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.
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.
Last week Julia and Rosie went to watch English National Ballet’s tenth Emerging Dancer Competition. Later in the week we talked about the role and impact of the competition, as well as discussing the actual performances. Here’s how our conversation went …
Rosie: This is the third year running that I’ve seen the competition, and what I’ve started noticing is how much the dancers develop through the process of investing in the preparations for the competition and the performance itself. You see them blossoming almost in front of you.
Julia: Yes, I’ve noticed this especially with Julia Conway, so I was really excited for her when she won. When we’ve seen her in class she’s always worked in such a focussed way and seemed so eager to take on feedback. She seems to shine on the stage, but nothing quite prepared me for her bravura attack in the Flames of Paris pas de deux.
Rosie: You could sense the confidence from both her and her partner Rentaro Nakaaki the moment they took to the stage. They blazed their way through the duet, and although their virtuosity was plain to see, it wasn’t in any way brash, as virtuosity can sometimes be. In this way Julia reminded me a bit of Katja Khaniukova. I saw Katja a few weeks ago at the Against the Stream gala tossing off scores of fouettés apparently with the greatest of ease, and with lovely elegant phrasing.
Julia: Julia’s coach Pedro Lapetra talks about how responsive and bright she is in their coaching sessions (“Coaching our Emerging Dancers”). I think it’s great that the dancers are coached by their peers.
Rosie: It does show what a significant role the competition plays in the development of the company: as well as nurturing young dancers, it helps to secure coaches for the future; and as we know, teaching brings greater understanding to the teacher as well as to the student.
Julia: And I noticed Fabian Reimair also choreographed and wrote the music for Emilia Cadorin’s solo. It’s a whole company enterprise.
Rosie: It’s a win-win!
Julia: Talking of winning, I was so impressed by the video of Daniel McCormick who was last year’s winner. He was talking about how he felt a sense of responsibility after winning the competition – he wanted to be sure that people would understand why he had been selected and would agree that he had deserved to win.
Rosie: Yes, I found that quite poignant. His partner Francesca Velicu was also quite spectacular in their Corsaire pas de deux last year. It’s fantastic that we get to see the previous year’s winner perform a pas de deux. For instance, this year Daniel and Francesca danced Don Quixote, and not only did he look marvellously self-assured in his dancing and his (sometimes daring!) partnering, but his épaulement was gorgeous, and he radiated character.
Julia: We saw Daniel as Lescaut in Manon, remember. The dancer has to have a lot of stage presence for that role, as well as really articulate technique and acting ability, because he starts off the whole ballet alone on the stage. He really held my attention from the start. The critics Maggie Foyer and Margaret Willis both noted these features of his performance.
Rosie: One of the dancers who played Lescaut’s Mistress was Rina Kanahera who won Emerging Dancer two years ago. I wouldn’t have thought that she would be such fun to watch in this role, although I wasn’t surprised at how musical she was, how she played around with the phrasing. I had already noticed a difference between the technical brilliance of her Esmeralda in 2017 when she was competing, and her regal but warm presence and lush, elegant port de bras in the Aurora Grand pas de deux that closed the evening in 2018.
Julia: The name Esmeralda makes be think about how the dancers often get the opportunity to perform pieces beyond ENB’s regular repertoire. Of course this is great for the dancers to challenge their technique and for the audience, because we get to see things that we don’t often get the chance to see, but it also brings out different qualities in the dancers. Alice Bellini and Shale Wagman opened the evening this year with Victor Gsovksy’s Grand pas Classique. We’re already familiar with Shale’s accomplished technique from performances, class, and the recording of his winning variation at last year’s Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition, but Grand pas classique includes that ferociously demanding variation for the ballerina with the diagonal of slow ballonnés and pirouettes sur pointe all on one leg. Alice had to be majestic and poised for this, but then her contemporary solo Clan B by Sebastian Klobborg was a quirky take on La Sylphide using music from the Løvenskiold score.
