance moves to a close literally on a different note to those we’ve heard before, as we hear the tones of sacred music accompanying the sight of Creature holding the lifeless body of Marie in his arms.  But he has not killed Marie: unlike his literary predecessors he has killed no one.  He has in fact attempted to protect her from the Major’s sexual assault.  Creature and Marie pay the price for not complying, for being different: she for resisting the advances of the Major, and for daring to show some empathy towards Creature; he for never quite mastering the steps, never quite understanding the patterns to which he is required to adhere.  

As the Soldiers depart from the collapsing research station in search of a new project, new places to conquer, Creature repeats some of his dance from the start of the ballet, only this time in the presence of Marie’s dead body.  He mimics walking forward with a rifle in his hand, as if he is a “forgotten man” from Al Dubin’s “Remember My Forgotten Man”, the extraordinary culmination of Busby Berkely’s Gold Diggers of 1933:

Remember my forgotten man,

You put a rifle in his hand,

You sent him far away,

You shouted “hip-hooray!”,

But look at him today.

Just as this musical number depicts how World War I soldiers were abandoned by the state after they had served their purpose, the climax of Creature depicts the two protagonists abandoned in the disintegrating research hut.  They have served their purpose.   

As Creature dances with Marie’s limp body, we realise that we have already seen this image.  In the first few moments of the work.  We realise that Marie’s rape and murder have both taken place downstage left, where the story began in darkness, save the glow emanating from Marie’s cleaning bucket, a prop that clearly symbolises life and rebirth through its connections with light and water.  The terrifying realisation dawns on us that the cycle of events that have played out over the last two hours are all too likely to repeat themselves …

Over the course of the evening we have heard Nixon’s words repeated, disintegrate into a coughing fit, and become increasingly distorted, until their final incomplete, but telling, iteration uttered by the voice of Andy Serkis, as if he is gasping his final breath … “Because of what I …”.  The prominence of Nixon’s proclamation, combined with the corps de ballet’s conquering of the stage space, and the persistent pointing upwards towards the sky, makes it clear to us that the makers of Creature are concerned not only with “man’s inhumanity to man”.  If space has become part of “man’s world”, the implication is that planet Earth is already “man’s world” and consequently subject to the whims and desires of human beings, no matter what the cost to the future of the world and its population.  The volume and raw insistence of Vincenzo Lamagna’s sound score, matched with synchronised movement, means there is no escape from a visceral response to the stage action.  We are reminded in no uncertain terms that we are all a part of this tale: “We’re all part of climate change. We all contribute to CO2 – we all drive cars, we fly, we all waste food, so we’re all part of it.” (Khan, “Akram Khan: Dancing Creature”).  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

And then there’s the cleaning.  Of course there’s cleaning—we’re in a scientific lab—but the relentless mopping, wiping and scrubbing performed by Marie, Andres and Creature gives us the feeling that we are trying to subjugate our environment, tame it, erase its essence, so that we can exploit it to our heart’s desire.  It reminds us of Norbert Elias’ The Civilising Process (1939).  

The walls are cleaned, the floor is cleaned, but most importantly, the table is cleaned.  The Major mounts the table, shimmering with Olympian ease.  From here he is panoptic master of all he surveys.  But the table is also a world for Creature and Marie to explore together, as they move around it, over and under it, and dance together on its surface.

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

Through the course of this tale layers of meaning have carved meandering paths through our minds.  In the final moments the political and personal converge in a potent climax.  Like the words of Nixon, the research hut itself is disintegrating—a message for us all to take more care of our environment—while we witness the unbearable pain of Creature as he holds the corpse of Marie in his arms, his aloneness palpable.  

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Erina Takahashi in Creature by Akram Khan © Laurent Liotardo

We remember Frankenstein’s promise to make a female companion for his creation to assuage the Creature’s devastating loneliness, the promise that he breaks in the most heinous way by tearing her to pieces before even having finished constructing her.  We remember Mary Shelley’s Last Man (1826), a startling prediction of our times.  We realise that our hands have been clenching throughout the evening.

As we leave the theatre our minds are replete to bursting with images.  So many images, it’s impossible to imagine there won’t be plenty for each member of the audience, no matter what their background, experience in ballet or expectations.

The following morning our minds are still jangling.  Akram Khan wants his audience to “… feel a sense of the work; I don’t want you to see sense in the work” (“Free Thinking” 9:38-9:42). 

We have gained a sense of Creature.  We look out of the window at the garden and wonder where exactly we ourselves fit into Creature’s tale.

English National Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and Stina Quagebeur in Creature by Akram Khan © Ambra Vernuccio

We would like to thank our friends Philippa Burrows, Susie Campbell and Paul Doyle for stimulating conversations about Creature, which have undoubtedly found their way into this post.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References 

Creature: The Army (extract)”. English National Ballet, 2021, www.ballet.org.uk/production/creature/.

Creature: Because of What You Have Done (extract)”. English National Ballet, 2021, www.ballet.org.uk/production/creature/.

Khan, Akram. “Akram Khan: Dancing Creature”. Interview by Maggie Foyer. Dance ICONS, Sept. 2021, www.danceicons.org/pages/index.php?p=210826140840

—. “Free Thinking: Belonging”. Produced by Tim Bano, BBC Sounds, 16 Sept. 2021, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zl33.

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 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.

English National Ballet Now & Then

Introductory thoughts

English National Ballet dancers take a bow at the end of Etudes part of the 70th Anniversary Gala (C) Piers Allardyce

If you are a regular reader of British Ballet Now & Then, you will know that what we offer here is a personal perspective on British ballet based on our own experiences of watching various British ballet companies over the years, and in some cases over a number of decades.  Inevitably, therefore, readers will notice lacunae in our discussion of English National Ballet (ENB) now & then (and please feel free to object!), but part of what makes this particular post so personal to us is the selection of directors, dancers, and repertoire that are alive in our memories and consequently form the foundation of our tribute to the Company in its 70th anniversary year.

For our Now section we are focussing on the period from 2012, that is, the period of Tamara Rojo’s directorship, as the steady realisation of her vision for the Company has already had a significant impact on both ENB itself and on ballet as an art form in Britain. 

ENB Now

It comes as no surprise to us that as a director Rojo has a very clear vision for her company.  After all, as a ballerina she has always expressed exceptional vision, demonstrated in the distinctive way in which she shapes her articulation of choreography and character.  This is evident in recordings of her work portraying a gamut of complex characters, from Marius Petipa’s Nikiya (La Bayadère, 1877), Kenneth MacMillan’s Juliet (1965) and Manon (1974) to Ashton’s Isadora (1976) and Akram Khan’s Giselle (2016).  Rojo’s distinctiveness, the intensity of her commitment to performance and dramatic cogency in her repertoire, has been commented on by critics including Zoë Anderson, Sarah Crompton, Luke Jennings (“Step into the Past), and Judith Mackrell (“Giselle”).  These qualities seem to us to be integral to what dance writer Graham Watts describes as being “possessed of an exceptional independence of spirit and a remarkable enquiry into [her] art”.

As expressed in their 2017-2018 Annual Review, ENB aims to “develop the art form of ballet by commissioning new choreography, design and musical composition as well as cherishing the classical repertoire” (5).  So let’s have a look at how ENB’s choice of repertoire reflects these aims …

Rojo’s very first season as Artistic Director opened with Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, which had been in repertoire since 2005.  The Sleeping Beauty is widely perceived as the pinnacle of classical ballet (Dodge; “The Sleeping Beauty Live”; Speer), and indeed, when we witnessed its revival in 2018 with Jurgita Dronina in the title role, it did indeed look “cherished”, as also attested by the critics (Anderson; Gilbert; Jennings “English National Ballet”).  Something that is very noticeable about the 19thcentury repertoire when performed by this company is the attention paid to stylistic detail, with the result that each work makes a quite different visual impact, as we have written about previously.  In our view this makes for extremely satisfying watching: not only is there a visible distinction between Romantic and classical styles, but even within those eras, there is clear differentiation between the specific articulation of the choreographies.  For example, dance writer Judith Mackrell highlights some of the key features of Bournonville’s style in Isaac Hernández’ “beautifully filleted beats and bounding jetés” as James in La Sylphide, and in the way in which Daniel Kraus as Gurn “joyously embod[ies] the mobile twists and turns of Bournonville’s épaulement” (“Song of the Earth).  In contrast, Giselle is distinguished by the careful schooling of the corps de ballet in the 19th century French style “as is apparent in their softly rounded arms and restrained line” (Jennings “Giselle Review”), while performances of the Russian Imperial Sleeping Beauty “evince …an absolute commitment to classical style and stage manners …You can see the concentration on the placement of arms and shoulders, on the expressiveness of wrists and hands, on the line of the neck and precise direction of gaze” (Jennings “English National Ballet”).  

ENBS students peform La Sylphide as part of ENB’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

Like The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Russian Imperial court.  But unlike The Sleeping Beauty, which holds a special place in British ballet history, the complete Le Corsaire is a recent addition to the British repertoire, having been staged for the first time in this country by English National Ballet in 2013.  And unlike The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire requires the kind of extravagant bravura in both classical and character dancing that is not generally associated with English style ballet.  Yet the Company has risen to this challenge with great spirit and self-assurance.  This was noted in reviews (Byrne; Gilbert; Winship), as well as in our own “In Conversation” post. Emma Byrne’s headline description “A swaggering, bravura spectacle” already conveys a strong sense of the dancers’ bold commitment to the style, as does Jenny Gilbert’s rendition of Jeffrey Cirio’s Ali, who “wins the biggest cheers of the night for his aerial fireworks, explosive energy following through to the tips of his fingers”.  We found it fascinating to discover as part of our research that ENB President Beryl Grey had discussed her thoughts on the Russian tradition of performing as part of her “Desert Island Discs”.  These thoughts were based on her first-hand experiences of dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet (more of Beryl Grey in the “Then” section of this post):

The dancers, they lived every single small role up to the biggest role … And I think you have in the Russian dancers this tremendous capacity to make believe.  And they’re never embarrassed – the ones I worked with anyway were never embarrassed  – whereas, in England … in my days one sort of half acted … until the performance … but in Russia every single rehearsal was full out, like a performance, and they actually get into the roles and live them truly. (31:12-32:13)

Let’s turn to Jenny Gilbert once again to reaffirm the achievement of ENB in this ballet, and make a connection between their physical commitment to the style and Grey’s description above: 

The plot [of Le Corsaire] is, frankly, ridiculous … It’s the sort of hokum it normally takes a Russian company to bring off, but English National Ballet meets the challenge with a swagger in its revival of Anna-Marie Holmes’s 2013 production.

