Spotlight on Luke Jennings

In response to Judith Mackrell’s announcement that she was leaving The Guardian, we wrote a post on British ballet critics now and then, comparing her writing with that of previous Guardian critics James Kennedy and Mary Clarke.  Disappointed as we were at Judith’s news, we were positively dismayed to discover that Luke Jennings was also giving up his role as dance critic of The Observer: two great dance writers gone in a single year…

Obviously we wanted to acknowledge Luke’s departure from The Observer in a similar way, but thought it would be interesting for our readers to learn something about his own thoughts on his role as a dance critic, his approach to writing and the decisions he makes when composing his reviews, as well as our views.  Rosie spoke to him in December, shortly after he had made public his resignation. 

From the start of the conversation Luke made it very clear that as a dance writer it is crucial to him to “transmit the essence of the experience of watching”. This is an idea that recurred through the course of the conversation, because the essence of the experience of watching ballet depends to a large extent on the type of work being performed. In Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the figure of Juliet is absolutely vital to the identity of the work, driving the action of the ballet as she does. Therefore, paying close attention to the ballerina’s performance is essential if the writer intends to create an impression of watching this ballet.  And in fact for us, the way in which Luke manages to bring dancers to life on the page is probably the most compelling aspect of his writing.  Take for example this ravishingly evocative description of Tamara Rojo as Juliet:

Tamara Rojo’s Juliet, meanwhile, is a creation of gentle and shimmering transparency. Like the surface of a lake, she seems to register every tremor, every whisper of breeze. At times, as in the balcony scene, she seems to phrase her dancing with her racing heartbeat; at others, as when Carlos Acosta’s Romeo leaves her alone in the bedroom, the light visibly ebbs from her body. (“Step into the Past”)

The images of light, air and water in this passage create a sense that Juliet’s encounter with Romeo has awoken something elemental within her, setting her aglow with new life, so that she becomes sensitive to everything around her. We see her light up the stage with her new-found love.  The rhythm of the language, with the repetition of “every” pushing the sentence forward, echoes the exhilaration that makes her heart beat so fast.  The parallel structure of the final sentence emphasises the stark contrast between “her racing heartbeat” with its vivid sense of movement, and the disappearance of light and movement at the close of the paragraph. 

Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of time was spent on discussing narrative in ballet.  However, in truth this should hardly have come as a surprise: concern for narrative clarity, logic and cogency are a theme that runs through Luke’s writing.  This can be seen, for example, in his initial comments on Akram Khan’s Giselle (“A Modern Classic in the Making”), and more recently in his review of Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier (“The Unknown Soldier”), in which he discusses in some detail problems that can occur when storytelling in ballets lacks consistency and logic.

British ballet has a strong tradition of narrative ballet dating back to Ninette de Valois’ creations, including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935), Checkmate (1937) and The Prospect Before Us (1940).  Luke pointed out that both Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan would seek advice regarding the libretti of their narrative ballets.  One specific example we discussed was MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978) for which the choreographer collaborated with Gillian Freeman, writer of novels, screenplays and non-fiction, to give shape to a complex story spanning a number of years and involving political intrigue, as well as multiple relationships between Rudolf and the various women in his life.  It should not be forgotten, however, that Freeman was also well versed in the subject of ballet, undoubtedly in part through her marriage with the dance writer and critic Edward Thorpe. 

Yet Luke is of the opinion that current ballet choreographers are in general not adept at constructing scenarios for their ballets, and even select (or have selected for them) narratives that are simply unsuited to ballet adaptation.  Examples are Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland (2011) and Liam Scarlett’s 2014 The Age of Anxiety, both of which are based on literary sources that depend on verbal language for their identity and meaning.  

So fiercely does Luke believe in the necessity of a tight narrative for a successful ballet, that he recommends that companies employ a resident librettist, or at least that libretti be approved by a committee that understands how both ballet and storytelling work.  And indeed, in his final review rounding off his time at The Observer, he asked the question: “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience?” (“Royal Ballet”).

At one point in our conversation there was an epiphany moment when the connection between Luke’s preoccupation with narrative, and our interest in the way in which he writes about the individual interpretation and movement style of dancers suddenly became clear.  This is when the conversation turned to “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  This is one of our very favourite reviews, one in which Luke compares the performances of Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.  The key is that for Luke the best dancers make choices when phrasing the choreography, and these choices illuminate the narrative: just as the way in which we enunciate and inflect our speech gives particular meaning to our words, so in dance the way the performers articulate and shape the choreography give it a particular meaning.  

In this review the contrast between Nuñez and Lamb, and the way in which they give particular meaning to the role of Juliet is epitomised by one specific single movement that each ballerina highlights in the Balcony Scene.  This movement is inextricably linked to the moment when Juliet abandons herself to her feelings for Romeo, come what may.

In Nuñez’s performances Luke focuses on the rond de jambe, drawing attention to the ballerina’s phrasing, how it makes him feel, and what it means in terms of the narrative – the shift from hesitation to affirmation:

… the segue from the racing blur of the pirouette into the rapturous precision of the rond de jambe is heart stopping. This is when the maidenly evasion ends.  This is when maybe becomes yes.

This means that the reader understands the significance of the movement for both the plotline and the emotional resonance of the choreography.  

