Archive for July, 2010

Review – Carlos Acosta Premieres – Sadler’s Wells at the London Coliseum

July 28, 2010

Tonight I watched the death of Carlos Acosta as a brand name for a night of brash, exuberant dance as his “Premieres” show at the London Coliseum took me from excitement to horror and then to comedy as I gave in to the ridiculous waves of bad coming off of the stage. We started with a work that must have been choreographed by Carlos himself, because the language of movement he was using seemed incoherent, not just foreign but meaningless. His body moved from position to position, but it never “said” anything, although it seemed desperately trying to find its way into the various spotlights on stage, comically arriving just a few seconds after they came up. The black ottoman on stage that he looked at so passionately, did it represent anything other than an object for him to stare at? The video projection preceding the entire affair added nothing to it and seemed utterly divorced from what followed on stage. I was embarrassed no one had not stopped to question whether or not this piece deserved to be on a stage in front of two thousand people. If this was Acosta’s, I can only say that he is not ready to be doing choreography, and he must up the quality of his game or he is going to lose audience support in droves.

Next up was a solo piece performed by Zenaida Yanowsky, clad in a short dress and tennis shoes. It seemed a better dance, but I’d lost my mental composure because of the first piece and wound up wondering why the choreographer had her flashing her underwear at the audience so much. Normally this kind of thing doesn’t bother me, but I wasn’t able to take it seriously. Yanowsky was much more at ease in this idiom but I remained unconvinced this work was weighty enough to merit a solo performance in such a large house.

The last piece of the first act was another Carlos solo, one which I titled “For the Ladeez” (actually Russell Maliphant’s “Two”) as it was performed shirtless and seemed to be nothing more than an endless series of movements that enabled Acosta to show off his physique. This has become quite the theme in the Acosta shows, making me wonder if he really does have a tremendous ego or if he just feels obliged to give the (heavily female) audience what they paid for. Is it self parody or is it sincere? Because of this element of showing off, I was unable to really enjoy the movement, fearing I was just letting myself have a Chippendale’s moment. (I should have recognized it as Maliphant because of the box of square light Acosta stayed inside, stretching and turning and gliding through its edge – my companion liked this the best and in a better mood I would have enjoyed it more, also.)

Suddenly the first half of the show was over and I dashed to the bar to get started on discussing what we’d just seen (with my friend Ibi). Was it really that bad, or was it just me? And I must point this out to you, potential audience member: how is it that a show billed as being a mere hour and a half even needed an interval? Just what were we paying for? At the price I’d shelled out for stall seats – the only time I’ve ever treated myself at ENO, as I’ve enjoyed my previous Carlos outings so much – I felt like it was thin return on my pound. In fact, I hadn’t seen so little stage time since I saw The Dumbwaiter at Trafalgar Studios (£30 for 55 minutes).

This feeling was solidified in the second half, as we were forced to endure a long “artistic” video involving Carlos and Zenaida: walking in place, splashing and being splashed. Yes, we saw her naked and saw her boobs, but the image of Carlos naked somehow managed to preserve his modesty as neither ass nor crotch were displayed. I noticed that we finally started losing audience members during this bit; the naff levels had been exceeded for the evening. However, it all came together wonderfully as a Python-esque giant foot came down upon the stage, adding a brilliant air of surreality to the event. Ah, well, it was only going to be a half hour at the most, how bad could it be?

The second half did entirely feature all of the best bits of the evening. The highlight was the duet that I’m sure must have been the Maliphant choreography “Two” by Edward Liang (I was too discouraged to buy a program), with Middle-Eastern singing: Acosta was able to show his formidable skills at last. It seemed to me that this was the piece that had been rehearsed the most as well; it just reeked skill and care that Acosta’s solos had not. He had to work with Yanowsky and he was going to do it well, and together they created a few moments that made me wonder what the hell went wrong with this show.

There was also a solo Yanowsky performed with candles on stage that looked nice but didn’t do anything for me, and a last, bad solo in which the ottoman returned as a place for Acosta to sit and sulk, presumably unhappy about the end of his career as a ballet star. In a last moment that did not redeem the evening but which provided a pleasure I clung to desperately, the Pegasus Choir came onstage until they surrounded both Acosta and Yanowsky, filling the stage with lovely music (“O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen) while a bit of smoke wafted toward the ceiling. I imagined it as Acosta’s career dissipating into the sky. He’s been brilliant with the Royal Ballet but after tonight, I can’t help but thing he’s really going to have to rethink his plans if he’s wanting to keep in the game and succeed at making the switch to modern, because after tonight he’s going to have a hard time ever getting an audience to see him simply based on his name.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 28th. The show continues through Saturday, August 7th and I would be happy to include the names of the pieces from someone who got a program. You can also see the Bolshoi at this time which I highly advise you to consider if you’re debating which of the two you spend your hard earned money on. Or you can see Eonnagata at Sadler’s Wells, it’s going through the 31st and is a very pleasant way to enjoy more of Maliphant’s choreography. For alternate views, see The Stage, the Independent and the Guardian.)

