Archive for May, 2009

Review – Sturmhöhe (Wuthering Heights) – Bern:Ballett at the Royal Opera House

May 28, 2009

Last night J, W and I went to the Linbury to see what I’d got in my mind as “Wuthering Heights: The Ballet.” I was excited about seeing a new story ballet, and, boy, was this new – its debut was at the end of March! It’s proper name, though, was “Sturmhöhe,” as it was being done by Bern:Ballet, who’d kindly come to London to show off their chops.

And a fairly important work this was, in many ways. First, it was new, a stab at keeping ballet moving forward rather than letting it go moribund. Second, it was a ballet based on character, rather neatly meeting the plea of the Washington Post‘s Sara Kaufman for leaving behind the twin shackles of Full Night Story Ballets and Plotless Pretty Balanchine and instead having more one act ballets created (created!) that told stories (stories! with human interactions at the core!)

So here we have it: a new work, with new dance, and a story newly told on stage. Not seeing it was completely out of the question, even though I only vaguely know the story of Wuthering Heights. I trusted that, like every story ballet I’ve been to, I would be able to understand.

And wow. Or perhaps, woe (or even whoa!), did we have character and people dancing like it mattered last night. A happy young woman (Jenny Tattersall, “Cathy”), carefree, swung around and played with by a happy, handsome young man (Gary Marshall, “Heathcliff”) … whose closeness with the girl sets off another man (Erick Guillard, whom I figured out was her brother without reading the notes). She tries to reconcile them, Hindley gets between her and Heathcliff, the brother eventually humiliates the young man in a way that to me spoke of long-lasting psychological effects, shoving him into a box, then using his arms to draw lines around Cathy. She “broke” these lines by repeating them with her own, much more graceful, movement, an action I read as, “You may try to cage me, but I will always be free.” She also did a great runn up one man’s back (as he knelt before her on the floor), followed by a leap – not so much a metaphor about “using someone to get ahead” but more of a symbol of taking flight with someone else’s help. The movement was quite original in many ways but very clear to read.

The set was fairly simple – a few ramps representing the hills and moors, and one more boulder-shaped piece that seemed at times a rock, an informal prison (when Heathcliff was inside it), a well (when the crazy woman was hovering over it), and a tombstone (in the final scene). The dancers ran and rolled up and down the long ones, slithered over their tops, and really used them far better than most set pieces ever could be. The small one was used just as much for its edges as its top and underside. Meanwhile, four chairs were at time a prison, at times rolling hills, and sometimes just chairs, though when turned back to back they seemed to express well the emotional action on the stage. All of this was accompanied by some very abstract music done with a bowed, electified double bass (Mitch Gerber), and strange electronic sounds (Dave Maric). It provided atmosphere without dictating the movement and worked well for me.

The two leads characters were caught up and reflected by mirror couples onstage, who also wore cream (a slip dress or t-shirt and trousers) and had their hair loose. As society put its hold on them, Cathy returned wtih a sort of corset around her waist and a much stiffer shirt, while Heathcliff returned in a shocking black – yet their doppelgangers stayed the same. To me, it reflected their inner beings, their true desires, acted out behind them while they dealt with whatever circumstances came their way.

The emotional intensity ratcheted up with the introduction of two more characters, a brother (Chien-Ming Chang) and a sister (Hui-Chen Tsai), both clad in purple. Cathy danced with the brother, and seemed fairly joyous, but didn’t have the same focus as she did before – in fact, she seemed somewhat indifferent to her effect on the young man. Cathy’s brother, meanwhile, was spurned (as expressed by the back-turned chair) by the woman.

Through all of this Cathy seemed to have an innocence or, perhaps, ignorance – when Heathcliff returns, she seemed unaware of the competition between him and “Edgar,” through they both lifted her and carried her and tried to monopolize her. Meanwhile, she wanted to be able to (as expressed in dance) have them unite so they could “carry her together” (as it were). I imagined in the 19th century this seemed to be playing the tease but I imagined her in a more free-love future where the guys actually could have shared her time. And then Cathy seemed to be trying to set up Heathcliff and the other girl, which was odd as she seemed to be giving away the person who caused her the most joy. I found myself wondering just what she was trying to accomplish. (Reading the program for clues, I see that Heathcliff was her step-brother – was she trying to marry him or not? Hmm. Only Bronte can answer this for me.)

