Posts Tagged ‘Leanne Benjamin’

Review – MacMillan Triple Bill (Concerto, Judas Tree, Elite Syncopations) – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

March 26, 2010

Kenneth MacMillan and Frederic Ashton have been the two mystery choreographers of England whose style I was in complete ignorance of before moving here nearly four years ago. Thanks to Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was well versed in the work of Balanchine (and had come to expect nothing but top-notch performances of same), as well as Jerome Robbins and a wonderful assortment of modern choreographers. But the English style was a mystery to me, and when I moved here, I was surprised to see that these two men had a veritable library of ballets created of which I had seen not one. This was a gap in my balletic knowledge.

I have to say, I have not warmed up to this choreography. I saw Manon in 2005 or so (on a trip – can’t find the date anywhere so that’s when I think it was) and found it rambling, brutal, and generally unappealing, my only positive memories being a pas de trois with some truly amazing manipulation of the lead ballerina by the two men partnering her. And Mayerling, which I saw this fall despite suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it, was a grind. But, still, I feel that I should be able, if not to enjoy Ashton’s depressing full-length ballets, to at least be able to identify his style. Nobody gets that much work in the dance world unless they have real talent, and, in this case, I fully believe that my inability to enthuse indicated a gap in my understanding. Not liking depressing full-length dance evenings, well, that makes sense to me, but I do really want to understand MacMillan’s style. And, well, I love triple bills and the opportunity they give you to see a wide variety of dance in one evening. I’d also scored some £6 amphitheater seats, so come 7:30 last night, my thought was, bring it on!

First up was “Concerto,” a piece from 1966, was an abstract ballet, with sunny orange, yellow, and red costumes. Sadly, it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. Yuhui Choe and Steve McRae looked really good and moved together nicely, but I found Hikaru Kobayashi’s forward-propelled leaps more memorable. The problem was that with “The Judas Tree” nipping on its heels and a high-powered, brilliantly costumed suite of dances to ragtime music at the end of the night, “Concerto” was just overwhelmed.

“The Judas Tree” was billed as “controversial,” and I suppose a ballet in which a dancer is raped would probably generate a lot of talk. However, I found it more ridiculous that she was forced to stand there holding her hand over her crotch afterwards as if we hadn’t understood what had happened, and that the person who’d set her up for this (in the context of the story, “The Foreman”) was so indifferent. I would expect either sympathy or brutality but instead the choreography showed cluelessness – just not a realistic response. I found the piece just painfully belabored and overdone, lacking in subtlety and clarity. “The Woman” (Leanne Benjamin), she’s a madonna (“look, she’s got a cape on”), she’s a whore (“ooh, she’s flirting with a lot of the men”), but really, all she was with her costume on was a ballerina. She didn’t look like a hooker brought in from off the streets, and if she was supposed to be The Foreman’s girlfriend, she should have been wearing something a little bit more street (hot pants and a tube top would have been perfect). This would have really cranked up the emotional drama but as it was I was unable to connect. Carlos Acosta did some nice leaps in the beginning (when he wasn’t the center of attention), Edward Watson acted his shoes off (the man is great), and it was interesting to watch Leanne “walking” on all of the construction workers hands, but the end, with murder, a suicide, and Leanne shaken to death, just didn’t work. I think part of this was because she had already appeared to have been killed once. My vote for this ballet: incoherent. A shame really, as it seemed to have so much potential with its great set and fab male cast, but it just didn’t hit it. I could about imagine going back to watch what was happening with the rest of the crew when Leanne was swanning around in the front of the stage, but it won’t take the taste of “opportunity missed” out of my mouth. The audience did not receive this piece well and I don’t think it could solely be blamed on the darkness of its ending.

