Archive for January 1st, 2011

Preview – 2011 Diaghilev Festival – Kremlin Ballet Theater at English National Opera

January 1, 2011

UPDATE: for a really nice preview, please see Natasha Dissanayake’s interview with Nikolai Tsiskaridze on the Ballet.co.uk website.

On my way into English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, I was handed a flyer for … a Diaghilev Festival? With a picture of the original costuming for “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune” on the cover? Well, color me interested! I kept it close at hand until I returned home and had chance for a closer perusal of the contents.

The impression is – well, mixed. While the ballets on offer (to be presented in April, 2011, at the Coliseum) had me salivating at a chance to see live what I have only read of before (The Blue God! Thamar! Nijinska’s Bolero!), the names associated with it are wholly unknown to me. “Russian Ballet Stars” and the “Kremlin Ballet Theater?” The St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra? What is this, a bunch of school kids working off their tuition fees by doing a performance abroad? And none of the ballet “stars” are named? That does not seem right to me.

And the ballets, well, it’s all good that “The Blue God” is a UK premiere, but do I really want to see Wayne Eagling’s choreography from the “new production that premiered at the State Kremlin Palace on 25th October 2005?” Meanwhile “Thamar” is by “Jurjius Smoriginas?” I thought it was by Michel Fokine! What is going on here? I am very curious as to how authentic this “Diaghilev” festival is really going to be.

For those who are unable to resist the call, however, I’m please to report that there are discounts available; most usefully, a multibuy giving 15% off tickets for two shows and 20% off of three shows. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to get these discounts automatically or not as there is no associated code and I’m not buying my tickets any time soon. And yes, I’m going to go; I have got to see “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune” and witness that gorgeous poster of Nijinski come to life at last.

Here’s the order of shows; see the ENO website for details (each show is linked to their site).

Program One (Tuesday and Wednesday April 12 and 13th, matinee and evening performance on the 13th): The Blue God and The Firebird
Program Two (Thursday and Friday April 14th and 15th): Thamar and Scheherazade
Program Three (Saturday and Sunday April 16th and 17th): Le Pavillon D’Armide, L’Apres-Midi D’un Faune, and Bolero.

Hmm … the ENO website shows that the stars in question are Nikolai Tsiskaridze, Ilze Liepa, Maria Alexandrova, Mikhail Lobukhin, Irma Nioradze, Ilya Kuznetsov … so should we go or not? I’m afraid this article by Arlene Croce reviewing two books about Diaghilev makes me just want to say yes to all three.

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A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2010 – and tips for improving your blog stats

January 1, 2011

Here, in order, are the top several of my blog posts of 2010, with the number of hits each received.

1. Best (Top Ten +) cheap restaurants in London’s West End Theatre-land 6,128
2. £25 off two “top price” tickets for War Horse – except matinees, Sat PM 3,014
3. Review – Carlos Acosta Premieres – Sadler’s Wells at the London Coliseum 2,477
4. 12 best ways to get cheap theatre tickets in London 2,336
5. Shen Yu “Divine Performing Arts” Ensemble – Chinese Art Spectacular – Royal Festival Hall 1,837
6. Review – 11 and 12 – Peter Brook’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Barbican 1,377
7. Review – Paradise Found – Menier Chocolate Factory 1,082
8. Review – Passion – Donmar Warehouse 1,061
9. Review – Or You Could Kiss Me – Handspring at the National Theatre 907
10. Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican 895
11. Review – South Pacific – Lincoln Center 893
12. Review – Accomplice, London – Tom Salamon and Betsy Sufott at the Menier Chocolate Factory 823
13. Review – Cinderella – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House 810
14. Review – London Assurance – National Theatre 793
15. Review – Earthquakes in London – National Theatre 769

This year, getting “hits” became more important in determining what I would and wouldn’t write about, as time to write started to be at a premium thanks to 1) my new job and 2) upping my show viewing by about 20%. However, for the blog readers of the world, it appears that saving money continues to be high up on their list of priorities, as finding cheap places to eat before a show, cheap tickets to the terminally expensive War Horse, and cheap theater tickets in general were the motivations that caused the most visits to this blog. Seeing a good show? Not so important. Keeping expenses down? Very high. I’ve added to the mix of reviews here by sharing tips on cheap tickets when they come through – I want lots of people to go see shows, not just people with lots of disposable income, and I consider sharing this kind of information very useful to the people who read this blog regularly. Unfortunately the cheap War Horse tickets only seem to come up about once a year, right at the start of the school year, so I’m afraid most visitors seeking help in this area are best advised to save up or give up.

Star review of the year was without doubt the Carlos Acosta writeup from his solo show at the Coliseum. I savaged this show horribly, and Carlos fans were quite offended. However, given the cost of tickets, I felt it was worthwhile to sound a warning to people who were wondering whether or not these high-priced seats were worth it. I began to feel that for die-hard Acosta fans, he could have sat on a toilet for 90 minutes and they still would have said it was a great night out. For the days before the “real” reviews got to this show, there was only my review out there in internet land, and I wanted people to know this was NOT a good value evening. Note to bloggers: get your review in early, it does drive the traffic!

