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.
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 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.
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 …
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.
In my tiny collection of CDs is an album entitled A Lasting Inspiration, a collection of Jacqueline du Pré recordings. It was probably a gift for my Father, a great admirer of the cellist’s. In the 1960s she became a household name, particularly in a family where every member played a musical instrument, we bought the The Great Musicians Weekly and were very happy to receive classical music LPs at Christmas and for birthdays. Listening to records was a regular family activity in the evenings and at weekends, as was watching the classical music quiz show Face the Music.
As well as CDs, I also own a few black vinyl records. Their now slightly tatty covers, the feel of the vinyl, the dust they attract and scratches they are prone to bring back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, the “golden age of record players” (“The History of the Record Player”). They also remind us of their power as a measure of the success of a musician, both within their lifetime and beyond.
In the opening scene of Cathy Marton’s The Cellist, based on the life of du Pré (frequently referred to as Jackie), dancers gradually bring black vinyl records on to the stage, roll them like wheels across the stage, hold them to their ears and swoop them through the air in circular pathways. The motion of the LPs draws us back into their era and their world of classical music.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” (Lewis 147)
As is the case in so many ballets, love features as a major theme in The Cellist. In fact, Marston herself describes her ballet as a “story of love and loss” (qtd. in Alberge). Although romantic love is the central concern of so many works, we are accustomed to the portrayal of other types of love in ballet: parental love (Giselle), filial affection (La Fille mal gardée), the love between siblings (A Winter’s Dream), the loyalty of friendship (Le Corsaire), the bond between a teenager and her nurse (Romeo and Juliet), the mature love between husband and wife (Onegin). In The Cellist too parental love is notable, as well as the intense passion that is ignited between Jackie and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. A more unusual type of love also emerges through the intermittent return to the stage of the records, tenderly handled by her fans. And this is inextricably bound to the great love at the heart of Marston’s ballet: du Pré’s lifelong love of music, and in concrete terms, her cello: not for nothing does Jenny Gilbert title her review “A grand love affair with a cello”.
Du Pré was celebrated for the passion of her playing. The 1967 video recording of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, (“Jacqueline du Pre & Daniel Barenboim Elgar Cello Concerto”), the musical composition most closely associated with her, shows her wrapping herself around her cello, gazing lovingly at its neck, and characteristically swaying from side to side, tossing her long golden hair back from time to time. The concerto ends with a triumphant flourish, immediately followed by a rhapsodic smile directed straight at her conductor Barenboim, conveying a palpable feeling of elation from the music they have just created together.
Adrian Curtin from Exeter University argues that du Pré’s “physical abandon” meant that “Her appeal derived not only from the sound of her playing; the sight of her playing was also an important element” (144). Given the significance of her physical style for audiences and the visibility of her deep and intense love for music, what better way to express this love in choreography than to cast a dancer as the Cello.
This decision was without a doubt a daring move on Marston’s part, although it is also a natural development in her choreographic style: dancers represent objects in Jane Eyre (2016), The Suit (2018) and Victoria (2019). Du Pré’s 1673 Stradivarius, however, is presented as an altogether more sentient being, and is of course, along with Jackie, the main protagonist. Not only did Marston want to explore the relationship between a human being and an object, but she wanted to investigate how the spirit of music represented by the Cello would feel looking back on its relationship with the musician (qtd. in Nepilova).
Given the sensuous nature of her choreography (think of the duets in Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria), Marston is the ideal choreographer to portray the vibrantly physical performer and her instrument. As Jackie and her Cello dance together they revolve around the stage, swirling, swooping, tumbling as one, only occasionally pausing for the Cello to admire the Cellist’s charismatic playing. Skimming across the stage together they bring to mind the notion of du Pré’s “close identification with the cello, as though performer and instrument were one” (Curtin 148). Once Barenboim is in the picture, Marston creates an exquisite metaphor for the bond between the three of them, as Jackie and her Cello rock forwards and backwards in a series of luscious, rapturous arabesques penchés and developpés devant, supported by Barenboim in the middle.
The magnificent climax to the ballet is in the form of the Elgar concert conducted by Barenboim, Jackie’s soon-to-be husband.