Rosie: She really showed versatility – the combination of gestures from La Sylphide like the fluttering hands and the signature Sylphide pose with angular, grounded and much more corporeal movement was very funny, and I thought Alice brought it off a treat.
Julia: The costume contributed to the humour as well, with her long socks, checked shorts and a sylph headdress. I loved the way Vera Liber described the performance: “Full of vigour and fighting fit, she seems to have taken over James’ human body”.
Rosie: “Full of vigour and fighting fit” is hardly what you have in mind when you picture a sylph! Graham Watts noticed this about Emilia Cadorin too – that she looked completely different in BAM!, the solo created for her; it seemed to suit her really well. And in fact I think it can be said of all the solos that there is a great contrast between them and the classical pas de deux.
Julia: Yes, although perhaps the choices that showed the least contrast were Coppélia and William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. Even though that sounds a bit crazy because musically and visually they’re so different, Rhys Antoni Yeomans got to perform bravura leaps and spins in both of them, whereas the other contemporary pieces were based more on characterisation and mood, and if they were virtuosic, the use of the body was quite different.
Rosie: When I was watching Rentaro performing Own by Nuno Campos, I couldn’t help admiring the fluency and articulation of his torso and thinking of Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
Julia: We could cast it with recent Emerging Dancer finalists and winners: maybe Francesca as Giselle and Aitor Arrieta as Albrecht (Aitor was joint winner with Rina two years ago) …
Rosie: … and Isabelle Brouwers has already performed Myrthe – I’m hoping we’ll get to see her this autumn. She was fabulous as the Queen in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage – chilling and imperious.
Julia: But going back to In the Middle, I’d like to see more of the contemporary solos for the competition taken from established choreographers like Forsythe.
Rosie: I’m torn, because it’s an opportunity to see work specifically capitalising on the dancers’ talents, but Graham Watts suggests that time and resources may be limited, so that the new pieces don’t always serve the dancers as well as they might.
Julia: I think the main thing for me this year was that the dancer we were rooting for gave such wonderful performances and was the winner. She was so characterful in Untiled Code (by Miguel Altunaga), as well as obviously giving a joyous rendition of Jeanne in Flames of Paris. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops and which major roles she’ll take on in the coming years – maybe Aurora or Giselle…
Rosie: As you know, I’ve been interested in Julia (Conway) since she joined ENB, because she studied with one of my ballet teachers, Olga Semenova, who herself studied at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg. Taking class with Olga has had a huge impact on what I appreciate in dancers. For example, Olga herself, Zhanna Ayupova (current Artistic Director of Vaganova) and Tamara Rojo all have exquisite necklines – it’s not all about the legs and feet!!!
Julia: You know that next year the competition will be in its second decade?
Rosie: In that case we should do a Now & Then post instead of an In Conversation.
Julia: We could do a Spotlight on one of the previous finalists during the run-up to increase the anticipation.
Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet – Emerging Dancer Competition 2019 – London”. Dance Tabs, 9 May 2019, www. dancetabs.com/2019/05/ english- national-ballet-emerging-dancer-competition-2019-london/. Accessed 16 May 2019.
Willis, Margaret. “A Fine Company Achievement: English National Ballet’s Manon”. Bachtrack, 18 Jan. 2019, http://www.bachtrack.com/review-manon-dronina- hernandez-macmillan-english-national-ballet-london-january-2019. Accessed 16 May 2019.
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?
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.
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 Dust andGiselle 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?
Eve: Oh those poor kids …
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.
On Monday 11th June ENB’s Emerging Dancer Competition took place for the ninth year. The six finalists are judged on classical pas de deux and contemporary solos. Rosie watched the competition live at the Coliseum, while Julia and Libby watched the live stream on YouTube. Then we all shared our thoughts …
For me two dancers stood out for their technical ability and artistry in the pas de deux: Daniel McCormick performing Le Corsaire (with Francesca Velicu), and Connie Vowles dancing William Tell (with Giorgio Garrett).