At this point, I’d imagine anyone who knew the book would have a clear line on what was coming, but for clueless me, I instead found myself watching Heathcliff dance rather savagely (tossing her around, burying her under chairs) with the woman in the purple dress – though her movements on the edge of the upside-down rock made it seem like she was “teetering on the edge” mentally. I was amazed by the powerful, emotionally fraught relationships that all of these dancers, the five leads had been able to create just through movement, with nary a word, and then …

I am so sorry, but I flashed back to a Jasper Fforde book I’d read and it was just as terrible as remembering the Ballet Trockaderos when watching the Swan Lake pas de quatre. In his book The Well of Lost Plots there’s a long section about anger management classes for the characters in Wuthering Heights, and I was suddenly remembering how all of the characters in the novel behaved like such ridiculous twits. This made it very difficult for me to take the rest of the ballet seriously, as I was recalling Heathcliff as a giant ball of ego and Cathy as just too much of an innocent simpering thing for me to take her struggles at all seriously. I tried to pull back and focus …

And mostly succeeded. The dance went on just a tad too long in the end (80 minutes or so), but managed to wind up to a great powerful ending that I found very theatrical and emotionally hard-hitting. And both of the guys I took with me liked it, too. And it’s convinced me to read Wuthering Heights, even if I think I’m going to find Heathcliff just a bit too much of a ball of ego and Cathy a bit too innocent for her own good.

(Wuthering Heights continues at the Linbury Studio through Saturday, May 30th, and still has availability. Catch it while you can! For an alternate take, see Clement Crisp’s summary in the Financial Times.)

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba coming to London!

May 28, 2009

OMG OMG OMG ENO shows dates for Ballet Nacional de Cuba for March and April 2010 on their calendar! Swan Lake will be March 20 – April 4 and Magia de la Danza (“a mixed bill which brings together extracts from seven of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s most famous ballets”) is set for April 6-11 .

I know people think I’m neurotically obsessed at times, but I’m putting this stuff in my calendar now!

(Oh, yes, bought Carlos tickets today – July 23rd, but £25 each, ouch!)

Guest Review – Spring Awakening – Novello Theatre

May 27, 2009

This review courtesy of Elizabeth Baxter-Williams.

As readers of this blog probably already know, Webcowgirl is lovely. So lovely, in fact, that she gifted me and my girlfriend tickets to A Spring Awakening. I’ve been desperate to see it, and since it closes soon and I’m having a birthday, it seemed the perfect opportunity.

Lastminute.com is offering a £20 deal including dinner at a Sway, a restaurant close by. Bargain-tastic.

So it was that at 5.30 yesterday we arrived at Sway for our pre-theatre dinner. After ordering a pitcher of cocktails from the bar, we waited 30 minutes, and made several more requests to be served, before an order was finally delivered to our table. Great, except it wasn’t our order. Here beginith the disappointment.

Our drinks order rectified, we look at the menu. Being here on a special deal, we are given a limited menu. Fine, you might say, and usually so would I, but the lone vegetarian option on offer is a lowly pasta in tomato sauce, and not what we’re here for. When we ask if we can substitute items from the main menu (at the same cost, I might add) all hell breaks loose. Our wait staff (all of them, since no one seemed to be assigned to our table) were rude and argumentative, harbouring a deep misunderstanding of customer service and we left empty-bellied and more than a little annoyed. I can happily report, however, that The Prince of Wales pub, on the corner of Great Queen Street and Drury Lane, serves delicious nachos and potato wedges.

On to the show. It says in ‘The Bluffers Guide to the Theatre’ that, if one wishes to sound learned and insightful, it is wise to proffer the opinion ‘the director should be shot’ when discussing any performance in the bar afterwards, but I will strive for a fuller review.

Based on 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, A Spring Awakening is a rock musical. The result that no one can understand anything sung into a mic, so loud and close-lipped the vocals are. In its original form, without the Franz Ferdinand-esque posturing, the play was repeatedly banned. Its frank portrayal of homosexuality, masturbation, sado-masochism, abortion, suicide and rape are often blamed for this, but one wonders, given the date the play was written, if the protagonists atheism isn’t also somewhat to blame.

The story deals with the sexual awakenings of a group of teenagers in a time where little girls were not educated about sex, and little boys had to learn out of books. Despite the misguided wishes of their teachers and parents, this book-learning (or lack of same) gets our young cast into trouble, and by the end of the first act, the protagonists Melchior and Wendla are having sex in a hayloft.

The proscenium arch stage is set as a school room of indeterminate era, and on-stage seats are available to the audience. Even from my restricted view seat in the Gods, this lent a cosiness to the production, enhancing the tender, fumbling moments such as the opening number ‘Mama Who Bore Me’, a plea from daughter to mother to fill her in about the birds and the bees and ‘The Word of Your Body’, a paean to early lust.

There is comic relief to be had in Melchior, Moritz andtheir friends. The male characters sing with gusto about wet dreams and masturbation, and allow us some rest in the lighter side of sexuality. After mentions of child abuse and rape, this is very welcome.

