Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Fokine’

Review – Mixed Bill (Les Sylphides, Sensorium, The Firebird) – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

May 5, 2009

Last night I hustled off of a southbound train and dashed to the ROH for a triple bill that included the debut of a new work. I love seeing new stuff; it’s the dance equivalent of a new life being brought into the world. The program itself was the typical mix of “don’t scare ’em off” stuff that usually comes with a new piece, in this case Les Sylphides (one of the all time classic, old school white ballets) and The Firebird (which I love and had seen for a second time this fall at Sadler’s Wells), with the new piece as the filling to this sandwich. Fortunately with such solid “bread” I was easily able to convince two more people to come with, so it was C, J, W and myself filling our upper balcony seats.

When I’d booked the tickets, the title of the new work wasn’t known, but with the cast list clenched in my hands, I saw that I was to see “Sensorium,” by Alastair Marriott, a choreographer I hadn’t heard of before. (Apparently he used to be an ROH dancer.) The music was to be by Debussy, and tonight was the premiere. What luck! But first we had Les Sylphides, a dance I had never seen before – well, I think: I might have seen the Trockaderos performing it over fifteen years ago! The music was extremely familiar, but I guess it being Chopin means it’s not exactly obscure. Unfortunately the vestigal memories of the Trocaderos made it a bit hard to get comfortable with the ballet’s extremely traditional aesthetic, which was seeming at times a bit too precious and dying to have a man on toe shoes stomping through it. Still, it was lovely to watch and gorgeous to listen to, but a review can pretty much only say, “It was Les Sylphides done well” – I don’t feel like there’s any more to add to it than that. It’s a big pack of girls in fluffy white skirts and little wings posing and dancing – though watching one dancer doing a move that required her to step on her foot, then somehow spring backwards onto her toe, then down again, then up, moving slowly backwards on the stage, made me think that ballerinas are all just incredibly brave to be able to do something that looked so incredibly painful with an expression on her face that was all beauty and grace. Unfortunately I can’t credit the dancer, but the Valse was danced by Laura Morera, the woman’s Mazurka was performed by Lauren Cuthbertson, and the Prelude was Yuhui Choe – any clues to the proper movement would be welcome.

This confusion reminds me: I really wish I could afford floor seats. In Seattle, I knew the Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers by name all the way to the corps, but here, I don’t even recognize most of the principals after two years. It’s depressing. Maybe remembering to bring my binoculars more will help.

Next was Sensorium. The curtain came up on a stage with a big beige metal swirl backdrop and a bunch of circular spotlights (which at different times would get larger and then smaller) on a cast of aqua and cream clad dancers. It was … not very exciting, and difficult for me to describe it. There was some interesting partnering going on, and while at the beginning I thought I saw traces of William Forsythe, his raw energy wasn’t present. Instead, a man would place a dancer, whom he’d held over his shoulder with her head below her hips then rotated over his body, so that her feet very carefully hit a spot under his bent legs. There was a lot of this very geometrical movement of dancers, but it didn’t seem to have real fire. The corps were fun to watch – I noted that their spins (of many sorts) actually made them look airier than the fairies of the previous dance, though sometimes their movement was not smooth. Overall, my feeling is that this was not a success, and will probably be revived at most once more before being retired. That said, the Debussy music was delicious and actually formed a nice pair with the Stravinsky that followed.

Firebird … it’s hard to talk about this one much when it was so very much the same staging (Fokine’s choreography, Natalia Gontcharova designs) I saw the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform twice in the last two years, though the set looked quite a bit cheaper (especially the apple tree). Mara Galeazzi was a strong and lovely Firebird, Thiago Soares a fairly appropriate Tsavevich with rather not much dancing to do other than partnering Ms. Galeazzi. But there was a panic and otherworldliness missing from her performance that I’d come to love with BRB. Also, the apple-tossing scene with enchanted princesses wasn’t as tight as it should have been – I supposed most ballerinas don’t spend a lot of time playing catch, but when the balls soar perfectly in time to the music it’s a magical experience. While the costumes overall were in keeping with the original design (I would guess), with the strange African and Hopi flavors in the various monsters of the middle section (in which the Tsar fights for his life with the Immortal Kostchei), the final scene just fell completely flat.. It’s a kind of a pageant, in which Ivan Tsarevich and The Beautiful Tsarevna are crowned and receive honors from their subjects (for freeing them from enchantment, I assume) – but, whereas for Birmingham Royal Ballet, this scene had so much gold and pizazz that it looked like a Gustav Klimt painting come to life, the Royal Ballet’s production looked instead like it were modeled after a deck of playing cards that didn’t come to life at all. It was a bit of a letdown that this performance, which could end on such a high note, instead squeaked out like a balloon losing its helium.

Overall, this evening was pleasant enough, but failed to catch fire. Still, it reminded me that I need to see more ballet, and that I’m lucky to have such a great ballet company in town and funded well enough to do original productions several times a year. If I suddenly became rich, you know this is how I’d be leaving my name on the world – adding to the permanent supply of beauty with another lovely ballet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 4th, 2009.)

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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.)