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Review – Serenade and Giselle – Bolshoi Ballet at Royal Opera House

July 27, 2010

Last night I busted the piggy bank and went for a last-minute return ticket (in the stalls!) to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Giselle at the Royal Opera House. I hadn’t planned on seeing Giselle: Bolshoi ticket prices have been just too high (three times my normal amphitheatre prices) and I prefer to see new and interesting programming rather than the same old warhorses. But then, well, first Zakharova was going to be performing, then she dropped out but Osipova jumped into her place – and suddenly I had the possibility of seeing (or missing) a truly outstanding Giselle – well, my resistance dissolved with that dangling carrot and off I trotted like the ballet groupie I am.

However, my unexpected treat for the evening was the triumphant version of “Serenade” presented as an amuse-bouche to our main course. The orchestra’s opening bars made the hair stand up on the back of my neck – it sounded so gorgeously modern and lush and sad. And the curtain rose, and there stood a flock of gorgeous ballerinas clad in white, glowing against a blue backdrop. The piece started, and it was just the simplest of gestures, gentle transitions into standard ballet positions – but all so much more. This piece is Balanchine at his greatest – paring ballet back to pure, simple movement that all comes together into so much more, in no way lacking in emotional content because of the lack of story. I compared it to the “Apollo” I’ve seen revived so many times and can’t believe how much more depth this has – one man and several women come together but the (male) ego has gone, and instead we have gorgeous lines of arms and legs, and the heartbreaking reach of Ekaterina Krysanova for a man who, with another ballerina draped over him, seems doomed to never be able to meet her grasp and support her as she needs. Krysanova was brilliant throughout this – pliable, weightless, fully present – and as she was carried off at the end with her back arcing seemingly impossibly far back, I felt that she was being borne away to her death – while she, as a dancer, appears to be headed to greater heights. This performance will be the benchmark against which I shall judge all future “Serenades” (and many future Balanchine performances, no doubt).

Then it was on to Giselle. This was described as a “Russian staging,” and I’m not entirely sure what that means – less mime, certainly (which is good as Giselle can leave me a bit lost), but different dances in act one. A truly new bit was the dance of the engaged “peasant couple” (Anastasia Stashkevich and Viacheslav Lopatin) – dramatically creating a model against which Giselle’s disappointment with Albrecht’s duplicity can be measured. I also seemed to recall the royalty (Bathilde and her father, and, I think in some productions, Albrecht’s mother) sitting down to watch the various dances leading toward the end of act one – but other than the peasant pas de deux above and some sousing around with a keg of beer and tambourines, there was little in the way of group dancing in this production. Bonus tacky points for Bathilde’s necklace, which doubtlessly left a Christmas tree naked, and for the courtiers’ stuffed “falcons,” which I loved but were as fake as the dancing mice in the Nutcracker.

But what this was really about was Giselle. And Natalia Osipova, wow. I have never seen such perfection in the creation of character in ballet. Aside from her amazingly expressive face, which was so much more than the cartoon of acting most ballerinas pull on stage, she had the body movements down to unconscious perfection – a little head lean against Albrecht said so much – and her dance steps really illustrated the character – the way she just barely moved her feet when she was struggling created more of an impression of illness than any “fist clenched to heart” I’d seen before. This subtlety is to me what made this a great performance. I loved her brilliant whirl onto stage as a freshly risen ghost in Act 2 – her newfound strength but lack of control seemingly perfect for Wili-Giselle but an interpretation I don’t seem to have seen before. I was also blown away by her great death scene – it was as if I could see her heart exploding just before Albrecht caught her in his arms, and she was gorgeously, hopelessly dead when she landed. But these moments were merely capital letters in a long essay of an ideal performance – it was the whole of it, the words, the sentences, the thoughts – that made it all come together in a way that’s convinced me that I must, now and forever, attempt to see Ms Osipova in any story ballet she ever deigns to perform in. How lucky we were to have had her come to visit!

However, I find my enthusiasm for the rest of the show more reserved. It seemed that it just generally lacked in brilliant dancing, the kind of showcase stuff I always expect the Russians to toss in just because they can’t help but make a spectacle of themselves and their talent. I’m sure I’ve seen Myrtha look less like a tanned version the evil queen from Snow White; but Maria Allash made this character a panto villain, more like an insect than a creature with thoughts. The Wilis danced nicely but not memorably; both Albrecht and Hilarion’s “dance to the death” were lacking. This is particularly sad for Ruslan Pronin, who, as Hilarion, was utterly denied the opportunity to show his brilliance during his star turn on stage (as Roman Petukov did in the Mariinsky version). I felt Ruslan Skvortsov also missed out, as Albrecht’s last scene, dancing for his life with the Wilis, just didn’t feel nearly like he was being forced to drip every last ounce of energy out of his body (to our benefit!). So ultimately, this will not go down as the best Giselle ever, but, in fact, a lacking Giselle – except for our actual Giselle, Ms Osipova, who has given me a performance against which I think I will be judging all dancers in the future, not just performers in this role.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 26th, 2010. The production continues today and July 27th – casting for today here and Wednesday here.)

Mini-review – Laurencia – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum

July 21, 2010

After seeing last night’s London debut of the 1939 ballet Laurencia, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. I can accept that with my devotion to flamenco, this ballet’s pseudo-Spanish dance scenes were doomed to displease me (in fact, the castanet playing was so flaccid it made me giggle); but the choreography (Vakhtang Chabukiani as revived by Mikhail Messerer) was so broadly uninspiring and the mime so heavy-handed – and the overall feeling so very Snidely Whiplash – that I found it too low quality to be worth a watch, much less a revival.