Much like a child getting a lollipop after a trip to the dentist, we, the audience, were treated to “Elite Syncopations” after the hard work of “The Judas Tree.” My reaction to it was, of course, totally contaminated by my desire to have a good time, but I’ll pretend that wasn’t the case. I thought “Elite Syncopation” was great, right up there with “Les Patineurs” as a fab, fun ensemble piece, but even better because it had wonderful music (I love ragtime), amazing costumes (I couldn’t focus properly on the dancing because of them) and lighthearted, lovely dancing that put more recent attempts at the “dancers in a ballroom” to shame (sorry, Northern Ballet). I loved the references to the dances of the era, I thought Steve McRae was fab as a twinkle-toed high-flyer, I found the Hot House rag with the four man a treat – it was just lovely. And the whole time, at the back of the stage, a similarly manic-costumed band was burning it up. I can only imagine wanting to see this over and over again, just to get swept up in the magic.

So – a mixed bill, a mixed bag, and at the end I didn’t feel any closer to understanding what makes Kenneth MacMillans “style” anymore than I did before (other than a tendency to do complex partnerings with women). That said, it was a good night and good programming, and I’ll keep working at getting Mr. MacMillan worked out since there’s no shortage of his work to be seen now that I’m over here.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 24th, 2010. The MacMillan Triple Bill continues through April 15th, 2010.)

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Review – Giselle – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

May 15, 2009

Tonight, as an anniversary treat, my husband took me to the Royal Opera House to see Giselle. Now, going to the ballet isn’t such a treat for me as it might be for some people, since I go several times a year; but part of the reason I can go several times a year is that I usually get seats in the back of the amphitheater and also frequently skip going to see story ballets, which inevitably cost more than mixed bill programs. I don’t feel cheated doing this; I am genuinely enthusiastic about mixed bill ballets and I’m simply grateful that I can afford to buy seats at all (and certainly grateful that I’m not stuck standing in the side slips). The reason why this was a treat is because he’d splurged and got me floor (“stalls” in English parlance) seats – the very first time ever for me! And he chose to do so for a ballet I really love – Giselle is my very favorite story ballet. I am a sucker for evil fairies, that’s all there is to it.

But Giselle really is so much more than just evil fairies. It’s also a mad dance (reminding me of Lucia di Lammermoor, which has a famous mad scene but didn’t do a thing for me – not surprising as I don’t care for 19th century opera) and a “dance yourself to death” scene (rather like “The Red Shoes,” though of course it came much later). This means there are some really great opportunities for showy dancing. Add this into a story with an emotional plot that’s all capital letters and, well, you’ve got Giselle, the story of an ugly ducking (or beautiful gosling) who turns herself into a heroine by the end of the show. This is not bad for a girl who (in this version) kills herself over the first man she falls in love with.

Tonight’s show featured sexy strawberry blond Ed Watson as the rather dastardly Albrecht and Leanne Benjamin as Giselle. Watson was a great Albrecht – throughout the first act he kept his eyes on Giselle at all times and acted the consummate seducer, concerned with looking convincing in her eyes while simultaneously being completely unconcerned with her feelings or her good health (as when he shook his head to discourage her from believing her mother’s warnings about her health and the Wilis). Benjamin was, meanwhile, a great Giselle – she’s such a sillly goose, and her wide-eyed innocence is part of the fun of the first act.

The other great fun is all of the dancing that gets jammed in under typically weak balletic justification. There is a long scene in which the villagers dance a sort of harvest dance, which back in the early days would have made me go, “Now what the heck is this doing polluting up the story?” But, of course, the goal is to have some dance. I enjoyed the pas de six, especially the strong figure cut by James Hay (if I’m getting my names right – even though I could see the dancers well, I didn’t see faces for all of them in the program – a simply unforgivable oversight in my eyes. I want to learn all of them by name!). However, the woman who was getting most of the solo time seemed to just not have her balance nailed, and the stiff grin on her face to me emphasized the fact that she was actually working her buns off to get through her solos. Her partner had to hold onto her very strongly to keep her in the right place, and while I admired him for his great support, it seems that a better dancer would have had much more core strength developed than she did. I mean, you shouldn’t need a man to help you get into position en pointe.

