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.

Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill: Did you know about his wife?

Eve: Mm-hmm. You?

Bill: Mm-hmm

Eve: Oh those poor kids …

Bill: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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