The best dancing, to me, was the groomsmen’s duet (possibly Andrei Yakhnuyk and Nikolay Korypaev) in the wedding dance; their unison was good, their leaps strong, the energy high. Laurencia (Irina Perren), however, seemed painfully two dimensional; too cutesy early on, too obvious with her pointing fingers and waving fists in act two, and just generally not exciting dancing. Her friend Pascuala (Sabina Yaparova) actually had better choreography, and we switched to watching her dance during the wedding scene as, well, it was more interesting. I think she was a better dancer than Perren, but perhaps she was just focused more on dancing than acting. Male Lead Denis Matvienko showed unchallenged talent during his time onstage; he seemed to be capable of so much but the unimaginative choreography didn’t push him. His two wedding solos were just … flat. I’ll keep him in mind for another show. It was sad, really, to see so much talent so poorly used. At least it was short and I was able to get home in time to do some dishes. Overall, it also left me with a bit of a bad feeling about the Mikhailovsky – they don’t really seem to be in the “world class” level of companies, rather just in the “merely good” zone. Ah well, it was a nice week anyway.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesdya, July 20th, 2010. The show will be repeated on Wednesday, July 21st. For an alternate review, please see Ismene Brown.)

The plot is as such: in a cute Spanish town in “the distant past” (I’d guess 1600ish as the bad guy was dressed like a cross between Cortez and Caesar), Laurencia flirts with her admirer, Frondoso (Denis Matvienko). The happy villagers dance (as they always do). Eventually the army arrives with baddy Don Fernan “The Commander” Gomez (Mikhail Venshchikov, who looked ready to tie the heroine to the railroad tracks at any minute). He decides he’s going to have not just the proffered glass of wine, but Laurencia. She and Frondoso escape to the woods (scene 2). The other town girls appear and wash their laundry. They all leave, then a girl (Jacincta, Oksana Bondareva) appears chased by Fernan’s guards; he appears and allows them to ravage her (offstage thankfully). The villagers return and are suitably shocked by Bondareva’s dance of dismay. (Total time for these scenes: 45 minutes.)

Act 2 starts in the village, where Laurencia and Frondoso are celebrating their marriage. (This is the best scene in the ballet, with lots of fun dancing despite the horrid, posey, fake flamenco.) The Commander interrupts the fun, however, and takes both Laurencia and Frondoso away. The villagers follow them to (scene four) Don Fernan’s castle exterior, where, after some time, the newly ravaged bride emerges, crushed and disoriented, but then, in a scene straight from Les Miserables, incites the men to take their knives (and the women, their pitchforks) and rush the castle. Then a brief movie plays on the curtains (while the set is changed) shows the crowd rushing around inside, attacking guards and setting things on fire. It all ends (scene 5) in Don Fernan’s castle’s main hall, where the peasants appear, catch Fernan (after Laurencia refuses his offer of treasure) and kill him. Then they do a dance of triumph which seems to be a bit of a Russian exhortation to hold strong against the forces of oppression – very telling with the German invasion just around the corner. (Total time for this act approximately one hour.) Note that this ballet is based on Lope de Vega’s story “Fuente Ovejuna.”

Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk with English National Opera

July 20, 2010

If you’re among the many who failed to get tickets for this sell-out, I say to you, cry no more. From the minute the horror of the location set in – a true horror, that is, as the show is done in a modern office park – I realized that this was Punchdrunk tripping over its laurels. There was no more magic in those dropped ceilings than in the diaper the fox left in my back yard last Sunday. While digging for either atmosphere or a performance (the hunt is always part of the Punchdrunk “experience,” or frustration in my case), I came upon room after room that had eminently failed to create the sense of mystery in every other show of theirs I’d seen: the feeling that I was finding clues that would tell me more about the story. Instead, the designer seemed to run out of ideas before he (or shee) ran out of rooms, leaving most of them just jammed full of junk. (The saving grace is the first floor bar; if you are somehow still going to see this show, perhaps just to feel like you got your 35 quid worth, a solid hour in the bar will go a long way to take the sting out of your evening.) If nothing else, it was air conditioned, but that is cold comfort indeed.*

And then there is the performance: bad modern dance and painful modern opera. God, I keep going to opera, again and again, and so many times it just fails, fails, fails, and here I got to watch it failing (though sung well) from mere inches away. I think I only saw four scenes at the most, and each of them was unpleasant, atonal crap. The dance is also weak. I think using it with opera is a good idea, but why couldn’t it have been good modern dance?

In the end the best moment of the night was watching a set of bass players throwing every bit of themselves into creating music while people turgidly crashed around on a large stage behind me. It shouldn’t have been the highlight of my evening, but it was the one moment when I was utterly caught up in what was happening in front of me. Otherwise, this was a painfully wasted evening. My consolation? I got to have a wonderful discussion about “Magic Flute: The Super-Mario Production” afterwards with my likewise disappointed companion. I’ll remember it much longer than this show.

*I couldn’t help myself. Sorry.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 19th, 2010. I was really let down. I don’t even want to look up links.)

Review – Triple Bill (Halte de Cavaliere, In a Minor Key, Divertissements) – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum 2010

July 18, 2010

Today’s performance of the Mikhailovsky ballet was a real treat: a chance to see a one-act ballet by Petipa that I’d never seen before and the debut of a newly-created ballet receiving its London premiere, plus a rich selection of divertissements from other ballets, many of which I’d never seen or even heard of before.

