Cathy Marston’s Victoria: in conversation with British Ballet Now and Then

Earlier this month Julia and Rosie travelled with their friend Rebecca to Leeds to see Northern Ballet’s new ballet Victoria, choreographed by Cathy Marston.  The ballet offers a particular perspective on the life of Victoria, based on the rewriting of the Queen’s diaries by her youngest daughter, Beatrice.  It’s presented in flashbacks as Beatrice reads the diaries, both remembering the mother she knew, and discovering the young Victoria, whom she of course never knew. 

On the journey back from Leeds we discussed our initial thoughts, commenting firstly on the set, designed by Steffen Aarfing, and the lighting, by Alastair West, then on aspects of characterisation and choreographic structure that struck us, and the emotional resonance of the work.  

The set

JULIA: Sandra Callard of Yorkshire Magazine describes the stage set as relatively simple but I see it as minimalist. I believe it is carefully planned; it leaves space for the choreography and at the same time contributes to the action on stage, supporting the flashback structure of the ballet; for example, the white curtain that helps with the seamless transitions between the past and present.

ROSIE: Yes, I agree, the set is absolutely integral to the work. Although Sandra Callard says it requires little attention, from reading about the ballet beforehand I knew that the set was based on a library and that Victoria’s red diaries were going to be replaced by Beatrice’s blue volumes. So I was always checking out what was happening with the set during the different stages of Victoria’s and Beatrice’s life.  It’s a really fabulous set.

REBECCA: I also noticed that before the shelves are filled with the blue books, they become windows. This is when Beatrice is discovering her mother as a young woman, when Victoria is falling in love with Albert, before her life is filled with the burden of childbearing and when she is enjoying her early popularity as Queen. Her life seems carefree and full of light.   

JULIA: This makes me think of the lighting in the opening scene, when the spotlight on Victoria is surrounded by darkness.  It seems such a simple device, but I found it very powerful as an opening, especially the way it was accompanied by that melancholic fanfare that starts off the music score by Philip Feeney. Perhaps I would have liked to see more of this kind of lighting.  For example, in Act II when Victoria and Albert consummate their marriage, it’s followed by the bright light of the morning sun.  I loved the choreography for the pas de deux, but it might look even more stunning with more distinctive lighting.

Victoria’s motif

JULIA: From the start of the ballet I could identify Victoria’s motif. It is a simple motif which in ballet terms is a 2nd position of the feet, with the arms in an open 5th position. This creates an X shape through the body, which to me seems to signify authority and dominance. As Act I developed, it evolved and became more pronounced.

ROSIE: In Act II, there were all kinds of variations on this motif. This is when the young Victoria has a lot of dancing, representing major events in her life, like the coronation, her marriage to Albert, and growth of her empire.  It’s like we’re watching Victoria develop her identity as a human being and a queen before our eyes; whereas in Act I she is already established as a character so the motif isn’t as varied.  It works so well with this idea of Beatrice discovering her mother’s youth through the diaries.

REBECCA: I wondered whether the X shape of this motif can also be seen as two V shapes, connecting to the name Victoria and the idea of victory.  One of the variations that I found intriguing was when Victoria plunged into a very deep 2nd position plié, slightly rocking from side to side. This seemed to be when Victoria had to reach a difficult decision, for instance, when she was obliged to go through documentation regarding matters of state.

Moments of emotional poignancy

ROSIE: For me one of these moments was directly connected to Victoria’s motif. I think it was after Albert’s death when Victoria was literally crumbling, and so losing her signature motif, almost as if she were losing her identity.  Beatrice showed her emotional support by physically enabling her mother to take up her Victoria stance once more, regaining her identity and power.  It was like a labour of love.

JULIA: I found the duet between John Brown and Victoria particularly touching, especially when they were encircling the bust of Albert, as if he was included in this new love.  It was unexpected and made me well up for a moment.

REBECCA: For me it was when Beatrice’s husband dies: she dons her widow’s weeds and suddenly realises with dismay that she is turning into a version of her mother. This makes the older Beatrice try to rip off the black dress which she’s been wearing throughout.

Structure and transitions

ROSIE: One of the things I really appreciated was the seamlessness of the transitions, because I find that when there are lots of scene changes it can be clunky and disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. But as well as that, Beatrice is seeing her mother through Victoria’s diaries, and when we see things in our mind’s eye, they are not neatly compartmentalised. So the structure reflects the free flow of our thoughts.