The Grade II listed Novello Theatre is a beautiful, but outside in the interval it is windy, and despite the sun, quite nippy. We do not linger. The second act ranges from the sweet to the comical similarly, but with a much darker edge. Teen suicide, botched backstreet abortions; this is our fayre.

Being a teenager is rubbish. Best days of your life, they say, but it is emphatically Not True. I can’t claim that my own spring awakening was anywhere near as bad as this, but there are moments we can all identify with, from the first discoveries of something that turns you on, to the seemingly earth-shattering secrets that adolescence bestows one with. So, then, I allow the pretensions of this show, it deserves it. There’s room for improvement in the forgettable lyrics, but otherwise the script is very good; the set is excellent, though set and costume don’t quite gel; the cast is bright and talented, the vocals are strong.

And the director should be shot.

Sway, Great Queen Street, Covent Garden http://www.swaybar.co.uk/

A Spring Awakening runs until 30 May. Some seats are now available at 50% off (lastminute.com), with stage seats at £20.

Review – Aunt Dan and Lemon – Royal Court Theatre

May 26, 2009

There are some shows out there that I’ve hated and some shows I’ve found confusing, and then there are shows where I walked out just not knowing what to think. In its 1997 Seattle incarnation, Aunt Dan and Lemon left me … well, let’s say I didn’t really embrace it, despite having a brilliant local actor (Charles Smith) in the role of Aunt Dan, and a fine soul (Sydney Fine) in the role of Lemon, the sickly young woman who narrates the piece. (The gender of Aunt Dan was switched in this version.) Actually, I left feeling a bit creeped out – was Lemon really as demented as she came out to be? – but the rest of it had gone rather fuzzy over time.

But, you know, times change, and nowadays I’m in London, where all of the plays I saw butchered back home (Pinter comes to mind) are flourishing in the hands of the extraordinary local talent pool. And, by God, with Jane Horrocks as Lemon, how could I not want to see this show, with its evocation of the dark side of swinging 60s London as well as its many philosophical passages? Surely its failings were due to poor acting and staging, and that would all be taken care of this time.

I’ll say this for the show: listening to Aunt Dan (Lorraine Ashbourne) rant about how noble and just Henry Kissinger was as he bombed little Vietnamese villages flat in order to “protect our lifestyle” sure rings a lot more possible after listening to all of the crap about Iraq over the last eight years, and hearing Lemon herself sweetly talk about what we would all quite naturally do if our “most basic hopes as a society” were being threatened – that we would kill other people with barely a thought – is not quite as surprising (I think of Jean Charles de Menezes) as it was in what seem, somehow, to have been more innocent days. But it still comes off like a night at a freak show when she goes into her final monologue about how we just have to admit that we, as human beings, like to kill. Ms. Horrocks has, I think, the perfect innocence and gentleness to squeeze all of the horror out of this role, which is the incarnation of the banality of evil. I can only imagine what the playwright was trying to accomplish.

Still, most of the people who left (10 or 15 where we were, doubtlessly more in the balcony) departed long before this point arrived, though it didn’t seem to be because of the rather surprisingly graphic sex scene or even the murder. It might have been because it was 110 minutes with no interval … but, mostly, I think, it was because it’s just an irritating script, which, despite the sprinkles of sex-zaz (the luminous Scarlett Johnson as Mindy “who always needs money,” phwoar! – a total scene-stealer) and politics, ultimately comes off as being rather too much like a party guest who just won’t shut up about something incredibly boring, or listen to anything besides the sound of their own voice. Lemon’s mother (Mary Roscoe, very good if too old for the role, but so was Ashbourne) couldn’t get away from Dan, but we, as audience members, could actually just sneak out the back door. I think this is a play worth seeing, and it might never be done any better than this, but I can’t really say that it’s a great play, and without doubt it would benefit from being shorter.

(Aunt Dan and Lemon continues at the Royal Court Theater through June 27th.)

Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre

May 26, 2009

On Sunday, J and W and I headed to Southwark for the current musical at the Union Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Ever since Annie Get Your Gun I’ve been hoping to catch another red-hot musical there, but the Mikado sold out before I could go and an anti-Sweeney guest kept me from making it to see the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This time I was quick out of the gate, though, as Company had been open for all of four days when I saw it, which meant the cast was nice and fresh – and yet the audience was still on top of things, as there was only one seat open in the house!

I hadn’t heard of Company before, despite having heard of a song from it (“Side by Side,” as in Side by Side by Sondheim). I’m a little late to the Sondheim game, anyway, since I have long disliked Into the Woods and took it as being representative of his style and thus a good warning to stay away. Rambling weird non-singing and non-music? Not really my bag – I want hummable tunes and the occasional anthem a la Anything Goes and Drowsy Chaperone. But, who knows, I’ve got this theory that Sondheim may be something that grows on you as you age – like a taste for red wine and truffles – since I enjoyed A Little Night Music when I saw it at the Menier this fall. The songs aren’t really any more tuneful than they ever were, but something about the crap people have been churning out (modern musicals, I mean, think “Wicked”) has made brilliant lyrics that much more important to me, and I found myself paying attention 100% to what people were saying on stage during that show … and looking forward to this one, even though I knew little about it.

