Posts Tagged ‘Iohna Loots’

Review – The Nutcracker – Royal Ballet (2009)

December 18, 2009

When Christmas time comes around, I’ve got three things on my mind: A Christmas Carol, panto, and Nutcracker. These, to me, are the three elements that build holiday cheer and a real feeling of “It’s Christmas!” in me. And, insofar as I am able, every year I try to see a new version of each of these shows, meaning I’ve seen both a black light and a South African “Christmas Carol,” and Nutcrackers ranging from Mark Morris’s “Hard Nut” (which required a trip to San Francisco) and Matthew Bourne‘s (which has my favorite first act of all). Last year we saw Mr. B’s version at City Ballet, and I was surprised at how inflexible I was as to certain story elements. This review, then, isn’t so much about the dance, it’s about the performance elements of the ballet, and how it compares to my mental ideal of The Nutcracker, formed on a version I saw in Munich in 1981, Arizona Ballet’s version, and (to some extent) Pacific Northwest Ballet’s bizarre incarnation. (For the record, the female star should be called Clara. I realize Mr. B did not adhere to this, but you can’t just go around calling Sleeping Beauty “Heather” – it doesn’t work.)

The ballet opens in a workshop, where Drosselmeier (Gary Avis) is making two dolls. The first, an angel, he sends off with his assistant to be delivered to Clara’s parents’ house. The second is, of course, the Nutcracker, whom we see suddenly peering out at us through a scrim (that had been a picture of a soldier). This was all a very new setup for the opening scenes, and I liked it a lot – it got us through a lot of the music with the addition of some very meaningful narrative. We also were introduced to the utterly bizarre Assistant (Ludovic Ondiviela) – who probably could have been used much better than he was as he only got one little star turn in the whole night.

Then it’s time for the party. This scene was far less chaotic and dull than many versions I’ve seen, doubtlessly in part because of choreographer Peter Wright’s completely correct choice to have Clara (Iohna Loots) performed, all the way through, by an adult woman, meaning there is room for much more good dancing in this act rather than the excess of flim flam you get when you’re trying to make too much out of child dancers. We still had the doll-carrying girls versus the soldier-carrying boys; but we also had a nice dance of the adults with a little tableau of the servants at the far back of the stage in front of the Christmas tree as well as doll dances done with a Harlequin/Columbine and a Soldier and, er, uh, “Vivandiere” (seemed like “mean chick who hangs out with the soldiers and would just as likely beat you to death herself”). I thought the two pairs of dances were charming rather than particularly virtuosic, but didn’t mind. Drosselmeier himself was a real wizard type, juggling, making flowers appear out of nowhere, and leaving a trail of glitter wherever he walked. I liked this portrayal quite a bit.

As for the set, there was the seemingly requisite owl, but also a soldier bunny (who came back to haunt us); and a strange giant dollhouse that only appears after the “transformation” scene. The angel makes several appearances after being given to Clara’s family: first in a sort of hallucination, when only Clara sees her full sized in front of the tree; then leading the change into the “giant Christmas tree;” again pulling the sleigh Clara and the Nutcracker use to go to Sugarplum Land; then, at the beginning of act 2, as a group of six dancing in the smoke to greet them upon their arrival. It was a very unique take and one I enjoyed.

Unfortunately the various dances in the suite weren’t all I wanted them to be. The Russian and Chinese dances were great: in these, the trope of having Clara and her soldier dance with the character dancers was perfect, showing off Ricardo Cervera’s kicking skills and Iohna’s grace and charm. The Arabian sequence didn’t have the sensuality I wanted, though, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy was just … flat, not at all the dance extravaganza I was hoping for. Ah well, the Waltz of the Flowers was good, at least, if just a wee bit on the sugary side.

Overall I thought this was a very good Nutcracker, probably the second best of all the ones I’ve seen, and well worth seeing again. Still, I’m hoping next year I can travel for a Nut, and see either Birmingham Royal Ballet or Ballet Scotland, and see something really new and different.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 16th, 2009. All performances are sold out but you might be able to get day seats.)

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November Ballet Spectacular – Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty & Mixed Bill (Agon, Sphinx, Limen)

November 18, 2009

Ballet five times in eight days? Why not, I say, why not? And with the highly touted presentation of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s newly choreographed “E=MC2” (in their “Quantum Leaps” program) and the opportunity to see a fancy (and usually expensive) story ballet from the Opera House stalls for 60 quid (Sleeping Beauty), how could I say no? Then, well, new Macgregor at the Royal Ballet, and a new(ish) story ballet (Cyrano), and, er, a commitment to see the Royal Ballet’s mixed bill program twice, and hey! It could happen to anyone, really.

First, the Agon/Sphinx/Limen triple bill, which I saw twice (Friday November 13th, cast list here, and Tuesday, November 17th,
cast list here). “Agon” reminded me how very difficult Balanchine really is – but only the second time I saw it, when the male dancers failed to hit the right sense of unity, I twice saw people adjust themselves after failing to hit their mark, and the whole thing generally smelt like “work” instead of “dance.” The long duet toward the end was particularly different; whereas on Friday, Acosta seemed somewhat bored and workmanlike as he manipulated his partner through a series of movements (including a “drunk ballerina” sequence in which she keeps falling into the splits and being lifted up again), the same duet seemed forced and uncomfortable Tuesday, as if the dancers hadn’t done it enough to forget about what they were doing and just do it. I felt every technical detail of how to make a catch and how to do a turn was exposed to the naked eye, and I didn’t like it.

