This month Julia and Rosie attended two performances of English National Ballet’s (ENB) Le Corsaire at the London Coliseum. This production, first staged in 2013 for ENB by Anna-Marie Holmes remains the only production of the ballet performed by a British company, although both the Mariinsky and Bolshoi companies have performed their productions in London.
Le Corsaire is a preposterous tale of swashbuckling pirates, an avaricious slave trader, lascivious pasha, and the love of Medora, and Conrad, the Pirates’ Captain. Originally choreographed in 1856 by Joseph Mazilier and loosely based on Lord Byron’s 1824 The Corsair, it is a product of its time – a spectacular fantasy of romance and adventure set in the Ottoman Empire, complete with an onstage shipwreck. It also now includes some of the most beautiful and exciting choreography in the classical repertoire.
There were lots of possible topics of conversation raised in reviews by Emma Byrne, Mark Monahan, Graham Watts, Lyndsey Winship, for example, but we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the subject of the dancing itself and individual dancers’ styles and interpretation of character.
JULIA: So, this was the first time I’ve seen the full ballet live, but you’ve seen other productions, haven’t you, Rosie?
ROSIE: Oh yes, I still vividly remember the Mariinsky (at that time called the Kirov) Ballet coming to London in 1988 after an interlude of 18 years and performing their new production. I saw the same cast as on the DVD: Altyai Asylmuratova, Evgeni Neff, Farukh Ruzimatov Yelena Pankova, Konstantin Zaklinsky and Gennadi Babanin. I’d never seen a whole troupe of dancers so explosive, virtuosic and compelling before. It was electrifying. Dance critic John Percival wrote that after seeing it in Paris at the end of 1987 he had raved about it for months before the company brought it to London the following summer (28).
JULIA: I went to the RAD Library this morning and found out that when Rudolf Nureyev staged Le Corsairepas de deux for Margot Fonteyn and himself in 1962, Peter Williams noted certain technical skills and qualities that set Nureyev apart from “Western” male dancers. He says: “His variation … provided one of those frisson-making occasions – most exciting of all being a series of jumps in a manège in which he turned high in the air with his legs tucked under him. It is the ease, softness and panther-like grace with which he does everything that makes him so different …” (49-51).
ROSIE: But this description reminds me of Jeffrey Cirio’s performance of Ali, Conrad’s friend, on opening night. In the grand allegro sections, he created beautiful clean precise arabesque lines, and after enormous jumps he would land gently, gradually allowing his body to alight. I find this kind of virtuosity exhilarating!
ROSIE: Daniel McCormick as Ali was also spectacular, but had a quite different visual impact – the twist in his torso was so pronounced that he looked two-dimensional. Extraordinary. He won the 2018 Emerging Dancer Competition performing this role, but since then he has definitely refined and developed the stylistic characteristics of Ali. He drew me in like a magnet whenever he was on the stage, even when he wasn’t performing a dance as such.
JULIA: Another thing that I was particularly impressed by was the use of both personal and performance space. All the men were using the far reach space of their kinesphere; it looked like they couldn’t have reached any farther into the space – this added to the sense of power end elevation in their jumps.
ROSIE: Over the last few weeks I have been noticing the advertising poster with Brooklyn Mack as Conrad: it shows exactly this sense of broad kinesphere – breadth and length through the whole body – as well as strength in allegro. For me the hands are super important to the style. All the male dancers were showing openness and energy in their hand positions.
JULIA: Yes, and this was such as a contrast with Erina Takahashi’s use of personal space… As Medora she used a lot of near space making her port de bras look very delicate, which is also representative of her character. Medora seems quite gentle in comparison to her feisty friend Gulnare. I like the journalist Teresa Guerreiro’s description of Shiori Kase in that role as “sassy” and “resourceful”.
ROSIE: But I think we both found the personalities reversed with the other cast. Katja Khaniukova’s Medora was more spirited. You felt that was connected to her personal moment style, right?
JULIA: Yes, it’s not just a matter of acting, it’s that she highlights positions at the end of a phrase, and this gives her dancing a kind of boldness that makes Medora seem more assertive.
ROSIE: To be honest, when I watch this ballet, I don’t really pay much attention to the story line, as such. Nineteenth century ballets like Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1842), Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895) seem to hold a lot more symbolic significance within their narratives. But even still, the characters have to have life … Yes, for this ballet to work, the dancing has to be glorious and the acting has to resonate with me.