When writing about Lamb in the same scene, the emphasis is on the arabesque that follows this moment: “… she signals her surrender to destiny not with the rond de jambe but the plunging fatalistic arabesque that follows it”. So again the reader is given a sense of how the ballerina shapes the movement and its significance for the narrative in this particular performance: in this case the fearless downward trajectory of the arabesque indicates Juliet’s acceptance of her fate, creating a sense that there is no turning back, suggesting perhaps a Juliet of a more reckless temperament.

There is no doubt that Luke’s words convey something of the experience of watching the two different ballerinas, and he made it abundantly clear how important it is to him to achieve this in his writing.  Closely connected to this is his desire to enable his readers to see what he sees, thereby in a sense teaching viewers how to watch, what to look out for.  He referred to Nuñez’s rond de jambe and Lamb’s arabesque as “two concrete moments” that enabled him to give a clear impression of what he witnessed. However, we are also fascinated by how Luke conjures up such a vivid image of these moments.  So let’s take a closer look at his writing … 

When we read the description of Nuñez’s rond de jambe, we feel drawn in by the parallel sentence structure “This is when …” that culminates in “maybe becomes yes”, right at the end of the paragraph.  More than this, the single syllable of yes and the lasting unvoiced sound seems to reflect the impulse into and opening of the rond de jambe, so that the language phrase becomes mimetic of the movement – it seems to mirror the movement in time and space, so that we see the whole body opening out, saying “yes”.

And just as we see this opening of the body in the horizontal plane, Luke’s choice of vocabulary for Lamb’s arabesque accentuates the verticality of her movement: it is plunging, indicating a sudden forceful downward movement; it is fatalistic, suggesting that nothing can prevent the direction of movement.  From this a completely different image appears in our mind.    

You will notice from the passages we have quoted from Luke’s writing that he avoids using a lot of specialist ballet terminology and purposely selects vocabulary and imagery that is part of everyday language that readers of the newspaper will understand and relate to.  This is because he is acutely aware that his writings for The Observer are for a national newspaper, and so for a broad rather than specialist readership, even though ballet lovers and professionals of various kinds (like  ourselves) also read his articles.  He frequently therefore starts with some context, perhaps including some explanation of the narrative, necessary for newcomers before he moves on to detail, or highlighting the particular demands of a role if this is the focus of his discussion, as in the case of “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  After addressing the needs of the general public, he can “then speak to people who know the language”.  In this way he is able to attract a varied readership.  He described this tightrope act as a “constant pull” “between being comprehensible and being precise”, or “being impressionistic and presenting fact”.  

It was interesting to discover that the contextualisation at the start of the reviews is far more significant than we had supposed.  Luke explained that it’s not possible to tell how people are feeling, or what’s in their mind when they read his articles.  The contextual writing therefore helps the reader to get in the mood and be persuaded by the writing; this Luke likened to the title sequence of a film, where we are lured into another world.  Similarly, the use of second person, which Luke frequently uses in favour of either “I” or “we”, helps him to lead the reader into the experience he is aiming to convey. 

So far we have focussed on Romeo and Juliet, a work dependent on the ballerina for its emotional pull.  This is frequently the case in a dance genre which, since the Romantic era, has placed the ballerina both literally and metaphorically centre stage. However, it is not always the case.  For Luke, the essence of watching The Nutcracker, for example, lies in the whole experience rather than in the performance of particular dancers, even when it is enriched by a magnificent cast. Consequently, over the years reviewing different companies he has given an overview of the dancing, designs, music and narrative, drawing us in with an easy narrative style that evokes The Nutcracker atmosphere.  Here is an example from his 2012 review of English National Ballet’s production: 

The opening, with skaters gliding along the frozen Thames outside the icicle-hung Stahlbaum mansion, is magical. Inside the house we meet a familiar cast of fops and eccentrics, headed by Michael Coleman’s splendidly bonkers Grandfather.

Luke talked of the ballet almost like a ritual, with its “sense of time passing” and the feeling of “once again here we are”.  This is understandable for a critic or a ballet lover who attends the ballet on an annual basis, and the sentiment was reflected in the opening of his final Nutcracker review: “It’s Nutcracker season again”.  Judging from audience numbers and make-up, many are attending for the experience of seeing a version of The Nutcracker as part of their Christmas festivities, rather than as a trip to the ballet.  Therefore, in this scenario too, going to the venue and watching the performance perhaps takes on a different sense of celebration than would be usual when attending a ballet at a different time of year unconnected with a great annual festival. 

Despite the light touch of his Nutcracker reviews, Luke tends to offer the reader food for thought, once again walking the tightrope between appealing to those with a particular interest in ballet, and a more general readership.  He has, for example, questioned the cultural stereotyping of the Act II divertissements (“The Nutcracker – review”; “The Nutcracker review – ballet”) and poignantly drawn our attention to the “shadow aspect” of The Nutcracker: “For every Clara opening her presents beneath the Christmas tree, there’s a Little Match Girl freezing to death in the street outside” (“The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”).

And so, just as Luke asks “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience? Where are the women in creative power roles? Where’s the vision?”, we have our own questions: Where are the writers who will bring the dancers we love to life on the page? Where are the critics who will teach us how to watch? And who will give food for thought when watching something as delectable as our annual Nutcracker?

© Rosemarie Gerhard

References

Jennings, Luke. “Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making”. The Guardian, 2 Oct. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/02/giselle-akram-khan-review-english-national-ballet. Accessed 30 Dec. 2018.

