Archive for November 11th, 2009

Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Quantum Leaps” Program – Sadler’s Wells

November 11, 2009

Last night’s Birmingam Royal Ballet “Quantum Leaps” program at Sadlers Wells was a real treat, delivering two knockouts after opening with a bit of a wiffle. “Powder,” a quasi-classical 1998 production featured dancers in jammies (bras and fluffy underskirts for girls, briefs for the men) carvorting to Mozart, opened the night. I found it dry and forgettable.

Far more exciting, and the real reason I’m trying to cram this review in today (so I can encourage perhaps one more person to go), is David Bintley’s “E=MC2,” and, to be perfectly honest, its twin (in terms of newness), Garry Stewart’s “The Centre and its Opposite.” I cheated and didn’t bother reading the program notes for E=MC2 (okay, I was gossiping so much that I didn’t have time), but simply the title was enough to be evocative for me. This is what I experienced, though I can’t guarantee it’s in perfect order as I was too excited to take notes very well:

First scene: the dancers, huddled in a ball under a low-hanging ceiling, have their arms extended a bit, their fingers twisting and turning like a flamenco dancer’s. Light slices across them; their costumes have blazes across their chests that catch the light. It’s like a primeval world; the dancers are like a big … I can’t help but think of an atom or a chunky molecule. The music is utterly modern but good, not too pretentiously atonal, really fresh sounding and exciting. The dancers break apart and shoot off around the stage, swirling around, sometimes bent over at the waist with their arms swinging from side to side, reminding me of the versions of “Rite of Spring” that have a ball of people enacting a ritual in the middle of the stage. A blonde woman and a man get to do a fair amount of duets and solos, and WOW can they move, very fleet of foot, very limber. At some point I realize I have stopped writing about the show in my head because I am completely caught up in the movement.

Second scene: six men, three women, moving together, generally slowly, sometimes doing a momement together, sometimes in sequence. The men handle the women very tenderly. I am amused by the women’s costumes, which remind me of the posters for Raquel Welch’s Two Million BC. I am imagining chemical processes taking place, expressed in the medium of dance.

Third scene: a bright red square in the sky, a woman in a white kimono holding a red fan. A deafening boom (this made me angry as I think it was at hearing damage level). Clear Hiroshima reference, the negatives of the secrets of the atom, the white referring to the Asian death colors. Unfortunately I’ve seen too much good and authentic Japanese dance to like this bit. Just a little more work with an expert choreographer (especially in relation to the movement of the sleeves) could have punched this way up as dance instead of being a pseudo-Oriental pastiche.

Fourth scene: atoms dancing in space! The back of the stage is covered with lights (round incandescent ones), and I can hardly see the dancers because of the glare – they are practically shadows, flitting and hard to focus on. The dancers run back and forth, they are beautiful, they are joyous. I am reminded of little atoms dancing on the surface of the sun – they can’t be concerned about morality, they are just pure existence, flicking electrons to each other, fusing, fissioning (?), arcing away from the glowing surface and back. A second blond woman takes the stage, lithe, quick-stepping, and she is smiling, they are all smiling, and as she catches her partner’s eyes and grins, I think, “My God, they are actually having fun.” And I was, too, utterly caught up in the moment. Who knows if my interpretations reflected the program notes, I was excited enough to see something so rich that it was able to spark all of those connections in my head!

WHEW. I figured after that was over, what really was left? But BRB returned with “The Centre and its Opposite,” another brand new piece. The choreographer (Garry Stewart, must make the effort to see his Australian Dance Theater now) said in his notes that it was about dancers fighting to be the center of attention, and, wow, I could barely decide where to look and I loved it. The whole thing was done to this awesome industrial music and performed against a set with florescent lights standing up in rows on the sides and back of the stage and hovering over the stage in a lowerable wall. If ever there was movement a ballerina or danseur could do to make himself noticed, in this piece they were doing it; legs flipped up to ears, leaps, twisting, flipping, every trick in the book was out. It wasn’t sloppy, though – the movement had focus and made sense. It had the wild electricity of the first time I saw “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and I wondered, is this what Forsythe would have created if he’d been a newish choreographer now instead of 20 years ago?