JULIA: I know what you mean about the libretto, but as I was watching I was seeing important themes emerge, like loyalty, betrayal, compassion. All of them tell us something about human nature. And I always think that the dancers in this Company are really convincing with their acting – even if they have a minor role or are milling around, like in the market scene in Act I of this ballet.
ROSIE: They are! When Jeffrey was performing Conrad, I was so captivated by his “conversation” with Birbanto, his second-in-command, at the side of the stage that I got distracted from the centre-stage dancing!
JULIA: You can even see this commitment to portraying character in the photos – people watching onstage events, showing their interest in different ways, engaging with other characters in really vivid ways, going about their business and so forth. It’s like people watching.
ROSIE: So I was really surprised when I read that Anna-Marie Holmes found teaching the mime the biggest challenge of staging the work. That makes me really appreciate what a skill it is.
JULIA: I know that the Odalisques pas de trois is one of your favourite parts …
ROSIE: I love it!
JULIA: Even here, where the dancers might focus solely on their technique, I noticed on the first night a true sense of character coming through. Julia Conway (she’s such a beautiful dancer – another winner of Emerging Dancer) seemed quite solemn, whereas Precious Adams appeared more agitated about her fate …
ROSIE: And Alison McWhinney was gently glowing, as if indulging in the sheer pleasure of dancing. I always admire her lovely neck line …But I want to go back to the male roles, because the two other male lead roles were performed by dancers that I don’t know at all well: Francesco Gabriele Frola as Conrad, and Erik Woolhouse as the scheming Birbanto.
JULIA: They were both a revelation to me too. They performed with such gusto and energy. I heard you whoop at their elevation.
ROSIE: Birbanto is a much more compelling character for me, though. When Erik Woolhouse slashed his way through the air it spoke of Birbanto’s personality as well as technical bravura. Erik really nailed it in both ways – he was on fire!
JULIA: As Jane Pritchard, ENB’s Archive Consultant, says, Le Corsaire “is a production that allows dancers the opportunity to display virtuosity and personality”.
We started this blog two years ago with The Nutcracker Now & Then. Last December we published a second Nutcracker post. However this year, Cinderella seems a more relevant ballet for our Christmas discussion.
On the other hand, Cinderella seems to be a ballet for all seasons: at the start of 2019 Scottish Ballet (SB) were performing their production by Christopher Hampson; in the summer English National Ballet (ENB) performed Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, but in the autumn toured the original version, choreographed on Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet for the proscenium stage; shortly after this Northern Ballet (NB) started to tour their 2013 production by David Nixon, which they will continue to perform over the Christmas period and then again in the spring months of 2020.
Of course, Cinderella adaptations that are based on the famous score by Sergei Prokofiev have the four seasons built into the structure of the work, if the choreographer chooses to employ the music in that way. Wheeldon and ENB took advantage of this structure when adapting his 2012 choreography for the huge arena of the Albert Hall by doubling the number of dancers for the Four Seasons divertissement making it into a magnificent spectacle. But nevertheless, with its magical tree, vibrant blues and greens, the fantastical birds and mythical Tree Gnomes, it seems to us to be imbued with a sense of warmth and fecundity that makes us associate it more with spring and summer.
The same might also be said for Hampson’s 2007 staging of Prokoviev’s Cinderella with SB, in which a rose planted by Cinderella …
… becomes the motif…, blooming into swirling curlicues and trailing blossom, becoming the backdrop of the ballet’s scenes of magic. There’s a corps de ballet of roses, and it’s a rose, as much as a dropped slipper, that reunite this Cinders with her prince. (Anderson)
In this way the magic of nature is woven into the fabric of the ballet, and more literally into the fabric of Cinderella’s gown for the ball, woven together by “silk moths, grasshoppers and spiders” as it is (Lowes).
In contrast to this emphasis on nature’s warmer months, NB’s Cinderella is set for the main part in a fantasy Moscow winter time, affording the opportunity for visits to the winter market populated by the likes of jugglers, acrobats and a magician, skating scenes on the Crystal Lake, and huskies for Cinderella’s sleigh to take her to the ball.
The atmospheric score composed by Philip Feeney, and Duncan Hayler’s sparkling set, with its Fabergé-inspired ballroom (new this year) create a quite different world of magic to that created by Daniel Brodie, Natasha Katz and Basil Twist for ENB, and the art nouveau realm of Tracy Grant Lord’s designs for SB.