The first third was “Le Halt de Cavalerie,” a one act comic ballet based on a work by Petipa (anyone know the original date?), reconstructed in 1968 with music by Ivan Armsheimer. It’s a cute little story about an army coming to a man-starved Bavarian town (or so it seemed to me, it all looked very Sound of Music) and the various soldiers immediately making their way through the local female populace. Pre-soldiers, we have a group of charming peasants dressed mostly in white (girl:boy ratio about 2:1), capering about; the big action is the one fellow, Peter (Anton Ploom, my favorite from Swan Lake on Tuesday), who has two girls after him: Maria (Anastasia Lomanchenkova) and Teresa (Olga Semyonova). Sadly, I can’t tell which was which, so I’ll refer to them as Blue and Red based on their costumes. Maria and Teresa each give Peter a hanky based on their key colors, leading him to do a very-non-Othello like hanky dance as well as a ribbon dance that reminded me of “La Fille Mal Gardee” (but was not nearly as elaborate). Eventually he tucked the hankies in his pocket in a way which seemed utterly innocent of any possible secondary meaning to the act of “red hanky, front pocket,” then watched the girls get into a catfight. As they were both blonde, I found the red/blue confusion only getting worse.

However, suddenly the toy soldiers – er, local cavalry marched into town, and suddenly every girl had a sweetheart – except for Blue and Red, whose boyfriend was arrested for, er, offending the comic, red-coated colonel (Andrei Bregvadze in a highly comic role – he couldn’t even draw his sword right!). For some reason, each of the officers winds up trying to woo Red; first the guy in blue (I think the “cornet,” Maksim Podosyonov), who partners her nicely but is chased off (seemingly for dereliction of duty) by Green (the Captain, Vladimir Tsal), who did great kicks in the air but then (character-wise) makes an utter ass o;f himself by trying to force his attentions on a protesting Red. Then the Colonel shows up again. He reminded me quite a bit of Signor Tomato from yesterday afternoon, as he was a clown, but he went even further with his movement; during his dance with Red he was shakey and wobbly, couldn’t spin, could barely hold her hand, and acted completely incompetent. I was reminded a bit of the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine shows why she should not dance; the Colonel was just terrible.

This led to a scene quite unique for me, as the soldiers and village girls return to the square: Red evens the score by mocking the way each of the officers has danced with her, putting them all in her place. However, for some reason the Colonel decides that Peter is now to be united with Blue, which gives him a chance to do a very grand solo (though in his second variation he wasn’t as clean with his jumps). Then Red comes back for a dance with the three officers, which is terribly comic; Peter finishes up with a dance with Blue, whom he lifts up as they trace a large circle around the stage, and gives a little extra toss in the air at the top of every lift – very athletic! Then the army is all called away, with the Colonel leaving last of all – emerging half-dressed from hut, followed by Red. It was very racy for a ballet! He kept the joke going through the curtain calls, showing up with his shirt open, pulling a leaf from his trousers, and continuing to flirt with Red. Really, the whole thing was a big pile of fun, with some nice solos and good group scenes (that reminded me of the tradition Balanchine came from rather strongly, especially in the grand finale “everyone get on stage including the girls in the purple boots that showed up out of nowhere”). I really hope i get to see this ballet again some time, it was just a perfect little treat at all of 36 minutes and action packed from start to finish.

Next up was the London premiere of Slava Samodurov’s “In a Minor Key,” set to Scarlatti piano sonatas. It’s done with the pianist (Alexander Pirozhenko) on stage and the space mostly swept bare, with metal frameworks hanging over the stage at the beginning. There are six dancers, all of whom get duets, but as each dancer is dressed identically to the other dancers of the same gender, I could not tell them apart and thus will not credit them. Worse, I just have so little to say. There was some kicking and fists waved around; the ballerinas had cute red corsets on and the men wore very strange knitted caps. A dancer walked across a man’s body; I seem to recall a solo. I had to force myself to write, and my companion wound up napping a bit (“the warm air and the pretty music was just so relaxing”). Ah well, thanks for at least making the effort to show us some new dance, Mikhailovsky people, I am very grateful you made the investment but some times these things just don’t work out.

The evening ended with a sort of mini-gala, featuring “divertissements” from a horde of ballets: Ivan Susanin (an opera, actually), Spartacus, The Fairy Doll, Sleeping Beauty, and Spring Waters. Ivan Susanin was totally money, with some dozen fully costumed dancers on-stage to rage through a Polonaise and a Cracovienne. I don’t know anything about this music or about Polish culture but the dances were very lively, with lots of little kicks and heel clicks, and watching the women bowing and swirling with their feathered hats and ostrich fans was gorgeous. I was reminded of the thistle dance from the Disney version of the Nutcracker Suites (sorry I can’t remember what its proper name is).