REBECCA: There was a real contrast between the two acts, with a lot more interaction between Beatrice and Victoria in Act I; whereas in Act II Beatrice is watching the Victoria she never knew, so she’s more distanced from the action.

JULIA: Yes. This reminds me of Sanjoy Roy’s review which he starts off by commenting on the fact that reading is the “driver” of the ballet – very unusual for choreographic works.

ROSIE: And writing too is a really important theme, I think.  Cathy and her librettist Uzma Hameed enable us to see how Beatrice edits Victoria’s writing.  It’s altogether a fascinating ballet.

REBECCA: Yes, it’ll be great to see it again in London.

JULIA: And with a different cast.  Northern Ballet dancers are very expressive, and the characters are rich and complex, so it’ll be wonderful to see different interpretations.

REBECCA: Then we will have the cinema screening to look forward to in June. It’s bound to highlight details we have missed in the theatre.

JULIA: I hope it comes out on DVD. Then we can add Victoria to our dance analysis modules.

ROSIE: That would be great!

© British Ballet Now and Then & Rebecca Jukes

References

Callard, Sandra, “Victoria (Northern Ballet) – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre”.  Yorkshire Magazine, March 2019, http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-  theatre/victoria-northern-ballet-review-leeds-grand. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Roy, Sanjoy, “Northern Ballet: Victoria review – royal story is a feast of brilliance”.   The Guardian, 10 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/mar/10/northern-ballet-victoria-review-  cathy-marston-ballet-queen-daughter-beatrice-choreography-grand-leeds. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Spotlight on Luke Jennings

In response to Judith Mackrell’s announcement that she was leaving The Guardian, we wrote a post on British ballet critics now and then, comparing her writing with that of previous Guardian critics James Kennedy and Mary Clarke.  Disappointed as we were at Judith’s news, we were positively dismayed to discover that Luke Jennings was also giving up his role as dance critic of The Observer: two great dance writers gone in a single year…

Obviously we wanted to acknowledge Luke’s departure from The Observer in a similar way, but thought it would be interesting for our readers to learn something about his own thoughts on his role as a dance critic, his approach to writing and the decisions he makes when composing his reviews, as well as our views.  Rosie spoke to him in December, shortly after he had made public his resignation. 

From the start of the conversation Luke made it very clear that as a dance writer it is crucial to him to “transmit the essence of the experience of watching”. This is an idea that recurred through the course of the conversation, because the essence of the experience of watching ballet depends to a large extent on the type of work being performed. In Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the figure of Juliet is absolutely vital to the identity of the work, driving the action of the ballet as she does. Therefore, paying close attention to the ballerina’s performance is essential if the writer intends to create an impression of watching this ballet.  And in fact for us, the way in which Luke manages to bring dancers to life on the page is probably the most compelling aspect of his writing.  Take for example this ravishingly evocative description of Tamara Rojo as Juliet:

Tamara Rojo’s Juliet, meanwhile, is a creation of gentle and shimmering transparency. Like the surface of a lake, she seems to register every tremor, every whisper of breeze. At times, as in the balcony scene, she seems to phrase her dancing with her racing heartbeat; at others, as when Carlos Acosta’s Romeo leaves her alone in the bedroom, the light visibly ebbs from her body. (“Step into the Past”)

The images of light, air and water in this passage create a sense that Juliet’s encounter with Romeo has awoken something elemental within her, setting her aglow with new life, so that she becomes sensitive to everything around her. We see her light up the stage with her new-found love.  The rhythm of the language, with the repetition of “every” pushing the sentence forward, echoes the exhilaration that makes her heart beat so fast.  The parallel structure of the final sentence emphasises the stark contrast between “her racing heartbeat” with its vivid sense of movement, and the disappearance of light and movement at the close of the paragraph. 

Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of time was spent on discussing narrative in ballet.  However, in truth this should hardly have come as a surprise: concern for narrative clarity, logic and cogency are a theme that runs through Luke’s writing.  This can be seen, for example, in his initial comments on Akram Khan’s Giselle (“A Modern Classic in the Making”), and more recently in his review of Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier (“The Unknown Soldier”), in which he discusses in some detail problems that can occur when storytelling in ballets lacks consistency and logic.

