Posts Tagged ‘dance’

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.)

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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.

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…)

Review – Wheeldon’s “Morphoses” (2007) – Sadler’s Wells

September 22, 2007

Last night was the Wheeldon Company’s Metamorphoses program at Sadlers’ Wells, and a better night for ballet aficionados could hardly be imagined. Well, okay, it wasn’t all perfect, but the highs were the sort that have kept us going to see this stuff for years, rolling the dice and hoping to get lucky. (And with music by Part and Bryars and Prokofiev, even the down time was great.) The two best pieces in this program of mostly short bits were the first and the last, both by Wheeldon. “Morphoses” had four dancers doing a variety of athletic, innovative partnering to music of Ligeti. I felt like I could never anticipate what they would do next.

The last piece was practically two pasted together; first a pas de six, then a m/f duet. For this, the woman came back on stage with her feet bare and her hair down. To me, it felt like she was naked – utterly vulnerable. The man was barefoot and bare chested. Their dancing was so intimate I felt like I was intruding to watch them. Every lift was perfect and strong; I felt like the dancers were revealing their true selves to each other while they danced, and we were the fortunate eavesdroppers on a very private moment. It was a fantastic end to the program and left me thrilled about the entire evening and looking forward to seeing them again.

(This review is for a performance that took place September 21st, 2007.)

Mini-review – Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” – Sadler’s Wells

December 21, 2006

I had a great night at Sadler’s Wells with Jess, Libby, Caroline, and Wechlser watching handsome shirtless men dance around stage with leather pants on. Er, I mean, with feather pants on, at least in acts one and three, as this was Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Something about the production seemed to leave us all very … energized. Not sure how to put it really, but I do think “festive” captures it. Talk about getting in the spirit of the season! What is it about watching actors die on stage that could possibly be so cheering? At any rate, I end the day in a very good mood, which I must frankly admit has a LOT to do with it being the start of my Christmas vacation. No work until January 2nd … WOOOO!

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 20th, 2006. It was migrated from another blog.)

Review – English National Ballet’s “Nutcracker” – London Coliseum

December 17, 2006

Alternate title: Clara’s First Acid Trip. Clara comes home from college and decides to chemically improve her holiday visit. With all of the wacky guests “dropping” in her folks’ house, there’s no doubt she’s having a great time! Her uncle Elvis Drosselmeier gives her a toy nutcracker, which she completely gets hung up on in a way sobriety will prove oh too embarassing. Too wired to sleep, she returns to the living room after everyone else has gone to bed, only to discover the Christmas tree glows and glows, then grows and grows! Later on she has fights with giant mice, sees her Nutcracker come to life, and then goes on a magical journey to Sugar Plum Land, where she watches snowflakes dancing. Eventually, she flies away on a paper crane with her Nutcracker man, and thus ends another fine holiday.

Anyway, that’s what I saw today, though I think it’s not the subtext they intended. The backdrops were SO “Oh the Places You Will Go!” and the dancing not so good. Next year: the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Mini-review – Butt Rock Suites – Velocity Dance Studio, Seattle

March 16, 2003

The Butt Rock dance fest at Velocity was awesome. The audience was rowdy (it was standing room only), many of them tricked out in their finest hair metal gear. They cheered, lit lighters between sets, and clapped along to most of the songs. The dances tended to be very 80’s referential, with nods to “Love is a Battlefield” and other early MTV faves. Most of the show was NOT serious, which was fine by me: I got a kick out of watching dancers use each other as air guitars, and the mimed “being carried by the crowd” scenes were just inspired. “Dust in the Wind,” “Shout at the Devil,” and a Queen medley were some of the finer musical moments of the night. I just loved it! It made me jones for karaoke at the Sea Wolf, but I have all of this crap I wanted to cook before I went to bed PLUS I was hoping to get into work early, so I bagged on going out and was responsible instead. I ask you, how is THAT the hard rock lifestyle? I hope they do this again!

(This review was originally published March 16th, 2003 in a different blog and was migrated here.)