Posts Tagged ‘ballet’

Review – Birmingham Ballet’s “Stravinsky: A Celebration” (Petrushka, Firebird, Le Baiser de la Fée) – Sadler’s Wells

November 1, 2008

I had a really good evening tonight at the Birmingham Ballet’s Stravinsky program, about which I’d like to say lots and lots with references to all the dancers but since it got out at eleven PM (the program said 10:40), I’m finding myself home just shortly after midnight and not at my most eloquent. (That said since there are two more shows tomorrow, I’m going to give this a brief rundown in case one or two folks out there might be considering going.)

I had seen The Firebird two years back and was very excited about seeing it again by the same company, even more so because the rest of the ballets to be performed were also done to the music of Stravinsky, whom I consider one of the very best ballet composers out there. (Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Tchiakovsky – what is it with the Russians and the ballet composing? Maybe it’s something magical about growing up in a society where ballet is worshiped and classical music is also revered, but the Russians really own the whole “consistently great scores for ballet” category.) I was unfamiliar with the other two (though I’d heard of Petrushka), so I was looking forward to an evening of surprises – though I had no idea I’d have almost three full hours of dance on the table!

Petrushka is a surreal, if fun, ballet. A Chagall-like Russian village is visited by a sort of evil wizard, who plays the flute to make his puppets – a Moor (not PC in any way), a dancer girl, and a clown (Petrushka) – dance. Backstage at his house, we see that his puppets are actually psychologically tortured and kept by demons! At the village the next day, the clown makes a break for it and dies – the end. (Or this is what I thought the story was – I was too cheap to buy a program.) Meanwhile we get lots of great dancing from the various characters in the village, as well as pathos from the clown. My favorite: the two stable boys who blazed their way across stage in leaps of such height I wasn’t even registering them as real. (There was also lots of the squatting and kicking Russian dancing going on, which I have to imagine is not really the best thing for a dancer’s knees.) Petrushka is based on the original choreography (I’m betting) by Mikhail Fokine, and I found it a treat, if bizarre.

A very long break later and we were back for Le Baiser de la Fée, a new ballet choreographed by Michael Corder for Birmingham Ballet based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson (and reading rather a whole lot like the first third of the Snow Queen to me). Let me tell you about this performance: SEXY MALE FAIRIES. Er, well, in the program they are called “sprites” (and backstage they’re known as Aaron Robison and Tom Rogers), but when they were on stage I was about embarassing myself gawking at them. They’re tall, they’re muscular, and rather than just wearing tights, they were dressed in these spangled black and grey flame outfits that crawled up from their hips to their shoulders, with sort of twiggy headdresses on top of it all. My jaw dropped when the came on stage and pretty well stayed there while they were on.

This was probably a good thing and representative of much of what wasn’t great about this part of the show. Costumes: awesome (props to John F. Macfarlane), but the dancing was just not all that when it wasn’t the fairies. “The Bride” (Natasha Oughtred), well, she was cute and lithe, but she seemed … disposable. There was none of the brilliance of a Coppelia, none of the tragedy of an Odette – she was just more or less a space filler, because her dancing said nothing about her. And the male corps, well, I’m afraid this piece really brought out some of their problems with ensemble work during the “village” scenes. Unison? I think it’s more of a concept for them than a goal. I am reminded that it’s invariably the men that define the skill level of a company. Good ballerinas are not that hard to find, but assembling that level of skill in a male corps is a real stretch, presumably because there are so many fewer to go around. A few good companies get to pick and choose, but for a lot of them, they take good enough. It made me miss Pacific Northwest Ballet, I tell you. At any rate, I still enjoyed the ballet, but I don’t think it’s going to become a classic. (I checked and the music was originally written for a ballet of this same name and with the same story. Perhaps some day I can see Balanchine’s version.)

Finally, the Firebird, a ballet with a completely brilliant score, amazing (original Ballet Russes?) costumes (that you can totally see from the balcony – nothing subtle about them!), and nearly perfectly matched choreography. I could feel goosebumps forming as the low rumble of the drums started up in the orchestra pit (though the old people behind me kept talking: people, please SHUT UP during the overture. This is not the commercial break, it is the start of the show. It’s live music! There are people performing down there and you just had twenty five minutes to have that conversation!). Finally the curtain came up and we had our lovely Firebird, Nao Sakuma, darting across stage.