British ballet has a strong tradition of narrative ballet dating back to Ninette de Valois’ creations, including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935), Checkmate (1937) and The Prospect Before Us (1940).  Luke pointed out that both Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan would seek advice regarding the libretti of their narrative ballets.  One specific example we discussed was MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978) for which the choreographer collaborated with Gillian Freeman, writer of novels, screenplays and non-fiction, to give shape to a complex story spanning a number of years and involving political intrigue, as well as multiple relationships between Rudolf and the various women in his life.  It should not be forgotten, however, that Freeman was also well versed in the subject of ballet, undoubtedly in part through her marriage with the dance writer and critic Edward Thorpe. 

Yet Luke is of the opinion that current ballet choreographers are in general not adept at constructing scenarios for their ballets, and even select (or have selected for them) narratives that are simply unsuited to ballet adaptation.  Examples are Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland (2011) and Liam Scarlett’s 2014 The Age of Anxiety, both of which are based on literary sources that depend on verbal language for their identity and meaning.  

So fiercely does Luke believe in the necessity of a tight narrative for a successful ballet, that he recommends that companies employ a resident librettist, or at least that libretti be approved by a committee that understands how both ballet and storytelling work.  And indeed, in his final review rounding off his time at The Observer, he asked the question: “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience?” (“Royal Ballet”).

At one point in our conversation there was an epiphany moment when the connection between Luke’s preoccupation with narrative, and our interest in the way in which he writes about the individual interpretation and movement style of dancers suddenly became clear.  This is when the conversation turned to “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  This is one of our very favourite reviews, one in which Luke compares the performances of Marianela Nuñez and Sarah Lamb in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.  The key is that for Luke the best dancers make choices when phrasing the choreography, and these choices illuminate the narrative: just as the way in which we enunciate and inflect our speech gives particular meaning to our words, so in dance the way the performers articulate and shape the choreography give it a particular meaning.  

In this review the contrast between Nuñez and Lamb, and the way in which they give particular meaning to the role of Juliet is epitomised by one specific single movement that each ballerina highlights in the Balcony Scene.  This movement is inextricably linked to the moment when Juliet abandons herself to her feelings for Romeo, come what may.

In Nuñez’s performances Luke focuses on the rond de jambe, drawing attention to the ballerina’s phrasing, how it makes him feel, and what it means in terms of the narrative – the shift from hesitation to affirmation:

… the segue from the racing blur of the pirouette into the rapturous precision of the rond de jambe is heart stopping. This is when the maidenly evasion ends.  This is when maybe becomes yes.

This means that the reader understands the significance of the movement for both the plotline and the emotional resonance of the choreography.  

When writing about Lamb in the same scene, the emphasis is on the arabesque that follows this moment: “… she signals her surrender to destiny not with the rond de jambe but the plunging fatalistic arabesque that follows it”. So again the reader is given a sense of how the ballerina shapes the movement and its significance for the narrative in this particular performance: in this case the fearless downward trajectory of the arabesque indicates Juliet’s acceptance of her fate, creating a sense that there is no turning back, suggesting perhaps a Juliet of a more reckless temperament.

There is no doubt that Luke’s words convey something of the experience of watching the two different ballerinas, and he made it abundantly clear how important it is to him to achieve this in his writing.  Closely connected to this is his desire to enable his readers to see what he sees, thereby in a sense teaching viewers how to watch, what to look out for.  He referred to Nuñez’s rond de jambe and Lamb’s arabesque as “two concrete moments” that enabled him to give a clear impression of what he witnessed. However, we are also fascinated by how Luke conjures up such a vivid image of these moments.  So let’s take a closer look at his writing … 

When we read the description of Nuñez’s rond de jambe, we feel drawn in by the parallel sentence structure “This is when …” that culminates in “maybe becomes yes”, right at the end of the paragraph.  More than this, the single syllable of yes and the lasting unvoiced sound seems to reflect the impulse into and opening of the rond de jambe, so that the language phrase becomes mimetic of the movement – it seems to mirror the movement in time and space, so that we see the whole body opening out, saying “yes”.

And just as we see this opening of the body in the horizontal plane, Luke’s choice of vocabulary for Lamb’s arabesque accentuates the verticality of her movement: it is plunging, indicating a sudden forceful downward movement; it is fatalistic, suggesting that nothing can prevent the direction of movement.  From this a completely different image appears in our mind.    