It is clear from the ebullience of Jackie’s behaviour that she has no idea how vulnerable her all-consuming love for her Cello has made her.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” (Didion 192)
Jackie stands with her Cello in front of an audience, poised and ready to perform. But no music is forthcoming. She is paralysed by the uncontrollable trembling of her right hand caused by the Multiple Sclerosis from which she is now suffering. The audience departs at the bidding of Barenboim.
Standing alone in front of her expectant audience, sitting alone desperate to come to terms with the disease, lying on the floor alone in despair, her world is empty. The Cello attempts to comfort her, repeating the embrace in which he initially held the Young Jackie. He tries to lift the ailing Adult Jackie in the same pose, holding his hands to her ears. But the movement that gave her life as a child she now rejects.
In his terse assessment of the situation, Adrian Curtin encapsulates its sheer brutality: du Pré “a musician known for her physical abandon was abandoned, as it were, by her own body” (148). The single missing “person” that makes her world empty is not the Cello itself, but her ability to make music with the Cello. As the Cello tries to repeat the rocking penché and developpé motion from the pas de trois with Barenboim, Jackie flounders, unable to execute the movements that once brought them both such joy.
Sitting alone in her chair, Jackie’s world looks empty.
And yet, her world isn’t quite empty.
Led by the Young Jackie, The Cellist comes to a quiet, but not silent, close with the return of the main characters to the stage. As the Cello slowly circles the space, he seems to be spinning the fabric of the ailing Jackie’s memories together. A dancer rolls a single LP across the stage once more. The LP is handed to the Young Jackie, a symbol of her lifelong love of music, her success and renown that survived her illness and death, and her extraordinary gift that is celebrated to this day. As our own memories of du Pré and her world have been rekindled, we are reminded that the past leaves behind traces, including glorious recordings of her work on vinyl, on CD and online in the form of television documentaries and recordings, as well as audio recordings.
In this cyclical structure, with its recollections of love and success and assurance that not all has been lost, lies resolution, even hope perhaps, as implied by Jenny Gilbert’s insightful closing remarks on the work: “Ultimately, the tone of The Cellist is celebratory, underlined by a closing image of Sambé slowly and dreamingly spinning like a vinyl LP”.
Undoubtedly Jacqueline du Pré will continue to be a “lasting inspiration” to lovers of classical music, “the music she made resonating onward, etched in the memories of those who heard her and the recordings she left behind” (Kemp). And in her new ballet The Cellist Cathy Marston has incalculably enriched our understanding of du Pré in the most poignant and inspirational way.
Curtin, Adrian. “‘O body swayed to music’: The allure of Jacqueline du Pré as spectacle and drama”. Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 9, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 143-59, Intellect, doi:10.1386/smt.9.2.143_1.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Harper Perennial, 2006.
In the annals of British ballet, Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, indubitably remains the most celebrated and revered ballerina. As you know, this year marks the centenary of her birth, and so, in recognition of this fact and of her status and role in the development of British ballet, our section on British ballerinas of the past in this post will be devoted entirely to Fonteyn.
It was a tricky task to select current British ballerinas to discuss, but we were led by the cast of Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration, the event organised by the Royal Ballet for June 8th of this year. The three ballerinas we decided to focus on not only displayed qualities reminiscent of Fonteyn during their performances at the celebration, but have on previous occasions all been noted for particular attributes connected to Fonteyn and the English style of performing ballet. Further, all three dancers are of British descent, which seems appropriate given that Fonteyn is the inspiration for this post and that from time to time concern is expressed regarding the number of ballerinas in the Royal Ballet who are British nationals. Our selected ballerinas are Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Even a modicum of research uncovers interesting parallels between the careers and development of these three ballerinas. All are principal dancers of the Royal Ballet (the highest rank), who attended both White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School, and joined the Company soon after graduation. In terms of career progression all three ballerinas were dancing with the Royal Ballet for between five and seven years before being promoted to Principal Dancer. There were two points that caught our eye: the early evidence and identification of talent; the particular qualities in their dancing that had an impact on the repertoire they perform, including the excerpts that were performed by them in the Fonteyn Celebration last season. While all three ballerinas won the Young British Dancer of the Year Competition before joining the Company, evidencing the calibre of their dancing, other accolades were signs of more specific characteristics: Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward were both presented with the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, whereas at the age of fifteen Yasmine Naghdi was recipient of the Royal Ballet School’s “Most Outstanding Classical Dancer” Award. So let’s think a little about this in relation to their individual repertoires …
Although Hayward and Naghdi are younger than Cuthbertson, both celebrating their 27th birthday this year, and their repertoires consequently not as broad as Cuthbertson’s, we feel we can make some valid comments on the repertoires of the three ballerinas. All of them performed Juliet early in their careers, Cuthbertson in fact debuting when she was still a teenager, and all have danced principal roles in some of the 19th century classics, which to this day still seem to be the ultimate measure of a ballerina’s mettle. However, it is noticeable that although Naghdi has been performing Odette/Odile since the age of 24, Hayward has not yet danced this crucial role; on the other hand, Hayward has won recognition for her interpretation of Manon, a role that requires sophisticated acting skills, and one that Naghdi still covets. It is also noticeable that Naghdi’s repertoire includes Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Matilda Kscheshinskaya in Anastasia, both of which require impeccable classical technique. In fact, even the way in which she performs Juliet accentuates her clarity of line, revealing this way of interpreting the choreography (“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”).
