Posts Tagged ‘Iain Mackay’

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.)

Review – Romeo and Juliet – Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

October 13, 2010

As the first ballet I’ve been able to see in London since the Bolshoi departed for pastures snowy in August, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet was very high on the excitement level. I consider this company very accomplished and had high expectations for their performance of a ballet I love, with its striking Prokofiev score and deeply emotional story.

Unfortunately, BRB failed to deliver, a problem which I’ll attribute greatly to the Kenneth Macmillan choreography, which I had not seen before*. It was full of over-dramatic movement: arms held high in grief a la Laurencia; women standing in heavily curved positions meant to look like Renaissance painting; the maneki-neko hands of the Capulet court ladies I found the gestures and posturing grating, unnatural, off-putting, and occasionally comic. The simplistic sword fighting was at least fun and active; but the mannerized, stiff choreography that filled most of the night left me flat and seemed an incredible waste of a great score. The “Dance of the Capulets” was forgettable – an outrage! – and while Romeo (Iain Mackay) and Tybalt (Robert Parker)’s power struggle during the second iteration of this bit of music was interesting, the dances themselves were … overly complex and indigestible.

On the positive side, our lead characters (Jenna Roberts as Juliet) had great chemistry, stage presence, and acting skills. Juliet was fluid and charming; her Romeo was utterly devoted and star-struck. However, Iain Mackay once again displayed a painful inability to manage overhead lifts, even in scene one, when he should have been at his strongest; he needs to be sent for remedial weight training stat.

My complaints end with a sort of sadness about the lack of emotional impact this ballet had on me. I remember seeing the bedroom scene – as done by Kent Stowell of Pacific Northwest Ballet, of all people – leaving me damp-eyed and reminding myself “These are dancers playing fictional characters! There is nothing to be sad about here!” but this Romeo and Juliet left me with none of that. Instead, I grew impatient for this very long ballet to simply end, hoping (at around 10 PM) that Romeo would make his appearance and get on with offing himself. Admittedly, Roberts was the floppiest dead “star-cross’d lover” I’d ever seen – but I felt no pain for her or Romeo in the final scene. And I really want that, a chance for a good weep, not just an opportunity to ooh-aah over lovely costumes; and, unfortunately, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production denied me this pleasure. Bah. On to “Pointes of View” on Friday, which I’m sure I will find far more satisfying.

*Seriously, why the hookers? It’s not in the original and it adds an unnecessary layer of smarm to the ballet. Prostitutes dancing with Montagues is one of the least attractive additions to a known story ballet I’ve ever seen.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 12, 2010. The show continues through Thursday, October 14th. For a different point of view, see Graham Watt’s review on LondonDance.com.)

Review – Cyrano – Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

November 13, 2009

Tonight’s Cyrano at Sadler’s Wells was the long-sought for Holy Grail of ballet: a new story ballet that was good. Birmingham Royal Ballet managed to take a play about poetry and turn it into a ballet that … well, frequently was poetry. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I can’t remember the last time Romeo and Juliet gave me the sniffles (“Cmon and die already!”), and Cyrano made me weepy at least twice. The music wasn’t really amazing or memorable (though it frequently sounded familiar), but it did the job and was enjoyable; the costumes were good and a nice break from fake renaissance and “modernesque” fluffy skirts and corsets.

But really, it was about the dance, wasn’t it? Elisha Willis came back from a sizzling modern turn in E=MC2 to take on the role of Roxanne, and managed to be both adorable, nimble, and graceful – but, most importantly, to be 100% believable as Roxanne all the way though. You could see why three guys were completely in love with her, and when she twirled and leapt her way through the regiment and then did an Irish step-dance turn on top of a drum, you absolutely bought that all the soldiers were now going to go over the top full of patriotic fervor. Passion, joy, fear, anguish – she had me sold every step of the way. And God, she was pretty, and cute as a butterbean in her “sneak into the battle to see my boyfriend” velvet pantsuit. I will have to make a special effort to see her next time BRB are in town.

I, of course, must now turn to Cyrano, as Robert Parker was hardly offstage the whole night. He managed an incredible upper-body expressiveness – vital when this is how you are “speaking” love letters – and also had great leaps and heart-wrenching solos. But even better, he got to fight duels, which were incredibly fun to watch, and do a love duet with someone who was in love with someone else – all while making me feel bad for him (and not just because his nose fell off after the balcony scene and he had to dance around it for about five minutes) – all while wearing a cape, a wig, and yummy custom boots. What a turnaround from Mayerling – I struggled so hard to care about its lead, but Parker had me bought the minute he kissed a market woman while fighting off a man with his blade.

Most of the “heavy lifting” was left to Iain Mackay in the role of Christian, who had to, again and again, do a Macmillan-esque lift in which Roxanne went over and around his shoulders to land en pointe. After the balcony scene, it looked like he almost dropped her, and in his final scene his arms were visibly trembling as he held her overhead. For all that Parker had to act and dance, there’s no doubt that Mackay was really, really working hard during this show – perhaps a little beyond his abilities. Still, he was compelling in the role of a simpleton, and I found that, like Roxanne and Cyrano, he too had charmed me before the end of the ballet. Damn these dancers and their mad acting skillz! I’m so used to just watching the dance, since when am I supposed to get caught up in the story?

Really, this was such a fun show, with lots of compelling action on stage (such as the “baguette adagio” in the bakery, and of course the duelling, and the very exciting battle scene), so much so that I never looked at my watch once – well, only to make sure I was coming back on time from intermission. My companions Amy, Alice and J also thought it was great. Doubtlessly there have been ballets in which the choreography was more exciting – I sit here still befuddled about people’s enthusiasm for Mayerling – but David Bintley has created something in which we, as the audience, care about the story and the characters. This, then, is a ballet worth watching – and as it’s on for two more days, I advise you go buy your tickets ASAP and make sure every night has a full house.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, November 11th, 2009. Cyrano continues at Sadler’s Wells through Saturday, November 13th. If you’re skint, there is a half price ticket deal available, but I recommend paying full price if you can afford it, as Sadler’s Wells is an institution that deserves to be rewarded for consistently bringing great dance talent to London.)