It was interesting that of the three pas de deux two were created by Marius Petipa choreographed at the turn of the 19th-20th century: Le Corsaire (1899), and Harlequinade (1900). The William Tell pas de deux by August Bournonville was originally choreographed not so much earlier than this, in 1873, but required quite a different style to the Petipa work. Precious Adams and Fernando Carratalà Coloma created playful Harlequins, although unfortunately neither dancer fully embodied the roles – the movement looked a little studied, as if imposed on them, so it didn’t quite correlate with their personal styles.
Yes, I really appreciated the fact that we saw not only a variety of styles from the 19th century, but also pieces that are quite unfamiliar – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either the Harlequinade or the William Tellpas de deux. Thankfully it wasn’t like one of those galas where you’re fed Don Quixote, Black Swan and Corsaire pas de deux and then go home reeling from an overindulgence in fouettés!
For me it was a bit of a different experience, because I watched the performance in the theatre. The two dancers who stood out for me are dancers that I already enjoy watching. I always notice Francesca in the corps de ballet, no matter the style – whether it be in Akram Khan’s Giselle or Sleeping Beauty. Although she has a very particular style of her own, that I personally find very harmonious, she adapts to suit the style of the work she is dancing. I think this is really interesting, because more and more I am finding this to be a trait of the company as a whole. As far as Francesca is concerned, it was most evident in her performance of the Chosen One in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring performed by ENB last year. It’s so impressive that in this way she is representative of the company, even though she only joined in 2016. In Le Corsaire, as well as being very secure in the more obviously technical aspects, like pirouettes à la seconde, fouettés, she individualised her dancing through her phrasing, varying the speed of her movements, lingering in balances, her musicality and expressive use of head; her port de bras is always beautifully held and co-ordinated with the rest of her movement. Her entrance was accompanied by rapt hush in the audience (at least, where I was sitting).
What I noticed was the attention to detail in the upper body, particularly from Francesca, Daniel and Fernando. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Francesca and Fernando as the Bluebird and Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty last Saturday.
I was lucky enough to see Fernando as the Messenger of Death in Song of the Earth in January this year, where I noticed his ease of movement. His youthfulness also seemed to lend poignancy to the role. Through the pyrotechnics of Harlequin, I saw this same ease – it’s as if he’s doing nothing! And the characterisation was equally engaging.
Yes, I can see that, but I enjoyed Daniel’s partnering in Le Corsaire – it was excellent – but when he performed the solo that Rudolf Nureyev made famous in the West after his defection from the Soviet Union, he really came into his own – the energy and height of his leaps, the security, speed and number of turns. But neither did he lose character at the expense of spectacle, remaining poised and commanding as Conrad the Pirate at all times. Connie’s performance in William Tell stood out due to her exquisite footwork. Whilst the characterisation was a little “added on” the technical aspect had mesmerising moments. You could easily picture her dancing any of Frederick Ashton ballets.
Yes, I can see what you mean about Connie, and in fact Jann Parry describes her as a natural Bournonville dancer, saying “she has the ballon and the neat footwork for the girl’s role, as well as a deceptively modest charm”.
I can imagine her as the Katia or Vera in A Month in the Country, or as Lise in La Fille mal gardée. It always seems to me that there’s a bond between the choreographic styles of Bournonville and Ashton, despite the distance in time and so in influences; it’s that combination of nuanced and intricate movement simultaneously in the torso and lower legs, as well as a particular lively aura. Although Giorgio Garrett wasn’t as polished or “natural” in the Bournonville choreography, I felt a lovely rapport between the dancers and an effervescence in his personality, which was built upon in his quirky solo Fraudulent Smile created by Ross Freddie Ray. It made much of his expressive talents – not only did his facial expressions changed dramatically, but even when he had his back turned to the audience, he seemed to be able communicate with us.
Francesca’s solo, Toccata, choreographed by Nancy Osbaideston, was another work that really felt like it was choreographed with the dancer in mind. It suited Francesca, whose neat steps and precise movements punctuated the choreography in a harmonious way.