One of the things that these three Cinderellas all provide is a back story that helps to create a sense of humanness in the characters, making them more than stock figures or archetypes.
Both Hampson (SB) and Wheeldon (ENB) show their heroine in childhood grieving over her Mother’s grave. But the everlasting bond between mother and daughter is symbolised by Cinderella’s tears generating new life: the blossoming of Hampson’s rose garden and the growth of Wheeldon’s magical tree. Hampson’s Prince is portrayed as lonely, without anyone to whom he can relate (“The Story of Cinderella”), while ENB’s Prince Guillaume seems to enjoy his life with his childhood friend Benjamin too much to want to commit to marriage – until, of course, he meets Cinderella. A delightful scene occurs in Act I as the result of the familiar trope of swapping identities: taking Guillaume for a destitute pauper, Cinderella offers him food, shelter and company – a mark of her compassionate nature. But as they clumsily dance together on the table, the attraction between them is unmistakable.
Nixon’s (NB) Cinderella meets Prince Mikhail in childhood, but the most significant thing we discover about her is that she is partially responsible for her Father’s accidental death; this perhaps accounts for her Stepmother’s antipathy towards her. Yet, despite her burden of guilt, the grown-up Cinderella radiates delight in the world of the market and the Crystal Lake. The innovations in characterisation that make this production feel fresh and closer to life, despite the wintry glitter and sparkle, are Cinderella’s eventual bold defiance of her Stepmother, and the Prince’s initial derisory rejection of Cinderella when he discovers her lowly status as a servant to the household. The Prince’s “upper-class bad-manners moment”, as Amanda Jennings calls it (37), felt quite uncomfortable to watch; however, so poignantly did Joseph Taylor portray Mikhail’s remorse at his own lack of empathy and insight, that there could be no doubting his love for Cinderella.
As the first three-act British ballet, Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella, still regularly performed by The Royal Ballet (RB), is without a doubt the most celebrated Cinderella in the history of British ballet. And without a doubt this is in part attributable to the number of prestigious ballerinas who have performed the eponymous role, amongst them Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Maria Almeida, Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru.
But despite its status in the British Ballet canon, Ashton’s Cinderella is to some extent an exception, especially for the year 1979, which is where we focus our attention now. We chose this particular year, because not only did the RB stage Ashton’s Cinderella that December, but both NB and SB mounted brand new productions – by Robert de Warren and Peter Darrell respectively.
It is no secret that Ashton choreographed his Cinderella as a tribute to late 19th century ballet. The divertissements of the Seasons are reminiscent of the Prologue Fairies from The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), with their quirky, idiosyncratic movements that portray the feel of the season, while the Stars remind us of Ivanov’s Snowflakes, with their sharp, spikey, shimmering movements and patterns that bring to mind the constellations of the night sky. The pantomime dame style “Ugly Sisters” could be comical renditions of Carabosse, as they plot to ensure Cinderella’s continued subjugation and to deny her her destiny, earned by the beauty of her being.
Like Desiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s Prince arrives late in the proceedings and has to pursue Cinderella through the Stars that form barriers between them. Like a 19thcentury classical ballerina role, Cinderella herself is the focus of the stage action and the narrative, with a string of solos and duets in different styles. No ballerina we have seen has ever competed with Tamara Rojo in portraying the two faces of Cinderella: the downtrodden but creative, imaginative and kindly young woman on the one hand, and the ideal vision of the fairy princess on the other.
But in 1979 NB offered a quite different interpretation of the Cinderella story. De Warren based his choreography on the 1901 score by Johan Strauss Jr., the only ballet score ever written by the composer, and adapted the scenario from Heinrich Regel’s original libretto. The theme of the seasons was retained in the name of the department store where the action is located. Here Cinderella is employed in the millinery workshop and bullied by her Stepmother, who is head of the department. However, as far as we can make out, there were no fairies representing the seasons, although magical doves (reminding us of Wheeldon’s fantasy birds) help Cinderella with her chores so that she can go to the ball.
The ball has been organised by Gustav, the owner of the Four Seasons, for his staff. What we find so enchanting about this telling of the story is that Gustav is so in love with Cinderella, despite her lowly position, that he makes excuses to go to the millinery department to catch a glimpse of her, and seeks her out at the ball, where everyone is disguised by masks.