You will notice from the passages we have quoted from Luke’s writing that he avoids using a lot of specialist ballet terminology and purposely selects vocabulary and imagery that is part of everyday language that readers of the newspaper will understand and relate to.  This is because he is acutely aware that his writings for The Observer are for a national newspaper, and so for a broad rather than specialist readership, even though ballet lovers and professionals of various kinds (like  ourselves) also read his articles.  He frequently therefore starts with some context, perhaps including some explanation of the narrative, necessary for newcomers before he moves on to detail, or highlighting the particular demands of a role if this is the focus of his discussion, as in the case of “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”.  After addressing the needs of the general public, he can “then speak to people who know the language”.  In this way he is able to attract a varied readership.  He described this tightrope act as a “constant pull” “between being comprehensible and being precise”, or “being impressionistic and presenting fact”.  

It was interesting to discover that the contextualisation at the start of the reviews is far more significant than we had supposed.  Luke explained that it’s not possible to tell how people are feeling, or what’s in their mind when they read his articles.  The contextual writing therefore helps the reader to get in the mood and be persuaded by the writing; this Luke likened to the title sequence of a film, where we are lured into another world.  Similarly, the use of second person, which Luke frequently uses in favour of either “I” or “we”, helps him to lead the reader into the experience he is aiming to convey. 

So far we have focussed on Romeo and Juliet, a work dependent on the ballerina for its emotional pull.  This is frequently the case in a dance genre which, since the Romantic era, has placed the ballerina both literally and metaphorically centre stage. However, it is not always the case.  For Luke, the essence of watching The Nutcracker, for example, lies in the whole experience rather than in the performance of particular dancers, even when it is enriched by a magnificent cast. Consequently, over the years reviewing different companies he has given an overview of the dancing, designs, music and narrative, drawing us in with an easy narrative style that evokes The Nutcracker atmosphere.  Here is an example from his 2012 review of English National Ballet’s production: 

The opening, with skaters gliding along the frozen Thames outside the icicle-hung Stahlbaum mansion, is magical. Inside the house we meet a familiar cast of fops and eccentrics, headed by Michael Coleman’s splendidly bonkers Grandfather.

Luke talked of the ballet almost like a ritual, with its “sense of time passing” and the feeling of “once again here we are”.  This is understandable for a critic or a ballet lover who attends the ballet on an annual basis, and the sentiment was reflected in the opening of his final Nutcracker review: “It’s Nutcracker season again”.  Judging from audience numbers and make-up, many are attending for the experience of seeing a version of The Nutcracker as part of their Christmas festivities, rather than as a trip to the ballet.  Therefore, in this scenario too, going to the venue and watching the performance perhaps takes on a different sense of celebration than would be usual when attending a ballet at a different time of year unconnected with a great annual festival. 

Despite the light touch of his Nutcracker reviews, Luke tends to offer the reader food for thought, once again walking the tightrope between appealing to those with a particular interest in ballet, and a more general readership.  He has, for example, questioned the cultural stereotyping of the Act II divertissements (“The Nutcracker – review”; “The Nutcracker review – ballet”) and poignantly drawn our attention to the “shadow aspect” of The Nutcracker: “For every Clara opening her presents beneath the Christmas tree, there’s a Little Match Girl freezing to death in the street outside” (“The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”).

And so, just as Luke asks “Where are the storytellers speaking to a new and diverse audience? Where are the women in creative power roles? Where’s the vision?”, we have our own questions: Where are the writers who will bring the dancers we love to life on the page? Where are the critics who will teach us how to watch? And who will give food for thought when watching something as delectable as our annual Nutcracker?

© Rosemarie Gerhard

References

Jennings, Luke. “Akram Khan’s Giselle review – a modern classic in the making”. The Guardian, 2 Oct. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/02/giselle-akram-khan-review-english-national-ballet. Accessed 30 Dec. 2018.

—. “Juliet as Portrayed by a Force of Nature”. The Guardian, 15 June 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – ballet doesn’t come much more Christmassy”. The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/dec/07/the-nutcracker-review-birmingham-royal-ballet-christmassy. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 2 Jan. 2019.

—. “Royal Ballet: Les Patineurs, Winter Dreams, The Concert review – dreams and misdemeanours”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/23/royal-ballet-les-patineurs-winter-dreams-the-concert-review-triple-bill. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Unknown Soldier Review – when ballet loses its way”. The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/02/the-unknown-soldier-review-royal-ballet-triple-bill-alastair-marriott-first-world-war. Accessed 31 Dec. 2018.

Manon Designs Now & Then

Manon Designs Now

If you have seen the beautiful promotional video for English National Ballet’s Manon, with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, you cannot fail to have been struck by the location and designs: the building through which the dancers move, with their longing glances and soft sensuous caresses, is furnished with plush deep red drapes and sparkling chandeliers; and yet, at the same time, it shows signs of disrepair in the crumbling walls and ragged upholstery.