So we’re back to harmony again with Francesca …
We are, although saying that, it didn’t have the visual impact of A Point of Collapse choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November from Ballet Black and performed by Precious. Unlike in Harlequinade, here Precious fully engaged with every iota of the choreography, like the movement was right in the marrow of her bones. It was utterly compelling.
Yes, looking back over more than a week, it was the most memorable and striking performance. Precious completely transformed herself from the coquettish Columbine to a distraught human being, conveyed through the use of her whole body: sweeping mournful arcs of motion were contrasted with nervous hand and head gestures, culminating in jerky, convulsive movements. Jann Parry also noted this transformation, in fact questioning whether this achievement should have singled her out as the winner of the competition.
There was support on social media for Precious Adams from professional dancers, for example, Hannah Bateman from Northern Ballet, and from Madison Keesler, who was with ENB until last season. I particularly enjoyed James Streeter’s interview available on the live stream on YouTube. As a finalist in the competition in 2011, James commented on how dancers support each other as they go through the rehearsal process and preparation for the final performance. I believe this has been nurtured over Tamara Rojo’s directorship in the last few years and this is something that really excites me about ENB. The finalists are selected by their colleagues and judged by a panel (this year Julio Bocca, Lauren Cuthbertson, Johan Kobborg, Kerry Nicholls and Tamara Rojo). However, as well as the Emerging Dancer Award, the other awards – Corps de Ballet Award and People’s Choice Award – give dancers the opportunity to receive recognition and an award from members of the company and from the audience.
I was so impressed by the progress made by last year’s winners, Aitor Arrieta and Rina Kanehara. They both danced the Grand pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty with markedly greater sophistication than their performances in the 2017 competition. Not only did they complement one another beautifully, but Aitor’s bearing and posture were very regal, and Rina’s port de bras was exquisite. It seems to me that the dancers really gain from this process and experience. And this doesn’t only apply to the winners. Take for example Isabelle Brouwers. She has been a finalist for the past three years, and like Francesca, she’s very noticeable in a group of dancers, with her striking arabesque, lovely use of the upper back and general radiance. I’m convinced that she has learnt a lot from this process.
Next year will be a landmark – the tenth competition!
Yes, I am excited! I think we should all go together. It was a great atmosphere – so positive, with students from the school and members of the company rooting for their role models, their friends and colleagues.
Next year we hope to watch the live performance together!
At British Ballet Now and Then we have been following the debate on female choreographers. In 2009 The Guardian critic and historian Judith Mackrell asked “Where are all the great female choreographers?”, and considered reasons why we see so few dance works choreographed by women, particularly on major stages by the world’s most prestigious companies. Since then the question seems to have become simply “Where are all the female choreographers?”. Luke Jennings, author and dance critic of The Observer, has published thoughts on this topic on several occasions (“Female Choreographers”), highlighting work by Vanessa Fenton and Cathy Marston that he had admired in the smaller venues of the Royal Opera House that had not led to opportunities to create for the main stage (“Sexism in Dance”), and culminating in his response to Akram Khan’s position on redressing the gender balance in choreography (“You’re Wrong, Akram. We Do Need More Female Choreographers”). Female ballet choreographers, including Cathy Marston (qtd. in Jennings), and Crystal Pite (qtd. in Mackrell), whose work we discuss below, have joined in the debate.
The current Artistic Directors of the UK’s two most prestigious companies have been tackling this conundrum. As soon as Kevin O’Hare was in post as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet (RB) in 2012, he commissioned the much-sought-after Canadian Crystal Pite to choreograph a new work for his company. By the time the work, Flight Pattern, premiered in March 2017, the company had not performed a work from a female dance maker for 18 years. Under Tamara Rojo English National Ballet had already the previous year taken more radical action by staging a triple bill of new works created by female choreographers entitled She Said, thereby highlighting the voice of women in the creative process. Mackrell referred to the programme as a “campaigning first for an industry in which most of the repertory is created by men”. And indeed David Bintley, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, a company that already has a “strong record” of performing works by female choreographers (Anderson “Birmingham Royal Ballet”), has followed suit with plans for a triple bill of choreographies by Ruth Brill, Jessica Lang and Didy Veldman next season.