—. “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”. The Guardian, 15 June 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – ballet doesn’t come much more Christmassy”. The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/dec/07/the-nutcracker-review-birmingham-royal-ballet-christmassy. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “Royal Ballet: Les Patineurs, Winter Dreams, The Concert review – dreams and misdemeanours”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/23/royal-ballet-les-patineurs-winter-dreams-the-concert-review-triple-bill. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Unknown Soldier Review – when ballet loses its way”. The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/02/the-unknown-soldier-review-royal-ballet-triple-bill-alastair-marriott-first-world-war. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

Ballet Critics Now & Then

Ballet Critics Now

Those of us in the UK with a keen interest in ballet and dance are very fortunate in having easy access to a number of specialist dance critics’ writing for newspapers, magazines and websites.  At the start of a run of performances by either British or international companies we have the luxury of consulting a range of expert opinions on what we have seen or plan to see.  Typically, reviews will offer background information on the ballet and specific production and give opinions on the components of the work and the effectiveness of the performers, as well as analyses and interpretations of the work and performance.  While reviews always offer different perspectives and insights, sometimes they can even be almost diametrically opposed in their account and assessment of a performance.

So we find that reading reviews often engenders animated and interesting discussions in the bar or on our WhatsApp group or at coffee after a ballet class.  You may also have noticed that we have frequently referred to the writing of critics in this blog, including Zoe Anderson, Ismene Brown, Sarah Crompton and Hannah Weibye.  And this is not only a matter of supplying interesting information or a particular point of view, but sometimes these experts are able to express their thoughts in such pithy, vivid or enticing language that it enriches both our own understanding and our writing and is a pleasure to integrate into our posts. Reviews are also crucial sources for our lectures in their connection to live current performances and in bringing to life dancers and performances of the past in a more immediate way than in a traditional narrative history.

The work of a critic is extremely skilled, a fact we perhaps forget, surrounded as we are by such an array of accomplished reviewers.  Candace Feck of Ohio State University expresses the complexity of writing about dance performance succinctly, but leaving the reader in no doubt as to the challenges of this kind of writing:

In lecture halls and dorm rooms, in library cubicles, newspaper offices and behind internet blog sites, laments are raised about the challenges of witnessing a fleeting and non-verbal art form and wresting from it the elements of verbal expression. Once likened to the act of placing a tattoo on a soap bubble, the task of writing about performance requires close attention to the unfolding event, a process of reflective engagement afterward and finally, the daunting business of choosing and organizing words that will convey an accurate and persuasive account of the experience to a reader once-removed. (412)

Luckily, if we want to write about a particular performance on this our Britishballetnowandthen blog, while we still experience a restless fishing for words and a struggle to get a written text to convey what we saw and our assessment of it, we only need to please ourselves and whomever we think might read our posts.  Not so for writers of established newspapers, magazines and websites, who have stringent deadlines to meet and are obliged to abide by editorial constraints, for example a specific word count and brief. Therefore, it is all the more astonishing that critics are able to convey choreography and dancers with such vividness.

Critics often publish books related to dance (more of this below), but some are also celebrated for their writing beyond the realms of ballet and dance.  Recently Luke Jennings of The Observer has been in the media frequently due to this year’s dramatisation of his novel Codename Villanelle by BBC America. Meanwhile, Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic for The Guardian since 1995, published her Unfinished Palazzo last year, portraying the lives of Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim, three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier at different points of the 20thcentury.  The spring of 2021 will see the release of her Going with the Boys, a group biography of six female war correspondents during World War II.  Perhaps it is this involvement in depicting other worlds and connecting with a variety of readerships that lends particular vibrancy and resonance to the writing of Jennings and Mackrell.

Recently Judith Mackrell announced that she will be leaving The Guardian.  Therefore, in recognition of her contribution to dance criticism through her 32 years of being a dance critic first at The Independent, then at The Guardian, we are now going to spend some time focussing on her reviews. Obviously, we can’t in a few paragraphs do justice to her work, so in order to keep it current, we are looking specifically at some of her reviews of the Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake over the last six years, including her write-up of the Company’s new production of Swan Lake, which premiered in May of this year.

Once a production is well established, critics tend to focus on the technical performance and interpretations of the dancers.  Therefore, Mackrell’s 2012 and 2015 reviews of Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production concentrate on the principal roles, in particular Odette/Odile, in both cases danced by a Russian guest – Natalia Osipova in 2012 and Evgenia Obraztsova three years later.  One of the points that Mackrell highlights is the atypical approach to aspects of the dual role from both ballerinas. Our reading of Mackrell’s words is that she has distinct reservations about these particular aspects.  The anger she perceives in Osipova’s Odette is deemed to create an “odd interpretation” at times, although “there are brilliant compensations” (“Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”).  Meanwhile, Obraztsova and Steven McRae’s portrayal of Odette and Siegfried’s love is “a beautifully intimate portrait of a love affair, but it lacks the high stakes of tragedy that normally define this ballet” (“Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”).

So far nothing unusual, you may think.  However, Mackrell’s use of language is so evocative, her manipulation of words so sophisticated that the reviews draw us in.  She builds up a vivid picture of Osipova’s Odette with carefully selected vocabulary: the words “defending”, “warrior”, “rage”, “urgent”, “disrupt” give the impression of an energetic Odette fighting for justice. On the other hand, when executing small steps, her speed produces “a magical, floating quality”. In her account of Obraztsova’s Odette, it’s not only the vocabulary, but the undulating rhythm that creates the image of the ballerina’s articulation of the choreography and McRae’s partnering: “With every delicate inflection of her foot, every ripple of her arm, she shows him how to read her; and with every touch, glance and breath he responds”.