Darrell’s 1979 SB Cinderella shared similarities with the NB production in that it also used an alternative musical score to Ashton’s, one arranged by Bramwell Tovey from music by Gioachino Rossini, including some numbers from his Cinderella opera La Cenerentola (1817). The libretto was also based loosely on the scenario to the opera (Tovey) and evidently foregrounded the Prince. The first source we found on this production was a review by John Percival which struck us with both its title “She knows a good ‘un when she sees him”, and with the first lines:
The Hero of Peter Darrell’s ballet Cinderella is the quiet, gentle Prince Ramiro, who is more interested in books than court occasions; you could almost imagine him talking to the plants in the palace gardens …
This version of Cinderella in fact started with the Prince, who, finding the preparations for the masked ballet tedious, changes places with his equerry Dandini; and as in the current production, an instant bond is kindled between Cinderella and the Prince, despite the disguise. As Percival emphasises “Cinderella knows real worth when she sees it” (“A Scottish Cinderella” 20). Once again, nature plays an integral part in the staging, with Exotic Birds, Fire Fairies and Dew Fairies listed in the cast, and Cinderella arriving at the ball in an exquisite cloak resembling butterfly wings.
Choreographers past and present have drawn on different sources and ideas in order to make their particular Cinderella fitting for their context.
Yet, no matter which adaptation you see, Cinderella is a ballet about different kinds of magic, love and beauty, as well as the everyday miracle of nature, with its message of hope and faith in the constant renewal of life. As such it as an ideal Christmas ballet, as well as a ballet for all seasons.
In September, Julia and Rosie presented a paper at the Theatre & Performance Research Association Conference in Exeter on Cathy Marston and the influence of Regietheater (directors’ theatre) on her choreographic style.
We thought we would share with our readers a version of our script as very little has been written about this aspect of Cathy’s work.
As you probably know, Cathy has been creating dance works for over twenty years and is in demand internationally. Predominantly she is known for her narrative ballets, adaptations of literature, drama and biography. Marston was brought up in the UK, the daughter of two English teachers, a background that led naturally to a love of literature. We really enjoyed her description of her birthday, when she was about 12 years old: evidently, instead of having a party, she requested a visit to Stratford to see The Merchant of Venice(“Interview with Cathy Marston”).
Of course, Marston was also drawn to ballet, and we find it interesting that at the age of around 14 she was already concerned about the meaning of movement and its potential for expression:
I actually took that [RAD] syllabus book to bed … and wrote next to every plié what the particular port de bras meant for me or what that frappé exercise was supposed to express to me. So I think it was always about what the dance was telling rather than how it was happening. (“Delving into Dance”)
After studying for two years at the Royal Ballet Upper School (1992-1994), Marston worked as a dancer in Switzerland (1996-1999) and during this period started to choreograph professionally. However, in addition to choreographing, Marston worked as artistic director of Bern Ballett for six years, from 2007 to 2013. As artistic director and choreographer, Marston was exposed to European theatre practices, in particular Regietheater, often translated as “directors’ theatre” (Boenisch 1).
In this Spotlight post we will examine Marston’s Juliet and Romeo, which she created in 2009 for Bern Ballett, and her biographical ballet Victoria, which premiered earlier this year in Leeds with Northern Ballet. In this way we can examine the negotiation in her work between her British roots and the strong influence of European theatre practice on her approach to adaptation for the ballet stage.
In a recent interview, Marston commented on her understanding of the term Regietheater:
The German attitude is something called Regietheater, which means director’s theatre: the director, and in this case the choreographer, should interpret the text, rather than put it on stage as written. … you can cut the text up inside out, upside down, you could do whatever you want with the source in order to convey your vision
Marston’s description of Regietheater as “cutting up the text inside out and upside down” is akin to Peter M. Boehnisch’s words: “I wonder whether precisely a genuinely emancipatory ‘messing up’ is not the briefest possible description of what the contested Regietheaterdoes …” (5).
In their outlining of Regie both Boenisch and Marvin Carlson highlight the director’s interpretations of “traditional” (Carlson 68), “older” (110) or canonical plays (Boenisch 1). Particularly in the Anglophone world, this is where the director’s role as “creative artist in his or her own right”, as Carlson expresses it (110), or Boenisch’s “messing up”, perhaps seems at its most radical and unsettling.
