Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill: Did you know about his wife?

Eve: Mm-hmm. You?

Bill: Mm-hmm

Eve: Oh those poor kids …

Bill: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sleeping Beauty Now and Then

The Sleeping Beauty Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sleeping Beauty Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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