The costumes and set were also good, rich without being too noisy. I was, however, utterly distracted by the costumes for Albrecht’s family – the men seemed to look quite Tudor with their slashed sleeves and short jackets, while the women, with their beaded headdresses, seemed to be quite a bit more medieval. In fact, I was disappointed when the well-dressed woman accompanying “the Duke of Courland” turned out to be his daughter (Genesia Rosato, looking far too old for the role) rather than his wife. It’s not how I remember the story going when I’ve seen it before, when there was a different woman for Albrecht to be engaged to, and with so many lush little swanlings on the edges of the scene, I was sure one of them would step forward to claim Albrecht’s hand as her own and spent rather a lot of time figuring out which one would do it. (Oops.)

This wasn’t the only plot point that came through differently for me – I am convinced that I’ve always seen Giselle die of heart failure. Perhaps I misread her frantic dance with Albrecht’s sword before – but I do not recall seeing her stab herself before, though this did enable her to collapse fantastically in Albrecht’s arms after her fabulous mad scene (better than Anastasya Matvienko). I also felt that Giselle’s mom was warning of Giselle’s weak heart earlier in the act (in addition to the Wilis), but perhaps I am just completely incapable of interpreting ballet mime and read the rest of the scene according to my mistakes.

Act two is even more fun, as we get to see Evil Fairies! and of course Hilarion (Ricardo Cervera)’s “dance to the death.” Part of the reason I love Giselle so much is that it’s fun to see fairies – well, Wilis, really, but with their white dresses and wings they look like fairies – being mean rather than acting noble. Sadly, Laura Morera played Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, like I’ve seen her every time – a fixed expression on her face, her eyes very wide open, her mouth curved in a cruel smile – which makes her come off rather like a praying mantis, observing the laws of nature rather than actually being able to take pleasure in suffering. I think I’ve decided that while this is definitely Myrtha’s look, I’d like to see her act like she’s got a little more intelligence and emotion behind those flat eyes, responding more strongly when Hilarion and Albrecht plead for their lives.

A lot of the greatness of this act is the whole “white ballet” – a whole stage full of women in white skirts moving more or less in unison. In this case, the women had veils over their faces, which they kept on for rather a long time, which I felt heightened the spookiness and made the scene even more gorgeous. That said, the scene in which they forced Hiliarion to dance to his death was just fantastic. Cervera appeared to give it all, and what a great role it is, in which you have to show just what a good dancer you are – so good you could dance until you killed yourself with the effort! His leaps and spins were amazingly high, he let just enough “control” go so that he looked like he was losing it (while clearly not!) – all of the time he spent skulking and whining in the first act paid off as we finally got to see what a great dancer he was. No, the Wilis were not going to spare him, and no, Giselle wasn’t going to come back to save him, no matter how much he loved her. Per this telling, he really dies when the Wilis chase him into the lake, but I prefer to believe his dancing really killed him. I look forward to seeing Cervera given another opportunity to strut his stuff like he did tonight.

After this it’s mostly emotional drama, with some lovely pas de deux with Giselle and Albrecht, but the height is, no matter how you look at it, Albrecht being tortured into dancing himself to death by Myrthe. “Beg, puny mortal! Nothing can save you now!” Was Watson going to let Cervera show him up? Well … he had just spent the previous hour and a half really putting himself out there, and I kind of think it’s impossible for Albrecht to really outdance Hilarion, as the big solo is really all Hilarion has to do for the entire evening. But there was Watson, all gorgeous and wonderful, a fantastic dancer who had spent most of the evening being an amazing partner, out there showing off his stuff as a soloist. And, well, he is really good. So it’s a bit hard to say who did better, and to be honest, at the time I was enjoying myself so much that I wasn’t really comparing the two.

Overall, if it isn’t clear, I just loved this show. It’s no wonder it’s sold out for its run – but still, Giselle – if you’re ever going to fork out as much for ballet tickets as you could to fly to Italy for the weekend, this is the show to do it for, and it was a great way to celebrate my anniversary. Thanks, hon!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 13th, 2009. Giselle continues May 26th. Don’t be discouraged by it being sold out – it’s pretty well guaranteed that there will be returns, and tickets are sold just on the day.)