So while the collection of works itself is of course significant, the understanding of style conveyed through the performance of those works demonstrates a commitment to “cherishing” the choreography rather than simply maintaining the works within the repertoire.  Jennings attributes this commitment to Rojo and her teaching staff (“English National Ballet”), as do we ourselves, having had the opportunity to watch her in rehearsal as well as in performance.  Further, one of the benefits of the Covid-19 lockdown seems to have been an increased number of opportunities to hear discussions with Rojo on various aspects of her professional life as both director and dancer.  From one of these discussions we are given an insight into Rojo’s hunger for knowledge and understanding, and her creative thinking in the face of adversity:

One thing that I thought was a negative when I was young has turned out to be a great positive … I did not come from any consolidated, respected ballet school:  I did not come from Paris Opera, from the Bolshoi, from the Mariinsky, from the Royal Ballet School.  And I always felt that I did not belong to one particular school and that that was a minus.  But in a way that actually was a huge plus, because first of all it gave me this imposter syndrome that meant that I kind of researched like a crazy person every aspect of each style, feeling that I had to do extra work because I wasn’t part of it. (“Tom and Ty Talk 23:12-23:58”)

As for ENB’s aim to develop the art form of ballet, there is ample evidence of this.  Amongst the names of choreographers who have created new work for the Company are William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, Russell Maliphant and Yabin Wang, all of whom have demonstrated challenges to traditional ballet in their commissioned works for ENB.  This is completely in line with Rojo’s vision for her Company, her belief in ballet as an art form and her dedication to its continuing relevance. 

English National Ballet in Playlist (Track 2) as part of the Company’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

There is no doubt in our minds that the jewel in the crown of ENB’s new repertoire since 2012 is Akram Khan’s Giselle.  In an interview with Keke Chele of JoBurg Ballet, Rojo explained her decision to commission Akram Khan to reimagine the canonical Giselle:

I’ve always been fascinated by ballet history, and in my opinion it has been when our artform has been “polluted” (like the traditionalists would say) by other types of dance, whether that was folklore or musics that were not considered proper for ballet, or themes, you know like when Kenneth MacMillan started to introduce Manon, Mayerling, or you know, by different, like cross-fertilisation, is when I think cultures become better and arts become better, and that was my motivation to bring Akram.  This is an exceptional artist that I’ve admired for many years, that I’ve seen so many of his shows that had such capacity for story-telling and such strong technique of his own, that was kathak and contemporary, that I knew that he will understand an art form that is equally demanding in technique – the classical technique of ballet – but also that in itself it is a language to tell stories.  (“JoBurg Ballet Off Stage” 18:00-19:04 )

English National Ballet in Dust by Akram Khan © Bill Cooper

What we find extraordinary about Rojo is the way in which her insight into ballet history has driven her decisions as Artistic Director.  In her intrepid interrogation of ballet and its potential, she seems to have revived the spirit of Serge Diaghilev, the redoubtable impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, whose leadership and exceptional vision engendered such radical but enduring works as Bronislava Nijinka’s Les Noces (1923) and George Balanchine’s Apollo (1927).

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings part of English National Ballet’s 70th Anniversary Gala (c) Laurent Liotardo

ENB Then

We first encountered the Company in the 1970s.  Some of the ballets we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s have made an enduring impression on us.  We can still remember the curtain rising on the white opening tableau of Les Sylphides (Fokine, 1909) and the hushed atmosphere as the dancers seemed to float downstage.  The great Danish mime artist Niels Bjørn Larsen was unforgettable in his charismatic rendition of Madge in La Sylphide (Bournonville, 1836), as was the verve of the corps de ballet in the reel, and the poignancy of Eva Evdokimova’s Sylphide as her sight fails before her death.  And what a thrill was Etudes (Lander, 1948) with its seemingly inexorable build-up to the final climax and its sense of competition between the male dancers, particularly when performed by such brilliant virtuosi as Peter Schaufuss, Patrice Bart and Patrick Armand.

But in addition to the imprint these works made on our memories, within this tiny selection of repertoire we can see two distinct trends in the repertoire of London Festival Ballet: the highlighting of the Romantic heritage, and the connection with Danish ballet tradition – trends that Jane Pritchard, Archive Consultant to ENB, has drawn attention to.  This is also borne out by lists of repertoire in programmes from the 1950s and early 1960s.  These included Anton Dolin’s production of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841) and his reconstruction of Pas de Quatre (Perrot, 1844); the final act of Bournonville’s Napoli (1846) and the pas de deux from his 1858 Flower Festival in Genzano; and from 1909 and 1910 Fokine’s evocations of the Romantic era – Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la rose.

PAVLOVA on TV Alicia Markova and Milorad Miskovitch dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

As we wrote in our first Giselle post, Alicia Markova, who established the Company in 1950 with Anton Dolin, also performed the eponymous heroine in the first British production of the ballet in 1934, after which she became associated with the ballet through the course of her career.  Dolin’s production of the ballet was one of the first complete 19th century works to be mounted by Festival Ballet, and according to Pritchard, Markova’s initial involvement in the Company was dependent on having a new production of Giselle created specifically for her, thereby placing this work “at the heart of” ENB.   Mary Skeaping’s 1971 staging, commissioned by Beryl Grey,  was an extremely important production due the intensive historical research Skeaping had undertaken, which in our opinion gives the ballet more dramatic cogency, as well as a vivid sense of Romantic ballet style.  This, our favourite production of Giselle, has been performed by the Company with luminaries of the stature of Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, and still receives excellent notices (Crompton; Jays; Watts “English National Ballet’s Exceptional”; Watts “Review”).   

GISELLE Alicia Markova and Michael Somes Sadler’s Wells Ballet Royal Opera House – Covent Garden London – 1948 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

The first time Markova performed in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, his tribute to la danse ballonnée, she was only 15 or 16 years old.  However, only six years later, and only two months after her debut with the Company in 1932, she mounted the ballet for the Vic-Wells (later Royal Ballet) (Bland 30). Subsequently Markova staged further productions: for American Ballet Theatre (1964), Northern Ballet Theatre (1979), and for our present discussion most importantly her 1976 staging for London Festival Ballet.  Although we never saw Markova perform, Rosie has a memory of a photograph of Markova in Les Sylphides from her very first ballet book (which she still possesses), The Girls’ Book of Ballet by A. H. Franks, and was always struck by a quote from Markova about her relationship with the audience: “I do not try to reach out to them; I draw them in to me” (60).  In a way Markova continues to draw people to her through recordings of her performances in Giselleand Les Sylphides – recordings originally made in the early 1950s that therefore suggest the importance of these ballets for her career.  In fact, the 1951 film of Giselle, with Dolin as Albrecht, is also significant as the oldest surviving recording of English National Ballet.

Therefore, in our minds, through Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Mary Skeaping, English National Ballet is undeniably a curator of Romantic style repertoire.  As if to emphasise the importance of Romantic themes in the repertoire, Giselle was sometimes performed in a double bill with Le Spectre de la rose, as in the 1976 London Coliseum spring season.

BBC T.V. – LES SYLPHIDES – April 1953 Production and Rehearsals ALICIA MARKOVA / JOHN FIELD Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL Les Sylphides La Sylphide http://www.arenapal.com

In the early years, the Danish tradition was represented by the two dancers Flemming Flindt and Toni Lander, both of whom had trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School before being accepted into the Copenhagen company.  Additionally, in 1955 Lander’s husband Harald staged his work Etudes, which was chosen as the climax to the 70th Anniversary Gala performances, having become a signature ballet for the Company with a total of over 700 performances over the years.  Another delicious nugget of information we uncovered was that it was Harald Lander who mounted ENB’s first Coppélia.  This was a re-staging of the Danish production first performed in 1896 and “carefully preserved” first by Ballet Master Hans Beck and later by Lander himself (Hall 57). 

In the 1970s and 1980s Festival Ballet’s connection with the Romantic and Danish traditions was consolidated and enriched through the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss.  Son of two Royal Danish Ballet dancers, and another graduate of the Royal Danish Ballet School, Schaufuss danced with the Company for much of the 1970s and into the early 1980s before becoming Artistic Director.  In 1978 he mounted his production of La Sylphide for the first time, with the exquisite and ethereal Eva Evdokimova, renowned for her portrayal of Romantic roles, in the eponymous role, and the supreme Niels Bjørn Larsen as Madge.  Ten years later he bestowed another jewel from the Danish tradition on the Company: Bournonville’s three act Napoli (1842).

SLEEPING BEAUTY – ACT II (The Vision) 1946 MARGOT FONTEYN / BERYL GREY Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

In our very first British Ballet Now and Then post we explored how The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892) became a family Christmas tradition in this country, largely through the work of ENB, who began performing it in its very first season.  By the time Grey took over as Artistic Director in 1968, the Company were also performing full-length productions of The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895).  London Festival Ballet programme notes from 1976 emphasise Grey’s involvement in new productions of these works for the Company.  