In the last two seasons Cuthbertson has added to her repertoire two of Frederick Ashton’s most important and celebrated creations for more mature ballerinas: the first Marguerite, choreographed on Fonteyn, in the 1963 Marguerite and Armand; the second Natalia Petrovna, created on Lynn Seymour, in A Month in the Country (1976). Although Seymour never reached the zenith of Fonteyn’s fame, in being Kenneth MacMillan’s muse she was nonetheless critical to the development of British ballet once ballet had been established as an indigenous art form: together they facilitated its evolution as a dramatic art form in response to the artistic and social upheaval that marked the late 1950s and 1960s. In a sense Cuthbertson recently also seems to have become an ambassador for British ballet. Last year she was invited by Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Sylvia, a major role created for Fonteyn by Ashton, in Saint Petersburg. This year she returned to the Mariinsky to dance in Marguerite and Armand and in The Sleeping Beauty, often described as the Royal Ballet’s signature work, a work integral to the development of British ballet and its international standing, and probably Fonteyn’s most celebrated role.
In 2013 Bryony Brind, former principal of the Royal Ballet, expressed her consternation about the lack of British dancers in the highest ranks of the Royal Ballet, Britain’s most renowned ballet company (qtd.in Eden). At Britishballetnowandthen we think of British ballet as the directors, dancers and choreographers and other collaborators working with companies in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or background. However, articles, reviews and interviews reveal the extent to which the issue of nationality looms large in the minds of some people who are interested in the status and development of ballet in this country. With the addition of Hayward and Naghdi to the list of Royal Ballet principals, headlines such as “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death” (Eden) have been replaced by “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas” (Byrne) and “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina” (Craine).
The term British or English is not restricted to the description of nationality, of course, but frequently used in association with a specific school of training and performance style. Interviews with both Hayward and Naghdi emphasise their English ballet training at the Royal Ballet School, as well as their sense of Britishness in everyday life (Cappelle; Crompton). This tends to be the aspect of their identity that they highlight rather than the fact that they are both mixed race, in contrast to the American ballerina Misty Copeland, also mixed race, who champions her identity as a black ballerina – the first black principal at American Ballet Theatre. For us, however, it seems important that they are mixed race (Hayward English and Kenyan, Naghdi Belgian and Iranian), as it means that the roster of principal dancers at the Royal Ballet is becoming more reflective of an increasingly mixed-race Britain.
In a 2014 review of Cuthbertson in The Sleeping Beauty, Graham Watts focuses strongly on the notion of English training and performance style, accentuating Cuthbertson’s articulation of English style in his description of her poses and lines as “disciplined”, “refined”, “traditional” and “elegant”. For Watts the maintenance of this style is vital for the continuity of tradition, which he links directly to Fonteyn:
… after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did.
References to Fonteyn also appear in writings about Hayward and Naghdi: Hayward has been directly compared to Fonteyn (Byrne “Dancing Queens”; Taylor), while descriptions of the impact of Naghdi’s “intense dark eyes” (Byrne, “Royal Ballet”), and the ferocity, energy and musicality of her Firebird (Dowler) are also reminiscent of both Fonteyn’s facial features and her qualities as a dancer.