What I did know went kind of like this: Bobby (Lincoln Stone) is a single guy in his mid-30s. He has 5 couples as friends (his “company,” who value his company) – who all want to see him coupled up. While spending time with them, we get to see vignettes of each couple’s dynamic, which kind of throws the whole “OMG you must get married it’s THE BEST” attitude into a state of comic irony … while also setting us up for some very deep thoughts on what couplehood actually means. It’s one thing to crack a joke about the ball and chain (and it’s an easy laugh), but couple dynamics actually allow for some really messed up relationships to develop (ie Strindberg’s The Creditors), in addition to the positive ones. And in this examination of complexity, Sondheim’s own intelligence, his skill as a lyricist, really comes through. It’s occasionally a comic play, but at its core it’s a rather bleak examination of marriage as a commodity, of coupledom as a destructor of self, of a society that ignores the failings of this institution in favor of pushing conformity. Really, it practically begs for a few humorous moments to make its underlying themes digestible.

As usual, the Union folks made good work out of the shoestring budget they had – no stinting on talent (fourteen actors and a five piece band), but an ultra-bare set (a column and a table-sized light box) and light costuming. Actually, the costumes looked a little better than they’re usually able to afford, a nice palette of tans and browns that was evocative of the 70s without being a slave to it (witness completely inaccurate Juicy Couture tracksuits with thong underwear peeking above the waistline – absolutely not of the era), jazzed up with splashes of red for Bobby’s various love interests. The cast was also managing to pretend to be American well enough, though gorgeous Jenny Layton’s Southern Susan sounded like she fell out of a can of corn pone (Steven Craven as her husband Peter having more of the Dennison’s Chile sound, say via Montana). Unfortunately the show started with Samantha Seager (Sarah) just completely losing her accent in the middle of her scene, while her character’s husband Harry (Tom Hyatt) seemed confused about the name of the offense for driving under the influence – “drunk driving” in America, not “drink driving” (that would imply the bottle itself was behind the wheel). You’d think with English actors’ general ability to do 40 different accents at the drop of the hat they’d work a bit on throwing a few American options into the mix, but maybe theater schools here don’t find it a worthy thing to study. (New Jersey accents would have been perfect for Sarah and Harry.)

Notably radiating star power was Lucy Williamson as the bitter, three times married Joanne, “a wildy conceited broad with no self esteem.” She only really starred in one scene, but in each of the company ensembles she pretty well owned the stage, and her accent never dropped for a second. In fact, she was the very incarnation of a tough-as-nails New Yorker friend of mine. That said, she got a bit too angry during her big moment with our protagonist, popping me suddenly into “oh yeah, I’m really just watching a show with people acting” mode. I wouldn’t normally push people toning it down, but Ms. Williamson burned so brightly she didn’t actually need to flame out during this scene.

That said, my favorite moment in the show was Amy (Marisa Leigh Boynton) and Paul (Paul Callen)’s scene, in which they are about to go to the church and get married but Amy is getting cold feet – and more than a touch mental. She managed to be completely nuts – even having bizarre fantasies in which a ballerina (Lucy Evans, also hysterical and freakshowish as Bobby’s flight attendant girlfriend April) walks through a church wielding a butcher knife – racist, and ultimately sympathetic. Of all of the couple vignettes, this one showed more than the others how support is part of the equation as well as obligation and every other thing that binds two people together.

Now Lincoln Stone – he’s fine, but in some ways it seems like his character, despite all of the singing, is more of a thread to tie the other couples together rather than an entity with an exciting story of his own to move through. He’s fine (and looks nice in his shirtless scene with April), but … this show really needs more than him. It’s about the company, after all, and fortunately Michael Strassen didn’t pick a bunch of wallpaper for the rest of the show. And they’re there, in your face, in the tiny theater, singing without microphones, and really making it happen. And all this is only £15. Amazing, I tell you. This is a really good show, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

(Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Book now or forever regret you missed this. See Feigned Mischief for an alternate review.)

FYI: Union Theatre is trying to gather enough donations to buy a baby grand piano – checks for £25 per key being accepted. Make ’em out to “The Union Theatre” and send ’em off to 204 Union Street, SE10LX. I feel like I owe them for the good entertainment they’ve provided me and am encouraging anyone else that enjoys what they’ve been doing to pony up.