SWAN LAKE, Photocall, Bryan Ashbridge and Beryl Grey, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, May 1960, Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

It seems that just as Markova had a special relationship with the ballets Giselle and Les Sylphides, Grey had a special relationship with the ballet Swan Lake, not only due to the extraordinary fact that she performed the dual role of Odette/Odile for the first time on her fifteenth birthday, but also because she was the first Western ballerina to dance in Soviet Russia and in Beijing, and danced this ballet on both occasions.

SLEEPING BEAUTY rehearsal March 1959 Sadler’s Wells Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey / Caj Selling with Errol Addison Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Grey had been a ballerina with the Royal Ballet and performed the Lilac Fairy to Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora at the famous reopening of the Royal Opera House after World War II.  Although Ninette de Valois evidently told Grey she would never dance Aurora as she was “far too tall to manage the attitude balances” of the “Rose Adagio”, Grey was determined to prove her wrong, and in fact she performed the role towards the end of that same season, just after her nineteenth birthday (Grey 51, 54).  When Grey performed in China, she also took the opportunity to assist in staging The Sleeping Beauty (195).  Although Grey first danced Giselle as a sixteen-year-old, and also performed the role in the Soviet Union, she is perhaps more associated with the character of Myrthe, which she danced to Fonteyn’s Giselle.  We loved the discovery that Grey performed the Queen of the Wilis when Markova and Dolin danced in Giselle at the Royal Opera House in 1948, bringing these three key figures together on the stage.  In the same year Swan Lake was added to the repertoire at Covent Garden.  In her autobiography Grey expresses her excitement at the prospect of dancing her favourite role on the Royal Opera House stage (68). 

SWAN LAKE – February 1959 Music: Tchaikovsky Royal Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey and Caj Selling Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

No doubt we take it for granted that the London Coliseum is a major venue for English National Ballet. However, it was not until Grey’s tenure as Artistic Director that the Company started to perform regular seasons there.  Having first-hand experience of The Sleeping BeautyGiselle and Swan Lake in large-scale productions at the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera House New York and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Grey understood the power of these ballets for the audience, and their importance for the prestige and development of a company.  Therefore, negotiating seasons at the Coliseum where spectacular productions could be presented in an appropriately lavish environment seems like a significant step to us.  

As performers, Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Peter Schaufuss were all international stars, intrepid individuals who went on to shape the repertoire of ENB by incorporating and highlighting specific traditions associated with their prestigious dancing careers, thereby contributing to the Company’s distinctive identity.  In addition, as directors, Grey and Schaufuss launched major initiatives to bring a greater stability and sense of permanence to the Company: Grey secured Markova House as the Company’s first permanent home in 1976, while twelve years later Schaufuss, coming from one of the oldest ballet schools in the world, established English National Ballet School.  

PAVLOVA on TV. Alicia Markova dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Concluding Thoughts on ENB Now and Then

In 1993 Pritchard wrote: “English National Ballet has never been a notably innovative company determined to challenge its audience” (450).  Sixteen years later Sanjoy Roy made a similar comment, but framed it in more specific terms, portraying the decision not to challenge audiences as a pragmatic choice: “Like many other big ballet companies, ENB is cautious about programming too many modern works in case it loses audiences”.   

In January 2020 however, at the English National Ballet Gala Celebration, the Company that we witnessed hardly seemed to be “cautious about programming” or unwilling to “challenge its audience”.  The celebration garnered glowing reviews attesting to both the strength and vigour of the dancers, and the diversity and richness of the repertoire (Gaisford; Guerreiro; Watts; Weiss).  For us the Gala marked not only seventy years of Company history, but also over seven years of Tamara Rojo’s leadership.  We not only witnessed a company at the top of its game, but were excited about the inventive and well-laid plans for the future, as ENB entered a new phase of development with brand new purpose-built premises.  

As we all know, the year has not gone to plan for any of us.  Nonetheless, with its forthcoming digital season, including works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Stina Quagebur, it would be difficult to recognise the Company in its current form from the words of Pritchard and Roy.  In our opinion it has now evolved into an innovative company that frequently challenges its audiences with unfamiliar movement and music styles, and subject matter, while still “delighting them with the traditional” (English National Ballet 4).  And in keeping with the optimism of their new address on Hopewell Square, we believe that ENB will continue to fulfil its vision of “celebrat[ing] the tradition of great classical ballet while embracing change, evolving the art form for future generations and encouraging audiences to deepen their engagement” (5).

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … This season English National Ballet planned a restaging of Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda based on a retelling of the narrative with Florence Nightingale at its heart.  In response to this we will consider how British ballet choreographers and directors have ensured the continuing relevance of ballet as an art form.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Zoë. “Marguerite and Armand”. Independent, 13 Feb. 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/marguerite-and-armand-the-royal-ballet-sergei-polunin-and-tamara-rojo-royal-opera-house-london-8492773.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Royal Opera House, 1981.

Brown, Ismene. “Rojo is Queen of the Swans”. The Telegraph, 29 Nov. 2002 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3586430/Rojo-is-queen-of-the-Swan-Queens.html, . Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Byrne, Emma. “English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle”. Evening Standard, 9 Jan. 2020, English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Crompton, Sarah. “Review: Giselle (English National Ballet, London Coliseum)”. WhatsOnStage, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/giselle-english-national-ballet-coliseum_42636.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Radiant Rojo Brings Fairytale Alive”. The Telegraph, 13 Nov. 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3656529/Radiant-Rojo-brings-fairytale-alive.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“Desert Island Discs: Dame Beryl Grey”. BBC Radio 4, 10 Mar. 2002, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0094805. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.

Dodge, Laura. “Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty – a lavish production of a magical fairy tale. bachtrack, 20 Oct. 2013, https://bachtrack.com/review-oct-2013-birmingham-royal-ballet-sleeping-beautny-sadlers-wells. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

English National Ballet. Annual Review 2017-2018. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Franks, A. H., The Girls’ Book of Ballet. Burke, 1960.

Gaisford, Sue. “English National Ballet 70th Anniversary Gala, Coliseum review – a fine celebration. The Arts Desk, 22 Jan. 2020, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/english-national-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-coliseum-review-fine-celebration. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Giselle recording with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 16 Jan. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HnNXvF0Kn0&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.

Gilbert, Jenny. The I newspaper, 9 Jan. 2020, https://inews.co.uk/culture/arts/le-corsaire-london-coliseum-review-this-flamboyant-ballet-is-a-tonic-for-the-january-blues-english-national-tickets-383518. Accessed 9 ug. 2020.

Grey, Beryl. For the Love of Dance. Oberon, 2017.

Guerreiro, Teresa.   “ENB’s anniversary gala review”. CutlureWhisper, 18 Jan. 2020, http://www.culturewhisper.com/r/dance/english_national_ballet_anniversary_galas_coliseum/14791 Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Hall, George A. London’s Festival Ballet Annual 1956-57. Gray’s Inn Press, 1957.

Jays, David. “Giselle review – Alina Cojocaru is sublime in signature role”. The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/12/giselle-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-review-alina-cojocaru. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Jennings, Luke. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”, The Guardian, June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 7 Aug., 2020.

—. “Giselle Review – Xander Parish Steals the Show”. The Guardian, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/22/giselle-review-english-national-ballet-coliseum-xander-parish-laurretta-summerscales. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“JoBurg Ballet Offstage: Tamara Rojo”. Instagram, 30 July 2020, http://www.instagram.com/tv/CDRo3OtFI1o/?igshid=up23dsd6movc. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020. 

Pritchard, Jane. “English National Ballet”. The International Dictionary of Ballet, edited by Martha Bremser, St James Press, 1993, pp. 450-5.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”. The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “Giselle- a Romantic Ballet”. English National Ballet, Programme, Belfast, 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth/La Sylphide review – Rojo powers a demanding double bill”. The Guardian, 10 Jan. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jan/10/song-earth-sylphide-review-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-rojo. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Step-by-step guide to dance: English National Ballet”. The Guardian, 16 Jun. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/jun/16/guide-dance-english-national-ballet. Accessed 16 Sept. 2020.

“THE SLEEPING BEAUTY LIVE from the Royal Ballet”. YouTube, uploaded by More2Screen, 8 Nov. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuncvxSDIiY&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Speer, Dean. “Pacific Northwest Ballet: the pinnacle”. CriticalDance, 2 Feb. 2019, https://criticaldance.org/pacific-northwest-ballet-pinnacle/. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 1”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqKyGBbYNXs. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 2”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AelTZYoc2_U&t=44s. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Tom and Ty Talk: ‘Ballet is honest’ with Tamara Rojo”. Tom and Ty Talk, 19 June 2020, https://pod.co/tom-and-ty-talk. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet’s Exceptional Giselle”. Backtrack, 14 Jan. 2017, https://bachtrack.com/review-giselle-skeaping-cojocaru-english-national-ballet-coliseum-london-january-2017. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review – English National Ballet – Giselle – London Coliseum”. Londondance, 23 Jan. 2017, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-giselle-london-coliseum-1/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review: Royal Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty – Royal Opera House”. Londondance, 24 Feb. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/royal-ballet-sleeping-beauty-2014/. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “A roller-coaster of diverse dance as English National Ballet celebrates its 70th anniversary”. Bachtrack, 19 Jan. 2020,  https://bachtrack.com/review-english-national-ballet-70-anniversary-gala-coliseum-london-january-2020. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Weiss, Deborah. “English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London”.  DanceTabs, 20 Jan. 2020, https://dancetabs.com/2020/01/englishnational-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-london/. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Winship, Lyndsey. “English National Ballet: Le Corsaire review – firecracker dancing”. The Guardian, 9 Jan. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jan/09/english-national-ballet-le-corsaire-review-firecracker-dancing. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Ballet at War Now & Then

Art does help you process; it does help you see your own situation from a different point of view; it does help you either process that situation or actually distract from that situation, which is equally valid.  Fantasy is again another of those human necessities, and to be able to disappear in an alternative reality is, I think, now certainly needed

(Tamara Rojo “The Art of Empathy” 13:25-14:22)

Ballet at War Now

Early 2020 was truly auspicious for British ballet.  It began with Northern Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala, featuring dancers from a range of British ballet companies: Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet.  There were glorious performances of Le Corsaire by English National Ballet, followed by three performances of their 70th Anniversary Gala, highlighting the range of works in their repertoire over the years and the strength of the Company in terms of both technique and character. Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, her first work for the main stage at the Royal Opera House, premiered in February.  And then there was the promise of other major new works: Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha for Northern Ballet, and most excitingly Akram Khan’s much anticipated Creature for English National Ballet – their third collaboration.