As a character I love the Firebird. She is not a love interest – she remains a wild creature throughout the ballet and only dances with the prince to win her freedom again. It’s great to see movement which fights against the partnering instead of getting all smooth and mushy – and really, even the princess doesn’t do that, just bows formally. It’s a great ballet, one of my top five favorites.

Overall, I very much enjoyed my evening and thought my thirty quid well repaid. And good news: Birmingham Ballet is coming back in the spring (April 14 – 18, 2009) to do a mixed bill (Pomp and Circumstance, they’re calling it, including the amusingly titled “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe”) and “Sylvia” (though not the Ashton choreography so I might go see it) at the London Coliseum. Score!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 31st, 2008.)

Review – Giselle – Mikhailovsky Ballet at the London Coliseum 2010

July 26, 2008

I’ve realized there’s little point in posting a review of a show that’s already finished up as most people look for them to help determine whether or not to go, but I will say just a bit about this show, sparing you the details about trying to find someone to go with me when my date for the evening said, “But … but … I totally forgot about you buying me those tickets for my birthday!” (Grr!)

Last night we saw the Mikhailovsky Ballet performing Giselle at the London Coliseum, part of a five night/three show visit by this group. I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to London before, but I was pretty eager to check them out … I’ve enjoyed the visits by the Bolshoi and was quite sad when I found out they weren’t coming to London this summer. The prices were quite high (again), so I decided against seeing more than one show, but I’ve noted that they’ve had tickets available at the half price booth everyday so some concessions have been made to keeping ticket costs in the breathable part of the atmosphere. I guess part of the issue is also that the Coliseum is really just such a barn – it’s hard to fill every seat, and, really, many of them aren’t that good; still, I suspect there are far few crappy seats at the Coliseum than there are at the Opera house (and let me tell you, when they say “standing room, restricted view,” they mean “enjoy the music because for between 60 and 40 percent of the time, that’s all you’re getting). The Coliseum also just has more damned seats, but this is good as it means less sell outs (which is how I wound up in lame standing side seats at the ROH).

At any rate, due to having most of the rest of the week booked (notice the near daily postings here, and, truth be told, I’m actually a day behind as I’ve already seen another show but not had time to write about it yet), Giselle was the winning show. I had seen this done by the Cuban National Ballet in Seattle some years ago and loved it; the story is quite fun (young girl falls in love with prince and then dies of a broken/faulty heart; ghost of young girl finds prince in wood and tries to KILL KILL KILL him – or something close enough to that, basically act two has evil fairies, which is enough for me to love the show) and the music is good. The surviving 19th century ballets are really just quite good and since every company plays them differently, it never gets old to see them (especially when they have great scores).

The show starred Anastasya Matvienko, who is apparently famous. I, of course, didn’t know her, because I am not up to date on dancers around the world; I just try to learn the ones in the local groups. She was really just extremely good – light hearted and lovely as a young woman; beautiful and powerful as a Wili (evil fairy). I was really amazed by how expressive she was with her feet – watching her dance during the second half, after the prince has been caught by the Wilis, was really impressive. She also brilliantly captured the “mad scene” after the prince’s identity (and non-availability) was revealed. Suddenly with her big eyes and her thin face she looked every bit the broken hearted, out of control, sickly teenaged girl who really just wasn’t going to make it past the end of act one. So Matvienko pulled off the thing I rarely see in Russian dancers – great acting married to the (expected) excellent technique – and she didn’t show off so much that it distracted from the story being told. I applaud her, and add this: I could not take my eyes off of her when she was on stage. What a treat!

She was paired with Denis Matvienko, who did a good job of being both arrogant, fearful, and, finally, tender and loving. His bravado leaps in the first act (which I always tend to think of as “showing off to the girl to prove how virile he is”) were high and sharp, including the ones with the half-turn in the air (God, can I please talk to somebody who can actually help me learn more about ballet so I can describe what’s going on with the right words?), but he also seemed to really understand how his dance conveys character and situation, so when he’s being forced to dance by the Queen of the Wilis (Oksana Shestakova), the smoothness and, well, lack of passion in his dancing – a bit hard to convey when you’re also trying to show that you’re being forced to dance very hard – really nicely conveyed the idea of being bewitched. Good on you, Denis, and as a side note, very nice work by Roman Petukov in the role of the the man who does have to dance himself to death. Actually, I’m a bit amused, because both Giselle and “The gamekeeper” die, but instead of feeling moved at the tragedy, instead I was excited by how good their dancing was. It seemed morbid, but, what can I say, I loved watching them and they gave great performances!