On Friday, I got caught up in the weirdness of the extremely late 1950s Stravinsky music and the great deep drums (and – was that xylophones?), though I wasn’t entirely able to get caught up in the experience of the dance due to the off-putting nature of my far right seats (cutting off a quarter of the stage). Still, in retrospect, I realize Friday’s cast was pretty well hitting the mark, though in general I think Pacific Northwest Ballet does this dance better.

“Sphinx” … well. Much as “Agon” was as purely late 1950s as Peggy Guggenheim’s house, “Sphinx” was totally late 70s. The costumes were Tron meets Stargate with some headbands thrown in for good measure, and … God, I saw it twice, and I just found it the most unspeakably pretentious thing I’ve seen since the horrid “Pierrot Lunaire“. There’s a bit where “Anubis” is dancing in circles around “The Sphinx” and “Oedipus,” and I just thought … why why why? Who cares about what they’re doing? Why are they acting like they’re performing in a silent movie? Why does he keep balancing her on his shoulder when it’s so clearly a wiggly place to sit? When is there going to be some dancing that actually matters? Why was this revived at all? The music wasn’t bad but … never again.

Finally, Wayne Macgregor’s new ballet, “Limen,” my last and best hope for great new ballet of the year and the reason why I was at this program twice.

Well. I’m sorry to say, but it looks like David Bintley, about whom I knew almost nothing before this week, has utterly stolen the hot ballet trophy away from Wayne this year. (Let’s be clear: much like the search for the world’s best gelato, the search for the hot ballet of the year is one in which the searcher will always win. Still, I was surprised.) Wayne gave us … er, boxes and lines on the floor, and a cool projection, and good music … but the dance was … kinda out of the same box of stuff he usually uses, the great extensions, the butts sticking out, but without the cool “breaking the boundaries” moves he’s thrown in to spice it up. In fact, with almost no partnering in this ballet, it just felt a wee bit sterile.

Except, of course, for the utterly gorgeous middle bit in which a man and a woman did the most amazing work. Both times I saw the same cast, he black and she white, looking like yin and yang together … the movement utterly enchanting, in some ways almost a response to the Balanchine that opened the evening, making the manipulations worked on the ballerina earlier seem so heavy and coarse … now delicate, lifting, bending, flowing, working together as one, his strength, her grace and flexibility … perfect.

And then it was time for the big black wall with the winking blue lightbulbs to show up and end the dance, and I found myself thinking, “E=MC2 was it, I’m so glad I went, I wish I’d seen it twice”, and bam, the end of the night, the end of the ballet year, let down but glad I’d hedged my bets and run off to see BRB earlier in the week.

The day before my second viewing of the mixed bill I went to see Sleeping Beauty, and I really am just not going to be able to say too much about it as, well, it was dry. I realize this production is some kind of touchstone for the British ballet public but for me I about choked on the dust rolling off of the sets and costumes, which reminded me of some little girl’s room in her grandmother’s house, circa 1950, pastel green on pastel pink on pastel purple BAH. The ballet itself has almost no plot and is just really a set piece for some tricksy dance moves, so if you want emotion and not canned Petipa “let’s show of the technique of the dancers,” then it’s going to be Cyrano for you. Admittedly, even the New York Times’ reviewer criticized Tamara Rojo for her rather stiff Aurora, and perhaps this was part of the problem; I could go “ooh, she stayed on that balance almost until infinity,” but I didn’t really care. It was just like watching … the circus or something. I wanted to be involved, like the way I am when my heart breaks for Giselle, but I wasn’t.

Anyway, in the dances of the various fairies in the prologue, I did get quite a kick out of the technical prowess and charm of Sian Murphy as the “Fairy of the Woodland Glade” (she stands en pointe with her supporting leg slightly bent and does two kicks in front, then pulls up into an arabesque – did I get the fairy right?) – as well as the lightfooted (and charismatic) Iohna Loots as “Fairy of the Song Bird,” and of course I liked the bit with Puss & Boots, and the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood, and of course (I must say!) the Bluebird pas de deux in the final act … but the damned “vision” scene in the second act was just SO LONG I was running out of energy to be there any more. AAARGH. And I didn’t enjoy the dancing in that scene, either. I mean, I saw this ballet done by Pacific Northwest Ballet the year they debuted it, I didn’t enjoy it then, and still I went back. It’s like I don’t learn. It’s still the same ballet. I might just need to see it with a different ballerina in the lead, though as expensive as story ballets are at Royal Ballet it’s unlikely I’ll go back to see this in less than five years. The fact remains that it needs to be massively freshened up and redone for the 21st century instead of being such a museum piece.

Ah well, but if you look at the net result, of five nights of ballet, I did get something to enjoy every night – but for this round, it was Birmingham Royal Ballet that I enjoyed more, and ultimately David Bintley’s choreography that cranked my chain. I can’t wait to see what 2010 will have to offer!