With the announcement of COVID-19 as a global pandemic this promise was largely unfulfilled: although Geisha received its world premiere in Leeds to substantial acclaim (Brown, M.; Roy; Hutera), the tour was cancelled, along with all performances in April and May of Red Riding Hood; and to our utter dismay, Creature was postponed weeks before the premiere.  Since we wrote our spotlight post on British ballet in lockdown, further cancellations and postponements have ensued, including both English National Ballet’s and the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake and Scottish Ballet’s The Scandal at Mayerling, all of which are vital to the finances of the respective companies.  

It goes without saying that the primary purpose of any ballet company is to produce and perform live performances, and that these performances require daily training and rehearsals for the dancers and musicians, as well as work behind the scenes from a whole host of people of different skill sets, including set and lighting designers, wardrobe and technical staff, and physiotherapists, to say nothing of teachers, coaches and directors.  For all of these people, whose communities are sometimes referred to as a “family” (Weiss; Wulff 89), the current loss of this purpose must seem like a bereavement.  Further, for dancers and musicians in particular, who perform in groups as well as individuals and rely on the extreme skill of their bodies to fulfil their profession, being cut off from their working environment with the space and facilities they require must feel far more disorienting, and constitute a far greater breach to their professional identity, than for those of us who are locked out of our offices. 

Understandably perhaps, the language of war pervades the discourse of the pandemic.  Journalists have highlighted vocabulary used to describe our relationship with the virus: Dominic Raab looked “shell-shocked” before chairing the “war cabinet” (Hyde); the virus is a “cruel enemy” that must be defeated in battle (Freedman).  The death toll is constantly updated in the news, and people are anxious about their loved ones, and lose them without being able to bid them a real farewell.  In addition, there is a sense of dislocation as we relocate our work to our homes; this sense of dislocation must be especially acute for dancers who have to practise, sometimes alone, in limited and limiting spaces at home.  And then there is time.  Literary scholar Beryl Pong describes wartime life as having “peculiar temporalities”: it is “a period when one feels that time has stopped, but also when it simply cannot pass by quickly enough” (93).  So we experience dislocation in both time and space, the two elements that choreographer Merce Cunningham regarded to be the only essentials to dance other than the moving body (qtd. in Preston-Dunlop).  This dislocation, the attendant physical restrictions and mental pain are in our opinion most movingly expressed in the film Where We Are.  Organised by Alexander Campbell of the Royal Ballet with choreography by Hannah Rudd of Rambert, the film features Campbell’s colleague Francesca Hayward, freelancer Hannah Sveaas, and Jeffrey Cirio of English National Ballet.  The movements are predominantly performed in the near space of the dancers’ kinesphere, arms folding over their bodies, hands across their mouths and necks, sometimes with tense fluttering gestures; all indicating both the restrictions and the anxiety experienced by the performers in their current situation.  

But despite the poignant message expressed by Where We Are, the film also symbolises hope.  It is not only that Cirio utters the words “I’m so hopeful”, but the film is one of the many activities undertaken by the dancers of this country that are witness to their resourcefulness and creativity.  In our last post we outlined some of these activities, from the practical, such as classes targeted at a wide range of demographic groups, to the highly entertaining films made by Sean Bates and Mlindi Kulashe of Northern Ballet.  Since we wrote that post, there have been many many other delightful offerings.  One favourite is English National Ballet’s Isabelle Brouwers’ Instagram video post in which she cooks a highly nutritious meal, while simultaneously explaining to us how to access the nutrients for optimising dancers’ performance and magic them up into a delicious meal.  This video was made after Brouwers gained a diploma in Sports Nutrition with distinction (Bellabrouwers).  Another favourite is completely different in nature, though equally upbeat: a compilation by no fewer than ten Royal Ballet dancers performing the “Fred Step”, Frederick Ashton’s signature movement phrase, in a variety of guises and locations (Frederick Ashton Foundation). 

Dancers’ projects are highly visible – they are ideal fare for social media, and their ventures also make for engaging feature articles in newspapers, magazines and news websites, garnering such catchy headlines as “How should everyone keep fit during lockdown? Just put on some music and move!” (Monahan), “These Ballet Dancers are Keeping Limber under Lockdown” (Rosado), “Dancing in the streets: Royal Ballet stars rock to new Rolling Stones song” (Wiegand).  For us, however, it was noticeable that later in May and well into June the focus of articles shifted towards the vexed question of reopening theatres and the arduous process of preparing dancers for a return to the stage (Craine; Crompton “What will it take?”; Mendes; Sanderson).  This development seemed to be a response to two events:  the first steps to the easing of lockdown with the opening of “non-essential shops”, and the establishment of a government Cultural Renewal Task Force, which notably included the presence of Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet.  The resultant growing concern about the future of the arts resulted in a series of petitions and an escalating flurry of anxious activity on social media leading up to a cautious sense of relief triggered by the announcement of a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts, culture and heritage industries from the Treasury. 

This situation calls for a different kind of creativity from company and theatre directors, one that is less visible, less immediately engaging and eye-catching than videos of performances (including cooking!).  Yet this kind of problem-solving creativity and resourcefulness is vital for the future of ballet in this country, and is crucially a long-term endeavour.  Someone who has brought greater visibility to this kind of creativity is Tamara Rojo, who is an avid theatre goer, as well as being passionate about the development of ballet as an art form and the part that her own company is playing in this.  In June, she participated in three events in which the repercussions of lockdown for the performing arts were included in discussion (“The Art of Empathy”; “The Future of Live Performance”, “Tom and Ty Talk”).  All of the conversations could be described as “equally sobering and optimistic” and “bittersweet” (@uk_aspen).  These oxymoronic phrases capture the predicament faced by artistic directors, who must be realistic in balancing the books as well as idealistic in holding on to their vision for their art form.  At this time, in the face of the plummeting UK economy and the uncertainty regarding the nature of the virus, artistic directors are confronted with a predicament of far greater proportions than is usually the case: depleted income, dancers who require months to return to full physical and mental preparedness for performance, and the likelihood of low box-office takings when theatres reopen, due to new social distancing regulations.   Exacerbating matters is the status of the arts in the UK, implied in Sarah Crompton’s statement: “with so many demands on the Exchequer, the needs of culture may seem low on the list” (“What will it take?”).

Happily, ballet audiences have all benefited from creative solutions already.  Initially companies shared previously recorded performances online.  More recently, the Royal Opera House “re-opened” with Live from Covent Garden, a concert series of ballet and opera streamed live from the Opera House, but minus the audience.  Members of the Royal Ballet danced Morgen, a new creation by Wayne McGregor, Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits (1978), and pas deux from Concerto (MacMillan, 1966) and Within the Golden Hour (Wheeldon, 2008).  Of necessity, these were small-scale performances danced by couples living together or individuals dancing alone.   Similarly, wife and husband Erina Takahashi and James Streeter of English National Ballet performed the “White Swan pas de deux” at Grange Park Opera House.     

Ballet companies do, of course, offer a lot of digital content on their websites in order to both inform and entice their audiences.   These include short dance films made specifically for the camera in a variety of settings, such as Ballet Black’s Mute, performed in the Thames Estuary as part of Mark Donne’s Listening with Frontiersman (2016), Scottish Ballet’s Frontiers (2019), filmed in outdoor locations around Glasgow, and the ambitious Ego from Northern Ballet, which moves from the home of the characters to the London tube, to Lytham St. Anne’s seafront. But since the middle of March, of course, the only way for companies to share content has been online.

We have no doubt all experienced how life under lockdown has expanded our use of technology, and the potential advantages of this, for example, in terms of the possibility for some of us to work from home for a portion of the week, and the positive impact a continuation of this practice may have on productivity, the environment and personal finance (Bayley; Courtney).  Similarly, Rojo believes that digital performances and events will, in the future, run in parallel with traditional live shows as part of the core business, rather than digital content on company websites and social media platforms being used predominantly as marketing tools (“The Art of Empathy”).  In our opinion, this is the kind of creative thinking that could bring a boost to ballet as an art form by attracting new audiences, making it more accessible and inclusive, while generating new channels of revenue for companies.  

Let’s finish this section with a war analogy from LBC’s radio presenter Nick Abbot.  He likens life in lockdown to being in a bunker: while we’re in the bunker we’re safe, but we are uncertain of what will meet us when we emerge, and what the repercussions will be of occurrences that have taken place while we have been sheltered in our bunker.  But we do know that as well as performing in theatres, albeit theatres bereft of audiences, dancers are starting to take class again in their company studios that have been made safe for them; and we have a date for the opening of indoor theatres with socially distanced audiences.   So step by step dancers are emerging from their bunkers, and Rojo is confident that we, their audiences, will follow suit once theatres have also been made safe (“The Art of Empathy”).   As far as we are concerned that will definitely be the case, as our thoughts are perfectly encapsulated by Crompton’s eloquent description of the current “absence” of live theatre performances as “an aching hole where something rich and vibrant used to live” (“What will it take?”). 