The roles that were selected for our three chosen ballerinas for the Fonteyn Celebration capitalised on their particular talents. Naghdi was luminous in the classical Le Corsaire pas de deux in a replica of the tutu that Fonteyn wore in the celebrated recording with Rudolf Nureyev. Cuthbertson captured the mystique of the Woman in Ball Dress in Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions (1936). Hayward’s Ondine made us forget that we were watching a gala, so intensely did she draw us in water’s nymph’s world.
The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta
It seems unlikely that any ballerina will ever compete with the status of Margot Fonteyn in terms of her significance in the history of British ballet. It was she who headed the triumphant Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty that reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after its transformation into a dance hall during World War II. It was she who repeated this triumph in New York three years later, earning Britain’s national ballet company the international reputation that it has enjoyed ever since.
Through the course of WWII Britain’s ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, toured Britain indefatigably bringing the art form to an enormously varied audience including troops, office and factory workers, and codebreakers, sometimes giving as many as four performances a day (“Wartime Entertainment”). The combination of dedication, determination and hard graft required for the continuous round of class, rehearsals, performances, packing, travelling and finding digs has been recognised as integral to the war effort on the home front, and the indomitable spirit of company members completely in tune with the patriotic mood of the nation. In fact, historian Karen Elliot goes as far as to claim that “the artform was deemed vital to the survival of the average British citizen” (4).
In addition to a swiftly growing audience for ballet, an English style of choreography and performance was being developed through the work of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn herself as Ashton’s muse and the ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s style of dancing was, and has continued to be, perceived as the essence of the English style, with her clean, unexaggerated lines, and with her musicality and focus on balance, poise and harmony rather than on a show of virtuosity.
But Fonteyn’s mother was half Brazilian, and from the ages of nine to fourteen she lived with her parents in China. So perhaps it is not surprising that back in London, when she first joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, Ninette de Valois famously referred to her as “the little Chinese girl in the corner” (Daneman 58). At the time when Fonteyn joined de Valois’ school there existed a prevalent notion that the British were incapable of performing ballet: ballet was a foreign art form, connected in people’s minds particularly to Russia, due to the influence of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and Anna Pavlova. Ballets Russes was firmly connected with the notion of exoticism, depicted in particular through works such as “The Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor, The Firebird, Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, Une Nuit d’Egypte, and Thamar, all choreographed by Michel Fokine from 1911 to 1912, and all performed in London. On the other hand, Anna Pavlova, who regularly toured Britain for two decades between 1910 and 1930, represented the ideal of the ballerina with her “fragility” dark hair, expressive eyes and long neck. It seems unquestionable therefore that Fonteyn’s dark almond eyes and black hair would have struck audiences as both rather exotic and quintessentially ballerina-like, thereby contributing to her persona as Britain’s undisputed queen of ballet.
Importantly, during the early decades of ballet’s development as an indigenous art form in Britain, proponents of British ballet were depicting it as “both exotic and homegrown” (Elliot 19). Fonteyn seemed to personify this twofold depiction of British ballet through her stalwart “British” approach to the War years coupled with her understated virtuosity on the one hand, and through the “foreignness” of her appearance and stage name on the other.
Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration gave some sense of the range of the ballerina’s repertoire, her versatility and dance qualities, but it would be impossible to pay tribute to this range in one evening: Fonteyn danced for more than four decades in over eighty works (Money). Let us not forget, however, that the length of her career, the huge number of performances she danced, and both her national and international status were in part at least due to historical circumstance. This included de Valois’ plan to establish a canon of “classics” to give ballet as an art form some gravitas, in addition to ensuring the creation of new choreographies with a distinctly British identity. In the early years of this Company this canon consisted of existing ballets from the 19th century that de Valois had access to – Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – as well as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Spectre de la rose. In addition to a repertoire, however, de Valois needed a ballerina who was capable of performing both these 19th century works and the new ballets being choreographed, initially primarily by herself and Ashton.