The effect of this wonderfully expressive writing is that despite the author’s reservations, we are intrigued and see that the ballet has perhaps more possibilities for interpretation than we had imagined.  So through her perceptive viewing and eloquent writing that strikingly captures the ballerinas’ unusual renditions, we are suggesting that Swan Lake itself as a choreographic work could be said to evolve.

The review of the Royal Ballet’s new Swan Lake, produced by Liam Scarlett, has a different balance, in that it is much more focussed on the production itself.  Nonetheless, interwoven into the comments on the production are descriptions that give a clear impression of the interaction of the performers being tender and emotionally driven, while Marianela Núñez is singled out for her exquisite musicality (“Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”). Indeed, in all three reviews the way in which commentary on staging and dancers are integrated gives the reader a sense of the experience of watching the performance as a complete phenomenon. This means that whether you’re a ballet novice or a seasoned viewer, you will gain something from reading Mackrell’s reviews, particularly if you also appreciate the finer points of language.

In an age where anyone can write reviews online (and this democratisation is to be welcomed), it is crucial to appreciate the skill of expert ballet critics such as Judith Mackrell and recognise their contribution to our own understanding of ballet and the understanding of future audiences, students, dancers and scholars.

Ballet Critics Then

In order to maintain a sense of parity, we are focussing on Judith Mackrell’s predecessors at The Guardian and some of their Royal Ballet Swan Lake reviews.

In case some of you are unfamiliar with these critics, here is a bit about them.

Before becoming Director of the Royal Ballet School in 1977 James Kennedy (aka James Monahan) was dance critic of The Guardian. He also wrote books on ballet, for example Fonteyn: a study of the ballerina in her settingin 1957 and Nature of Ballet: a critic’s reflectionsin 1976.  Mary Clarke, who was already editor of The Dancing Times, followed him as Guardian critic while maintaining her role at The Dancing Times.  Clarke was also a known for her work with the eminent Clement Crisp on a number of historical and dance appreciation texts, such as Ballet, an Illustrated History (1973), Design for Ballet (1978), The Ballet Goer’s Guide (1981), The History of Dance (1981) and Ballerina: the art of women in classical ballet (1987).

Like Judith Mackrell, both James Kennedy and Mary Clarke focussed on guest artists and international stars in their reviews of Swan Lake as well as on the production.  Kennedy’s review of March 4th 1964, when Robert Helpmann’s production was but a few months old, is squarely focussed on the performance of Rudolf Nureyev, who had caused such a sensation on defecting from the Soviet Union in June 1961, but had been unable to dance the role of Siegfried during the first run of the production on account of injury.  While Kennedy comments on choreographic changes, costuming and his partner Margot Fonteyn, the whole performance is seen through the lens of Nureyev’s performance – his virtuosity and stage presence, his characterisation and partnering, his alterations to the choreographic text and selection of costume. By using phrases such as “not entirely for the better”, “it is a pity”, “certainly spoils the pictorial effect”, it is patently clear that Kennedy regarded some features of the performance with disapprobation.  However, such is the strength of Nureyev’s classical technique, commanding stage presence and uniqueness in characterisation that Kennedy nonetheless finds his performance “outstanding”.  Kennedy sets himself up as a judge of sorts, “pardoning” and “forgiving” aspects of Nureyev’s performance of which he disapproved. Consequently, when reading this review we gain an immensely strong sense of the critic’s opinion, indeed his judgement on what he sees, but not a very clear impression of the performance – either dancers, or production.  This is also the case in his review of Swan Lake with Nadia Nerina as Odette/Odile (“Swan Lake at Covent Garden”).

It is noticeable that of the reviews we researched, James Kennedy’s were the shortest, which may have had some impact on the style and focus of writing.  In contrast, when Dowell’s 1987 production was first staged, Mary Clarke devoted a whole review to the production itself, including the process and philosophy of the producers in their attempt to return to a more authentic version of the choreography than had previously been the case.  Less than two weeks later Clarke wrote another column including comments on audience reaction to the new production and with her opinions of two different casts.  While her writing is similar to Kennedy’s in her use of evaluative vocabulary such as “brilliance” (“Lake Lustre”), “scintillating” and “magnificently” (“Swan Lake”), she seems less dogmatic to us, paradoxically perhaps through making herself more openly visible in her writing by using the first person: the words “I think he’s right” (“Lake Lustre”) and “I marvelled at” (“Swan Lake”), while expressing approval and enthusiasm respectively,  seem to leave room for alternative views.

What is of most interest to us, however, is a common attitude that Kennedy and Clarke seem to share in relation to the performances with the Royal Ballet of international star dancers celebrated for their virtuosity and individuality, their non-conformism even.  Emblazoned across the page in huge letters, “The 6 o’clock star”, Clarke’s title to her review of Sylvie Guillem’s Royal Ballet debut as Odette/Odile in 1989, gives a clear indication of how she perceives the ballerina’s rendition of the choreography.  Nonetheless, with commentary on the dancing of the corps de ballet and Jonathan Cope as Prince Siegfried, the conducting of Mark Ermler, as well as the general atmosphere and audience reaction, we do gain an impression of the event as a whole, unlike from Kennedy’s write-up of Nureyev’s debut in Helpmann’s Swan Lake.  But rather than creating a vivid account of her movement style, Clarke accentuates Guillem’s technical prowess on the one hand and on the other hand pronounces that Guillem “needs to be shaped into that real ballerina mould where beauty of line and deeply expressive feeling take precedence over physical feats of virtuosity”.  And this is reminiscent of Kennedy’s extraordinary opinion that “a little more conformism would improve” Nureyev’s performance of Siegfried. Therefore, both of these critics leave us in no doubt that as remarkable as these two enormous talents are, their performances would improve if they would restrain themselves and comply with specific balletic ideals.