Ballet at War Then

To lovers of ballet, the story of how the infant British ballet flourished against all the odds during the course of World War II is now a familiar and triumphant episode in the history of the art form in this country (Brown, I.; “Dancing in the Blitz; Mackrell”).  In fact, we have written twice about this phenomenon in previous posts :“The Sleeping Beauty Now & Then”; “British Ballerinas Now & Then”. 

Given the current international standing of British ballet, it is easy to forget that ballet as an established art form with a national company and school and distinctive style of choreography and performance with internationally celebrated dancers does not have a long history in this country, in contrast to the case of France, Russia or Denmark.  As you are doubtless aware, the contemporary dance company Rambert started life as a ballet company named after its founder Marie Rambert, and in fact this was the first ballet company to be established here.  However, by the outbreak of war, Ballet Rambert was still only in its second decade, and Ninette de Valois’ Company, later to become the Royal Ballet, had been founded only eight years previously.

As in the current crisis, the War instigated debates regarding the function and value of the arts, and whether male dancers would serve their country more effectively by joining the armed forces, or in their highly skilled profession, which would allow them to bring the kind of benefits to their audiences that we experience through art, ranging from joy, solace and escapism, to emotional resonance and intellectual stimulation (Eliot 91).  Considering the early stage of British ballet’s development at the time, the advent of war could have been catastrophic for the art form.  Companies still needed to shape an identity through repertoire and the development of a distinctive style; and they needed to build a loyal following.  Even during the Phoney War, conscription, along with the day-to-day problems of rationing, blackouts and restrictions on public transport, all impacted on those involved in ballet, with potentially long-term devastating effects.  

At the start of the War, theatres were closed, causing problems with performing opportunities.  However, in the pithy words of Alexander Bland, “It soon became apparent to the authorities that a total cessation of normal recreation was more damaging to Londoners than a few bombs” (65).  Evidently, access to the arts, including ballet, was perceived as a necessity to the psychological wellbeing of the capital’s residents, and consequently a useful means of boosting the morale of the population, whether or not they were already familiar with ballet as a performance art.  Despite this, availability of suitable performance spaces continued to be a problem in London due to the repurposing of important venues: the Royal Opera House became a Mecca Dance Hall, and Sadler’s Wells (home of the Vic-Wells/Sadler’s Wells Ballet) was used as a centre for air raid-victims (Eliot 34).  

Two institutions were set up to promote and support the arts: CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) and ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association).  Although these organisations were privately run, both were supported by the government, indicating the value attributed to the arts at this time (Eliot 33).  In addition to addressing concerns about the mental health of both civilians and members of the armed forces, these organisations proved invaluable in ensuring work for artists in their different fields (34-35).  Over the years of the War ballet companies toured the provinces as well as larger cities, staging shows in an array of different venues in addition to theatres, including local halls, military bases, munitions sites, factories, and aircraft hangars, thereby bringing ballet to new audiences.  In fact, Ballet Rambert were performing for the Codebreakers of Bletchley Park as Germany surrendered in 1945 (Simpson).  There was also lunchtime ballet and teatime ballet, resulting in an increase in the usual number of performances (Eliot 52-3).  This combination of diversity of location and frequency of performance made ballet central to people’s everyday lives (58).  

The necessity and stringencies of touring, catering for new audiences, and producing performances with severely depleted numbers of male dances required imagination and resourcefulness from the various staff members of ballet companies.  Adapting the repertoire to such an assortment of unusual spaces must have called for constant thinking outside the box.  An orchestra was a luxury, so Constant Lambert, Music Director of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Hilda Gaunt, Rehearsal Pianist, accompanied the dancers on two pianos.   Absent male dancers were replaced by young inexperienced colleagues (Eliot 52), although sometimes they were able to participate in performances at short notice when they were on leave (90).  Repertoire was selected to accommodate the situation, with Les Sylphides (Fokine, 1909) a regular item in the performances of many companies:  it was already an audience favourite; it required only one male dancer; and Chopin’s music was originally composed for piano. 

For us, the image of Les Sylphides brings to mind the notion of escapism, and as Rojo says this is one function of art that is “now certainly needed” (“The Art of Empathy”).  Karen Eliot emphasises the importance of ballet’s ability to divert audiences’ attention away from everyday realities in her comments on the rising popularity of the 19th century repertoire during the War years: 

Unexpectedly, the multi-act 19th-century classical ballets that had earlier seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant during the war afforded both comfort and fascination to the diverse audiences who crowded theaters to see them …they opened up worlds of fantasy and colour, granting and audiences a few hours of visual sumptuousness that must have countered the gloom. (174)

However, in in addition to discussing art in terms of diversion, Rojo highlights its ability to help us to process situations we find ourselves in and to see them “from a different point of view”.  For some people this is perhaps more likely to occur when watching and contemplating a different type of work.  Known for the charm, vivacity and even frivolity of his choreographies in the 1930s, Ashton turned to more serious subject matter in the early 1940s in Dante SonataThe Wise VirginsThe Wanderer and The Quest.  In the words of Alexander Bland, “The international crisis seems to have opened up an emotional level in Ashtons’s artistic personality that had not previously been tapped” (59).  Rich in symbolism, these allegorical ballets dealt with such themes as the conflicts between light and darkness, good and evil, the weaknesses of human nature, and the workings of the psyche (Vaughan).

In 2007 an exhibition at the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms entitled Dancing through the War: The Royal Ballet 1939-1946 showcased the contribution made by the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet towards the War effort.  This gave rise to dramatic broadsheet headlines paying tribute to the heroism and fighting spirit of the dancers: “As bombs fell, they danced on” (Crompton) and “Take that, Adolf!” (Mackrell).  Seven years later, a BBC 4 documentary on British ballet in the War years was released: “Dancing in the Blitz: how World War II Made British Ballet”.  As this title suggests, the focus this time was on the ways in which the conditions of war – or perhaps more accurately, the ways in which the government and those involved in ballet responded to those conditions – stimulated the development of ballet in this country in terms of the dancers’ performance and technical skills, the breadth of repertoire and the size and diversity of the ballet audience.  Once again, the company that was the subject of this documentary was the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

While it is understandable that what was to become Britain’s flagship ballet company would be the principal player in this narrative, we find these accounts problematic.  It is not difficult to locate evidence that the Sadler’s Wells Company was one amongst many contributing to both the War effort and the development of the art form in this country.  For example, Andrée Howard of Ballet Rambert provided “psychological realism” in her work, giving the audience insights into the “interior world” of her characters (Eliot 154-55).  In contrast, Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet toured Britain throughout the War years staging “lavish full-scale ballets and playing in cinemas where theatres weren’t available, taking ballet to the people at a price they could afford” (“Blackout Ballet”).  In fact, such was the prestige of International Ballet by 1951 that it was this company that was selected to perform at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall (Brown, I.).  And there was an array of other, smaller companies that expanded audiences for ballet in Britain through their commitment, fortitude and imagination, offering them (civilians and those involved in military action alike) much needed comfort and distraction on the one hand, and intellectual inspiration and spiritual resonance on the other.  These included Pauline Grant’s Ballet Group, Lydia Kyasht’s Les Ballets Jeunesse Anglaise, the Anglo-Polish Ballet, Les Ballets Trois Arts, the Ballet Guild and the Arts Theatre Ballet (Eliot 38).

Concluding Thoughts

“We are in the business of mass gatherings”.  These straightforward and pragmatic  words from Gillian Moore, Director of Music of the Southbank Centre (“The Future of Live Performance”) highlight both the long-term quandary imposed on the performing arts by lockdown and social distancing, and the way in which the present “war” differs so radically from the situation experienced by ballet companies during World War II, when gatherings of people from all walks of life in a variety of environments and venues became new captive audiences for ballet.  With the emergence of new ballet companies there seems to have been constant work for dancers.  We are not as confident about the employment situation faced by today’s freelancers working in ballet in all their various capacities – freelancers who, in our opinion, should be treated as “the crown jewels” of the industry (Thompson).

Let’s finish by drawing on some words by Karen Eliot from her peerless research on British ballet in the Second World War:

Personnel with the companies was fluid as the smaller groups disbanded and reformed under new direction, or as dancers moved from one organization to another.  Throughout the period, dancers seem to have gamely carried on, moving through the daily regimen of their lives, making do with few resources, and mixing discipline and adventure.  In their various missions, the companies created during the war highlighted ballet’s relevance to new and eager audiences; they demonstrated ballet’s potential to entertain as well as to offer aesthetic stimulus; and they testified to its viability as an art form with a distinct British identity. (38)

As we know, ballet in Britain now has a long-established identity, to which the activity of the War years made a pivotal contribution.  However, since the beginning of lockdown, dancers, musicians, choreographers, film makers, amongst other ballet professionals, have engaged in new online endeavours in order to maintain both professional activity and their relationship with their audiences.  They have offered us entertainment and aesthetic stimulus through their efforts, sometimes collaborating with colleagues from other companies.  We have witnessed their sense of discipline, in particular through the sharing of online classes, and adventure in some of the enterprising videos we have relished.  And we hope that new audiences will be attracted by the current hive of online activity in the world of British ballet.        

But when those new audiences arrive, let’s not forget that the ballet world is an “ecology” comprising a plethora of establishments large and small, who are dependent on one another as well as on individual freelancers (Rojo “Tom and Ty Talk”).  Let’s remember to recognise the contribution of everyone to the development of our art form and how it is helping us through the COVID “war”.

Dedicated to everyone working in British ballet, with heartfelt thanks for their steadfast commitment to the art form that we all love.

© British Ballet Now & Then

Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … Let’s not forget that this year English National Ballet is celebrating their 70th anniversary, so we’ll be thinking about its directors, repertoire and dancers, and the way the company has evolved over time.  