This was followed by the Spartacus pas de deux, which I think is Spartacus and a courtesan. Our dancers were Vera Arbuzova and Marat Shemiunov. This piece was chock-full of thick acting and very acrobatic dancing. The acting was 1) woman: be seductive and 2) man: act impressed. Shemiunov laid it on heavily and I rolled my eyes. I had some fear for the performance I’m going to in two weeks. On the other hand, there was amazing balancing going on, with Shemiunov at one point holding Arbuzova over his head with one hand while she supported herself with one of hers and her legs arced into the air: the movement was very impressive (and gave me home for the Bolshoi). On the other hand, Shemiunov had problems on at least two occasions: I saw him slide her down his body in a way that I thought would end with her dangling, wrapped around his hips, but she made it all the way to the floor without a pause: and, more critically, at a time when he was suppose to move her away from him, he wound up slipping and letting her go so she landed on her back with a thwack. Thankfully they soldiered through to the end and even manage to accomplish some pretty serious contortions in the meantime, but I was on the edge of my seat for the rest of the time and for all of the wrong reasons. They both ought to practice a bit more and Shemiunov might want to lift some weights or maybe dip his hands in rosin – if Arbuzova doesn’t beat him within an inch of his life after this performance was over.

Next was a complete novelty, the pas de trois from “The Fairy Doll” (no notes in the program to enlighten me with Sabina Yapparova as the doll and Maksim Yeremeyev and Nikkolay Arzyaev as her two Pucinella-like suitors. They fought with each other to dance with her, stole her away when she was about to stat partnering with the other, and generally acted both utterly enamored of her and completely jealous of the other. The movement for this was charming and comic; I loved it when the doll kissed her finger then placed it on each boy doll’s cheek, sending them into raptures. The boy dolls had a great “I’m better than you” duet with each other, and the whole thing ends with her tricking them into kissing each other. It was frothy and adorable.

The best dancing of the evening was, in my mind, saved for the rather perfect pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty,” which I think is the post-wedding dance with the prince (Andrei Yakhnuyk) and Beauty (Maria Kochetkova). Kotchetkova had the same assurance and presence as did Irina Koshelova in the previous afternoon’s “Cipollino;” she looked every inch the ballerina, with tightly controlled leaps, delicate pirouettes, and a sort of glow about her while on stage. A call-out for Yakhnuyk, however, as his first solo, with the change-of-direction-in-mid-air kicks and jumping-in-the-air-and-clicking-his-heels-together moves were exhilirating and the best male dancing of the evening. (Sorry I can’t call these out by their proper ballet names, but I’m just really not there.) He also provided a good partner for Beauty, showing her off to her best and knowing just when to let go so she could show off her fine sense of balance.

Then it was the finale, a very, very quick turn through “Spring Water,” which had Shemiunov back with Irina Perrin, both in horrible blue faux-Grecian garb. Shemiunov had to carry Perrin rather a lot, and somehow I got the feeling the whole thing had been cut short after the Spartacus cock up. Perrin, still, showed no fear, as she dashed across stage and launched herself feet first in front of Shemiunov – who still managed to catch her. This was also full of gymnastic type moves and lots of balancing of the girl, but, given that it was heading on toward 5:30, I was glad that it was, actually, both short and the end of the evening. Overall, this was a performance that was well worth seeing and won’t be repeated, sort of the Mikhailovsky’s little gift to London fans with its unusual choices from the rep as well as a premiere. Balletomanes, if you didn’t catch this performance, you missed out!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 18th, 2010. It will not be repeated.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)

Review – Cipollino – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum

July 18, 2010

While the Bolshoi’s pulling the big prices with a summer of reruns, the Mikhailovsky’s actually making an attempt to give something back to London audiences by giving us two different, unique ballets: Cipollino, a children’s ballet, is a UK premiere of a ballet originally choreographed in 1973 (and based on an Italian children’s book); Laurencia is billed as a “world premiere” but is actually a revival of the 1939 original (meaning I can’t call it a world premiere by any stretch). (Details of both on the Mikhailovsky site).

Today was the opening day of Cipollino, which, per Wikipedia, is “a children’s tale about political oppression” but as done by fruits and vegetables. I was prepared to be highly amused despite further rather gloomy promises that “the main theme is the struggle of the underclass against the powerful;” it all seemed to promise a play that would hinge on the tomato, which could be either depending on your point of view, and with all of the trouble caused by a little green onion-boy (the “Cipollino” of the title). Glorious revolution ho!

Sadly our day got off to a dreary start with an extremely long plea for donations for a children’s cancer care charity, which, no matter how worthy, couldn’t help but bring the mood down with its evocation of a room full of people many of whom would be unpleasantly and too soon dead. (Sorry, Ms. Narrator, but 1/4 of the room WAS children, you must not tarry in the maudlin lest you lose the momentum.) However, when the curtain opened and the cheery painted drop of 70s psychedelic Russian folk kitsch appeared, all was forgotten. We were introduced to the lead characters: Cipollino, the little green onion boy (Alexey Kuznetsov, laboring under the most unattractive wig this side of Little Lord Fauntleroy and making it even worse with his terrifying grin) and his family; his girlfriend Radish (Sabina Yapparova) and her family; the various proletariat members of vegetable town (Mr. Pear, a violinist, Master Grape, the cobbler, and “old Mr. Pumpkin,” who is apparently 1) old and 2) homeless). Then it was the key members of the oppressive fruit caste: Signor Tomato (big handlebar mustache and quite a bumbling policeman look to him – will credit when I get the cast sheet) and Prince Lemon (hysterically over the top foppish, again can’t credit at present).