Review Preview: Sondheim’s “Company” at Union Theatre Southwark awesome

May 24, 2009

Review now available

I went to see Sondheim’s Company today at the Union Theatre in Southwark (they have Sunday matinees!), and while I’m too tired to write up a review right now, I will tell you to GET YOUR GODDAMN BOOTIES IN GEAR and get some tickets while you can. This is going to be a sell out. I mean, insofar as people go to the Menier to see the next big West End hit while they can in a small space, THIS theater is like where you would go to see something before it hits the Menier – only it’s better because it’s actually people singing WITHOUT MICROPHONES and practically in your lap. I promise to give you fuller details in the next day or so, but at $15 a ticket, why are you not already picking up the phone?

Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Don’t hesitate, make reservations before it’s all sold out!

Review – “A Choice Collection” – Emma Kirkby, Jakob Lindberg, Steven Devine – Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2009 at St. John’s Smith Square

May 23, 2009

Last night my partner and I went to St. John’s Smith Square to see the second concert I’d bought tickets for in the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music – Emma Kirkby’s presentation of English song masters of the Baroque era, featuring songs of master composers Purcell and Dowland as well as pieces by less well remembered folks such as Robert Johnson, Thomas Campion, Maurice Green, and William Croft. Truly, it’s one of the pleasures of a series like this that instead of having Baroque music represented by the same music over and over again (my God, may I live without ever once again hearing a tepid concert consisting of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the freaking Brandenberg Concerto) that at last the richness of the era really comes to the fore. It’s incredible to think of how much has been lost or fallen by the wayside – in a guided walk I took in the City of London Wednesday, our guide told us that only about 12% of the total number of plays produced during Shakespeare’s era were saved – and almost all of that number were his own works! It could make me throw it all in to become a music or theater historian, I tell you, if only I thought there were some chance of me actually being able to find some missing work of genius.

Fortunately the rise of the Early Music movement means there have been rather a lot of people devoted to finding these less-known musical works and giving them the benefit of the light of day – and, more importantly, a fresh performance. Emma Kirkby was, as ever, a lively interpreter of these old scores. She was deliciously over the top for Purcell’s “Bess of Bedlam” and John Blow’s “A Mad Song” (poor Belinda! Poor bess!), but for all the songs she showed a wonderful dedication to the making the text come alive. Of course, for most of these songs, the focus was on sadness and death – very appropriate for the age (did Purcell really only live to 46?) – but also love and seduction. I especially appreciated “She loves and she confesses, too,” with text from Cowley’s “The Mistress” – without hearing Kirkby say it, I would have never appreciated the delicious alliteration of “Noisy nothing, stalking shade” – but the poetry came right to the fore. Ms. Kirkby is probably in my top three of favorite early music performers, at the level where I make special efforts to go see her, and once again she made it an evening well worth my while.

I have to say that her accompanists, Jakob Lindberg on lute and Steven Devine on harpsichord, were also excellent. My preference was of course for the lute (since I find the harpsichord a rather unemotional instrument), and with Lindberg’s ability to sit next to her, a very strong interaction was happening. He was no hired gun – he was playing with her, not for her, in the kind of jazzy interaction style I only ever see with this era of “classical” music. His solos were great, too – Dowland’s “Rosamunde’s Pavane” and “Daniel’s Gigue” made me want to go out and get some more lute music. Devine was fine, but, well, “harpsichord,” what more can I say – great behind something else but not so great on its own (afraid my tastes can’t account for skill). Overall, though, a great night, and I was only sad that there was time for just one encore, William Croft’s Mr Dufy (a song to Venus, though I’m sure I haven’t attributed it correctly).

(This review is for a concert that took place on Thursday, May 21st, 2009. I also saw the Phantasm performance the next night but I don’t have much to say about it and am marking it here just as a reminder to myself.)

Review – Northern Ballet’s Mixed Programme (As Time Goes By, Angels in the Architecture, A Simple Man) – Sadler’s Wells

May 20, 2009

First: I noticed that Union Theatre’s new show, Sondheim’s Company, is opening today! How exciting – I’ve just booked tickets for the Sunday matinee. On to the review …

Last night I went with J and my two visiting Canadian friends to see the Northern Ballet Theater’s current mixed bill. “As Time Goes By” was billed as ballroom dancing to a live score; “Angels in the Architecture” as a celebration of Shaker culture performed to Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Suite;” and “A Simple Man” – well, that one stumped me, because the intro paragraph (quoting Gillian Lynne) said “the BBC asked me to make something for Lowry’s centenary.” I thought – a choreographer? A musician? A famous dancer? And then it came out that he was a painter, though reading the program I had no idea what his first name was – it seems like it was just expected that you would know. (Given that one of my friends doesn’t know who the Impressionists are, I think a little historical information, and even a painting or two in the four color program, would have been really helpful. The painter’s first name is mentioned nowhere. Northern Ballet would do better to aim for more of a worldwide audience by more expansively talking to their audience about their sources of inspiration rather than leaving me to consult Wikipedia to figure out who they were talking about.)