Reference List

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Hutera, Donald. “Geisha Review – supernaturally charged and unexpectedly touching”. The Times, 16 Mar. 2020, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/geisha-review-supernaturally-charged-and-unexpectedly-touching-g3xgrf557. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Mackrell, Judith. “Take that, Adolf”. The Guardian, 14 Feb. 2007, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2007/feb/15/dance. Accessed 22 July 2020. 

Mendes, Sam. “How we can save our theatres. Financial Times, 5 June 2020, http://www.ft.com/content/643b7228-a3ef-11ea-92e2-cbd9b7e28ee6. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Monahan, Mark. “‘How should everyone keep fit during lockdown? Just put on some music and move!’”. The Telegraph, 30 Apr. 2020, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/should-everyone-keep-fit-lockdown-just-put-music-move/. Accessed 14 June 2020. 

Donne, Mark. “PERFORMANCE: Mute”. BalletBlack. Performed by Circa Robinson, 2016, https://balletblack.co.uk/bb-on-film/. Accessed 18 July 2020.

Pong, Beryl. British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: for the duration. Oxford UP, 2020.

Rosado, Ana. “These Ballet Dancers are Keeping Limber under Lockdown”. 7News, 20 Apr. 2020, https://7news.news/these-ballet-dancers-are-keeping-limber-under-lockdown/. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Northern Ballet: Geisha review – potent fusion of romantic dance and Japanese horror”. The Guardian, 15 Mar. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/15/northern-ballet-geisha-review-grand-theatre-leeds. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Sanderson, David. “Ballet dancers need three months to get back in step after lockdown”. The Times, 15 June 2020, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ballet-dancers-need-three-months-to-get-back-in-step-after-lockdown-vnrhlw6z7. Accessed 17 June 2020. 

Simpson, Edward. “Solving JN-25 at Bletchey Park:1943-5”.  The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park, edited byRalph Erskine and Michael Smith, Biteback Publishing, 2011. 

Thompson, Tosin. “The real ‘crown jewels’ of the arts? An unprotected freelance workforce”. The Guardian, 22 July 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jul/22/the-real-crown-jewels-of-the-arts-an-unprotected-freelance-workforce.  Accessed 25 July 2020.

“Tom and Ty Talk: ‘Ballet is honest’ with Tamara Rojo”. Tom and Ty Talk, 19 June 2020, https://pod.co/tom-and-ty-talk. Accessed 19 July 2020.

@uk_aspen. “It’s not often”. Twitter 11 June 2020, 6:28pm, https://twitter.com/uk_aspen/status/1271132243000471555?s=20.

Vaughan, David. Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Rev. ed., Dance Books, 1999.

Weiss, Deborah. “English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London”. DanceTabs, 20 Jan. 2020, https://dancetabs.com/2020/01/english-national-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-london/. Accessed 31 May 2020.

“Wartime Entertainment”. Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

“Where We Are: An original film by Alexander Campbell and Anthoula Syndica-Drummond”. YouTube, 11 June 2020, https://youtu.be/gN8mjOLU9Gg. Accessed 20 June 2020.

Wiegand, Chris. “Dancing in the streets: Royal Ballet stars rock to new Rolling Stones song”. The Guardian, 8 June, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jun/08/royal-ballet-rolling-stones-mick-jagger-living-in-a-ghost-town. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Wulff, Helena. Ballet Across Borders. Berg, 2001.

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.

 

Giselle Productions Now & Then

Giselle Now

As lovers of the ballet Giselle, first created in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, we were beside ourselves with excitement when we learnt that Akram Khan was going to choreograph a re-envisioned adaptation of the Romantic work for English National Ballet.  Our only concern was whether the Company would retain a traditional production of their work in the repertoire.  Fortunately this fear was soon allayed when Artistic Director Tamara Rojo announced that Mary Skeaping’s Giselle would be revived in the very same season as the world premiere of what turned out to be a most extraordinary retelling of the work in an age of refugee crises and concerns about increasing social inequality and injustice both in the UK and globally.

This autumn, three years after the premiere of Akram Khan’s work, it is an ideal time for us to revisit Giselle.  Not only has Khan’s adaptation returned to Sadler’s Wells, but two additional stagings are being shown in the same theatre: both Dada Masilo’s 2017 feminist reading of the work, which draws on her South African heritage, in October, and David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s 1999 Giselle for Birmingham Royal Ballet in November.  Therefore, in this post we’re focussing predominantly on productions, rather than on what individual dancers bring to the role of Giselle, as we did in our first Giselle Now & Then post.

As you may know, while maintaining the broad outline of the plot, Khan and his dramaturg Ruth Little have based their narrative on a community of migrants who have lost their jobs in a garment factory and are now reduced to providing entertainment for the cruel Landlords (who replace the aristocrats of the original libretto).  In Act II the ghosts of dead Factory Workers wreak revenge on those who caused their death through the appalling working conditions in the factory.

When watching an adaptation, be it in the same medium, or book to film, play to ballet, the question of characterisation is always an intriguing one.  There has been substantial discussion about the roles of Hilarion and Giselle herself.  While Hilarion is absolutely crucial to the plot, in traditional versions he is not given extensive stage time or activity.  In contrast, Khan’s Hilarion is a major character in terms of the stage action, and complexity of the role, as well as being a lynchpin in the storyline.  A climax to Act I is the altercation between Hilarion and Albrecht, where they circle around one another like two stags fighting over their territory in a ritual of dominance creating a palpable tension with their glaring eyes drilling into one another.  Hilarion is at the same time obsequious with the Landlords, supercilious with Albrecht and controlling with his fellow migrant Factory Workers.  His skewed love for Giselle is bound to end in catastrophe.

Giselle herself is depicted by Khan as a leader (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”); her pride and defiance are writ large when she refuses to pick up the glove that Bathilde has deliberately dropped, and stubbornly resists bowing her head to the Landlords.  Khan sees Giselle as an optimist in the face of the disastrous closing of the factory and consequential unemployment, so she has no need to kowtow to the Landlords.  She is also in love and expecting Albrecht’s child, so she has broken the rules and rocked the boat of the precious status quo that Hilarion is so eager to hold in balance.

Tamara Rojo and Isabelle Brouwers in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo and Isabelle Brouwers in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

Because of Hilarion’s centrality to Act I and the waywardness of his character, he seems to us to be a counterpart to Myrtha.  Dramaturg Ruth Little describes Hilarion as “both sinning and sinned against” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover”). Luke Jennings once found a libretto for a ballet about Myrtha’s backstory that accounts for her transformation from a loving, joyful and compassionate young woman to a vengeful wraith (“Who was Myrtha?”), and we can imagine reasons for Hilarion’s behaviour and his need to do anything to survive.

Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

The 1841 Giselle is driven by dualisms: the daylight of the familiar village is pitted against the unknown of the dark forest; the poverty of the peasants is confronted by the blatant wealth of the aristocrats; a human community of corporeal beings is juxtaposed with the world of ethereal Wilis, where the relationship between flesh and spirit, body and soul is explored.  Because of the spiritual element, Tamara Karsavina has referred to it as “a blessed ballet or an holy ballet” (A Portrait of Giselle). The spirit world is defined by a specific style of dancing, la danse ballonnée with its fleet lightness and Romantic tutus that balloon out to create the illusion that the dancers are hovering in the air. As Albrecht moves towards Giselle and fails to catch her, as she floats heavenwards in lifts and reaches away from Albrecht in arabesque, his longing for her is constantly met with confirmation of her unattainability.  One of the reasons that Tamara Rojo chose Khan as the creative artist for this project was because of “the spirituality of the theme” and her belief that “he could find a different way of putting that on stage” (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative”).  The corporeal and ethereal worlds are clearly pitted one against the other by Khan, but the effect is strikingly different…

From the moment the curtain opens we sense the physicality of the dancers’ bodies as they push with all their might against a huge overwhelming wall (designed by Tim Yip).

James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

Later, working as a group, they become the looms of their trade, mechanical pulsating machines; at other times they run in droves, almost like animals, as they escape their circumstances in search for new homes.  In the radiant, sometimes playful, Act I duet between Giselle and Albrecht they orbit around one another and visibly enjoy their repeated moments of physical contact.  Tenderly they touch one another’s head, neck, sternum, shoulders and palms, and Giselle places Albrecht’s hand on her abdomen to feel their child growing within her.

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

But the most intimate form of touch is when they touch one another’s faces with their hand  – a movement reserved in Khan’s culture for husband and wife (Belle of the Ballet).

The Wilis of Act II wear pointe shoes, as a tribute to the Romantic tradition and the connection between pointe work and the notion of the otherworldly within that tradition. Moreover, the iconic scene where the Wilis cross one another in lines performing arabesque voyagé en avant is replicated.  Originally this displayed their domination over the forest; in this case they preside over the abandoned factory. But these eldritch factory Wilis pound their canes threateningly and relentlessly into the ground, suggesting a less binary approach to the connection between flesh and spirit, the corporeal and ethereal, soul and body in this rendition of Giselle; and Giselle’s body is literally dragged into the factory by Myrtha – she may be dead, but she is in no way insubstantial.