Anyway, in short: gorgeous. My only complaint is the lighting design – it was irritating to watch the dancers walk from light into shadow when merely going across the stage, and some places in which the dancers were standing were positively dark. The follow spot operator also did a poor job of keeping the light on the person who was the center of attention in any given scene, something which would have helped overcome the deficiencies in the lighting of the set. And, truth be told, I preferred the choreography that the Ballet Nacional de Cuba used, which had much more forceful Wilis – I just didn’t get the kind of shivers up my spine that I did when watching theirs (though I was happy to say goodbye to the cheesy 70s sets). That said, I am sorry I am not going back to see the triple bill tomorrow but my wallet failed to make the grade. With luck we’ll see them again next year!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 25th, 2008.)

Review – Will Tuckett’s “Faeries” – Royal Opera House, Clore Studio

July 14, 2008

After trying for weeks to find a time when my only friend with a child could accompany me (with her daughter) to see Will Tuckett’s “Faeries”, I was delighted when I got a phone call offering me a pair of free tickets with no strings attached (other than that I not post my review until today). A lot of people wouldn’t perhaps just be wandering around central London with nothing to do an hour before curtain time, but there I was, and I was completely willing to drop everything and run over to the Royal Opera House to see a show … for free! (How did my friend know that I’d be likely to do that? I must have a reputation …)

I have to interrupt the rest of the review with the reason why getting this call meant so much to me. I had known about this show for four months and had been trying to buy tickets for it when they went on sale but was unable to come up with a day that worked … because the ROH required each party have a child in attendance and in all of London I am only aquainted with one child, who would have to be brought up from Worcester Park in order to allow me to attend the show. What is up with the ROH saying you need to have a child with you to attend? Are they worried that the show will attract pedophiles, or is this just a blatant attempt at discriminating against the childless? As a woman who does not have any children nor, indeed, any relatives in the entire country, I found this policy onerous and incredibly unfair to me, a childless person. It’s bad enough that I can’t sit down and have my lunch in Coram Fields, which is only a block away, but to be forbidden from attending an art event because I can’t access a child? In 10 years of attending puppet and children’s theater this has never been an issue before. If I want to attend, I should be allowed to attend, understanding that there will be many children in the audience (and frankly they were better behaved than MANY audiences I’ve been stuck in the middle of, especially at the ballet. Must we talk during the overture?). Otherwise, if they want to be sure a certain number or percentage of children attend, they should just reserve seats for them rather than forbidden adults, flat out, from attending without children.

Walking into the show I had little idea of what to expect. I was thinking: the guy who designed the really cool looking Wind in the Willows ballet! Fairies! The … er … guy who choreographed the Pinocchio ballet I didn’t care for so much … well, maybe I should forget about that bit. At any rate, I was pretty excited about seeing a brand new ballet, as I always am.

However, it had never occurred to me what the plot might actually be about. In this case, it was sort of a Railway Children story, about two London kids sent to the countryside during the war. The girl gets split up from her brother and winds up running around in the woods and fields … and of course meets fairies. She makes friends with one, gets caught by another, and eventually gets caught up in needing to defeat an evil fairy “who wants to steal our freedom” (or something like that).

Walking into the hall, the atmosphere was good … there were period-dressed “Station Agents” handing out identification tags to the kids, and on stage was a fairly large puppet playing an old woman telling the kids where to sit and hurrying them along (a nice way to establish the puppets as “people” early in the performance). We took a seat near the very back of the stage so we wouldn’t have to get shoved off to the side, as everyone that sat down in the middle was asked to move to the edge of the risers – a bit of a punishment for people who came in on time!

Though the human cast initially seemed to be around ten people, I think there were only 2 actual speaking human roles, and after Our Heroine ran off, it was really just her and a phalanx of people operating the puppets. Unlike bunraku (or even Avenue Q), the people manipulating the puppets were all dressed in period clothing, which distracted a bit from the action. I thought that the woman with a red and white band on her head was going to turn out to be a fairy queen, but eventually it seemed that she was, really, just a woman wearing a scarf knotted on her head as if she were cleaning the house. I did like the fact that the people manipulating the Evil Fairy were dressed as soldiers, but otherwise the clothing didn’t add to the narrative. I don’t think it put the kids off, though, so maybe I’m just too picky.