Amongst Marston’s over 60 choreographic works are adaptations of canonical works of literature and drama, including:
The adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another, is by its very nature a creative act, perhaps most obviously when a verbal form is being transposed to a non-verbal form, as in the case of an adaptation from a Shakespearean drama to a ballet. As you know, Romeo and Juliet is an extremely popular ballet across the globe, and the British ballet repertoire already includes a canon of three Romeo and Juliet choreographies, all of them using the score specifically composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935 and all of them following the clear structure provided by Prokofiev with its discrete acts and scenes, themes and leitmotifs. They are not the only ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s play performed by British companies (there is, for example, the innovative Ballet Cymru production from 2013), but these three were all created by revered British choreographers who are in addition identified as creators of an English style of ballet: Frederick Ashton, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.
These three Romeo and Juliet ballets were all created between 1955 and 1965 for the Royal Danish Ballet (Ashton), Stuttgart Ballet (Cranko) and Britain’s Royal Ballet (MacMillan). They are large-scale works of high drama that employ rich, colourful décor and costumes representative of the period; as such they complement the sumptuous music score. While each work is distinguished by the variations in choreographic style, there is a certain predictability in their characterisation and linear structure.
By the time Marston choreographed Juliet and Romeo she knew that such an approach would not have been well received well in Bern, where the theatre directorship, critics and audiences were accustomed to a more experimental approach on the part of a director, or choreographer in this case, towards a canonical work. Additionally, Bern Ballett is a small- to mid-scale company and would therefore be unable to provide large numbers of dancers for teeming market and ballroom scenes.
Marston’s approach to this situation was to create a work for 11 dancers representing 11 characters dressed in costumes that might be 21st century or could even be a reference to the 1950s. The stage is framed by scaffolding and stacks of posters that are moved around by the dancers in the course of the performance to create different spaces. The impression is distinctly monochrome. Some of the posters are moved individually and become visible to the audience as posters of Juliet from previous film, theatre, and ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, including Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 film. The conflicts take place between Mercutia, Benvolio and Romeo on the side of the Montagues, and Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Paris for the Capulets. Weapons and potions are replaced by a single shard of mirrored glass visibly located downstage when not in use.
We can compare Marston’s production to those of Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan by referring to different traditions of theatre practice. Boehnisch distinguishes the practice of “directing a play” in an English context and “making a performance” in Continental Europe (3). The choreographers Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan indubitably “made a performance” by the incontrovertible fact of having created ballet movement inspired by Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s music. However, because of their adherence to ballet codes of technique, gender, structure, characterisation and music-movement relationship, we argue that the process of creating these productions is also akin to “directing a play”, particularly when compared with Marston’s approach to the same task. The details of Marston’s set and costumes that we have outlined, and the re-gendering of Mercutio are consistent with the notion of “making a performance” and giving a specific direction or purpose to the “text” (5), as Boenisch puts it. Further, Marston as choreographer raises questions of patriarchy, gender, contemporary relevance and relationships between “texts” rather than choreographing the narrative to mirror the Prokofiev score. In this way she also “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties”, which is a significant aspect of Regie for Boenisch (10).
These properties of Regie – making a performance, giving the text a specific purpose and destabilising certainties – can be observed even more clearly in three striking features of Juliet and Romeo: the unusual structuring of the work, the foregrounding of Juliet and Friar Laurence, and the emphasis on the themes of authority and conflict.
In Prokoviev’s score and the three traditional British adaptations of the ballet, Friar Laurence is a minor and straightforward role. In stark contrast, Marston’s Juliet and Romeo both starts and ends with Juliet and Friar Laurence – the two characters who are in possession of all the facts pertaining to Juliet’s duplicitous “death”. The ballet opens with the scene where Juliet threatens to kill herself, and a motif is established between Juliet and Friar Laurence, whereby the Friar lifts Juliet away from the shard of glass, she pirouettes into him, he catches her and pulls her upstage right, away from the shard’s location.
Another motif is established where Laurence places his hands close to Juliet’s head, thereby drawing her back in time: from this scene in Juliet and Romeo the sequence of events follows the usual trajectory, beginning with the Montagues and Capulets’ initial brawl and ending with the double suicide.
The focus on Friar Laurence and Juliet, and their relationship, is developed as they spend time together at the start of the ballet watching the events that have passed, sometimes also walking amongst the Veronans. Juliet at times seeks to intervene in the action, and repeatedly returns to the thought of suicide. Through the course of the ballet the Friar frequently appears at moments of conflict, moves posters or rolls them up in an understated but deliberate way. At the end of the ballet he brings Juliet downstage, organises her body tidily and places the shard in its usual location, conveying a sense of inevitability to the narrating of this tragedy. Occasionally Juliet rebels against the Friar, pushing him away or running away from him. Ultimately, the conflict within Juliet it is resolved by her death. In our opinion, the prominence of Laurence, whose movements could be interpreted as either manipulative or protective, or both, seems to follow Shakespeare’s portrayal: a prominent figure of authority, an ambiguous character who constructs a dubious plan to reunite the lovers that ends with their death (Herman).