In an odder vein is the continued popularity of the Shen Yu / Shen Yun Chinese Performing Arts review. This is one of my oldest reviews, yet the group that I reviewed continues to tour and people continue to look for information on just what exactly this group is doing. It’s a religious cult, people: you will be proselytized to, yet only slightly more than in Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London. I notice they’re returning to the London Coliseum in 2011, which will be good for traffic on my blog, as people determine whether or not the 40 quid “cheap seats” are worth it. I’ll hazard a guess that the answer is no, unless you’re already into Falun Da Fa, in which case it could be a spectacular evening for you. THAT SAID, can I mention that I support religious freedom, and that having my post against the artistic merit of this evening be used as proof of how bad Fa Lun Da Fa is has upset me a lot, enough to make a disclaimer again on the subject. I am against bad art; people can practice their religion as they please, but I’d prefer they’d not sell an evening of proselytization as “Chinese traditional dance at its finest.”

However, a show going on TV is also good for the popularity of my reviews, and both South Pacific and Royal Ballet’s Cinderella got good spikes when each was on their respective national television. Thanks, guys! I’m mystified by why I, a mere blogger, would get good traffic for shows that much more prestigious reviewers have covered; I can only guess that my use of tagging and the titling/cross-referencing to other posts helps get me up in the Google statistics.

For the rest of the reviews, I’ve found the most general guarantee of high traffic is to get a review in before the official press night. “Real” reviewers sneer at bloggers for this, as do theatrical performers and staff (who will tell you in your blog and on Twitter that you’re a low down dirty backstabber for daring to put up a review of an “unfinished” work); but this is the niche that bloggers can most successfully exploit. An early review, well tagged and publicized (I use my other blog and Twitter to do this), will get piles of visitors from people trying to figure out as soon as possible if they should go see a show. Contrarily, a review late in the run is pretty much effort wasted. Unfortunately this can also be true of any review of a fringe show – if a show has 10000 seats available for its run versus the paltry 500 a Union Theatre run might have – then just less people care about what you have to say. I will still review fringe shows because I do care about trying to push an audience toward good shows – but I am much more unlikely to bother writing up a review of a poor fringe show as less people will ever see it and the effort seems ill-expended.

At any rate, looking at the stats, it’s the National which is getting the most views, closely followed by my early reviews of other shows with long runs at decent sized venues (the Barbican, the Donmar Warehouse, the Menier Chocolate Factory). Not one of my Sadler’s Wells reviews has hit the top 15; Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella barely hit the top 20 (at #20, in fact). My dance reviews in general get poor traffic, and yet I keep writing them in part to work on my craft. I yearn to be like Clement Crisp, and yet I will never get anywhere close to his level of erudition and wit unless I keep working on writing, writing, writing about dance. But then … so few people read these reviews. It’s discouraging.

However … I continue to write, I continue to support the arts, I continue to try to use this blog as a way of spreading the message about what to see, what to skip, and how to get the best value for your theatrical dollar. I remain, at my heart, a fan of the performing arts in their varied forms. And I will continue to write … though I expect in 2011 I will be writing (and seeing) less.

Webcowgirl’s Best of London Theater 2010

January 1, 2011

Wow, what a year it has been. After resolving to see less shows in 2010, I wound up seeing more – 143 total versus last year’s 116. What was I thinking? Actually, this year I really upped the number of dance performances I saw (helped, as ever, by Sadler’s Wells’ fine programming), and though, at the end 2009’s 116 shows I was feeling grumpy and ill-treated, 2010’s cornucopia left me feeling exhilarated about all the fun to be had in London, even when you’re on a budget. The dance helped; it also means that my numbers of “shows seen” misses many of the shows my my more prolific show-seeing friends have attended. On the other had, I have more people to see shows with now, and I thought it was a year well wasted, so that’s what counts, right? Anyway, my list is based on what I saw, and not what I should have seen or what all is out there. Of all of the shows I went to, I paid for all but three of them, so there are limits to what I could manage. (Note: I’m waiting for my free tickets to The Children’s Hour as there is no way I can afford decent seat to this show.)

Best play performed entirely in a foreign language: this was almost Shun-Kin, a truly spectacular work of theater in the pared-down (Empty Space) vein I enjoy so much. But in fact, I walked out of the door of Sadler’s Wells babbling and giddy after seeing Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. I mean, come on, fox spirits and slow-motion sword fights! I was so glad that whoever ponied up the money to bring this production here from Japan (the Japan Foundation?) did so; I felt extremely lucky to get to see it. Kabuki rocks!

Most magical theatrical production of the year: When I go to a show, I pray a little prayer (just like Man in Chair) that it will take me away – make me forget I’m in a theater, let me overlook plot holes or cheap sets, just make the magic happen. This is what I hope for and it really only rarely happens. Sasha Regan of the Union Theatre must take baths in the stuff, though, because her threadbare rendition of dusty old Gilbert and Sullivan staple Iolanthe won me over all of five minutes into the show. And this, mind you, was with me sat behind an iron pillar. Take that, National Theater and your wastefully overproduced Men Shall Weep. Less really is so very much more.