This video, lasting only 32 seconds, encapsulates some of the driving themes of the three-act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, choreographed in 1974.  Based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost entitled Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the ballet is frequently described as a tale of Manon’s struggle between love and riches, for example on the current ENB promotional flier: “The young and naïve Manon is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence with the wealthy Monsieur GM, or innocent love with the penniless student Des Grieux”.  Equally it could be interpreted as a battle for survival versus a desire for love.

manon-by-jason-bell-crop-square
English National Ballet, Manon. Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio.

Autumn 2018 saw a rare UK tour of the ballet, by ENB, and this month the Company brought it to the London Coliseum. But not with the original designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. Instead ENB uses the designs by Mia Stensgaard, which she created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2003, almost three decades after Manon’s premiere.  Although the choreographer’s widow Deborah MacMillan describes the production as “a very worthy alternative to Nicholas Georgiadis’s version performed by The Royal Ballet”, Stensgaard’s designs give the ballet a very different visual impact, and some aspects have come up against criticism.  However, being more familiar with the Georgiadis designs, and having now seen ENB’s production in both Milton Keynes and in London, we were struck by a number of design features that to us seemed to bring new life to the ballet.  Here are our thoughts …

The lighting

alina-cojocaru-and-fabian-reimair-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Fabian Reimair in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Stengaard’s sets and costumes are complemented by Mikki Kunytu’s evocative lighting.  Two moments in particular were literally and metaphorically illuminated by the lighting: the fight in Act II and the opening of Act III. As the swords clash and Monsieur GM’s rage flares up, shadows of the combatants loom over their brawl, making the tension palpable, creating a sense of foreboding, and highlighting the centrality of this scene for the narrative.

As the curtains rise on Act III a feeling of stifling heat seems to emanate from the stage and engulf the auditorium air.  In the narrative Manon is transported to New Orleans as a convict; in the theatre the audience is transported with Manon, as bright haze and shadows conjure up the heat and with it the sense of discomfort and alienation Manon feels in her new unknown environment.

The make-up

james-streeter-alina-cojocaru-jane-haworth-and-jeffrey-cirio-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, Jane Haworth and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Before tanned skin came into fashion in the early part of the 20thcentury, pale skin was prized.  The faces of 18thcentury portraits are pale, even white, the paleness accentuated by pink cheeks of various shades.  This look was fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie for men and children as well as for women.  It denoted a particular status, or at least aspiration to that status, as tanned skin was associated with outdoors manual labour of the lower classes that exposed them to the sun.

In this production artificial pale skin is prominent amongst The Clients perusing the prostitutes, but two pivotal characters stand out for us in particular: Monsieur GM and the Gaoler. As performed by Fabian Reimar and James Streeter respectively, even at a distance from the stage their white faces seemed mask-like; and in the production photographs by Laurent Liotardo, where the roles are reversed, equally so.  In performance their denaturalised/synthetic features remind us of the Diplomats from Kurt Jooss’ 1933 The Green Table, whose masks strip them of their humanity as they debate the fate of the land.  The 18thcentury trend for prominent dark eyebrows, particularly for men, is a conspicuous addition to the Gaoler’s make-up, starkly framing his features and hiding any emotion or compassion that might live beneath the surface, if indeed there is any.

Monsieur GM and the Gaoler (who are frequently performed by the same dancers on different nights) are both characters who benefit from the lot of the prostitutes and more particularly play a decided role in the events that lead to the doom of Manon and Des Grieux. Again, The Green Table springs to mind: the Profiteer, the figure who gains from the loss of others in war, has a painted white face that makes him more visibly impervious to the suffering of those around him.  In contrast to the depersonalised faces of Monsieur GM and the Gaoler, the faces of Manon and Des Grieux look natural and real, underlining their social status, as well as their humanity and vulnerability.

The dresses

english-national-ballet-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo-2
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Brightly coloured frou-frou dresses with their frills, flounces and ruffles fill the stage in Act II.  Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues vie for attention with lustrous whites.  The girls are adorned with cute hats and fascinators.  A sense of light and fun pervades.  And into this hive of colour and light walks Manon in her shimmering white cloak and gown bringing a focal point to the drama that radiates over the stage.

This atmosphere of frivolity and youthfulness never returns to Manon.  So, in our opinion, the costumes in this scene in all their decorativeness and blasts of colour serve a crucial purpose in highlighting the mood of this scene, which seems so distant from the dark drama of the ensuing scenes.

