Spotlight on British Ballet Lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENB Philharmonic

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

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

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

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

The Nutcracker Now

As is now the tradition, there is plenty of opportunity to see The Nutcracker this Christmas.

The Royal Ballet’s season at the Royal Opera House runs from December 5th December till January 10th, while Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 24th November to 13th December and then just before the new year at the Royal Albert Hall with Simon Callow as the voice of Clara’s magician Godfather Drosselmeyer.  English National Ballet begins its long-established annual Nutcracker season in Southampton at the end of November, followed by over a month at the London Coliseum. And through most of December and January Scottish Ballet is touring the ballet in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Newcastle.

If you’re not able to get a ticket for one of these live performances, or if you prefer the cinema, you might be able to catch the live screening of the Royal Ballet on December 5th.

One of the ballerinas dancing the two different roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Royal Ballet is Francesca Hayward.  Last year she featured in a documentary broadcast on national television on Christmas Day itself: Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet.  This also marked her debut in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  As well as showing her dancing in rehearsal and on the stage, it depicted her at home with her grandparents in Sussex, where the story of her first encounter with a classical ballet – a video of The Nutcracker – was recounted with warmth and humour.  Meanwhile, at ENB Francesca Velicu, who gained acclaim earlier this year in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, makes her company debut in the dual ballerina role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So popular has the ballet become, that Northern Ballet theatre are already advertising David Nixon’s version scheduled to tour in November and December 2018.

The Nutcracker Then

So how did a ballet created for the Imperial Russian Court in 1892 become a British tradition of family Christmas entertainment?

Well, The Nutcracker has a long and varied history in this country.

The first important British production was staged on January 30th 1934 by the Vic-Wells Ballet, which was to become the Royal Ballet 22 years later. This was the first complete Nutcracker to be staged in Western Europe, 42 years after the premiere in Saint Petersburg.  Alicia Markova and Stanley Judson were the stars of the ballet (Anderson 92-93), but Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut under her original name of Peggy Hookham as a Snowflake in the same production (93).  Only three years later the Company staged a new version with Fonteyn as the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by Robert Helpmann (93).

But the Vic-Wells was not the only company to stage the ballet in the 1930s, when British ballet was still in its infancy. Alicia Markova, the original British Sugar Plum Fairy, set up a company with Anton Dolin, and from 1935 to 1937 they showed excerpts from Act II as they toured the country (Anderson 96; Pritchard 69).

After spending some time abroad, Markova and Dolin returned to England and realised that in post-War Britain there was an increasing interest in ballet.  In 1950 they formed Festival Ballet (later London Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet) with a view to popularising ballet, making it affordable, and bringing it to the provinces as well as performing in London (Teveson 89, 93).  And this is where The Nutcracker really starts to take off in Britain.  In its very first season Festival Ballet already produced a full staging of the ballet and established the tradition of performing The Nutcracker every year, although the ballet wasn’t always performed in its entirety, and was shown at various points throughout the year. However, by the 1960s the tradition of a Christmas season of the ballet was well underway.  As Jane Pritchard puts it, the 1957 production by David Lichine, designed by Alexandre Benois “may be said to have established the ballet as a popular Christmas treat in Britain” (70-71).

ENB now performs its annual Nutcracker season at the London Coliseum.  Although we think of it as an opera house, originally the Coliseum was a variety theatre.  Festival Ballet’s first production was at the Stoll Theatre on Kingsway, which was once a cinema, as was the New Victoria Theatre, another venue for this Company’s Nutcracker, and the theatre where the musical Wicked is currently running.  For many years too the annual Nutcracker was performed in The Royal Festival Hall, a venue that was conceived as democratic, relaxed and welcoming (Open University).  So it’s interesting that the tradition of the ballet’s annual runs became established through regular performances in venues connected to enjoyment and family entertainment as much as to high art and exclusivity. 

In 1976 Ronald Hynd’s production of The Nutcracker was broadcast by the BBC, performed by London Festival Ballet, led by Eva Evdokimova and Peter Breuer.  By this time Scottish Ballet also had its own version by Peter Darrell, the founder of the Company.  Staged for the first time in 1973, this ballet was created only four years after the establishment of the Company, originally named Scottish Theatre Ballet. Initially Act II was performed as part of a triple bill earlier in 1973, and then the full ballet was staged at Christmas, starting a tradition of annual Christmas performances for the Company (Anderson 150).  So this is a similar pattern to the one established by Festival Ballet in the 1950s and ’60s. The Peter Darrell production was revived three years ago and is in fact the very same production that is being toured this season in Scotland and Newcastle.  

 

In our opinion The Nutcracker was integral to the building of an audience for ballet in Britain, an audience that spanned class and age. True to its story, the ballet has become associated with Christmas festivities, family and friends.  And promising young dancers can be given a chance to tackle a ballerina role in the presence of an audience that is perhaps less critical than the usual audience for classical ballet.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … we will be looking at Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works, two of which are being performed in the new year by English National Ballet and Northern Ballet Theatre.

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Anderson, Robin. “The Scottish Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 143-67.

Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet, directed by Hugo Macgregor, Oxford Film and Television for British Broadcasting Corporation, 25 Dec. 2016.

The Open University. “Royal Festival Hall”, OpenLearn, 26 Nov. 2001. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.

Pritchard, Jane. “Archives of the Dance (18): English National Ballet Archive”, Dance Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68-91.

Teveson, Claire. “London Festival Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 87-110.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017