Best play of the year: nominees are 11 and 12, London Assurance, All My Sons, One on One Festival, Shunkin. While London Assurance had the advantage of both a top-notch cast and a hysterical script (and was so good I saw it twice, the only show I did this for all year), and would deserve the best “play” of the year, the winner for this is the Battersea Art’s Center’s One on One festival, which was a game-changer for me, a theatrical experience I’ve been talking about ever since. Thank you to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event come together; next year I will try to come as many times as possible – if it happens again.

Most “so close and yet so far” play of the year: an hour into Earthquakes in London, I thought I was seeing the most original theater likely to hit the London stage in 2010. Two hours in, my ass had gone numb, and yet we were barely past the halfway mark. At some point between these two moments I realized I’d just been locked in a room to listen to a three hour long art school lecture on climate change, complete with dancing nannies, bad science fiction, and a fanatical devotion to the pope. Well, the last one wasn’t there, but you know what I mean, and God knows the show had no concept of a sense of humor about its topic. Mike Bartlett proved himself still a most competent playwright later in the year with Contractions, but this show had a lot to answer for, not the least of which was leaving a third of the audience on their feet for way, way too long. Of course, this wouldn’t have mattered nearly enough if it hadn’t also been preachy and dull. Please save me from this kind of self-indulgent, self-righteous clap-trap in the future: and please, let’s get the outstanding production values going for a more worthy show.

Best dance of the year: nominees are Maria Pagés and Company (part of the 2010 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival), the Bolshoi’s Giselle, Bolshoi’s “Russian Seasons” mixed bill (Russian Seasons, Petrushka, Paquita pas de deux, not written up as I was gorging on dance and had no free time), Pointes of View (Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, also didn’t write this show up), and the Royal Ballet’s October Mixed Rep (La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations). This is a hard one because I saw so much great dance this year. Natalia Osipova totally sold me on the Bolshoi and made me willing to play the pauper for the rest of August and September (summer holiday? what summer holiday?) so that I could see her dance as often as possible. Nearly every mixed bill had one weak point, but despite the loathing I felt for “Winter Dreams,” the Royal Ballet’s mixed bill for fall 2010 was so strong I wanted to get right back in line and have another ride. This was impressive given that I’d just seen about five shows by New York City Ballet and found myself yawning. The Bolshoi brought the most exciting program of dance to London that was available this year, but on this one night the Royal Ballet showed its dedication to the past and the future of dance in a way that really, really worked.

Most “I don’t get why people like this so much” play of the year: seriously, why did people think Clybourne Park was so funny? Is racism amusing? The joke passed me by, I’m afraid. Makes me think Scottsboro Boys might go over better in London than it did in the US …

Worst scheduling catastrophe award: initially I thought of this category as my way of venting about The Mikhailovsky Ballet coming to London as the same time as the Bolshoi and then Carlos Acosta squeezing in a week of performances while the Bolshoi was still here but as it turns out, this was only hard on my wallet – eventually I gave in and bought far more tickets than I planned – and proceeded to enjoy myself tremendously. So, at the end of the year, this award actually goes to the Living Structures/Old Vic for the Cart Macabre fuck up, which meant that I was booted out of a show I had tickets to … and then was never able to reschedule in part because they had to cancel all of the last week of their shows. They never said why. I never got to see it. I am resentful.

Biggest barking dog award: there were the shows I walked out of at the interval (Maurice at Above the Stag, A Rat’s Tale at Lyme Regis’ Marine Theatre, the Sellador Dracula at the Greenwich Playhouse, none of which I reviewed), the shows where I would have walked out had there been an interval (Ingredient X at Royal Court, Pieces of Vincent at the Arcola, Headlong Theatre’s Salome, Passion at the Donmar, that misbegotten Nutcracker I saw at the Pentameters Theater), but I guess for true disappointment, you have to be willing to come back – or be kept from leaving – all the while desperately hoping you will get back the value of your ticket. Thus, the nominees are: Paradise Found, Carlos Acosta’s Premieres, and Punchdrunk’s The Duchess of Malfi. Net hit? £140 for three tickets. Net joy? Zero, other than the pleasure of trashing them here.

Biggest loser? While there were many worthy contestants, the most shocking failure of these three was doubtlessly Paradise Found. With a cast of such high quality and so many worthies involved with the show, you really just couldn’t have seen this one coming – especially if you saw it early in the run. Seriously, THANK the bloggers that give you a chance to steer away from icebergs like this – if we weren’t sounding an early warning system, you, too, might have been dunked for a fat wad of cash AND a bad night out. As it was, we headed off a Broadway production and probably saved the investors rather a lot of money. The rest of the people, their careers won’t be too stained by this disaster.

This leaves me wondering where this blog should go in 2011 – should I make more of an effort to review the dance I see? Should I do more essays? One way or another, I’ve discovered there are limits to how much writing I can do – limits caused by having a day job *sigh*. Ah well, it keeps me in tickets at least, and that’s what counts.