Then the ballet itself starts. We have our happy little vegetables in their baskets and dancing in their village. They are, thank God, dressed in charming balletic peasant clothes rather than in eyeball-burning, painfully obvious actual vegetable costumes (no Tales of Beatrix Potter here). Cipollino’s status is designated merely by a green sprout coming from the top of his head; everyone else just goes for the right colors for their role (or maybe a tasteful print of grapes or flowers on their clothes), generally speaking. It’s all set against a backdrop that seems to be vaguely Italian town, which, you know, is fine.

Our villains appear. Signor Tomato is a blustery, angry fellow with a black admiral’s hat on and a large mustache; he comes off like a vicious Major General. He’s accompanied by a group of four men whom I could only think of as elves escaped from Santa Land. This caused me considerable mental distress as I quickly saw the elves “kettling” the happy villagers for the crime of stepping on Prince Lemon’s toe; later I saw the same elves engaging in a “little bit of the old ultra-violence” with the same Prince Lemon. I kept expecting them to hand out presents or make toys; the red and green suits simply couldn’t read any other way. Elf prison guards, what has the world come to?

Prince Lemon has a much bigger contingent of accompanying toadies, all solidly dressed per “children’s ballet” standards of brights, striped, and polka dots. My favorite were the yellow guards, four young women in Tour De France winner’s gear of bright yellow with black trim, nicely accented by bicorn hats and glossy black toe shoes. They got some good choreography (footwork-wise) which made them even more fun to watch. My companion and I both got a kick out of the ballet’s heavy-handed depiction of the flattery exacted by Prince Lemon.

As for the rest of the actual so-called plot, I’ve dropped the synopsis below. In short, Cipollino must both rescue his father from his prison at Prince Lemon’s castle and successfully rebel against the fruit aristocracy so that poor Mr. Pumpkin can have a place to live and the vegetables can live in peace. This requires a long visit to the castle, giving us an opportunity to introduce two secondary characters Count Cherry (Nikolay Korypaev) and Magnolia (Irina Kosheleva) who perform the cruelest trick of all: they steal all of the good dancing away from the lead vegetables.

So really: how about that dancing? Cipollino himself gets almost no exciting choreography, save for his acts 1 and 2 fights with Signor Tomato. Instead, as in all good Panto, the villains totally steal the show. With their incredible high kicks and leaps, Tomato and Lemon really made me want to see them set loose to show off their stuff, as they appeared to be great athletes with very good timing, as well as good actors. Really, the way their legs snapped up in the air about to their noses was quite remarkable. Perhaps they were supposed to be showy, but I couldn’t help but wonder: couldn’t Cipollino just get a little better stuff to dance, and maybe a different wig?

His girlfriend Radish was sprightly and fun, but her charms were washed away when Magnolia came onto the stage, seemingly from an entirely different ballet. She was light, she was airy, she pirouetted like a dream, she flirted and seduced and totally stole the second act. Her duet with Count Cherry was the best dancing of the ballet; second best was the immediately following trio in which Cipollino joins the mix and the two men kind of show off to her and take turns partnering her. If it hadn’t been for this bit, I think I would have just not believed Alexey Kuznetsov could really dance at all.

In short, although the choreography of this ballet (by Genrikh Mayorov) isn’t of the sort that’s going to be making its way into the gala repetoire any time soon, it was still enjoyable on a variety of levels and I consider it worth seeing, especially if the half-priced day of seat tickets are available from the TKTS booth (as they were today). I had a great time from my stalls seats and was pleased by the two hour start-to-finish (with interval) running time. If you are considering bringing children, I’d suggest seven to eleven as the right age range; don’t bring younger unless you’ve already got a ballet fan on your hands as I saw a few four or five year olds just looking too worn out to manage through the show. But do go; you may never have a chance to see this fun work again.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 2 PM on Saturday July 17th 2010. This show will be repeated on July 24th.)

Synopsis of Cipollino from Mikhailovsky site (for those who don’t have Flash):
Act I

A square in a fairytale town. It seems there are only vegetable baskets and fruit cases. But in fact those are big and small houses where fruits and vegetables live. And all the fruits and vegetables resemble people so much.
The family of the Radishes meet the family of the Onions. Mother Cipolla and father Cipollone are trying to cope with naughty Cipollino who is tired of nursing his little sister Cipolletta. Master Grape is mending shoes. Mister Pumpkin is looking for some bricks to build a house for himself. Professor Pear is playing the violin and all the citizens of the town are dancing. Suddenly Signor Tomato appears on the square and announces the visit of Prince Lemon who’d like to talk to his citizens. Prince Lemon has just issued a new law: the sunshine, the wind blow, and the rain must be paid for. Vegetables and fruits are indignant.
In the stampede Cipollino has inadvertently stepped on Lemon’s foot. The guards are outraged: Prince Lemon has been insulted. The ‘rebel’ must be punished. But Cipollino has vanished and the guards arrest his father, the old Cipollone.
The Onions are grieving. But other families have problems too. Mister Pumpkin on his own cannot build a house. All the citizens united by Cipollino are helping him. No sooner than the house has been built, Signor Tomato appears. He’s nearly bursting with anger: the Pumpkin’s house has been built on the land of Countesses Cherries. It’s private property and nobody can use it. The Guard of Prince Lemon destroy the house. The poor old Pumpkin is desperate. Cipollino sets for revenge.