This fascinating restructuring and refocussing of the narrative is underpinned by Marston’s use of the Prokofiev score: appropriately, rather than starting with the love theme of the overture, Juliet and Romeo begins with the “Duke’s Command” that represents Prince Escalus’ warning to the Capulets and Montagues, and through this establishes an atmosphere of “conflict and tragic premonition” (Bennett). This approach is “radically at odds with” traditional ballet adaptations of the narrative, which emphasise the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet, a radicalism that is highlighted by Carlson as a feature of Regie (110). For us, the emphasis on conflict, the ambiguity of Friar Laurence’s actions and his role as narrator mark a welcome return to concepts central to Shakespeare’s text.
As we discussed in relation to the British ballet canon of Romeo and Juliet choreographies, the British ballet-going public, unlike the Bern audience, are accustomed to narrative ballets with realistic depiction of time and place and to a straightforward linear rendition of the storyline. We enjoy Marston’s description of this as the “BBC costume drama” approach to adaptation (“Delving into Dance”). Two recent examples of this approach are The Winter’s Tale (2014) and Frankenstein (2016), choreographed for Britain’s Royal Ballet by contemporaries of Marston, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett respectively, who, like Marston, are English graduates of the Royal Ballet School.
While Victoria, created for Britain’s Northern Ballet, appears to us less radical than Juliet and Romeo, neither does if conform to the “BBC costume drama” model: although relatively large-scale, with rich costumes recognisably representing the Victorian era, the influence of Regietheater is unmistakable in the structure and presentation of the narrative of Victoria’s life.
You may not be aware that over the course of her lifetime, Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic diarist. Upon her death her youngest child Beatrice took on the task of editing and rewriting the diaries from 122 to 111 volumes, a monumental enterprise that took her more than three decades. The ballet Victoria is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries, beginning shortly before Victoria’s death, ending with Albert’s death and spanning over sixty years. Therefore the narrative is presented in flashbacks as the audience witnesses Beatrice reading the diaries, the contents of which are simultaneously represented on the stage. Beatrice edits according to her to emotional reactions, including nostalgia and longing; surprise and delight; disapprobation and anger. For the purposes of this process two dancers portray Beatrice: one performs Beatrice as a young woman, and the other the older Beatrice, who is seldom absent from the stage.
There is an intriguing parallel between the way in which Beatrice furiously rips out segments from the journals and Marston “cuts up” and reassembles the “text” of Victoria’s life making a Regie performance. Further, by portraying her life to the audience through the eyes of Beatrice, Marston gives a specific direction and purpose to Victoria’s biographical narrative, a direction that “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties” (Boenisch 10) about Queen Victoria.
Marston herself refers to Beatrice as an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison). Her conscious choice of an “unreliable witness” is not only in line with current thinking about the writing of history, but also reflects the approach of Regietheater to the past, according to which the past cannot simply be brought into the present through straightforward representation (Boenisch 29). In discussing this issue Boenisch refers to the term “aesthetic mediation”, which emphasises the “distance and unavailability of the past” (9) integral to the philosophy of Regie. Through aesthetic mediation the past is “re-presented” (29), and the lacuna between the dramatic text (or in this case the dominant narrative of Victoria’s life) and its staging is exploited (30).
Integral to this “aesthetic mediation” in Marston’s ballet are the set and the corps de ballet of archivists: the stage is dominated by bookcases housing Victoria’s red volumes, which gradually over the course of the work the archivists replace with Beatrice’s edited blue volumes. In comparison with more orthodox productions of narrative ballets in this country, such as The Winter’s Tale and Frankenstein, this set is distinguished not only by its essential contribution to the action, but also its relative sparseness and ability to create a number of environments for the purpose of the narrative. In its relative minimalism Victoria cannot compare, for example, with the extreme bareness of Miki Manojlović’s 2015 Romeo and Juliet, set on a metallic cross. However, its imaginative and fluid use of stage space does seem to represent a negotiation between the general expectations of ballet in this country and the influence of Regietheater that has become integral to Marston’s choreographic style.