Overall, this night ended with two such power packed ballets that I was left gasping for air, my hair kind of standing on end like it did the first time I saw “Chroma” (and the first time I saw Forsythe). I have always thought BRB was a strong dance company, and this evening fully supported my decision to really make an effort to see them each and every opportunity I get. I am truly sorry I can’t go see this performance again, but I do have tickets for Cyrano, which they’re finishing out their turn at Sadler’s Wells; with half priced tickets available, there’s no reason not to go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 10th 2009. The final performance of Quantum Leaps will be tonight, Wednesday October 11th. Birmingham Royal Ballet finishes at Sadler’s Wells with performances of “Cyrano,” ending on Saturday November 14th.)

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Review – Habit of Art – National Theatre

November 11, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the National to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art. I’ve only ever seen one other play by Bennett (History Boys, of course), so can’t really say that I see him as an institution, but he’s got a keen ear for dialogue and can be very funny and New Play! Thus, I had to go, and for previews so I could get something approaching an affordable seat (though really £28 is above my normal, I was still quite seduced by the idea of seeing a New Play! and thus reason was overwhelmed by lust). I read nothing about it beforehand so that it could be entirely a surprise to me.

The setup is that we are backstage at some theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about the day the composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) came to a very old WH Auden (Richard Griffiths) to talk to him about his new opera, Death in Venice, as told (sort of) from the point of view of Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), their biographer. We have a full set of actors doing the rehearsal (except for two who are missing “due to a Chekov matinee”), but also the musicians, a prompter, a stage manager, the author, and a few other folks. We listen to the actors debate the motivations (etc.) of the people they are depicting, to the author providing background detail, to the stage manager consoling people, and, of course, to the words of the play. It’s this play that is the core of Habit of Art, and while in part it’s a chance for Bennett to show two historical characters, it’s also a chance for him to explore the nature of creative collaboration.

My feeling on the “play”ness of this show was that it was a device that let him have some fun with a show that might have been a real slog if it was just Auden peeing in the sink and telling off his rent boy for not being timely enough. Instead, we got the comedy of the actors joking with each other, being teased for their mistakes, and generally being hams (especially Frances de la Tour in the role of the stage manager).

As it turned out, the “meat” I expected, the story of how art (in this case collaboration between artists) happens, never really materialized in act two. Instead, it was a chance for Britten and Auden to discourse on dealing with homosexuality, both in the act of creating art and in themselves. I found this rather unsatisfyingly inward looking and far less universal than the theme of art creation I was hoping for. It felt a bit like Bennett pursuing a subject that was of great interest to himself, much as (I felt it had to be) the lives and interactions of these two great (gay) men was. So, ultimately, I felt I was listening to a set piece in which Bennett replayed a conversation he had imagined, between two people he was interested in, but with various joking asides tossed in (courtesy of the show within a show device) to make it a more interesting on stage. It seemed like what might have happened with Fram if its author had actually cared about anyone wanting to watch it all the way to the end. Both had serious intellectual interests and deeply important things to discuss, but Bennett went for the mass appeal.

That said, I’m afraid this isn’t going to be mama’s little moneymaker like I think the National was hoping for. The run will probably sell out – it’s very much made to order for the folks who go to the National and even has a little paen to the venue at the very end – but it’s just too … I don’t know, introspective, navel gazing (and very much Alan Bennett’s navel), in spite of the heavy leavening of humor. So while I’m very happy to have been present at the birth of a play, I’m sad that this just wasn’t the “work of a lifetime” I was hoping for. Ah well, at least it was a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 9th, 2009. It continues through January 24th, 2010. Other reviews can be read at SansTaste’s weblog and elsewhere.)