Act II

Cipollino and his friend little Radish are going to the palace to find the place where old Cipollone is kept. On the way they meet young Count Cherry who is very lonely in the palace. Cipollino, Radish, and Cherry make friends. Trying to find the imprisoned Cipollone they are nearly caught by Signor Tomato but manage to escape. The Countesses Cherries are throwing a feast in honour of Prince Lemon. While everybody is busy dancing the friends manage to set Cipollone free.
Lemon’s Guard and the police are looking for the runaways. Cipollino hides his father and Radish but gets arrested.
In the gardens of the palace Count Cherry meet Magnolia. Together they find Cipollino incarcerated. Magnolia with her fragrance sends the guards to sleep; Count Cherry ties them up and sets Cipollino free.
Prince Lemon comes to the prison to punish the ‘rebel’ but finds only the guards tied up.
The enraged Prince orders to fire the cannon into the townsfolk but Cipollino and his friends manage to push the Prince into the cannon. When the smoke rolls away there is no Prince Lemon, no cannon, and no guards. From now on everybody will happily live in the fairytale town. There will be a new town under the clear blue sky — a town of friends!

Guest review – Hotel Medea – Arcola theatre, Zecora Ura, and Urban Dolls on location

July 17, 2010

If there’s one trend in London theatre right now, I’d go out on a limb and say it’s site-specific and promenade productions. From Punchdrunk to the Bush to the National Theatre and the Old Vic and across the country, theatres are exploring how to break more than just the fourth wall. Taking the audience out of a traditional theatre venue opens huge opportunities to create fully immersive experiences, to challenge viewers to become real participants, and to take a theatrical event beyond simply theatrical and make it truly memorable. It’s a tremendous task for both artists and audience, and it doesn’t always work.

Fortunately for those of us who went for the dusk-to-dawn experience that is Hotel Medea, it works pretty darn well.

Starting at 11pm from a pier near the O2 Arena, with very little detail of what’s to come, participants begin the evening’s journey on a boat and are ferried to a “secret” location. In reality it’s pretty much just across the river, but the unique situation seemed to break people out of audience mode and into conversation, so in served a dual purpose of both separating us from the “outside” world and bringing us together a bit into what would be a shared experience. Once on site, we were sent in small groups towards the main building, making several brief stops for bits of coaching on some of the interactive bits we might expect – a few dance steps, a call-and-response song, and the like, and presented ways which further helped to both relax us into and make us wonder about what was to come.

In stark contrast to the sprawling and immaculately detailed worlds Punchdrunk creates, the building was basically empty of scenic dressings, with only a few small platforms and a bunch of plastic chairs scattered around what looked to be a former boathouse. Once the action really got underway, evocations of place in part 1 were minimal, mostly relying on costume, some lighting, and audience arrangement to shift scenes.

As suggested by the title, the backbone of the evening is the Greek myth of Medea. (I realized at some point in the wee hours that the word “hotel” in the name seems to simply stem from the fact that we’re staying overnight.) The first part, entitled “Zero Hour Market,” takes us through the story of how Medea allowed Jason (of “and the Argonauts”) to capture the Golden Fleece on the condition he marry her and take her from Colchis back to mainland Greece with him. The vital pieces of the narrative are in place, but from the start we are thrown into a frenetic world layered with sound (provided live by DJ Dolores), multiple languages, violence, modern technology and Brazilian tribalistic ritual. The opening moments so successfully and simply evoked the rich melee of a middle-eastern market bazaar that it was almost worth the price of admission alone. From there we are party to a military invasion, a football game, ceremonial rites, celebration, murder and betrayal. The audience is at once viewer and participant, being manoeuvred by the players as needed to stay out of the action (clearing a path for the invasion of the Argonauts), confine and control it (“don’t let them leave the circle”), or actively become a part of it (hiding Medea from her captors, Spartacus style; preparation of the bride and groom). Even though a fair bit of the spoken lines are in Portuguese, it doesn’t hinder at all, and in fact prevents the production from getting bogged down in words. No long passages from the chorus while something happens offstage here. And, while there’s occasionally a bit too much going on, the key elements are all in place, and the whole cast is fully committed, the result being a fantastic and engaging telling of the tale.

After a break for coffee/tea and cookies (gratis), Parts 2 and 3 then go on through the night to follow Euripides’ dramatic version of the story, where Jason falls in love with a younger woman and Medea exacts her revenge for the betrayal. Part 2, “Drylands,” is in three sections, presented almost as a song would be sung in a round: as audience we are also split into three groups, and each group experiences all three sections but starts at a different one. Here, Jason is cast as a modern-day politician on the campaign trail, and his aspirations to power are superceding his obligations to home and family. One section explores Jason the politician, the second the changing nature of the love relationship between he and Medea, and one places us into the powerless, outside role of their children. Happily, given that it was by this time 2 in the morning, the children’s segment actually involves bunk beds in which we are made to rest. We share the room with the Jason/Medea scene, but are actively compelled to close our eyes and let it take place without watching. We can hear, but not all of it, and by design we cannot view what we will later see – or in some cases already have seen. In conversation at the next break (including with the Tyro Theatre Critic who happened to be there as well), most seemed to think the order they got made perfect sense, but I’m not convinced that Jason’s actions in scene with Medea entirely make sense without the context of his political campaign. My group saw the third iteration of the scene where we discover Jason’s infidelity, and I’m pretty sure we got a much deeper presentation of Medea’s pain as an end to the act.