In our opinion this attitude is quite distinct from Judith Mackrell’s approach, where rich and detailed description stimulates our curiosity, and non-conformism can seem intriguing and liberating.  In researching ballet reviews from other eras, we found that they are fascinating to read as much for the opportunity to encounter different perspectives and ways of viewing as for discovering information about past performances.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… in recognition of the upcoming documentary on Rudolf Nureyev and important promotions at the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, we will be considering some male dancers who have made their mark on British ballet style and repertoire.

© Rosie Gerhard

References

Clarke, Mary. “Lake lustre”. The Guardian, 14 Mar. 1987.

—. “The 6 o’clock star”. The Guardian, 17 Apr. 1989.

—. “Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 27 Mar. 1987.

Feck, Candace. “What’s in a Dance? The complexity of information in writings about dance”. Dance on Its own Terms, edited by Melanie Bales and Karen Eliot, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 411-30.

Kennedy, James. “This Month in the Theatre: Nureyev in Swan Lake”. The Guardian, 4 Mar. 1964, p. 9.

—. “Swan Lake at Covent Garden”. The Guardian, 19 Jan. 1965, p. 7.

Mackrell, Judith. “Royal Ballet: Swan Lake – review”, The Guardian, 11 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/11/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – duets to die for in Royal Ballet’s disco hell”,The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/mar/17/royal-ballet-swan-lake-review-royal-opera-house. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

—. “Swan Lake review – the Royal Ballet’s spellbinder leaves you weeping”, The Guardian, 18 May 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/may/18/swan-lake-review-royal-ballet. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018.

The Sleeping Beauty Now and Then

The Sleeping Beauty Now

When the Evil Fairy Carabosse’s strident chords open a performance of The Sleeping Beauty, they augur not only a magnificent evening of dance and music, but, as if her magical powers hold sway over the fate of not only Aurora but of the ballerina herself, Carabosse’s theme foreshadows one of the most fiendishly difficult feats in the repertoire for the classical ballerina: the “Rose Adagio”.  And indeed experience has taught us that the “Rose Adagio” can be nerve wracking not only for the dancer but also for the viewer.

The “Rose Adagio” comes at a point in the ballet when Princess Aurora is of an age to select a life partner, and as such the occasion should be an entirely joyous one.  Of course, as the audience we know that Aurora must suffer before she finds her beloved, but here Aurora is meeting her four suitors for the first time, and she is the person who gets to choose.  Consequently, although this is a momentous and exciting occasion, it is hardly the time for nervous nail biting or anxious butterflies in the stomach.  Both critics and dancers have emphasised the difficulty of the sequence.  Former Royal Ballet ballerina Deborah Bull describes it as “the most terrifying dance in the ballet repertoire” (qtd. in Jennings), while dance critic Judith Mackrell suggests that including so many unsupported balances in a single sequence of dancing “feels like cruelty”.

Structurally it is a major climax, because the audience has had to wait for an entire act for Aurora’s entrance, and then this entrance itself leads immediately into the celebrated attitude balances: firstly on their own, and then at the climax of the “Rose Adagio” itself, the promenades attitude followed by balances.  It is a symbolic pas d’action marking Aurora’s coming of age and new independence.  Tchaikovsky’s music is a glorious treat for the ears and Marius Petipa’s choreography an equally glorious sight.

Anyone who has watched Sleeping Beauty repeatedly will know that not only are different ballerinas more or less successful in making this passage appear joyful and easeful, but that the same ballerina on different nights might appear a lot more or less relaxed and confident in this same passage of the ballet. A cursory search on YouTube will testify to the frequent nervousness of the dancers, shown in their lack of interaction with their partners, their almost grim focus, visible reluctance to release the hand of their partner, or in contrast, their exaggerated smiles.

In Russia there is a tradition of the ballerina simply lifting the hand for the balances rather than taking the arm to fifth position, and indeed in our experience some of the most confident and elegant balances have been performed in this way.  One instance was one Monday evening in 1993 with the Mariinsky ballerina Irina Shapchits, not so well known in this country; but another was with their prima ballerina of that time Altynai Asylmuratova. However, not all Russian ballerinas always choose this version, and probably for some audience members these are simply not as exciting as long held balances with the arm taken to fifth position; some people even prefer the ballerina to hold the balances for as long as possible while ignoring both the music and her partners.

On occasion the anticipatory anxiety seems worth it, that is, when the ballerina shows a beautifully held clear attitude line through the leg and torso, and calmly raises and lowers her arm, while timing her balances with the music and acknowledging each of her four partners.  Lesley Collier in 1977 and Maria Almeida 11 years later are two former Royal Ballet ballerinas who dwell in my memory for achieving this breath-taking feat.  As Judith Mackrell points out, “Every dedicated balletgoer has a story to tell of the great and disastrous Rose Adagios they have seen”.

Just as the “Rose Adagio” is a highlight in the choreography of The Sleeping Beauty, it is also frequently highlighted in reviews of performances, either sympathetically pointing out the ballerina’s tension and the “sigh of relief” when it is over, or revelling in how she conquered the balances, as in Neil Norman’s 2011 review of Marianela Núñez, who delivered “the fiendishly difficult balancing act of the Rose Adagio with bravura style, leaning into her phrase like an Olympic swimmer”.