Echoing Boenisch’s words, Marston’s experience of encountering Regietheater she describes as liberating: “You can really take pieces, take traditional, archetypal works of literature or mythology and extract what inspires you, and that’s really given me the freedom to find my own voice (“Interview”). Victoria is an iconic monarch whose persona is indubitably imbued with the mythology of the “Widow of Windsor”, a queen grieving for her consort for almost four decades in her black bombazine, symbolic of the deepest mourning. In Act I the audience witnesses this well worn image of Victoria: in Act II the young Victoria emerges in all her ebullience, with her sense of fun, and the intense physicality of her passion, expressed both in abject rage and in the euphoria of sexual pleasure. By drawing an analogy between the myth of Victoria and a playtext, we can describe this production as what Boenisch terms a “play-performance” and conclude that “our perception and understanding [of Queen Victoria] is ultimately changed through the play-performance afforded by Regie” (9).
As far as we can see, Cathy Marston’s approach to adapting narrative for the dance stage, wherever in the globe that might be, is driven by concepts and ideas rather than linearity and “fidelity” to the text being adapted (Hutcheon and O’Flynn). In the case of both Juliet and Romeo and Victoria, choreographed a decade apart in different contexts, what we thought we knew about figures from the canon of English literature and British history is questioned in a way that goes “beyond established paradigms of meaning” (Boenisch 5), revealing their “inherent contradictions ” (10). This is achieved through integrating features of the “emancipatory ‘messing up’” that is Regietheater (5).
Narrative ballets, mostly adaptations of existing narratives, have been crucial to the British ballet repertoire since its inception in the late 1920s. Now, in the 21st century, Marston has developed an approach to creating narrative choreographic works that on the one hand, as she says “respects” her sources, as in the British tradition (“Interview”), but on the other hand challenges audience perception of the subject matter, in a way the owes much to the influence of living and working in Continental Europe.
In February next year Marston’s The Cellist, a ballet about Jacqueline du Pré, premieres at Covent Garden. An imaginative subject matter, as so often. We look forward to seeing how Marston approaches her chosen topic, and wait with bated breath to see what she has in store for us in the future …
We would like to thank Cathy Marston for her help and support in the writing of this post, and of course for her marvellous choreography!
Bennett, Karen. “Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Socialist Realism: a Case-Study in Inter-semiotic Translation”. Shakespeare and European Politics, edited by Dirk Delabastita, Josef de Vos, Paul Franssen, U of Delaware P, 2008, pp. 318-28.
Boenisch, Peter. Directing Scenes and Senses: the thinking of Regie. Manchester UP, 2015.
Carlson, Marvin. Theatre: a very short introduction. Oxford, UP, 2014.
McCulloch, Lynsey. “’Here’s that shall make you dance’: Movement and Meaning in Bern: Ballett’s Julia und Romeo”. Reinventing the Renaissance: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Adaptation and Performance, edited by Sarah Brown, Robert Lublin, Lynsey McCulloch. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp. 255-268.
Last Friday Julia and Rosie attended English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round, specially adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by the award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Although we knew the production would be spectacular, it exceeded our expectations!
On the way into the auditorium we were delighted to meet the dancer James Streeter whom we interviewed last autumn. He was clearly very excited about the production.
JULIA: An evening full of great surprises! ENB’s dancers filled the Royal Albert Hall’s grand arena with such energy that the venue’s atmosphere seemed to be enchanted… full of magic.
ROSIE: For me the magic starts right at the beginning, even before the performance begins: you walk into the auditorium and there’s the huge projection of a blue sky with white clouds, and then you hear birds and see them fly over the “sky” just before Sergei Prokofiev’s score starts. So I felt that nature was going to play a really important role in the production.
JULIA: Well it does, doesn’t it? In the original Wheeldon production the stage is dominated by the tree created by Julian Crouch, which apparently had to be “pruned” (as Graham Watts appropriately put it) when Dutch National Ballet brought it to the Coliseum four years ago. Although the actual tree isn’t there in the Albert Hall, it’s still present in the projections onto drapes gathered in the shape of a tree.
ROSIE: It’s all about illusion, isn’t it? It says in the programme that there are over 370 costumes – and they include outfits for fantastical white birds, tree gnomes, and the Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, all connected to the tree, as if it’s some magical life force.
JULIA: The idea of the tree came from the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, so written in the Romantic era. In fact they seem to have produced two adaptations of the story, seven years apart (1812, 1819) but both featuring the tree.