The puppets were, in my mind, the best thing about this show. They came in a variety of sizes and took full advantage of their ability to be free of the normal laws of gravity and, er, bodily coherence, that human actors are limited by. This, of course, made it easy for the fairies to fly (and levitate), but they could also just stand sideways, or have their heads and tails come off and go on their own adventures. I also loved the detailing of the smallest puppets, all little fairies. I wanted to just pop them in my pocket and take them home with me. (Nice work to whoever designed these – brilliant!) And they were actually handled as characters, with their own voices, movement styles, and emotions – important aspects in making an object take on life and make it possible to focus on the face of the puppet instead of the person who was speaking for it.

The dance, however, wasn’t particularly interesting, and I wonder if the kids liked it or even cared. The scene where Our Heroine was dancing with her fairy friend was good, but the parts where, perhaps, emotion was being expressed were … I don’t know, meaningless. To me, they didn’t add to the narrative and just weren’t interesting to watch – they just seemed obligatory. While I went to see the dance, because that is what I love, and I enjoyed the show, if I had been expecting to enjoy it because of the dance I would have considered this show a complete failure. However, I’m open to enjoying any theatrical experience on its own merits, and as I enjoyed the other aspects of the show quite a bit, I can’t say it was a bad show because the dance was bad/boring/unimpressive.

Note that the evil fairy was actually scary enough that he was making the kids in the audience cry. I’m curious if they were going to try to lighten him up or just roll with it. For really little kids, he could easily be the incarnation of bogeyman nightmares.

So, overall this wasn’t a bad show, but the degree of excitement I had about going to see it wasn’t really matched by what was presented on stage. That said, the children in the audience were really caught up in what was going on and didn’t complain or barely make a squeak for the entire 75 minutes, so clearly something is working well. If you’re taking a kid to this, they will probably enjoy themselves, but if you were feeling sad because the ROH didn’t want your childless presence at this show, cry no tears – there will be other shows you will probably enjoy more. Me, I’m going to have to question whether or not I want to see Will Tuckett’s shows anymore – this makes the second one I’ve seen that left me flat, and good puppetry just isn’t enough to console me for indifferent dance. I’d rather just see a straight puppet show and keep my expectations set appropriately. Speaking of which, the Metro has £10 off top priced tickets to see Monkey: Journey to the West (the opera!), though it’s only good on matinees for Thrusday July 24 (2:30 PM) and Friday July 25 (4 PM). I don’t have £65 to lay out on theater seats for any show, but if you do, book through the ROH website (www.roh.org.uk/monkeyjourney). Hopefully Monkey will be a show where my expectations are finally met!

Links about ballet and show reviews

June 15, 2008

I came home from watching “The Revenger’s Tragedy” last night and fooled around online instead of writing up my review. My goal was to read a review of the play I’d held off reading until after the show (though I found even a second), but there was lots of other good stuff on there I’d missed, like a review of “Dances at a Gathering” (which made me feel good that I’d left after it was over and not stayed for the second half of the evening) and a great discussion about the future of ballet (the idea being the culture here is closed and that new works aren’t really being promoted). It made me get excited about the idea of going to San Francisco for their new works season next year.

Review of “Dances at a Gathering” (Jerome Robbins) – Royal Ballet – Royal Opera House

June 10, 2008

Last night while J was in his French class, W and I headed to the Royal Opera House to see Jerome Robbin’s “Dances at a Gathering.” Both of us were pretty worn out from a long day at work, but with 6 quid day seats, we thought we’d give it a go and just see the first part of the show (the second half, a Midsummer Night’s Dream-based ballet by Frederick Ashton, just didn’t interest me much). We met first for dinner at Inn Noodle, then walked over to Covent Garden in the lovely summer evening.

The ballet was lovely, full of the humor that I expect from Robbins, and the music, by Chopin, was a treat to listen to. While I expected Marianela Nunez (as “Pink”) was going to be the be the star of the evening, it was in fact Tamara Rojo (as “Mauve”) whose performance I enjoyed the most. In one scene, late in the ballet, three men, backs to the audience, are holding three women, facing forward, on their shoulders and Ms. Rojo’s leg arched up just so, an absolutely perfect curving line the other women seemed a bit too tired to emulate. But, really, each of the dancers was a pleasure: “Brown” (Johan Kobborg) and “Brick” (I think – Sergei Polunin if it was) had a great duel (and Brown’s solo near the end of the evening was spectacular), and “Green” (Lauren Cuthbertson) had a wonderful bit as an ignored dance partner, fluttering and flailing and just hamming it up like you think ballerinas could never do.