And it’s not only the technical difficulty of the “Rose Adagio” that the dancer has to deal with: there seems to be an external pressure associated with this dance. Deborah Bull maintained that the balances and promenades were quite achievable in the studio, but in performance “a combination of dazzling lights, jangled nerves, and the absence of the studio’s four comforting walls makes balance an impossibility” (qtd. in Jennings).  Hanna Weibye of The Arts Desk seems to empathise with this when she writes of the dancer waiting for an hour after the start of the performance until her entrance, when she has to “run on stage straight into the gimlet gaze of two thousand people watching for a wobble”.

But where, we wonder, does this extra pressure come from? When the critic Konstantin Skalkovsky of the Saint Petersburg Gazette reviewed the premiere in 1890 he described Carlotta Brianza’s dancing in Act I as “extremely elegant, masterfully and freely performed” (374).  He referred to the “bright red costume which goes beautifully with the Italian ballerina’s black hair and eyes”, but there is nothing in the review that suggests that the choreography for Aurora in Act I is any more difficult than in the following two acts; and while the difficulty of the pirouettes and “steel points” are mentioned, there is no mention of perilous balances.  Similarly, when Serge Diaghilev mounted his production of The Sleeping Princess in London, 1921, the critics concentrated on Léon Bakst’s extravagantly opulent designs, some of them in addition complaining that the production gave Aurora little opportunity to shine (MacDonald 274-76).  In contrast, Cyril Beaumont wrote that Olga Spessivtseva, the first Aurora “had a splendid technique, poise, control which she displayed with art.  Style, line, timing, poise, control – such were her attributes.  Her pirouettes, her batterie, and her développés were models.  Her poise and control when extending her raised leg in a développé were quite remarkable” (The Diaghilev Ballet 203-04). So, still no mention of “Rose Adagio” balances and promenades

The question is then: when exactly did the “Rose Adagio” become so central to the meaning of the work, to the extent that in 2011 and 2012 Luke Jennings and Judith Mackrell respectively wrote a MoveTube just on this brief section of the ballet? We are suggesting that in this country it is inextricably bound up with the history of The Royal Ballet and the ballerina whose name became synonymous with the role of Aurora: Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Margot Fonteyn.

The Sleeping Beauty Then

In the 1930s the notion of British ballet, that is, the possibility of ballet becoming a part of British culture with its own repertoire, style and traditions, was just emerging.  To help her to build a repertoire for her fledgling company, at that time named the Vic-Wells Ballet, Ninette de Valois employed Nicholas Sergueyev who had escaped the Soviet Union bringing with him notation scores of ballets from the Russian Imperial (now Mariinsky) Ballet that later came to be regarded as the “classics”, among them The Sleeping Beauty.  The first production was staged in 1939 with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora.  During the course of World War II ballet as an art form blossomed in Britain as companies toured the country, bringing much-needed entertainment to new audiences, including the armed forces.  The prestige of de Valois’ company, now named the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, flourished, as the dancers’ stalwart persistence despite air raids, rationing and the daily toil of constant touring and performing was recognised as integral to the War effort.

During the War the Royal Opera House had functioned as a dance hall.  In 1946 it reopened as a performance venue for opera and ballet with a new lavish production of the balletThe Sleeping Beauty danced by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now the resident company of Covent Garden, again with Margot Fonteyn in the eponymous role.

Since 1939 Fonteyn had gained much performing experience, but neither she nor the other dancers were accustomed to dancing in such an enormous venue.  Frederick Ashton taught Fonteyn to hold positions so that they would register clearly throughout the house (Kavanagh 309).  It seems highly unlikely that those positions would not have included the “Rose Adagio” balances in attitude.  There are several recordings of Fonteyn dancing this scene, and on most occasions she lifts her arm swiftly, in response to Tchaikovsky’s score, holds it for a moment and then lowers it once the next prince has stepped forward to offer her his hand.  Her smile is radiant, and she gives no sense of being nervous.  The speed and ease of the port de bras together with her strong wrist control mean there is no distraction from the balances.  It could also be that the promenades are taken at a slightly more leisurely pace than is currently customary, because she doesn’t seem to spend so much time assuring herself of her balance before releasing her partner’s hand.

The gala opening night of The Sleeping Beautyat the Opera House has gone down in the annals of British ballet history as a triumph. With the Royal Family in attendance as well as the Prime Minster and his cabinet, and dignitaries from the arts world, the tale of Aurora, symbol of the dawn, seems to have been perceived as a metaphor not only for the coming of age of British ballet and the Sadler’s Wells company, but a reawakening of British culture (albeit based on a Russian ballet) in an appropriately grand setting, and a return of daylight for the whole country after the dark night of the long years of war.

Beaumont states that the “Rose Adagio” “was well danced by Miss Fonteyn” (Dancers under my Lens 51).  Given the reputation that Fonteyn developed, this almost seems like damning with faint raise, so to speak, but here at least is a specific reference to what has become such an iconic passage of dance.  Fonteyn’s reputation was further boosted in 1949, when the company visited New York for the first time, again opening with The Sleeping Beauty, again with Fonteyn, and by all accounts scoring an even greater triumph.  And Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio” was no small part of this triumph, being elevated to the status of legend.  As if foretelling this victory, Richard Buckle had asserted about Fonteyn’s “Rose Adagio”: “She supports the honour and glory of our nation and empire on the point of one beautiful foot!” (qtd. in Homans 428).