Manon Designs Then

Ballet productions are regularly redesigned to give them a fresh “look”, or when a work is taken into the repertoire of a different company.  Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella has acquired fresh sets and costumes several times over the years, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and La Scala Milan all have their own designs for MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).

The nineteenth century classics are sometimes retained in the same production for decades, as in the case of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake, replaced by Liam Scarlett’s production last year only after thirty-one years.  And a new production comes with a new design concept, which can suggest new meanings to the viewer.

The Royal Ballet has kept Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets and costumes for Manon, perhaps because choreographer and designer were frequent collaborators, working together over a substantial period of MacMillan’s choreographic career.  In addition to Manon, notable collaborations were The Burrow (1958), The Invitation (1960) Romeo and Juliet, and Mayerling (1978).

Like Romeo and JulietManon is a work performed by companies across the globe, including Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet.  Mia Stensgaard is not the first to have created new designs for the ballet, but Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes for the Australian and Mariinsky Companies strike us as closer to Georgiadis’ original concept than Stensgaard’s version of Manon’s world.  So let’s have a look at why that might be …

The rags

In the tradition of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, such an influence on the development of British ballet, MacMillan believed that design was absolutely integral to the identity and meaning of a choreographic work (Woodcock, 19).  One of the aspects of Manon’s story that he felt passionate about and wanted to convey in no uncertain terms was the poverty that was a driving force in her life and the decisions that she makes.  Therefore, crucial to Georgiadis’ décor is a cyclorama of rags cascading down the full height of the stage space.  Characters emerge on to the stage through these rags from their carriages, representing the poverty that divides the population of Manon: the Beggars and the Gentlemen; Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M.; the Gaoler and the deported Prostitutes.  Manon herself is a liminal character, who in the course of the ballet inhabits different worlds according to the decisions she makes.  But the rags are a recurring reminder of how fragile the border is between survival and destitution.

The richness

Critics have highlighted how rich the original designs are compared to Stensgaard’s more recent offerings, which in comparison can look quite sparse.  The word “sumptuous” has been used to describe both the costumes (Clarke 31) and the sets (Mead).  There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, the first being Georgiadis’ style. Consider the splendour of the ballroom scenes in both Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling for example.  You will probably be less familiar with his designs for Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker (1968), which have been described by critic and historian Jack Anderson as “far too grand”, “autumnal” and “somber” (168).

Manon was created for the UK’s premiere ballet venue – the Royal Opera House in London – and as full-evening narrative ballet of high drama, a certain degree of ostentation would be expected.  But also, in terms of the subject matter, Manon is a sombre tale, so that a heaviness of tone and hue – the burnt orange, dark brown and olive greens worn by Lescaut’s Mistress, for example – seems appropriate.  And the richness of the costumes makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the rags of the cyclorama.

The dress

Despite the fact that we love Stensgaard’s designs for Act II, and Manon’s light luminous dress is both in keeping with the colour palette and marks her out as the jewel in the crown onstage, we miss Georgiadis’ glorious gown for Manon.  Here she is at her most ravishing.  As she whirls seductively through her solo with Des Grieux and Monsieur GM circling around the rest of cast freezes.  The solo crystallises Manon’s predicament and the choices available to her. And the dress with its ornate black lace embellished with silver detail complements her tantalising but perturbing dance.

Georgiadis’ sets undoubtedly emphasise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in accordance with the choreographer’s wishes.  In Stensgaard’s designs this theme is perhaps not so prominent.  However, characterisation, drama and atmosphere, all vital to MacMillan’s oeuvreare writ large in her costumes and sets.  In our opinion, we are really fortunate to have both of these productions in the British ballet repertoire.   With two such distinct design concepts, the choreography is enriched, opening further opportunity for insight and interpretation from performers and audiences alike.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… March sees the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s new ballet Victoria commissioned by Northern Ballet to commemorate the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth.  So we will be discussing bio-ballets with some thoughts on this new work and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling based on the life of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

Clarke, Mary. “Manonin Copenhagen”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93, no. 1113, 2003, pp. 31-33.

MacMillan, Deborah. “Manon”. Manon, English National Ballet, Oct.-Nov. 2018.

Mead, David. “Jurgita Dronina Spellbinding in English National Ballet’s Manon”, SeeingDance, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.seeingdance.com/enb-manon-26102018/. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Woodcock, Sarah C. “MacMillan and Design”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93 no. 1108, 2002, pp. 19-25.