Part of what I enjoy so much about Robbins is the way each dancer seems to have a personality and character – the dancers aren’t bodies on stage, they are performers with relationships to each other. They flirt, they are shy, they show off, they challenge each other, they are irritated. Watching this show was so fun that I couldn’t help compare it to some of the shows I’d seen earlier in the Linbury this year. It’s probably not fair to compare the dancers of the Royal Ballet, performing choreography by Robbins, to about anything else, but, well, they were great and at the top of the pack, surely a standard by which to judge others. It was a good evening, though I was grateful to have decided to leave early as I was just plain worn out and wanted to get to bed before 11:30.

A special callout to Paul Stobart, who filled in as the piano soloist at the last minute. How he was ever able to figure out the proper timing of the pieces on such short notice is beyond me, but he very much deserved the applause he got at the end of the evening!

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 10th, 2008.)

Review – New Works in the Linbury (spring 2008) – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2008

Lured by the promise of seeing a Wayne McGregor piece I hadn’t yet had the fortune to see, I headed down to the Royal Opera House today to check out “New Works in the Linbury.” (Here’s the description of the show: “Monica Mason is delighted that The Royal Ballet are back in the Linbury Studio Theatre presenting a series of world premieres by choreographers from within the Company. Plus, there is an opportunity to see Wayne McGregor’s new short work Nimbus, which was specially commissioned for the World Stage Gala last November.”)

Well, the night is over and I’m not sure when the chance was to see Nimbus. Was it in the lobby before the show started? Was it a special “extra features” at the end of the night, after the dancers had all taken their bows as if it really was all over? Was he really laboring in such obscurity that it was no longer possible to see his stuff on stage? I really have no idea. Thankfully it meant there was also no chance of an unfortunate encounter with Mr. McGregor, in which I would be tearfully ashamed of liking his work so much and yet being no longer capable of speaking to him, but then, surrounded by what I can only assume were British ballet folk, I suddenly felt, well, I really was just a nobody anyway – none of these people were ever going to speak to me of their own will other than to tell me to please let them pass by or kindly stop whispering during the performance. What a change from the software testing conference I went two three weeks ago, when the giants in the field were all most open to speaking about their work and how it might relate to what you personally are experiencing, in a helpful, problem-solving way.

The list of works were as follows: “What If,” choreography Ernst Meisner, danced by Romany Pajdak and Sergei Polunin; “b,” choreography Viacheslav Samodurov, danced by Sarah Lamb and Ivan Putrov; “Of Mozart,” choreography Liam Scarlett, dancers a cast of hundreds (or rather eight); “Agitator,” choreography Matjash Mrozewski, danced by Isabel McMeekan and Thomas Whitehead; “Monument,” choreography Vanessa Fenton, also many dancers; “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” choreography Jonathan Watkins, danced by Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson …. and some more dancers, but I’m trying to avoid carpal tunnel here.

The opening number, as it turns out, was my favorite of the night. “What If” was just … what do they say, luminous? The two dancers were fun, young, athletic, and made me fall in love with them. They were young colts frolicking on stage, and though Romany seemed to not quite smoothly get two of her turns, I couldn’t help but get excited about a future of watching the two of them dance together.

Liam Scarlett’s “Of Mozart,” with a musical choice that couldn’t help but make me think of Mozart’s Journey to Prague, seemed straight out of the school of modern choreography that plays it straight, with lovely, classic costumes (long, toned skirts for the women; shorts and long sleeved, tight-fitting tops for the men); old music; and a dance vocabulary that’s very familiar but throws in occasional bits that show its modernity (feet held at a 90 degree angle; supporting dancers by holding the back of the neck). It even had little bubbly “personality” bits that made me think of Jerome Robbins; most notable was the hand movements (clenching; rotating; opening and closing) during a pizzicato movement. Liam really seems to get what I think modern ballet audiences want, and I expect he’s going to have a pretty successful career as he gets more fully into his stride.