Robert Helpmann, Fonteyn’s long-time partner recalls the audience reaction on the opening night in New York to an unplanned moment: “When she came to the third prince, she’d caught such a miraculous balance that she didn’t even take his hand – she just smiled at him.  Well I thought the audience would explode” (Dance on 4).

In our opinion historian Jennifer Homans is the writer who most effectively expresses the significance of these performances for the reputation of the company that was to receive a Royal charter just seven years later: “This kind of history does not easily fade from collective memory.  In postwar Britain, ballet was recognised as a national art, a jewel in the (shrinking) British crown, and de Valois, Ashton and Fonteyn were its justly celebrated leaders” (428).  It seems to us that in its connection with the establishment of ballet as an art form and the early glory days of the Royal Ballet, the “Rose Adagio” has become a hurdle, even a millstone, for ballerinas who perhaps feel they need to live up to the image of Fonteyn, and in this way put additional pressure on themselves when performing what is already a huge technical challenge.

What are your thoughts on the “Rose Adagio”? Is Margot Fonteyn the ballerina who comes to mind? How do you prefer the balances to be performed? How important are musicality and characterisation to you? Do you have any “Rose Adagio” treasured memories? Join the conversation on Twitter #RoseAdagio.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… Judith Mackrell, who has been dance critic of The Guardian since 1995 and of The Independent for nine years prior to that, is leaving to pursue other projects. In recognition of her exceptional contribution to ballet criticism in this country, we will be thinking about ballet criticism now and then.

 

References

Beaumont, Cyril W. Dancers Under My Lens. C. W. Beaumont, 1949.

—. The Diaghilev Balletin London. New ed., Putnam, 1945.

Dance on 4: Margot Fonteyn. Directed by Patricia Foy, 1989.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Oxford, UP, 1989.

Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels: a history of ballet. Granta, 2010.

Kavanagh, Julie. Secret Muses: the life of Frederick Ashton. Faber and Faber, 1996.

MacDonald, Nesta. Diaghilev Observed. Dance Books, 1975.

Mackrell, Judith. “MoveTube: the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 25 Oct. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/25/movetube-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Jennings, Luke. “MoveTube: Alina Cojocaru dances the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty”,The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/24/alina-cojocaru-rose-adagio-sleeping-beauty. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Norman, Neil. “Ballet Review – The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, Sunday Express, 27 Oct. 2011, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/280024/Ballet-review-The-Sleeping-Beauty-The-Royal-Ballet. Accessed 5 June 2018.

Weibye, Hanna. “The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet”, The  Arts Desk, 23 Feb. 2014, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/sleeping-beauty-royal-ballet-1. Accessed 5 June 2018.

 

Giselle Now & Then

Giselle Now 

We need to talk about Giselle! This ballet has recently been in the limelight in the UK, primarily because of Akram Khan’s imaginative and compelling 2016 reworking of the much-loved ballet for English National Ballet, quickly followed by the same Company’s restaging of their traditional Mary Skeaping production, first mounted in 1971, with all its beautiful attention to detail and period style. 

But in this post we’re going to focus on dancers rather than on productions.  Famously, Théophile Gautier, the Romantic ballet critic, poet and librettist of Giselle compared the two most celebrated ballerinas of the era, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in contrasting terms: Taglioni as spiritual, “Christian” and aerial, and Elssler as material, “pagan” and “voluptuous” (431, 433). It was thought by the creators of Giselle that the ballerina Carlotta Grisi who originated the role embodied both sets of qualities.  In the spirit and tradition of Gautier, some current critics also highlight contrasting qualities in the ballerinas’ portrayals of the character.  One of the most eloquent critics in this regard is Judith Mackrell, who in 2004 compared Alina Cojocaru with Tamara Rojo, and nine years later Olesya Novikova with Natalia Osipova.  Some of the contrasts she highlights are Cojocaru’s modesty and airiness pitted against Rojo’s “fizziness” in Act I and “radiant stillness” in Act II.  Similarly, Mackrell juxtaposes Novikova’s “fragility” “lightness” and “vulnerabilty” with Ospiova’s “terre à terre style”, “visceral portrait of pain” and “terrifying … supernatural force”.

For their run this season from 19th January to 9th March the Royal Ballet is offering no fewer than eight dancers in the role of Giselle, from established ballerinas Laura Morera and Marianela Núñez to the relative newcomers Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi, both making their debuts as Giselle this season.  Anton Dolin, who frequently danced Albrecht to Alicia Markova’s Giselle, describes the role of Giselle as “the supreme test for the classical ballerina” (A Portrait of Giselle).  So it’s exciting to anticipate which particular qualities Hayward and Naghdi will bring to the part.

Both young ballerinas have danced the Girl in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, as well as his eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, to critical acclaim, so we know that they are capable of conveying youthful love, desire, longing and tragedy through their dancing and of making their own mark on a role through their individual interpretations and the way in which they articulate movement in accordance with the personal movement styles that they have developed.

Yasmine Naghdi, who plays the piano, sings and composes her own music, is perhaps unsurprisingly known for the musicality of her dancing.  Kadeem Hosein  evocatively describes how she “gathered up the harp’s music and sent it spilling off the tips of her fingers” when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy.  With her generous port de bras and luscious lines, she has an amplitude that seems to fill the stage, and the poses that she strikes etch themselves on the memory. 