Fonteyn’s first substantial role was the Creole Girl in Ashton’s 1931 Rio Grande, which she danced in 1935, four years after de Valois had established her company, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later to become the Sadler’s Wells and finally Royal Ballet). At the tender age of sixteen she was replacing de Valois’ ballerina Alicia Markova, for whom the role had been created, because Markova had left the Company to establish her own company with Anton Dolin. As well as being a muse for early Ashton choreography, Markova was the first British Giselle, Sugar Plum Fairy and Odette/Odile. Now Fonteyn swiftly took on those roles, with the result that by the age of twenty she had performed all of them as well as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1936, after seeing the seventeen-year-old Fonteyn as Odette, the influential critic Arnold Haskell enthusiastically declared her to be a ballerina (qtd. in Bland 46). And over the following two decades and more, the collaboration between Ashton and Fonteyn flourished, becoming a major force in the expansion and style of the British ballet repertoire.
The extent of Fonteyn’s international status and her unassailable standing as the nation’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta is reflected in the words of Lynn Seymour, who grew up in the small town of Wainwright in Alberta, Canada:
She was a big name. She was as big a name as the Prime Minister of England, if not more; she was up there with Churchill in my remote little dot on the globe … She was a household word. She represented ballet; she was ballerina. (Qtd. in Margot chap. 1)
While British ballet may never again experience such a phenomenon as Fonteyn, the three current ballerinas we have highlighted in this post display qualities that are associated with Fonteyn and the “Britishness” of her style, as well as being British by nationality. In an era concerned about the impact of globalisation on the distinctiveness of national styles in ballet (Meisner 11) it feels to us important to note that the legacy of Fonteyn can still be recognised in today’s Royal Ballet ballerinas.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … As both English National Ballet and Northern Ballet have been performing their productions of Cinderella in 2019, we will make this the focus of our British Ballet Now & Then post for December. Perhaps we will have some surprises for you …
Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.
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 GiselleNow & 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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 s 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?
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 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 wrote a memoir entitled 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.
A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.
Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.
Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.
Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works Song of the Earth (1965), Requiem (1976) and Gloria (1980) must surely number amongst the choreographer’s most eloquent, moving and beautifully crafted ballets. Ideally we would have preferred all three of these ballets to be staged during this season of celebrating MacMillan’s oeuvre. Even though this was not to be, happily both Song of the Earth and Gloria were not only performed as part of the celebrations, but were staged for the first time by English National Ballet (ENB) and Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) respectively.
ENB’s first performance of Song of the Earth took place in October in a double bill with La Sylphide in Manchester, while Gloria opened with NBT in Bradford in a triple bill of MacMillan’s work. The companies also performed the ballets at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, alongside performances by both Royal Ballet Companies and Scottish Ballet that spanned the decades of the choreographer’s creative life. Fortunately there are still opportunities to see Song of the Earth at the London Coliseum (9th – 13th January) and Gloria at the Leeds Grand Theatre (16th – 17th March).
In case you’re not familiar with these ballets, here is a brief overview. All three works are set to examples of iconic choral music that had lives of their own well before MacMillan created his choreography to them: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1909), Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1890) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloria (1959). All of them deal with existential themes, including the omnipresence of death in our lives, the unnecessary loss of life, especially young life, to war, and the laying to rest of the soul in death.
Unlike MacMillan’s famous evening-length works, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon, these are not heavily narrative ballets and are relatively sparse in design. In place of a narrative are intensely evocative images that arise from the themes, music score and lyrics. An example is the famous image of eternity that closes Song of the Earth: to the elongated notes of the repeated word ewig, meaning forever, the three main figures (The Woman, The Man and The Eternal One or Messenger of Death) gradually move towards the audience, slowly rising and falling, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no break in the flow… Still rising and falling as the curtain falls.
Requiem was visually inspired by the drawings of William Blake. Here the characters are more fluid than in Song of the Earth. The central female character in white chiffon sometimes seems childlike, other times angelic (Parry 461-62); when she enfolds the male figure in a stylised embrace she appears maternal. Similarly, this male character can be interpreted in more than one way: in his loin cloth, is he a reference to Christ or to John the Baptist (462)? Even the corps de ballet in Requiem can be perceived in contrasting ways, as both “mourners and blessed spirits” (462).
Gloria, inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, clearly references the trench warfare of World War I. Sacrifice and loss are suggested by the configuration of the dancers in the shape of crucifixes. Towards the end of the ballet the lead female dancer is supported by the two main male characters in a similar pose; in her ethereality and with her elongated but soft arms draped along their arms, she is also reminiscent of Giselle in Act II protecting Albrecht by the cross on her grave.