So, in case you haven’t had a chance to see Flight Pattern or She Said, here is a short outline of the works to at least give you some impression of their focus and diversity.
Characteristic of Pite’s oeuvre is her concern with the human condition, and the world as it is with all its conflict and trauma. Referring to Flight Pattern she says: “This creation is my way of coping with the world at the moment” (qtd. in Spencer). On this occasion, the plight of refugees is her theme. But the work also demonstrates her skill in moving large numbers of dancers in imaginative and compelling patterns, groupings and configurations around the stage, ideal for a large-scale company such as the RB.
At the heart of She Said were two iconic women (one real, one mythological), and the act of dancing itself. Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa portrayed the life of Frida Kahlo in a swathe of vibrant colours and imaginative stage sets evoking the artist’s work. Kahlo’s life of love and suffering was portrayed in quite a literal way in terms of movement content, unlike Yabin Wang’s M-Dao, a sparse, pared down but searing account of the Medea myth, in which Medea’s dead children were represented by fallen drapes that she gathered in her arms, and her vulnerability portrayed by one bare foot. In stark and satisfying contrast, Aszure Barton’s virtuosic Fantastic Beings “inflects the classical language with a wonderful strangeness – brooding missed beats, skittering deviations, and an exhilaratingly bold eye for pattern” (Mackrell), and the choreography skilfully captures the unique movement style of each dancer (Kechacha).
The theme of strong women is an important focus for British choreographer Cathy Marston (qtd. in Winter), whose 2016 Jane Eyre is currently being performed by Northern Ballet (NB). Marston has been choreographing professionally for almost two decades in this country and internationally, and Jane Eyre is her third work for NB, the first being Dividing Silence, as early as 2004. Three years prior to this a pas de deux by the name of Three Words Unspoken was premiered in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House with Brian Maloney and a young Tamara Rojo whose intense and dramatic performance enriched the compelling choreography. Nonetheless, even though Marston held the position of Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House from 2002 to 2006, she was not given the chance to create work for the main stage.
Happily, over the coming months two of Marston’s works will be touring in various locations throughout the UK, giving thousands of people the opportunity to see her work. In addition to NB’s tour of Jane Eyre, Ballet Black is performing a brand new work that she has created for the company entitled The Suit. This is based on a fable by South African author Can Themba, and has already received positive reviews highlighting her skill and inventiveness in conveying various relationships, emotions and dramatic situations (Anderson, Roy, Wonderful News).
Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet (SB) since 2012, has been proactive in expanding his company’s repertoire with works by female choreographers, including Kristen McNally from RB and former resident choreographer for the Atlanta Ballet, Helen Pickett. Although he may not have commissioned choreography from Crystal Pite, in 2016, while the Royal Ballet were waiting for work to begin on Flight Patterns, SB in fact performed the European premiere of Pite’s 2009 Emergence, originally created for National Ballet of Canada (Crompton). Four years previous to this SB had premiered A Streetcar Named Desire, created for them by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, later to choreograph Broken Wings for ENB. This work has been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, and London.
It would seem then that it is possible to see a variety of work created by female choreographers here in the UK, but it takes time, and either patience, or the willingness and means to travel. Thanks to forward-looking directors, next season we have more to look forward to: as well as BRB’s triple bill of new choreographies by women, ENB are staging She Persists, a triple bill of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, Broken Wings and a new work by first artist Stina Quagebeur.
Female Choreographers Then
While we have been appreciating the opportunities we now have to experience a range of works by female choreographers (limited though it still is), as we ponder on two female choreographers from the past, we are focussing on the crucial contributions they made to shaping British ballet style, contributions that are perhaps not generally fully recognised or acknowledged. One of them, Ninette de Valois, we tend to associate more with her crucial role in establishing the Royal Ballet; the name of the other, Andrée Howard, may even be completely unfamiliar to you.