It’s worth noting here that neither the flyer we got at the show nor anything online appears to match the names of the performers with the roles they play, so the best I can say is that the actress playing Medea came across as 110% emotionally invested in the part, and every moment of anger and arrogance and pain and cold, calculating, vengeful wretch was absolutely right. Other cast members were very good as well, but as many of them played several roles as well as being audience shepherds, and didn’t need to plumb the same emotional depths.

After more coffee and cookies, part 3, “Feast of Dawn,” takes us on a journey through the broken heart of a woman and into a mind twisting on revenge. On the way, we are confidantes and collaborators; we again assume the role of children; we mourn. We are not shocked or angry; is it because we know the story, or because by this point we emotionally understand Medea’s actions? If we understand, then the entire evening has been a success. And maybe, just maybe, it’s been enough of a success that we also feel some pity for Jason, who we abandon as a weeping wreck – a man who has lost everything he didn’t realize was at risk until it was too late.

Apparently, while the company (Brazilian collective Zecora Ura and the London-based Para-Active/Urban Dolls project) has done the entire show a variety of times, part 1 can stand alone, and it’s kind of clear that it’s been worked through a bit more. While parts 2 and 3 expand to use other rooms in the building and other parts of the site, the flavor of the interaction shifts somehow, and later in the evening I more often felt like I was watching a scene rather than being involved in a moment. I was never disengaged, and was in fact being handed props right up until the end, but the interaction did at times feel less integrated, more window dressing than foundational stone. But not often, and it’s a minor quibble on what was otherwise a truly unique and marvelous night.

(This review was for the performance on July 16, 2010. Shows run weekends through August 7. Part 1 is available as a separate ticket for the soft those who might want to get the night bus home at around 1:30am – a shuttle bus returns leavers to the nearest transport hub. Breakfast is included for all-nighters, as is the same shuttle starting around 5am.)

Mini-review – Hofesh Shecter, Political Mother – Sadler’s Wells

July 15, 2010

Hofesh Shecter has a lot of good credit in my books. In 2006 I saw his “Uprising” at the Linbury (review here but not one by me), then was motivated enough that when he came to Sadler’s Wells a year later with a program that was half a repeat, I went back and saw it again. Hey, it’s not every night where you see a choreographer create a wholly new way for men to dance on stage together, and I was up for more.

This brings us, two years later, to Political Mother, hyped as the sell-out darling of the Brighton Fringe. I can see why: ultra loud rock music; people moving in extravagant ways (even women this time!); five live guitarists and drummers; and, what the hell, a man shrieking something while wearing a gorilla masks. To top it off, the whole thing is lit like a full-on rock spectacle: and did I mention, the volume is turned to twelve?

I gotta say, though, it is not just the fact that I did not have enough sleep that had me nodding off during this performance (aided a bit by the earplugs I’d brought along to help protect what’s left of my hearing). People running in circles; guys strumming their axes like a wall full of Guitar Hero clips from You Tube; drummers banging away in uniformed unison like they’d been dropped out of a Kraftwork video; people twitching at each others; lights down, lights up, people in another place. I thought it was like “Fiddler on the Roof” as scored by Laibach; but that wasn’t an interesting dance place for me to be.

As a piece that merely had an hour to fill, it all seemed to take too long; and while he knew how to move people around on stage, it just all felt a little too much like Sound And Fury. Impressed by loudness? Impressed by brown? Impressed by people moving quickly in the dark from one place to another? Then perhaps you’ll like this piece. But I felt it started nowhere and went nowhere, and while it made a pretty spectacle of itself, it was far from the masterpiece I’d been led to expect. Interesting, probably, but still just a peek at the future and not a work of genius. And while I feel like I should probably spend a lot more time explaining the work and my response, the one thing I wanted to get out is that while there are hordes of people out there falling all over themselves to praise this show to the heavens, I, for one, do not think it deserves it. If you failed to get a ticket, do not cry; you have not missed much.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Wednesday July 14th, 2010, at Sadler’s Wells.)

Are there deals to be found for the Bolshoi?

July 15, 2010

Less that a week until the start of the Bolshoi’s season in London and I’ve seen no budging on the steep prices. My normal £12/£18 pound seats are resolutely not moving from £45, and my hopes of seeing perhaps one show from the stalls are being ruined by £85 prices. I already did Bolshoi standing, and I don’t want to be able to say that, once again, I saw half of Spartacus, even if this time it is the other half (my standing seats only allowed a view of half the stage).

The Mariinsky are continuing to be more accomodating in their ticket pricing. In addition to the bulk buy deals announced earlier, they recently sent out an email announcing £45 seats for best available dress circle seats (use “SUMMERBALLET” in the promotion code field). Even better, they have been offering some seats through the Leicester Square TKTS stall – which means you can choose half price on the VERY best seats in the house (if they are available), or, if you’re more budget minded, half price in the upper balcony. This is a fantastic deal. Now when are the Bolshoi going to budge a little? Sadly, based on the total sellout of the Saturday Spartacus performances, it seems that price movement is not in the cards. Does anyone have any tips on getting seats at below full price, or must I resolve myself to only seeing them once or twice this year?