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

The Nutcracker Now

It strikes us that despite its ever-growing popularity, The Nutcracker presents something of a conundrum.  As last year, all the major ballet companies in the UK are performing runs of The Nutcracker, which stretch from the end of November into the new year. Of the three Tchaikovsky ballets Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), and The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892), with their magnificent scores, the Christmas ballet is the work with the least dramatic coherence and the most varied choreography from production to production.  The result of this is that the identity of the work relies predominantly on the musical score, made famous by the suite of numbers performed in the concert hall, used for Disney’s 1940 Fantasia and numerous television adverts, and perhaps on a few key figures and events, such as Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the battle between the Toy Soldiers and Mice, and the growing Christmas Tree.

One problem for lovers of narrative ballet is that we are accustomed to works that offer the ballerina a central role combining complexity and variety in choreography, and development and contrast in characterisation.  Just think of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), Swan Lake, Onegin (Cranko, 1965), and Manon (MacMillan, 1974), to name but a few examples. In fact, the original production of The Nutcracker was criticised for including “only one classical pastor the ballerina, and this near the end of the second act” (Wiley 199).  Yes, it’s a long time to wait, if you have booked a ticket specifically to see a beloved ballerina dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy …

In the eyes of some audience members this situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that the main character, Clara, is a child, and Act I is populated by children.  Dick Godfrey highlighted this issue in his review of Scottish Ballet’s performance last year, a revival of Peter Darrell’s 1973 production after over forty years: “Darrell’s bold – and in many ways admirable – decision to cast children in the roles of the children instead of the more commonly found young professionals limits the amount of dance he offers”.  The Royal Ballet production addresses this dilemma by casting a young-looking company member as Clara.  This can be seen in recordings on DVD, for example with Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Alina Cojocaru as Clara in 2001, and Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward in the same roles in 2016.  And in truth the opportunity to see a budding star of the calibre of Cojocaru or Hayward can imbue the performance with a wonderful sense of excitement.

In English National Ballet’s current production staged by Wayne Eagling in 2010 the child Clara dreams of growing up and falling in love, and consequently dances the grand pas de deus that concludes the ballet.  In this case we can gain an enormous amount of pleasure from seeing a ballerina capable of expressing both Clara’s teenage youthfulness and the grandeur required of the grand pas de deux.  Describing Tamara Rojo’s performance at the end of Act I Graham Watts writes: “it is astonishing how Rojo peels away the years to become an excited, wide-eyed teenager on stage”.  In contrast, by the end of Act II, “her experience shows in the way that she deploys contrast, from the soft-backed swoop of her promenades with Berlanga in their opening duet to the steely verticality of her triple fouettés in the coda” (Jennings).

At the start of December we saw Northern Ballet perform their production in Woking.  One of the delightful features of the performance was the fact that the children were notably of different heights, creating a vivid sense of a family gathering in the first act.  The production is similar to the Royal Ballet’s in that Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are danced by two different performers, but the two acts are securely connected not only through the figure of Clara, but through the resemblance between the characters of her life in Act I and her dream in Act II, for example between her elder sister and the Sugar Plum Fairy, both performed by the same dancer. However, this in no way makes the libretto complex, and David Nixon, Artistic Director and creator of this production, is keen to emphasise his desire “not to change the story drastically or to bring a psychological overtone.  I wanted it to be festive and joyous … It is based on a dark story, but … I kept my version simple and childlike” (qtd. in Monahan 12).

The Nutcracker Then

If you think of The Nutcracker more as family entertainment than as high art, you might think it odd to question the practice of including child dancers as principal characters in the ballet, and you might be puzzled or even perplexed by the decision to bring greater depth to the work with a “psychological overtone”.  Yet there have been two British productions that have notably aimed to give the ballet more gravitas, both in part by aligning the narrative more closely to E.T.A Hoffmann’s 1816 Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the story that inspired the ballet’s original libretto.  These were Rudolf Nureyev’s version, performed by the Royal Ballet from 1968 into the early 1980s, and the version created by Peter Schaufuss for London Festival Ballet in 1986, which remained in the repertoire until 1992.