Sadly, I don’t think what he’s producing is what ballet needs. How are we going to get new audiences? Are we going to stick to what’s safe until there are no more people under 65 watching ballet? I started thinking about “Chroma” and how awesome it was and how the choreography was just so blistering fresh at some point in the middle of “Of Mozart” and just couldn’t get my concentration back. The performance I was watching was fine, but it wasn’t pushing myself or the art just one little bit. I felt sad about this and kind of relieved that it was time for intermission.

After intermission the evening restarted with “Agitator.” This also wasn’t a genre-breaking piece, but … my god, could Isabel McMeekan dance. I could not get my eyes of her fantastic legs and her fluid movement from one position to another. (I felt a bit badly for Thomas Whitehead as he didn’t have nearly the opportunity to show off she did.) I felt like it was on the verge of breaking into that really exciting partnering work that Forsythe does, but no luck. That said – it was still pretty damned yummy. I’ll be watching for her in the future.

My last review is for my least favorite piece of the night – “Monument,” which is apparently by a choreographer that was quite popular with the audience. It all started off quite well, with fantastic electronica (“Pathogenic Agent”) by Jens Massel, aka Senking. The full-body, black with orange neon and glittery lines bodysuits were all a little to amusingly Cyberdogs for my taste, but we had black toe shoes to deal with and I was just kind of riding with it, watching the dancers contort themselves, the women’s feet arching in their shoes, the men throwing them over their shoulders, the music sounding really fantastic on the Linbury sound system.

And then it all went south. Maybe I had show fatigue; maybe … it was bad. Suddenly we transitioned into the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, and we were staring at a couple on stage. The woman was stiff, her feet as flat as they can get, her eyes staring straight at the sky – and if we weren’t clear that she was dead, the man waved his arms over his head in this Z motion straight out of a Greek play (and, I think, Martha Graham). Good God! Why the obviousness? What happened to what we were watching before? Then it was grief, grieving, oh, the sadness, the other dancers joining in the sadness … and at the very moment I was thinking about what I’d just seen and how cliched it was and how with any luck I’d never see someone making this Z motion with their hands again … all of the dancers were doing it at the same time! AAAAUGH!

I’m afraid at this point I snapped the tether, and then I was looking at things like the bottoms of the pointe shoes (were they black, too?) and the violinist (Tatiana Bysheva, really making a career in classical music look sexy). Eventually it was over, and we got to watch “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” which I was now too tired to really enjoy but J said reminded him of a dream ballet (it was his favorite bit of the night). There were occasionally some pretty great solos but I had my fill for the evening, and without Wayne, I felt like the evening had a few too many empty calories in it as a whole (despite being filled with utterly gorgeous dancers).

(This review was for a performance on Thursday, May 22, 2008. Reviews of the other pieces may come later.)

Hamlet – Northern Ballet Theatre – Sadler’s Wells

April 23, 2008

I have to say I was a bit worried about how a ballet interpretation of Hamlet would come out. I’d gone to see Christopher Wheeldon’s “Elsinore” last year, and it just had no emotional power at all. How could such a neat tale, one of the most powerful tales in western literature, come off so damn flat? It almost made me feel like modern choreographers should just stick with plotless ballets. But since “Romeo and Juliet” is really so good, and I think ballet/dance really is good at story telling, AND I have this bizarre wish to see the repertory of story ballets extended beyond the old chestnuts (I mean, seriously, Matthew Bourne has done so well – with retreads), that I just queued right up for tickets for this show, based simply on a desire for wish fulfillment. (And right beforehand, I turned to J and said, “God, I hope this is good!” – the theatre-goer’s eternal prayer.)

To my pleasure, Northern Ballet Theatre’s Hamlet (choreographed by David Nixon and new this year) was really good. They had moved the story up to World War Two and Occupied Paris – a fairly common resetting for Shakespeare, at least in terms of the World Wars – but then made several changes to the story that could irritate purists but served to drive the story much better than a slavish adherence to the original would have. Hamlet’s dad (Steven Wheeler) was Paris’ head of police, killed by his uncle Claudius (Darren Goldsmith) in a blatant act of career climbing/toadying when the Nazis moved into town. This means that Hamlet (Christopher Hinton-Lewis, phwoar) is not a prince in this show, but, as a commoner, his grief at the loss of his dad is actually much more moving. I also found the women quite intriguing in an environment in which dealing with powerlessness and being, essentially, prisoners so strongly informed their actions. Gertrude (Nathalie Leger) was a fool, to be sure, but she seemed so much less of a conspirator than just another person trying to survive in very bad circumstances, and at the end, her affection for Hamlet seemed quite genuine (despite the fact that during the, er, sex scene with Claudius, she looked most unmotherly and quite sprightly in her vintage 40’s unmentionables).