In recent years the principal roles in these choral ballets have been performed by such Royal Ballet luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Marianela Núñez, Tamara Rojo, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson. In fact, Song of the Earth was chosen by Darcey Bussell for her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007.
But Song of the Earth did not always enjoy the status it has nowadays. In 1965 it was quite a different story …
The Choral Works Then
Song of the Earth, Requiem, and Gloria are without doubt compelling works due to the imaginative and expressive choreography and perhaps because they are so rich in symbolism and allusion. And their history is equally compelling.
MacMillan is celebrated as a choreographer who was eager to extend ballet where subject matter was concerned, for example through the portrayal of rape in The Invitation (1958) or the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp in Valley of Shadows (1983). However, the themes explored in the choral works were hardly new to ballet. What was new was the treatment of those themes, how they were expressed.
In the Romantic era, when ballet enjoyed a great flourishing, themes of death, love, loss, evil, the spirit world, the afterlife, and the human soul were integral to ballet. These themes were expressed through symbols and metaphors in the narratives and characters of the ballets, and are still clear to see today in the two most celebrated works of the era: La Sylphide created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, and Giselle choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. Nowadays we might perceive the treatment of those themes to be rather quaint or naïve, although if we use some historical imagination, facilitated by last year’s documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet introduced by Tamara Rojo, with contributors David Allen (historian) and Marina Warner (mythologist), we might gain some insight into the kind of unsettling impact those works may have made in their early years.
It seems that the Royal Opera House Board members were similarly unsettled when MacMillan approached them about choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, as they rejected the idea on the grounds that “great music addressing elevated subjects, such a Mahler’s Song of the Earth, was unsuitable for ballet” (Parry 459). If they did not recognise the similar “elevated subjects” within the Romantic repertoire, you would think that they might have been aware of them in Frederick Ashton’s wartime ballets, most famously Dante Sonata (1940). Evidently neither did they perceive the ballet music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Ravel to be “great music”.
The rejection from the Board was the reason why MacMillan mounted Song of the Earth on Stuttgart Ballet, where his friend John Cranko, another British choreographer, and mentor to MacMillan, was Artistic Director. In Stuttgart the work proved to be a success. So, only six months after the premiere in Stuttgart, the Royal Ballet staged Song of the Earth at Covent Garden, where it was “hailed as a major achievement” (Parry 305).
It would seem logical therefore that when MacMillan approached the Board in the mid-70s as Director of the Royal Ballet and Principal Choreographer, about creating a ballet to Fauré’s Requiem, that the response would be more positive than the reaction to the proposed Song of the Earth ballet. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fearing that such a ballet might “offend the religious beliefs of the public at large” (MacMillan qtd. in Parry 459) the Board again refused to commission the work. Again MacMillan staged the work in Stuttgart; and again the work entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, though not before he had staged his third choral work, Gloria, for the Royal Ballet, this time with no objection from the Board. Interestingly, MacMillan had decided to give exclusive performance rights to Requiem to Stuttgart Ballet for six years, by which time Beryl Grey had requested it for London Festival Ballet (Parry 464), suggesting the growing significance of these choreographic works by the early 1980s. In fact, in 1982, Gloria was recorded by Granada Television for transmission on Remembrance Sunday 1982 (556).
Currently the Royal Opera House website describes Song of the Earth in proud and glowing terms as “Kenneth MacMillan’s powerful exploration … of love, loss and renewal”; Requiem is described as “moving” and “boldly inventive” “with some striking pas de deux”. In our opinion MacMillan’s persistence in following through his choral projects resulted in some of the most distinctive, innovative and expressive additions to the British ballet canon, and we are indeed fortunate not only in being given the opportunity to see two of these works, but also in benefitting from the ENB billing of La Sylphide from the Romantic era juxtaposed with Song of the Earth – two works that demonstrate such contrasting approaches to themes of human frailty, love, loss and transcendence in the art form that we love.
This post is dedicated to Helen Boyle and Andrew Dilworth.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … to coincide with the young Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmi Naghdi dancing the title role in Giselle, we will be thinking about celebrated Giselles of the past in British ballet companies.
Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.
Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.