This connection between body and spirit is demonstrated at its most poignant in the Act II duet between Giselle and Albrecht. For us Jennings’ description of Giselle’s state in Act II rings true: “She’s not dead, but she’s not quite alive, either” (Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making).  The choreography for Giselle and Albrecht’s duet is physically intimate, the closeness of the bodies more continuous than in the Act I pas de deux.  As they wrap themselves around one another, their touch is more sustained and prolonged.  It is this very physicality that suggests to us that their souls inhabit the same realm.  There are fleeting moments where Giselle seems to evaporate from Albrecht’s embrace, as if in memory of Giselle of old.  But her body is often limp, no longer able to resist the force of gravity, so Albrecht bears her weight and seems to try and woo her spirit back through the warmth of his body.  At one extraordinary moment he draws her up from the ground using the power of her hand on his face, as if the bond between them will return her to life, but she almost immediately sinks back down again. Despite the bond Giselle pushes his hand away from her stomach – a reminder that their child has died within her.  This is far from Romanticism’s trope of representing the spiritual as insubstantiality of body.  A final touch of the hand on the other’s face is the last instance of physical contact. Their final prolonged gaze at one another is so intense that Albrecht fails to notice the wall descending.  This ultimate physical separation in the face of the unassailable wall is gut-wrenching.

Giselle Then

The success of Khan’s Giselle with both critics and audiences in no way diminishes the power of traditional productions, so in this section we are discussing three traditional versions of Giselle performed by three major British ballet companies: David Bintley and Galina Samsova’s staging for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production, and the version mounted by Mary Skeaping for London Festival (now English National) Ballet.  Even though they present “standard” versions of the narrative and choreography, there are differences in design, staging, characterisation and movement style.  These differences may initially seem slight, but on closer inspection they have a significant impact on performances and enable this 1841 Romantic ballet to maintain its freshness, and to continue to capture the imagination of the audiences.

When the Bintley-Samsova production of Giselle was first staged in 1999, Bintley expressed the objective of creating a “proper” Giselle (Marriott), meaning that he wanted to recreate some of the excitement felt by the 1840s audiences (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”).  Part of this excitement was instigated by the designers’ realistic depiction of Giselle’s two contrasting worlds, including live animals in Act I and Wilis “flying” on wires in the second act. Consequently, one of the elements that was chosen as a focus was the visual element.

For this mounting of the work designer Hayden Griffiths created a waterfall, vineyards and mountains as the background for Act I, an environment that David Mead likens to “a Victorian painting come to life”.  The waterfall may also remind viewers of William Wordsworth’s The Waterfall and the Eglantine (1800), thereby making a satisfying connection with Romantic literature.  The verisimilitude of Act I includes “a pig’s bladder football … a dead hare, two live beagles and a real horse” (Mackrell “Giselle: Birmingham”). The village is also brought to life by the inclusion of children in the cast (because why wouldn’t a village have children?) and by ensuring that the dancers emphasise the individuality of each villager.  The bustling liveliness of this act, enhanced by the bright colours of the costumes, provides a striking contrast with the ballet blanc of Act II, with its “flying” aerial Wilis and its ruined abbey, in keeping with the tastes of the Romantic audiences, who relished the successful theatrical fashioning of the mystical and otherworldly.  David Mead captures the atmosphere: “Gothic arches soar heavenwards above the ruined choirs.  Lit by a full moon, peeking through what is left of the windows, it is spookiest of atmospheres”.

Giselle-3000px -revised
Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Momoko Hirata © Bella Kotak

The waterfall of the first act is particularly significant, as water is an essential element in the legend of the Wilis – in Heinrich Heine’s Über Deutschland, one of the sources used for the original libretto of Giselle, Heine explains that their hems are constantly damp, as they dwell close to or even on the water.  In Giselle; or The Phantom Night Dancers, the play based on the ballet that was produced in London shortly after the ballet’s premiere in Paris, the inclusion of “Fountains of Real Water” in Act II provided a major attraction and was therefore highlighted on playbills in no uncertain terms (Morris 53).  Therefore, it’s interesting that Hanna Weibye  incorporates water imagery in her writing to convey the effect of the corps de ballet as the Wilis in Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet, to convey the impression that they create: “In John Macfarlane’s creamy Romantic tutus they cross the stage in serried ranks like swells on the open ocean, seemingly unstoppable” (“Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”).

It is this staging of Giselle by Wright for the Royal Ballet that is undoubtedly the most celebrated British production of the ballet.  Wright has been producing Giselle since as long ago as 1966.  We were fascinated to discover that when he first saw the ballet in the 1940s, he could not take it seriously.  Once he had witnessed Galina Ulanova perform the title role on the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to London, however, he understood its potential; subsequently when John Cranko asked him to produce it for Stuttgart Ballet, Wright discovered (as we do!) that the more he researched, the more fascinated be became (“Getting it Right”).  The current production is the second version that Wright has created for the Royal Ballet, and they have continued performing it regularly since 1985.

Giselle
Giselle. Yasmine Naghdi as Giselle. Giselle. © ROH, 2018. Photographed by Helen Maybanks

Wright’s approach to producing Giselle was to ensure that the characters and the drama made complete sense in his mind.  To this end he made Bathilde into a more haughty, even heartless, character than she was in the original libretto, thereby creating a more sympathetic portrayal of Albrecht. This characterisation is often commented on by critics (Jennings “Giselle Review”; Mackrell “Giselle review”; Watts “An indelible performance”).  Jennings’ comments on Olivia Cowley’s performance is particularly telling: “Realising that Albrecht has broken the village girl’s heart, Cowley’s Bathilde appears not so much wounded as faintly nauseated”.  For Wright it is also essential that Giselle commits suicide, rather than dying of a broken heart, in order to account for her burial in the woods, outside the bounds of the churchyard and therefore unprotected from the Wilis (Monahan).

As in the case of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, design is a feature of the work that is essential to the creation of atmosphere, which has been described as “eerie”, with a “threatening” (Weibye) and “brooding” forest (Jennings).  Macfarlane demonstrates a different approach to that of Griffiths, with a more uniform colour palette, but Graham Watts’ vivid description of the Act II décor shows how imaginative design can recreate an atmosphere by bringing new ideas to work that conjure up fresh images in the minds of the audience:

The woods … with their uprooted trees and a ceiling of scrambled, entwined branches provide the perfect lair for the ghostly Wilis to take their revenge on the carefree men who foolishly pass by in the dead of night (“Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”).

And now to our favourite traditional Giselle …Like Peter Wright, Mary Skeaping spent years researching the ballet, but she also had the added advantage of dancing in Anna Pavlova’s company, when Pavlova herself was performing Giselle.  In addition, Skeaping saw Olga Spessivtseva dance the role, and she received a great deal of support and guidance from Tamara Karsavina to help with her first staging of the ballet in 1953 for the Royal Swedish Ballet. In 1971 Skeaping mounted a production on London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), which is their current traditional Giselle.  Undoubtedly the most authentic of the British versions, this production is probably exceeded in authenticity internationally only by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2011 reconstruction based on primary sources including two 19th century notation scores and the research of historian Marian Smith’s (“Giselle”).

Jurgita Dronina as Giselle and Isaac Hernandez as Albrecht in Skeaping's Giselle © Laurent Liotardo (5) (1)
Jurgita Dronina as Giselle and Isaac Hernandez as Albrecht in Skeaping’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

One of the reasons we favour this production is pure sentimental nostalgia – in particular memories of Eva Evdokmova and Peter Schaufuss as the protagonists, Maina Gielgud as Myrtha and Matz Skoog in the Peasant Pas de deux, as well as the first performance of Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev dancing the ballet together.  However, we are also fascinated by the impact of recreating period style, so evident in the curved asymmetrical port de bras and posture of the Wilis.  It draws us into another era with its distinctive aura, “antique sense of the supernatural” (Mackrell “Giselle: Coliseum”) and restored sections, such as the complete Pas de vendages for Giselle and Albrecht. Giselle’s solo in this particular section gives a taste of a more authentic Romantic ballet style with its skimming terre-à-terre petit allegro, the batterie and ballon and quick changes of direction, all enhanced by gentle épaulement.  Not only do we appreciate the understated virtuosity of such passages and the way they extend our understanding and knowledge of ballet, but when we watched performances by English National Ballet in 2017, we were struck by the contribution the full Pas de vendages makes to the dramatic climax of Act I.  In comparison with the truncated version that is generally presented, the full Pas brings all the focus of both the onstage audience and the audience in the auditorium, to Giselle and Albrecht. It is playful and tender in its inclusion of the usual game of kisses, but also in the joie de vivre of the dancing style.  Consequently, it distracts us from the plot, giving no warning or sense of the impending disaster.  When Hilarion suddenly challenges Albrecht, it seems to cut like a razor through the celebrations.  After such idyllic moments of love witnessed by her community, Giselle’s isolation in her distress is all the more raw and brutal.  Perhaps it was this dramatic effect that inspired Bintley and Samsova to reinstate some of the usual musical cuts to their interpretation of the work, particularly with Samsova’s personal experience of dancing the title role in a number of different productions.

In our opinion all of these productions are relevant today.  Tamara Rojo herself highlights the impact of the social context on people’s behaviour when their actions are driven by their emotions (“Akram Khan’s Giselle: The Social Context”), a theme that is of course evident in both the 1841 Giselle and the 2016 reinterpretation.  Writing of the Royal Ballet’s production Hannah Weibye considers the added import of the ballet in the #metoo era, emphasising the themes of “abuse of power for sexual gratification” and questioning whether Albrecht deserves Giselle’s forgiveness.  Khan’s interpretation of Giselle is a monumental work of art in its own right.  As an adaptation, moreover, it provides us with a new lens through which to watch the Romantic work, find fresh insights, new emotional resonance, and to appreciate once again its own singular portrayal of love, betrayal and the beautiful, dangerous undead.

© British Ballet Now & Then

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … To mark the start of the Royal Ballet’s new season and pay tribute to the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth, we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in June’s Margot Fonteyn a Celebration at the Royal Opera House celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.

 

References

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the creative process”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 4 Oct. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs2nsC_pchw. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: discover the main characters”. English National Ballet, http://www.ballet.org.uk/production/akram-khan-giselle/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

“Akram Khan’s Giselle: the social context”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 7 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Amlg-vPC9xU. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

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

“Giselle”. Pacific Northwest Ballet, 2019, https://www.pnb.org/repertory/giselle/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Heine, Heinrich. “Elementary Spirits”. Giselle. Programme. Royal Opera House, 2001.