While I can say nice things about my ticket price (10 quid way up in the next to last row of the second balcony) and the program price (2 quid, fabulous!), unfortunately I’ve got not much nice to say about the show. “As Time Goes By” was set in a glamorously lit, Deco-style nightclub, and the tuxedoed and black gowned dancers suited it well. (However, I was disturbed by the choice of tan/pink shoes for the ballerinas – they looked like they were dancing barefoot.) After the opening musical piece, Peter Grant, a “21 year old northern lad” (per the program), took the stage and moved through a long set of classics, most of which were accompanied by duos dancing (though there was one set with three men). Unfortunately, I found all of the dancing fairly interchangeable, with an occasional “bad” moment (I saw a ballerina just stop cold as her partner apparently failed to be where he was supposed to be). I found myself thinking longingly of Liam Scarlett’s “Consolations and Liebestraum,” from not even a week ago, which fully exploited the dramatic possibilities of the couple and which had a different story and feeling for each of three couples despite using the same composer’s music throughout. This just didn’t hit it at all, and I found my mind wandering before it was all over. The music and singing, though, that was enjoyable – I just wish there’d been more to watch.

“Angels in the Architecture” was the best piece of the night, featuring a very nice pas de deux early on, though mostly it was big groups of women and men dancing (solo and mixed). It started with “brooms solo” on stage, with the dancers coming up to standing brooms and then doing rather a lot of dancing around and with them. After the brooms were hung up, the dancers went through a series of movements that were supposed to have some flavors of Shaker life to them, though I found it quite comic that the women kept lifting their skirts and wrapping around them in a way that could be seen as rather sexy when in fact the Shakers were a celibate cult. At the end was a long and bad bit involving Shaker chairs, which I would have much preferred to have seen left hanging on the walls on their peg rails. The chair dancing scene just seemed to get into a bizarre object worship that to me reflected how people remembered the Shakers – as people who made covetable furniture – than how the Shaker people themselves operated or what it was that they, as a culture, valued. They certainly didn’t worship their furniture. I found myself thinking of the Brady Bunch episode where Jan decides to get into modern dance and, after pouring her heart into a piece in which she dances with a scarf, is told, “Now do it again without the scarf!” This needed to be done without the chairs. Ah well.

The final piece, “A Simple Man,” had just no emotional resonance for me as I am completely unfamiliar with the work of Lowry. Moreover, the movement wasn’t very interesting. My conclusion was that they should have done less paintings, and maybe tried to make it a more interesting dance, rather than being so worshipful toward the source. I did get a huge kick out of the Nymphettes, two girls dressed all in pink so that they looked liked oversexed housewives, their (comically molded, like puppets) breasts hanging out over their pink peignoirs, little balls on their slippers and huge pink bows, prancing around on tiptoe – but otherwise it was fairly dull and we wished we’d slipped out after the interval.

(This program continues at Sadler’s Wells tonight, Wednesday, May 20th. For another take on this evening, see this review in the Times.)

Review – The Harp Consort’s “The English Dancing Master” – Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque, St. John’s Smith Square

May 17, 2009

On Saturday afternoon I went to my first concert of the Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque – the Harp Consort, performing a program called “The English Dancing Master,” described as “dance tunes and ballads from the theatres, homes and taverns of Baroque London.” I was feeling a little under the weather and not sure if I shouldn’t just go home and get some sleep, as I had doubts that the show would be energetic enough to get through my exhaustion. My doubt, however, were unfounded, as the show far surpassed my expectations.

I was a little disturbed to see that there was going to be a dancer accompanying the music (though given the title of the set I shouldn’t have been). Back in Seattle we had Anna Mansbridge dancing rather frequently to various of the local Baroque and Early Music groups, and while her costumes were lovely, it was distracting (verging on bizarre) to watch her tottering back and forth in front of the musicians, her feet generally completely invisible, looking like a gaily-painted ship fighting the waves in a brave attempt to make it into port. It had turned me off of the Baroque dance altogether.

Steven Player, however, was a far cry from modest Mansbridge, with his swagger and braggadocio. His showmanship was paired with a far more interactive and theatrical performance than I’d ever seen from a group of Seattle players, not to mention the fact that our Player also showed a fine hand at the guitar. In short, that his dancing was fully integrated into the overall performance, and none of the performers had to overdress in period costume in order to get the right effect – white shirts and handsome vests pretty much did it for the men, and violinist Clare Salaman was dressed entirely modernly and yet with the enthusiasm and good humor that did more to create an atmosphere than a room full of panniers would have done.