Nureyev is known for his eagerness to expand male roles, having choreographed additional solos for the male protagonist in The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, for example, and changing the end of Swan Lake to highlight the fate of Siegfried in preference for either Odette or the love between Odette and Siegfried.  Therefore, Nureyev’s decision to combine the role of Clara’s Godfather Herr Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince could simply be considered as a way of creating a role equal in substance to that of the ballerina. But the fact that Drosselmeyer, with his eccentric mannerisms, is so very different from the Nutcracker Prince offers an arguably greater challenge to the male protagonist than to the ballerina, who portrays Clara maturing into a young woman. For the dancer it affords the opportunity to bring out different facets of the old magician and his relationship with his Goddaughter; for the audience it adds an interesting dramatic layering and the rare chance to see male dancer in a dual role   Apart from Nureyev himself, notable exponents of the role were Anthony Dowell and David Wall, both of whom we discussed in our Male Dancers Now & Then post.  On the other hand, historian and critic Jack Anderson has criticised Nureyev’s production quite bluntly for its sombre atmosphere, its Freudian overtones and its pervasive “images of cruelty” (149).

With its Gingerbread Men and Lemonade Sea, Peter Schaufuss’ 1986 production was not pervaded by the same dark atmosphere, but through both including added detail from Hoffmann’s story and introducing Tchaikovsky and his family into the libretto, the narrative became quite complicated and perhaps even burdened with additional elements.  This included a toy theatre where the Tale of the Nut “Krakatuk” was played out, the illness of Tanya, (the character usually known as Clara, and in this version also Tchaikovsky’s niece), and a prologue with Tchaikovsky working on the Nutcracker score, learning of the death of his beloved sister Sasha, and reminiscing about a past Christmas spent at her family home.  The premise for the production was Schaufuss’ idea that “Tchaikovsky may have seen himself as the central figure, Drosselmeyer” (Clarke 400), and indeed one of the joys of these performances was watching Christopher Bruce as the Tchaikovsky/Drosselmeyer figure.  The programme notes included a Tchaikovsky family tree to clarify the various familial relationships.  We could argue that, as with Nureyev’s version, this approach helped to bring more substance to the ballet, giving it more gravitas as an art work, and perhaps making it seem more historically and artistically significant.

 

Share your thoughts!

In a brilliant review of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker this year Observer critic Luke Jennings noted that the only thing lacking in the “dreamlike perfection” of the production is the sense of melancholy so integral to Tchaikovsky’s score.  Similarly, film critic Ryan Gilbey criticises Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for “failing to acknowledge the darker side of Christmas”.

So how do you prefer your Nutcracker? How important is the ballerina role to you? Are you interested in producers incorporating the “darker side of Christmas”? Is dramatic cogency important to you? Are you keen to see a romantic plot? Are you more in favour of a Nutcracker with lots of children and a simple clear storyline?

We’d love to know what you think!

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

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

Clarke, Mary. “The Nutcracker Season”. Dancing Times, vol. 77, no. 917, pp. 400-01.

Gilbey, Ryan. “No wonder Disney’s Nutcracker is a flop – festive films thrive on despair”. The Guardian, 8 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/dec/08/nutcracker-christmas-films-need-darkness-as-well-light. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Godfrey, Dick. “Scottish Ballet’s revival of Peter Darrell’s Nutcracker restores the famous sparkle”. ChronicleLive, 2 Feb. 2018, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-news/scottish-ballets-revival-peter-darrells-14232709. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Jennings Luke. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Monahan, Mark. “An Awfully Big Adventure”. The Nutcracker, Winter 2018, New Victoria Theatre, pp. 12-13.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Alina Cojocaru, Miyako Yoshida and Royal Ballet. 2001, Opus Arte, 2001.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Francesca Hayward, Lauren Cuthbertson, and Royal Ballet. 2016, Opus Arte, 2017.

Watts, Graham. “Review: English National Ballet – The Nutcracker- London Coliseum”. londondance.com, 15 Dec. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-the-nutcracker-2014/.. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky’s Ballets. Clarendon Press, 1985.

ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET’S EMERGING DANCER: IN CONVERSATION

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 …

Libby

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.

Rosie

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 Tell pas 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).

Julia

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.

Rosie

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. 

Libby

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. 

Rosie

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”. 

Julia

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.

Libby

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.

Rosie

So we’re back to harmony again with Francesca …

Libby

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.

Rosie

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. 

Julia

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.

Rosie

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.

Libby

Next year will be a landmark – the tenth competition!

Rosie

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.

Julia 

Next year we hope to watch the live performance together!

© Julia Delaney, Libby Costello, Rosie Gerhard

References

Parry, Jann “2018 English National Ballet Emerging Dancer Competition – performance and results” http://dancetabs.com/2018/06/2018-english-national-ballet-emerging-dancer-competition-performance-and-results/

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.

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