Posts Tagged ‘Carol-Anne Millar’

Mini-review – Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Hippodrome and the O2 Arena

December 26, 2011

I have three traditions every Christmas: I see a new version of a Christmas Carol, I see a panto, and I see a new version of the Nutcracker. This year, Birmingham Royal Ballet was the designated dance company, as I’d never seen the Peter Wright choreography and have really been enjoying the quality of this group’s work. They’re bringing it to the O2 arena in London as I write this, but I knew I wasn’t going to be around to see it then thanks to having Christmas plans that involved going back to the States. So on the first Saturday of December I headed out, bright and early, for my first ever trip to Birmingham – with tickets bought well in advance for a sold-out performance.

It was an easy walk to the theater, and I was pleased to see an outpost of my beloved Red Hot Szechuan restaurant practically next door – the Hippodrome is right next to Chinatown so lunch options are numerous. The theater was interesting – inside, a lovely old music hall era building, but the external audience services areas were all very modern, leading me to suspect an add-on at some point.

This review isn’t going to go into a lot of detail about the dancing as I didn’t take explicit notes, but is more a record of the differences between this Nutcracker and others. First, the role of Clara is played in both acts by an adult – in this case Carol-Anne Millar, whom I’ve taken a shine to since seeing her in “Pineapple Poll” last October. This means that the dancing in Act One is generally much better quality than any show relying on a child principal – so much better to put an adult in a girlish dress and let her dance skill show through! Interestingly, the focus of this ballet is much less on, as I call it, “Clara’s awakening to adulthood,” to the world of love instead of the love of dolls; a situation which means she does very little dancing with the prince in Act 2 and turns all of it into an extended dream sequence. I was also taken with the costuming for the party in Act 1 – the various mothers all have dresses which, despite having very modern colorings to them, are attractively cut in a Victorian way (circa 1870-1888) that I found very enjoyable for my inner geek.

Act one was actually not particularly memorable (rather a lack of some expected elements such as the clock, and little was made of Clara participating in the battle of the mice). Really, it never is, but I found the general tenor of the dance was enjoyable and the Harlequin and Columbine that Drosselmeier brought were a bit more “real people under an evil spell” than usual. Things started to crank up (as usual) when Clara is finally transported to Sugar Plum land, where instead of just having snowflakes dancing around the Snow Fairy (Yijing Zhang), we got four very yummy men getting in on the action and adding a lot of zest with powerful leaps – these being the “four winds.” Where the idea came from, I’ll never know, but in terms of taking some fairly “yeah I’ve seen this before” section of the ballet and giving it real freshness, this was a big success of Wright’s choreography. Go team BRB!

Act two was the suites and the waltz of the flowers. Each “suite” had a bit that allowed Clara to participate, whether following along, fanning herself, or wearing silly hats. Of the group, I was smitten with the Arabian dance, which had an odalisque (Celine Gittens) borne aloft by three male attendants (Brandon Lawrence, Bejamin Soerel, Tyrone Singleton) and dancing so very sensually that I was convinced the true potential of this music had finally been reached. Sadly, the effect was broken almost immediately by the Chinese dance, which was performed in yellow-face. I was mortified. Are there really so few East Asians in England that this can somehow seem acceptable? I would propose that, if BRB wants to put dancer who are clearly recognizable as being from, say, China, on stage, that perhaps they should look at using Chinese Opera makeup instead of this horrible racist slap that does no favors to the company, the dancers, or to the message it sends about racism. It’s 2011, guys, get with the program.

Clara’s non-romance means the grand pas de deux at the end of the Waltz of the Flowers lacks the kind of emotional punch it would have had if it had been Clara and her prince, but as it stands, the work as a whole is very enjoyable and I think a strong Nutcracker, less fluffy than the Royal Ballet’s although with less emotional impact than theirs. I’d consider it worth seeing again, and I hope it’s a grand success at the O2 when they make it there this week.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 3rd, 2011. It will be performed at London’s O2 arena December 27-30, 2011.)