And, of course, there’s Ophelia (Georgina May). Oddly, I’ve just come off of reading the book Something Rotten, which is a meta-literary comedy in which Ophelia and Polonius attempt to become the stars of the “play formerly starring Hamlet,” and it’s somehow left me with this idea that Ophelia isn’t satisfied with her role in the play (even though this is totally an artifact of the book). I felt like Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia was much better realized in this ballet than it is in the play – their love dance in the first act was just … beautiful (*gets goosebumps*). The way Hamlet lifted and carried her over his back (once he’d finally engaged with her through his sorrow), the way they held each other’s faces, the way he slid above her and she grabbed ahold of his body to lift herself right up off of the floor – it showed a degree of affection and tenderness that I never saw in Shakespeare. In addition, her mad scene in act two was FANTASTIC, a total star turn for Miss May. I’ve never seen changing the way someone walks so perfectly capture someone who’s gone over the edge – clip-clopping flat-footed in her toe shoes, hiding behind pillars, and of course handing out her bizarre little Nazi posies to the various guests at the dance. She put Lucia di Lammermoor to shame and, frankly, pulled far more of a star turn than the original Ophelia ever managed. Complain about lack of faith to the original? You’ll not hear me make a peep. This adaptation was nothing short of fantastic.

There was a lot more to this show, though, including leaping leather clad Nazis, black gowned Cabaret-style chanteuses, torture scenes, and men dancing in boots up to their knees – not really in the style of either a typical R&J (for some reason as a ballet Romeo and Juliet is ALWAYS Renaissance Italy) or a sexless Swan Lake. I can’t really say that the dance was outstanding other than in the Ophelia scenes – there was a near total lack of dancing on pointe, which made me sad – but it was good, in general, there was a rockin’ duel at the end, and it was a coherent work of theater that came complete with an original score. In short: highly recommended, and I hope it passes into the general ballet repertory.

Carlos Acosta and Friends – London Coliseum

April 10, 2008

Tonight was the long-anticipated “Carlos Acosta and Friends” show at the London Coliseum I bought tickets for, er, two or more months back. Since I’ve moved here, I’ve become quite a fan of this dancer. The show I saw him in two autumns ago blew me away; I felt as if I were in the presence of a Barishnikov, of one of the true legends of dance. The way he lands his jumps, the angle his body takes in the air, his attentive partnering, his stage presence … he leaves me breathless. It’s just hard to believe dance can be this good.

The show was very equally focused on Mr. Acosta and the various members of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. It opened with Alicia Alonzo’s staging of Petipa’s “Don Quixote Pas de Deux,” with Yolanda Correa. Whew – what a dancer she was! When he held her up on pointe – her other leg extended behind her, one arm gracefully above her, the opposite hand in his – and then let her go, it was like she was pinned to the floor, like seeing a hummingbird poised in the air in front of a flower. Acosta was also amazing – he did a leap that I thought was physiologically impossible – something about how he threw his back and his leg just made me think he couldn’t possibly do that and then land on his feet, and yet he did, and then repeated it. I can’t really even describe the jump, it didn’t seem like how a human being could move and my brain couldn’t process it. Anyway, even though I frequently find these old-time ballet duets cheesy, with two such brilliant performers it was all fireworks and left the audience roaring. And God, can Acosta spin! I’m surprised the floor didn’t catch on fire.

Next up were two contemporary pieces featuring the Cuban company. The first one, George Cespedes’ “La Ecuación,” didn’t initially seem very promising. Four dancers walked, one by one, onto a silent stage on which was a wire cube, about 10 feet high; each dancer paused in the cube and did some kind of … well, it seemed like horrible mime, and as the audience members coughed loudly I couldn’t help but feel they were passing some kind of judgment on the piece.