Jennings, Luke. “Giselle review – uncontestable greatness from Marianela Núñez”. The Guardian, 28 Jan. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jan/28/giselle-review-royal-ballet-marianela-nunez. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle: Birmingham Hippodrome”. The Guardian, 4 Oct. 1999, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/1999/oct/04/artsfeatures2. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

—. “Giselle: Coliseum”. The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2007/jan/12/dance. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

—. “Giselle review – Muntagirov and Nuñez display absolute mastery”,The Guardian, 24 Mar. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/mar/24/giselle-review-muntagirov-and-nunez-display-absolute-mastery. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

Mead, David. “Birmingham Royal Ballet: Giselle”, Critical Dance, 21 June 2013, criticaldance.org/birmingham-royal-ballet-giselle/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Monahan, Mark. “Getting it Right”. Royal Opera House, http://www.roh.org.uk/news/getting-it-right-peter-wright-on-his-production-of-giselle. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Morris, Mark. “The Other Giselle”. The Creation of iGiselle, edited by Nora Foster Stovel, U of Alberta P, 2019.

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Watts, Graham. “An Indelible Performance”. Bachtrack, 21 Jan. 2018, https://bachtrack.com/review-giselle-royal-ballet-royal-opera-house-london-january-2018. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

—. “Review: Royal Ballet in Giselle”. LondonDance, 19 Feb. 2011, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/giselle-at-royal-opera-house-3506/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

Weibye, Hanna. “Giselle, Royal Ballet Review”. The Arts Desk, 20 Jan. 2018, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/giselle-royal-ballet-review-beautiful-dancing-production-classic-good-taste. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

“Who Was Myrtha?”. Luke Jennings, Thirdcast.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/who-was-myrtha. Accessed 21 Sept. 2019.

 

 

 

 

ENB Emerging Dancer 2019

Last week Julia and Rosie went to watch English National Ballet’s tenth Emerging Dancer Competition.  Later in the week we talked about the role and impact of the competition, as well as discussing the actual performances. Here’s how our conversation went …

Rosie: This is the third year running that I’ve seen the competition, and what I’ve started noticing is how much the dancers develop through the process of investing in the preparations for the competition and the performance itself.  You see them blossoming almost in front of you.

Julia: Yes, I’ve noticed this especially with Julia Conway, so I was really excited for her when she won.  When we’ve seen her in class she’s always worked in such a focussed way and seemed so eager to take on feedback.  She seems to shine on the stage, but nothing quite prepared me for her bravura attack in the Flames of Paris pas de deux.

Rosie: You could sense the confidence from both her and her partner Rentaro Nakaaki the moment they took to the stage.  They blazed their way through the duet, and although their virtuosity was plain to see, it wasn’t in any way brash, as virtuosity can sometimes be.  In this way Julia reminded me a bit of Katja Khaniukova.  I saw Katja a few weeks ago at the Against the Stream gala tossing off scores of fouettés apparently with the greatest of ease, and with lovely elegant phrasing.

Julia: Julia’s coach Pedro Lapetra talks about how responsive and bright she is in their coaching sessions (“Coaching our Emerging Dancers”).  I think it’s great that the dancers are coached by their peers.

Rosie: It does show what a significant role the competition plays in the development of the company: as well as nurturing young dancers, it helps to secure coaches for the future; and as we know, teaching brings greater understanding to the teacher as well as to the student.

Julia: And I noticed Fabian Reimair also choreographed and wrote the music for Emilia Cadorin’s solo.  It’s a whole company enterprise.

Rosie: It’s a win-win!

Julia: Talking of winning, I was so impressed by the video of Daniel McCormick who was last year’s winner.  He was talking about how he felt a sense of responsibility after winning the competition – he wanted to be sure that people would understand why he had been selected and would agree that he had deserved to win.

Rosie: Yes, I found that quite poignant.  His partner Francesca Velicu was also quite spectacular in their Corsaire pas de deux last year.  It’s fantastic that we get to see the previous year’s winner perform a pas de deux.  For instance, this year Daniel and Francesca danced Don Quixote, and not only did he look marvellously self-assured in his dancing and his (sometimes daring!) partnering, but his épaulement was gorgeous, and he radiated character. 

Julia: We saw Daniel as Lescaut in Manon, remember.  The dancer has to have a lot of stage presence for that role, as well as really articulate technique and acting ability, because he starts off the whole ballet alone on the stage.  He really held my attention from the start.  The critics Maggie Foyer and Margaret Willis both noted these features of his performance.

Rosie: One of the dancers who played Lescaut’s Mistress was Rina Kanahera who won Emerging Dancer two years ago.  I wouldn’t have thought that she would be such fun to watch in this role, although I wasn’t surprised at how musical she was, how she played around with the phrasing.  I had already noticed a difference between the technical brilliance of her Esmeralda in 2017 when she was competing, and her regal but warm presence and lush, elegant port de bras in the Aurora Grand pas de deux that closed the evening in 2018.

Julia: The name Esmeralda makes be think about how the dancers often get the opportunity to perform pieces beyond ENB’s regular repertoire.  Of course this is great for the dancers to challenge their technique and for the audience, because we get to see things that we don’t often get the chance to see, but it also brings out different qualities in the dancers.  Alice Bellini and Shale Wagman opened the evening this year with Victor Gsovksy’s Grand pas Classique.  We’re already familiar with Shale’s accomplished technique from performances, class, and the recording of his winning variation at last year’s Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition, but Grand pas classique includes that ferociously demanding variation for the ballerina with the diagonal of slow ballonnés and pirouettes sur pointe all on one leg.  Alice had to be majestic and poised for this, but then her contemporary solo Clan B by Sebastian Klobborg was a quirky take on La Sylphide using music from the Løvenskiold score.

Rosie: She really showed versatility – the combination of gestures from La Sylphide like the fluttering hands and the signature Sylphide pose with angular, grounded and much more corporeal movement was very funny, and I thought Alice brought it off a treat.

Julia: The costume contributed to the humour as well, with her long socks, checked shorts and a sylph headdress.  I loved the way Vera Liber described the performance: “Full of vigour and fighting fit, she seems to have taken over James’ human body”.

Rosie: “Full of vigour and fighting fit” is hardly what you have in mind when you picture a sylph!  Graham Watts noticed this about Emilia Cadorin too – that she looked completely different in BAM!, the solo created for her; it seemed to suit her really well. And in fact I think it can be said of all the solos that there is a great contrast between them and the classical pas de deux.

Julia: Yes, although perhaps the choices that showed the least contrast were Coppélia and William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated.  Even though that sounds a bit crazy because musically and visually they’re so different, Rhys Antoni Yeomans got to perform bravura leaps and spins in both of them, whereas the other contemporary pieces were based more on characterisation and mood, and if they were virtuosic, the use of the body was quite different.

Rosie: When I was watching Rentaro performing Own by Nuno Campos, I couldn’t help admiring the fluency and articulation of his torso and thinking of Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle.

Julia: We could cast it with recent Emerging Dancer finalists and winners: maybe Francesca as Giselle and Aitor Arrieta as Albrecht (Aitor was joint winner with Rina two years ago) …

Rosie: … and Isabelle Brouwers has already performed Myrthe – I’m hoping we’ll get to see her this autumn.  She was fabulous as the Queen in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage – chilling and imperious.

Julia: But going back to In the Middle, I’d like to see more of the contemporary solos for the competition taken from established choreographers like Forsythe.

Rosie: I’m torn, because it’s an opportunity to see work specifically capitalising on the dancers’ talents, but Graham Watts suggests that time and resources may be limited, so that the new pieces don’t always serve the dancers as well as they might.

Julia: I think the main thing for me this year was that the dancer we were rooting for gave such wonderful performances and was the winner.  She was so characterful in Untiled Code (by Miguel Altunaga), as well as obviously giving a joyous rendition of Jeanne in Flames of Paris.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops and which major roles she’ll take on in the coming years – maybe Aurora or Giselle…

Rosie: As you know, I’ve been interested in Julia (Conway) since she joined ENB, because she studied with one of my ballet teachers, Olga Semenova, who herself studied at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg.  Taking class with Olga has had a huge impact on what I appreciate in dancers.  For example, Olga herself, Zhanna Ayupova (current Artistic Director of Vaganova) and Tamara Rojo all have exquisite necklines – it’s not all about the legs and feet!!!

Julia: You know that next year the competition will be in its second decade?

Rosie: In that case we should do a Now & Then post instead of an In Conversation.

Julia: We could do a Spotlight on one of the previous finalists during the run-up to increase the anticipation.

Rosie: Let’s do it!

References

“Coaching our Emerging Dancers”. YouTube, uploaded by English National   Ballet, 7 May 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ygnp_QmH8uY. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Foyer, Maggie. “English National Ballet: Emerging Dancer Award”. Critical Dance, 7 May 2019, http://www.criticaldance.org/english-national-ballet-emerging-dancer-award/. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Liber, Vera. “ENB Emerging Dancer 2019”. British Theatre Guide, 7May 2019, http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/enb-emerging-da-sadler-s-wells-17540. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet – Emerging Dancer Competition 2019 – London”. Dance Tabs, 9 May 2019, www. dancetabs.com/2019/05/       english- national-ballet-emerging-dancer-competition-2019-london/. Accessed 16 May 2019.

Willis, Margaret. “A Fine Company Achievement: English National Ballet’s Manon”. Bachtrack, 18 Jan. 2019, http://www.bachtrack.com/review-manon-dronina- hernandez-macmillan-english-national-ballet-london-january-2019. Accessed  16 May 2019.