Review – Autumn Glory (Checkmate, Symphonic Variations, Pineapple Poll) – Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

October 21, 2011

The Birmingham Royal Ballet opened their fall visit to London with a series of ballets that were a treat of historical information – ballets by the great and the good of years gone by, that I’d mostly only ever known by images (“Ooh, look at those hats!”) or reputation (“What, you say there’s a ballet done to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan?”). I’ve seen a fair amount of Ashton (represented in this case by his “Symphonic Variations”), but I was burning with curiosity over Ninette de Valois’s “Checkmate,” which has some of the strangest costumes I’ve ever seen (excepting some of the Surrealist designed ones done for Diaghilev). And “Pineapple Poll,” well, I’d seen a version of it done by Spectrum Dance in 2004 (with choreography by Donald Byrd), but I anticipated that this one would also be a good time.

In practice, Checkmate won the prize for weird classic ballet of the year. While the movements of the various chess pieces were supposed to be stylized versions of their actual allowed movements in the game, I was not able to see this. Instead, I was caught up in drama and metaphor, as the seductive Black Queen (Victoria Marr) went from terrorizing to enticing the Red Knights (Iain Mackay and Jamie Bond), dropping their guard enough that she was able to pull Iain in for a kill. The queen’s rattling of her daggers and bum-shaking was almost insect-like; she was certainly menacing and a most unique (ballet) character as a deadly female. Unfortunately I found myself spending more time thinking about what it all “meant” rather than enjoying the movement. (It seemed to me to be warning of the rise of the forces that would lead to World War II; I assumed the gentle but weak “reds” were supposed to be England.) The aesthetic pleasures were most certainly there, but I hadn’t actually come (I promise!) to ogle the very handsome male dancers. The use of poles was fascinating, however, from grills to put dead pieces on to traps (when surrounding the checked Red King (Jonathan Payn)) to simply the linear effect they had on stage (very good with the graphics of the drop) – it was a most unique effect. However, unfortunately, I don’t feel this piece reached me either through dance or generated emotion – it seemed very much like an intellectual effort and one that hadn’t aged well.

“Symphonic Variations,” by Ashton, failed to make almost any impression on me at all. Three men in white, toga-like half-shirts (phoar!) paired three women in white with pleated, short skirts (design Sophie Fedorovitch); and while I loved Cesar Franck’s piano music (thank you Jonathan Higgins!) I was only able to think of Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which I’ve frequently groused about for being too silly and male ego-centric. However, I felt Balanchine’s choreography glowed like a sun, and Ashton’s was a pale moon beside it – not Diana so much as Phobos. Chi Cao was a strong lead and great partner to Natasha Oughtred, but … I found the choreography forgettable even if I was having a bit of a Chippendale’s experience as I sat blushing in my chair.

Next up was “Pineapple Poll,” and as the curtain rose on a cartoony set painted to look like an 1830s port town, my heart sunk a bit; it looked like I was in for 45 minutes of twee. A bevy of ladies came in and danced with young men dressed as sailors; some drama developed as the pub lackey (Tzu-Chao Chou, officially credited as “Jasper the potboy”) showed clearly he was in love with Pineapple Poll (Carol-Anne Millar), a “bumboat woman” (this appears to be a person who makes a living selling stuff to people who live on ships). But then Captain Belaye (Robert Parker) showed up, the women started swooning over him … and Birmingham Royal Ballet exploded in a festival of fantastic dancing and expressive acting that made me completely lose track of my critic’s notebook. The girls were a series of faints and flutterings, the boat’s crewmen were angry and boisterous, the simpering fiancee, Blanche (Arancha Baselga), a hoot … at the time I thought it was just a case of good choreography but in fact it was the cast that took the structure and covered the whole thing with ribbons and fun. Just like in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, it’s not just one or two good leads that make the show, it’s everyone in the cast giving it 100% and acting like they, too, could be the full focus of someone’s attention at any given moment. Millar was amazing, a real comic genius, so expressive with her body. She owned the stage when she was on it and is now on my top list of ballerinas to arrange my show schedule around. But everyone was just so very good in this show and there’s no doubt for me it was the highlight of the night. Thanks, guys, for another marvellous evening out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 at Sadler’s Wells. It was repeated on October 19th. For a five star review of the alternate cast, see Clement Crisp; Mark Monahan’s less excited review is here.)