But then the music came on and the lights flashed to color and the cube became all their was of the stage, and suddenly we were watching what seemed to me very much like an insane Capoeira demonstration. It was all about stylized street fighting, the three women and the man bouncing off each other, in twos, in threes, dancing all four, ganging up two on one, flipping each other over their arms, while this driving Cuban drum music made me want to get up and dance. I caught that Alena Leon and Sorgalim Villarrutia were in this piece, and two other dancers whose names I’m not sure of (the program didn’t make it clear which of four possibilities were on each night), and LOVED their commitment and energy. Every second they were on stage they were completely “there,” completely engaged with each other if they were partnering, and their bodies moved like magic. It was really energizing, even in our crap seats in the second balcony. Shockingly, the dancers ended the piece as if they still had a little more in them – hard to believe, really!

The third piece, “El Peso de Una Isla” (also by Cespedes) started out with a smoke covered stage that the various members of the 14 or so strong company slithering out and then doing backflips or something on stage. I didn’t know what to think – were they zombies? Were they vampires? Was this suddenly going to turn into “Thriller?” What it did turn into was a pretty big group thing with a lot of couple work, a lot of spinning on knees, falling onto backs and then knees, men pushing women around, women catching men and yanking them … and it all just seemed to take a little too long.

The final piece, “Tocororo Suite,” had a live Cuban band and the entire Danza ensemble. It’s about Carlos discovering … I don’t know, he needs to leave ballet behind and learn the moves of his country? It didn’t really seem to have much of a plot, but there was very fine Cuban dancing, Carlos got to show off a bit, and the music was great. I fear Mr. Acosta doesn’t really have great chops as a choreographer, but … one can hope this will change over time, as at 35 the word on the street is he’s passed his peak. That said, I’m going to make it my mission to see everything he’s in in the next year so I can take advantage of him while he’s around.

Overall, it was a good evening – not brilliant like the Sadler’s Wells production I saw some 18 months ago, but fun with great dance and wonderful music. I would recommend it, though tickets are VERY steep – best to go if you love Acosta or Cuban music/dance (or, like me, both).

Ballet Black – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

April 9, 2008

Since this show is sold out, I’m not going to do too thorough a review, even though I took fairly extensive notes – either you’ve got tickets or you can’t get them, and my review won’t affect what you do. (Note that due to demand, an extra Saturday matinee has been added, so perhaps tickets might still be available – check with the Royal Opera House ticket office. Actually, I checked, and they’re available as of Thursday afternoon, so if you want to see them, jump on it!)

Sadly, the choreography tonight was mostly fair to middlin’ and the dancers were …. not impressive. I thought maybe they were not hitting things in the first piece because it was new to their repertoire, but later it became clear there was a lot of missing going on – legs not able to go equally high (and a general lack of unison when it was called for), sloppy handling of partners (“Don’t drop her!”), a clumsiness on pointe (I realized that usually I am focused on a dancer’s face when she is tiptoeing toward me, but tonight, I could tell her mind was on her feet, and I watched them instead) – just a not-entirely polished group. I actually wound up watching the male dancers in hope of getting more satisfaction from their performances (I usually prefer to watch the women as they get more exciting movement), and while I was really impressed with, say, Jaime Rodney’s extension, Darrius Grey’s partner work (again, for example) was just not inspired. On the other hand, Stephanie Williams had great stage presence – though I think in her heart she wants to be doing solos and not ensemble work. (more…)

Why is Russian Ballet so different from “normal” ballet?

April 6, 2008

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to see the Bolshoi in London for many performances – Spartacus, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, La Bayadere, and Le Corsaire among them. And I’ve been kind of … surprised by how different Russian ballet seems to American (and now English) ballet. The dancers seem … more … showy. Perhaps even egotistical. Everything is very over the top. Now, I LOVE the shameless overindulgence and all, but it’s been kind of hard for me to put a finger on what makes it so very different.

Fortunately, a wonderful article has appeared in the New York Times this week explaining why Russian ballet is such a completely different experience from American/English ballet. It’s not just the noisy audiences or the endless rounds of applause – it’s the very way a ballerina will push her body a little further to emphasize her technical brilliance – at the expense of the production of actual art. It’s really well written (even though I don’t know ballet well enough to follow some of his descriptions) and really good reading.

For those who follow this blog, this week we’re off to see Ballet Black at the Linbury, Carlos Acosta at the Coliseum, and Wayne Macgregor at Sadlers Wells. April is really a dance heavy month, but I can’t really apologize for it – there are two shows I’d like to see (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Punch and Judy) conflict with nearly everything else I’m doing … but who knows, maybe I can squeeze another show or two in somewhere.