Despite de Valois’ inestimable role in the establishment of British ballet and the fact that she was quite a prolific choreographer, few of her works are still performed. Amongst her most celebrated ballets are The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937), available on DVD in a 1982 performance by Sadler’s Wells (now Birmingham) Royal Ballet, and her 1931 Job. With their moral themes of faith against all the odds, human frailty, and the battle of good against evil, these works are rather sombre in tone. However, amongst her hundred or so works were a 1950 single act version of Don Quixote to a score by the Spanish Catalan Roberto Gerhard featuring Robert Helpmann as the Don and Margot Fonteyn as Dulcinea, as well as the comic 1940 Prospect Before Us about two rival 18th century theatre managers.
If you watch the scene with the Dancing Master from The Rake’s Progress, with its swift and intricate footwork complemented by quick changes in direction and bends and twists of the torso, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a ballet by Frederick Ashton, the Founder Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, who is generally thought of as the architect of the English style. Critic Alastair Macaulay has pointed out the similarity in the styles of de Valois and Ashton in this scene (205), while Judith Mackrell has presented an intriguing and perspicacious argument that particular aspects of de Valois’ choreographic style were more inherently English in nature than were Ashton’s: “… De Valois’ choreography was in certain respects even more British in temper than Ashton’s – uncluttered, clear-eyed, and almost literary in its detailed realisation of character and plot” (“Vanishing Pointe?”). So, even though most of her works are no longer performed, it seems that de Valois made a significant contribution to the development of a recognisably English style in her capacity as a choreographer as well as in her role of founder-director of Britain’s national ballet company.
And so to Andrée Howard. Even though you are probably unacquainted with Howard’s choreography, she was in fact a founding member of The Ballet Club (later renamed Ballet Rambert, the company that eventually became Rambert Dance Company) and started choreographing in the 1930s. In 2005 the RB revived her best known work, La Fête étrange (1940), and the following year Rambert Dance Company revisited her Lady into Fox, the work that initially made her name in 1939. Other than these two ballets all of Howard’s works have been lost. Nonetheless, she is a truly fascinating figure in British ballet; in fact historian and archivist Jane Pritchard describes her as a “key choreographer from the founding years of 20th century British ballet”.
Both La Fête étrange and Lady into Fox are characteristic of Howard’s oeuvre in that they deal with dark subject matter based on literary themes. La Fête étrange tells the story of a young man who chances upon an engagement party and precipitates the break-up of the betrothal. More startling is the subject matter of Lady into Fox, as the title summarises exactly the narrative of the work: a young woman metamorphoses into a vixen. Howard’s choice of daring subject matter is perhaps at its most pronounced in her 1947 adaptation of David Garnett’s novel The Sailor’s Return concerning a mixed race couple trying to settle in Victorian England. Important for the current debate on female dance makers is Professor Susan Jones’ assessment of Howard’s oeuvre as “evoking in dance a specifically female experience” (261): “In several ballets Howard returned to the theme of the abandoned woman, isolated by social and patriarchal forces beyond her control, where the dissemination of narrative through choreographed movement principally charts the inner conflict of the female protagonist” (261-62).
In the late 1940s to early 50s Howard staged works for both Sadler’s Wells Opera/Theatre Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now BRB and RB). It is very interesting to us that a young Kenneth MacMillan was performing with these companies at that time and even danced in her ballets Assembly Ball (1946) and La Fête étrange (Parry 64, 71). This means that he had plenty of exposure to her work. With her penchant for disturbing, or at least unsettling, subject matter, it seems inconceivable that Howard would not have made a lasting impact on this giant of British ballet, celebrated for bringing realism to the art form. (You can read about MacMillan’s choral works in our January 2018 post.)
Therefore, in our opinion, it not only important to give female choreographers opportunities to create ballets, but also to ensure that their most effective works are preserved and that their influence as choreographers appropriately acknowledged.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … Next month, just one year after its creation, Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings will be the first of the three works from ENB’s She Said to be revived (with some reworking). It is being performed as part of the Voices of America bill, which will be reviewed by our editor, Libby Costello.