The performance was divided in five sets – “A Poem of Dancing,” “The Boatemen,” “The New Scots Jig,” “Assemblee” and “A la Mode de France.” Each set featured rather a lot of spoken text, from sources such as Shakespeare, Soame Jenyns “The Art of Dancing,” and the anonymous tract “A Parley betweene Prince Rupert’s Dogge and Tobies Dog” (1643), but also some great singing from the various players (my favorite being Ian Harrison’s “King Orfeo,” I believe, though it seemd like he might have transitioned right into “Johny Faa”). And while we might have just had our silent dancer, not only did he sing and play, but he also entered into duets – and duels, in “The French Dancing-Mastr & the English Soldier” – and a great performance of “The Fidler’s Wife” that had him, Harrison, and Salaman all hamming it up on stage like you never expect of people that have spent most of their life in the conservatory.

Of course, King Ham was Player himself, who came out on stage (with a bit of a strip-tease introduction) in a big-nosed Carnival mask and proceeded to walk out on and over the chairs and into the audience (“There goes the fourth wall,” I thought), there to flirt with, harangue, and amuse the groundlings. This, of course, was on top of his actual dancing, in which he leapt and capered (perhaps like a galliard was meant to be performed?) and kicked his heels up ever higher, egged on all the while by Andrew Lawrence-King, with whom Player had been reciting lines from Twelfth Night.

This was, none the less, very much a group performance, with everyone completely paying attention to each other and in the moment, as you would expect from, say, a jazz ensemble. This was highlighted during a moment of solo violin playing that took place during the “New Scots Jig” set, when everyone on stage had their eyes closed and was listening with pleasure to Salaman’s strings. It wasn’t a bunch of people waiting impatiently for “their turn;” what was happening was beautiful and they were all taking the time to enjoy it. While the music itself was gorgeous, I have to say I was also impressed by the Harp Consort as a whole for displaying the kind of appreciation they did. I think that spirit is part of why the overall effect was so very good; it wasn’t about ego or domination (though there was ego certainly on display, of the good-natured sort); it was a bunch of very talented people having a good time together. I felt lucky to be able to listen with them.

Overall, it’s hard to point at a moment that was the very best, as I was so caught up from one moment to the next I found no real valleys against which to measure the peaks. Who would ever think a harp consort would produce an event so lively? I felt like going and thanking Mr. Lawrence-King afterwards for such a good show. This was a great start (for me) to the series and I look forward both to seeing the next evening’s performance and to finding an opportunity to see this group again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 16th, 2009. The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music continues through May 23rd.)

Review – Giselle – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

May 15, 2009

Tonight, as an anniversary treat, my husband took me to the Royal Opera House to see Giselle. Now, going to the ballet isn’t such a treat for me as it might be for some people, since I go several times a year; but part of the reason I can go several times a year is that I usually get seats in the back of the amphitheater and also frequently skip going to see story ballets, which inevitably cost more than mixed bill programs. I don’t feel cheated doing this; I am genuinely enthusiastic about mixed bill ballets and I’m simply grateful that I can afford to buy seats at all (and certainly grateful that I’m not stuck standing in the side slips). The reason why this was a treat is because he’d splurged and got me floor (“stalls” in English parlance) seats – the very first time ever for me! And he chose to do so for a ballet I really love – Giselle is my very favorite story ballet. I am a sucker for evil fairies, that’s all there is to it.

But Giselle really is so much more than just evil fairies. It’s also a mad dance (reminding me of Lucia di Lammermoor, which has a famous mad scene but didn’t do a thing for me – not surprising as I don’t care for 19th century opera) and a “dance yourself to death” scene (rather like “The Red Shoes,” though of course it came much later). This means there are some really great opportunities for showy dancing. Add this into a story with an emotional plot that’s all capital letters and, well, you’ve got Giselle, the story of an ugly ducking (or beautiful gosling) who turns herself into a heroine by the end of the show. This is not bad for a girl who (in this version) kills herself over the first man she falls in love with.

Tonight’s show featured sexy strawberry blond Ed Watson as the rather dastardly Albrecht and Leanne Benjamin as Giselle. Watson was a great Albrecht – throughout the first act he kept his eyes on Giselle at all times and acted the consummate seducer, concerned with looking convincing in her eyes while simultaneously being completely unconcerned with her feelings or her good health (as when he shook his head to discourage her from believing her mother’s warnings about her health and the Wilis). Benjamin was, meanwhile, a great Giselle – she’s such a sillly goose, and her wide-eyed innocence is part of the fun of the first act.