ROSIE: So there’s no Fairy Godmother and pumpkin, as in the Charles Perrault version (1697).
ROSIE: And Cinderella is held aloft “in” the coach by one of the dancers and holding billowing silk fabric above her head, almost as if she’s flying – she really is being transported! I find this kind of theatre really imaginative, and I love the way that you can see detail because there’s no orchestra pit separating the audience from the performers. You really liked the Fates, didn’t you?
JULIA: Yes, I found them very striking… I often caught myself directing attention to their moves on stage. In my opinion they were telling the audience the fairy tale from Cinderella’s perspective. Because they are so integral to the production: they are always present; they don’t suddenly appear from nowhere in terms of the narrative…
ROSIE: No they don’t, but they do often move in a soft, almost stealthy way, at times performing low level circular and undulating movements in their dark clothes, so that they seem to emerge organically from Cinderella’s surroundings. Sometimes, because of the way they were positioned around the space, I connected them to the idea of representing the four compass points, so that Cinderella is protected from every direction. I’m sure that being performed in the round encouraged this notion.
JULIA: Their movement was such a contrast to the corps de ballet who moved with such overt energy. They really made me sit up in my seat with their constant shift of imaginative patterns. But they also contributed to the narrative in that they framed Cinderella’s entrance to the ball, for example, and then with their angular staccato clockwork movements as the scene built up to Cinderella’s exit.
ROSIE: Of course the energy is enhanced by the large number of dancers – 48 corps de ballet dancers in the ballroom scene, I believe – and by fact that, as always, the ENB corps are so well rehearsed. The cohesion seemed even more important than usual in the round – somehow it’s more exposing. One of the things I liked so much about our Cinderella, Erina Takahashi, is that she has a very distinctive quality of serene stillness that I find draws me in when she performs. And in this ballet with all its wonderful buoyant energy, it seemed important to have a still centre to give it a contrasting focus.
JULIA: On another topic, I love theatre that moves seamlessly from one environment to another, like the columns that are drawn out to represent the palace and the kitchen table that glides round the performance area.
ROSIE: The projections on the floor (designed by Daniel Brodie) like the rain, the dappled light beneath the tree, the decorative marble floor of the ballroom, the clockwork wheels. These all enhance the atmosphere of each scene. I almost fell off my seat when the orchestra was lit up during the ball scene; up to that moment it had been hidden. It really intensified the illusion of being present in a beautiful grand ballroom. And the dancers entering and exiting through the auditorium makes me feel invited into Cinderella’s world.
JULIA: Yes, the orchestra was hidden behind the projections. Those projections were really vital to my appreciation of the ballet; for me they contribute to the darkness that Emma Byrne mentions in her review: “[a] story full of dark frivolity and fantasy, high on romance yet with a strong original feel”. Indeed, there is an element of dark fantasy to the story, and this, for me, combined with the dreamy, mystical set and costumes transform the characters and Cinderella into other-worldly beings. Reminded my of a Tim Burton film…
ROSIE: I agree with Emma Byrne the idea of darkness as far as the dark colour palette is concerned (Cinderella really stands out in her light-coloured costumes), but I was relieved that not all of the gruesome details of the Grimm versions were included. The ones that make me feel queasy are the Stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet (which consequently bleed profusely) to try and force them into the shoe, and then at the wedding the birds pecking the Sisters’ eyes out for their wickedness.
JULIA: Stepmother Hortensia does try to hammer their feet into the shoe, though …
ROSIE: Yes, with distinct glee as well as determination, if I remember rightly. But it seemed to me to be comedic, or at least satirical, rather than truly grisly. There was a lot of light-hearted comedy, I thought, and Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia looked like she was having outrageous fun “momanaging” her daughters and getting deliciously drunk at the ball.
JULIA: : I think the production reflects ENB’s culture as a company – a sense of togetherness, team work and effort is repeatedly expressed on stage. This reminded me of our conversation with ENB’s first soloist James Streeter when he said that “in the culture of ENB, the notion of a minor role does not in fact exist”; all characters are equally important in setting the scene and atmosphere in their productions.
ROSIE: There are more Cinderellas coming up. I’m looking forward to revisiting the topic later in the year with a Now & Then post. Watch this space!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Moments of emotional
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Yes, it’ll be great to see it again in London.
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.
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.
I hope it comes out on DVD. Then we can add Victoria
to our dance analysis modules.
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?
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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 Juliet, Manon 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 …
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.
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.
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.