The fleet-footed Francesca Hayward has also been noted for her musical sensitivity.  Her coach Lesley Collier, herself known for her musicality, declares “you can feel the music travelling through her” (qtd. in Mackrell).  Speed of footwork is combined with a wonderful continuity of movement as she barely reaches a position before moving on to the next, thereby creating a seamless flow.  This quality is enhanced by the pliancy of her upper body and “hands and arms as light and sensitive as butterflies” (Ismene Brown). 

Giselle Then

Giselle was created in 1841 by the two choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam.  It was extremely successful and so was staged in various European cities and in America in the years immediately following the premier.  However, London’s first exposure to Giselle was in the form of a play based on the ballet, a mere two months after the first performance in Paris (Beaumont 126).  Although the ballet Giselle was staged in London as early as 1842, ballet as a national art form didn’t become established until the 20th century in this country, so the first British production wasn’t staged until New Year’s Day 1934.  The performance was by the Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet with Alicia Markova in the title role.  Since then Giselle has been performed by numerous British ballet companies, including Ballet Rambert, Festival (later English National) Ballet, International Ballet, the Markova-Dolin Company, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet.  Therefore, the ballet has become a staple of the repertoire in this country, and numerous ballerinas have moved audiences with their rendition of Giselle.

We have chosen to focus on three ballerinas from the past.  Although Alicia Markova is an obvious choice as the first British Giselle, Nadia Nerina and Eva Evdokimova may not seem such obvious choices.  However, these ballerinas all made their mark as Giselle with British ballet companies, and in their different approaches, temperaments and individual dancing styles reflect the richness of opportunity offered by the role.  These three ballerinas can all be seen dancing at least sections of Giselle online or on DVD.

Now, you may already have encountered the ballerina Alicia Markova on British Ballet Now and Then, as she featured in our very first post on The Nutcracker.  In Britain her name became practically synonymous with Giselle, as she was not only the first British ballerina to dance the role, but she continued to dance in this ballet until she was well into her 40s.  In recognition of the importance of this role for career she named her autobiography Giselle and I.  Anton Dolin describes her as “one of the greatest Giselles of all time” (A Portrait of Giselle).  Writing in 2006, the venerable ballet critic Clement Crisp still seemed to her as the standard set for the role, highlighting the “incomparable lightness and clarity in her dancing”, her “effortless” technical achievements and her dramatic “genius” (78).

Like Markova, Evdokimova was known for the otherworldliness that she conveyed in her dancing – she was one of those dancers who seemed to inhabit the ether by nature.  You may not be as familiar with this ballerina as with Markova or Nerina.  Evdokimova was an important ballerina in the 1970s and 1980s with London Festival Ballet.  Although half American and half Bulgarian, and trained in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg as well as in London, it was her idea to change the name of London Festival Ballet to English National Ballet in order to acknowledge the importance of the Company in bringing ballet to different regions of Britain at affordable prices. 

While Markova and Evdokimova were both known for the ethereal quality of their dancing, their ethereality was in no way identical.  Markova was tiny, quick and apparently weightless, like thistledown.  The lissom, willowy Evdokomova portrayed supernatural qualities perhaps more through her seemingly boneless body that appeared to glide through the air with no effort and without ever stopping.  Ballet writer Richard Austin encapsulates this continuity of movement when he refers to the “magical unfolding” of her arabesque (75), or her arms rippling like water (25). Even in Act 1 she appeared to belong more to another world than to the everyday reality of village life, her performance being imbued with “spiritual beauty” (Austin 50).

The South African Nerina, on the other hand, was known for her ebullient nature, virtuosic technique, speed and attack.  She excelled as Swanilda in Coppélia, and Frederick Ashton chose her to create the role of Lise in his La Fille mal gardée. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Nerina’s spirited and exuberant Giselle in Act I accentuates the character’s physical energy and human corporeality, and her expansive dancing in Act II seems more like an elemental force of nature arising from the wildness of the forest than a translucent wraith drawn from the ether (Giselle). 

Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova, all celebrated and individual exponents of Giselle, explain how their interpretations of Giselle continued to develop over the years, never remaining fixed (A Portrait of Giselle).  More recently, Tamara Rojo has stated that after over one hundred performances, she always finds something new in the role (Giselle: Belle of the Ballet).

So, it will not only be fascinating to see how Francseca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi approach the role Giselle with all its wonderful possibilities for interpretation, but also to see how they develop the role in years to come.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … in recognition of English National Ballet’s revival of  Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, we will be thinking about female choreographers in British ballet companies. 

References

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.

Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.

Brown, Ismene. “This Juliet Needs a New Romeo”. The Spectator,             http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/this-juliet-needs-a-new-romeo/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Crisp, Clement. “Alicia Markova: a sketch for a portrait”. Dance Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.  

Gautier, Théophile. “Fanny Elssler in “La Tempête””.What is Dance? Oxford UP, 1983, pp. 431-34.

Giselle. British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 Nov. 1958. ICA Classics, 2011.         

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

Hosein, Kadeem. “Yasmine Naghdi’s Sugar Plum Shines in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker”. Online River, 26 Nov. 2016, http://riveronline.co.uk/review-yasmine-naghdis-sugar-plum-shines-in-the-royal-ballets-nutcracker/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”,The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

—. “The Mikhailovsky Ballet and a Tale of Two Giselles”,The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/25/mikhailovsky-ballet-london-season-giselle. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. Barry and Rockliff, 1960.

 © Rosemarie Gerhard 2018