The other great fun is all of the dancing that gets jammed in under typically weak balletic justification. There is a long scene in which the villagers dance a sort of harvest dance, which back in the early days would have made me go, “Now what the heck is this doing polluting up the story?” But, of course, the goal is to have some dance. I enjoyed the pas de six, especially the strong figure cut by James Hay (if I’m getting my names right – even though I could see the dancers well, I didn’t see faces for all of them in the program – a simply unforgivable oversight in my eyes. I want to learn all of them by name!). However, the woman who was getting most of the solo time seemed to just not have her balance nailed, and the stiff grin on her face to me emphasized the fact that she was actually working her buns off to get through her solos. Her partner had to hold onto her very strongly to keep her in the right place, and while I admired him for his great support, it seems that a better dancer would have had much more core strength developed than she did. I mean, you shouldn’t need a man to help you get into position en pointe.

The costumes and set were also good, rich without being too noisy. I was, however, utterly distracted by the costumes for Albrecht’s family – the men seemed to look quite Tudor with their slashed sleeves and short jackets, while the women, with their beaded headdresses, seemed to be quite a bit more medieval. In fact, I was disappointed when the well-dressed woman accompanying “the Duke of Courland” turned out to be his daughter (Genesia Rosato, looking far too old for the role) rather than his wife. It’s not how I remember the story going when I’ve seen it before, when there was a different woman for Albrecht to be engaged to, and with so many lush little swanlings on the edges of the scene, I was sure one of them would step forward to claim Albrecht’s hand as her own and spent rather a lot of time figuring out which one would do it. (Oops.)

This wasn’t the only plot point that came through differently for me – I am convinced that I’ve always seen Giselle die of heart failure. Perhaps I misread her frantic dance with Albrecht’s sword before – but I do not recall seeing her stab herself before, though this did enable her to collapse fantastically in Albrecht’s arms after her fabulous mad scene (better than Anastasya Matvienko). I also felt that Giselle’s mom was warning of Giselle’s weak heart earlier in the act (in addition to the Wilis), but perhaps I am just completely incapable of interpreting ballet mime and read the rest of the scene according to my mistakes.

Act two is even more fun, as we get to see Evil Fairies! and of course Hilarion (Ricardo Cervera)’s “dance to the death.” Part of the reason I love Giselle so much is that it’s fun to see fairies – well, Wilis, really, but with their white dresses and wings they look like fairies – being mean rather than acting noble. Sadly, Laura Morera played Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, like I’ve seen her every time – a fixed expression on her face, her eyes very wide open, her mouth curved in a cruel smile – which makes her come off rather like a praying mantis, observing the laws of nature rather than actually being able to take pleasure in suffering. I think I’ve decided that while this is definitely Myrtha’s look, I’d like to see her act like she’s got a little more intelligence and emotion behind those flat eyes, responding more strongly when Hilarion and Albrecht plead for their lives.

A lot of the greatness of this act is the whole “white ballet” – a whole stage full of women in white skirts moving more or less in unison. In this case, the women had veils over their faces, which they kept on for rather a long time, which I felt heightened the spookiness and made the scene even more gorgeous. That said, the scene in which they forced Hiliarion to dance to his death was just fantastic. Cervera appeared to give it all, and what a great role it is, in which you have to show just what a good dancer you are – so good you could dance until you killed yourself with the effort! His leaps and spins were amazingly high, he let just enough “control” go so that he looked like he was losing it (while clearly not!) – all of the time he spent skulking and whining in the first act paid off as we finally got to see what a great dancer he was. No, the Wilis were not going to spare him, and no, Giselle wasn’t going to come back to save him, no matter how much he loved her. Per this telling, he really dies when the Wilis chase him into the lake, but I prefer to believe his dancing really killed him. I look forward to seeing Cervera given another opportunity to strut his stuff like he did tonight.

After this it’s mostly emotional drama, with some lovely pas de deux with Giselle and Albrecht, but the height is, no matter how you look at it, Albrecht being tortured into dancing himself to death by Myrthe. “Beg, puny mortal! Nothing can save you now!” Was Watson going to let Cervera show him up? Well … he had just spent the previous hour and a half really putting himself out there, and I kind of think it’s impossible for Albrecht to really outdance Hilarion, as the big solo is really all Hilarion has to do for the entire evening. But there was Watson, all gorgeous and wonderful, a fantastic dancer who had spent most of the evening being an amazing partner, out there showing off his stuff as a soloist. And, well, he is really good. So it’s a bit hard to say who did better, and to be honest, at the time I was enjoying myself so much that I wasn’t really comparing the two.

Overall, if it isn’t clear, I just loved this show. It’s no wonder it’s sold out for its run – but still, Giselle – if you’re ever going to fork out as much for ballet tickets as you could to fly to Italy for the weekend, this is the show to do it for, and it was a great way to celebrate my anniversary. Thanks, hon!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 13th, 2009. Giselle continues May 26th. Don’t be discouraged by it being sold out – it’s pretty well guaranteed that there will be returns, and tickets are sold just on the day.)