Posts Tagged ‘Royal Ballet’

Mini-review – Woolf Works – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2015

Every new ballet is a cause for celebration: even more so when it’s a full-length show. Many companies will only produce one every few years: but we’ve been lucky to get a regular feed of them here in London. This year the Royal Ballet has programmed a real treat: a full length ballet by Wayne McGregor inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf. For McGregor, Woolf Works represents a first full-length ballet work – meaning that for the Royal Ballet this represents a real risk, most poignantly financially. For us readers – and, practically, for the Royal Ballet’s audience as literate Londoners – it represents an opportunity to see a well-loved artist’s legacy reflected through another person’s eyes (and other bodies). But this again is a risk. So I say they’ve programmed a treat, but oh the potential for disaster! But one thing I think everyone agreed on: the topic was worth the effort.

As presented, Woolf Works focuses on three of Woolf’s books: Mrs Dalloway (“I Now, I Then”), Orlando (“Becomings”), and The Waves (“Tuesday”). Deliciously, each section (and the whole production) is approached in McGregor’s usual collaborative, gesamtkunstwerk style, so the sets/settings and lights are richly evocative but also extremely modern. We start with Woolf herself speaking while an animated graphic of her words rains on a scrim … a beautiful effect to take us into a world in which bodies, movement, light and sound attempt to recreate the internal effects of reading Woolf.

“I Now, I Then” is the most realistic and, I think, mostly closely pinned to Woolf’s actual writing: nearly a straight narrative of people remembering their younger selves and dealing with their (less glamorous, less happy) current selves. It introduces us to Alessandra Ferri, as Mrs Dalloway, but also as a representation of Woolf herself – Ferri is no longer the fresh young thing and is thus able to more physically embody the regret of the character she plays. The emotions raised by this section were overwhelmingly of longing – sometimes for the past, sometimes for the attention of/affection of others – with shimmering moments of joyous memories rising like koi from a murky pond. This feeling of looking painfully on the past slides us perfectly to the final section, “Tuesday,” which, while seemingly about The Waves, is much more of an exploration of the mental landscape of a deeply depressed person – one who sees fit to throw herself beneath the waters we see constantly roaring above her. It ends the evening on a heartbreaking note.

In the middle, though, was my favorite section: “Becomings.” I looked forward to it for the chance to see my three favorite dancers – McRae, Watson, and Osipova – on stage together, but also had the joy of McGregor’s oft-used pairing of Lamb and Underwood (why does Underwood never get such excellent choreography in other dances?). We started with dancers emerging from the shadows in stylized Elizabethan court dress – lots of ruffs and gold lamé – but with the gendered versions of the costumes not staying fixed. Eventually, as the lights from the side began to appear shining down in bars, I felt that we were moving forward in time, with somehow a core personality for each performer staying put while the physical manifestation of their existence morphed and wobbled. Then, in the end, as tiny LEDS lit up the arches of the layers of the seating at the Royal Opera House, it felt like we had got to a point where we were beyond gender. Then it was one step further forward so that we simply existing as glittering points of consciousness – and the lights went out. I had been smashed in my chair by the forces of acceleration and then was suddenly floating in space. We had just gone on an adventure beyond the ultraworld. I can hardly imagine a better adaptation – we, the dancers, and Woolf had all been transformed. I can only hope that somehow I can have a chance to see this again before it ends.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. It continues through Tuesday, May 26th.)

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Mini-review – Swan Lake – Natalia Osipova at Royal Ballet

March 21, 2015

I really enjoy Swan Lake, so I make an effort to “collect” productions, noting the differences in them rather like one might do wine tastings (“Oh, this has been oaked! Oh, they collapsed the last two acts!”). It came to me as a bit of a surprise to realize that, after eight years in London, I hadn’t actually seen Swan Lake: on the other hand, given the price of the tickets – it looks like it’s been a recurring financial decision to pass as amphitheater seats alone were running 50 quid. But I was able to find a slightly restricted view seat in the stalls circle for around 55, which is a price I’m more than happy to pay to see Natalia Osipova dancing: I feel morally obligated to see her as many times as possible (or at least once per ballet) now that she’s performing regularly at the Royal Ballet. These brilliant dancers don’t stay at the peak of their career forever anymore than a cherry tree stays covered in pink blossoms all year round.

Sadly for me the Siegfried chosen for this production is Matthew Golding, who singularly impressed me with his complete inability to act during the production of Onegin I went to last month. He a strong dancer but in a story ballet you want someone to pull you in, to get the emotional commitment to the story, and not just see perfect jump (check) perfect landing (check) awesome lift (check) all done with the kind of facial expressions last seen on Luke Skywalker (slightly angry – check – determined to succeed – check). On the other hand, you can absolutely believe his Prince Siegfried is too stupid to tell the difference between Odette and Odile, so that’s one hurdle crossed.

The Royal Ballet’s production (mocked by a friend for being dusty) struck me as singularly deliciously costumed, with the first act done in a mixture of well researched 1870s styles with perfectly interwoven Russian traditional dresses. Were both worn at court at that time? Who knows, but the effect was grand, the colors as varied as leaves in the forest and I couldn’t gawp as much as I wanted to. Instead of the bizarre jester role I’ve seen in some Russian productions, Royal Ballet had some comic relief provided by “the tutor” (Alastair Marriott), who gets in a dance with some girls of about 10 or 12 (Manon Forssell Pyk, Emily-Rose Holland) in which they basically attempt to duck away from him. They were for me the highlight of this act as I rarely get the chance to see young talent on stage – future ballerinas of the Royal, represent! And while the pas de trois was well done, I was bored by the waltzing and generally ready to just move through this scene and on to the lake (oddly I could see a swan boat at the back of the stage from where I was sitting … deliberate? accident?).

Then we had act two, with all of the young men of the palace going into the forest a-hunting and a most peculiarly unfrightening Von Rothbart. However, there was terror aplenty to come as the swans finally came on stage and I realized: they had six young girls playing cygnets. With their whitened faces and blond(-ish) hair, they were like the terror twins of The Shining, only multiplied by three. They didn’t have a lot of dancing to do (and were mostly kept in the back), but they made everything seem more supernatural and just damned creepy – almost as creepy as Golding’s peculiarly immobile face. This is the emotional heart of the ballet and the make-or-break time for me as an audience member, and although Osipova danced well and her fluttering fingers as she slowly folded herself down on stage (with her front body and arms extending to her toes) tried to break my heart, it was impossible for me to buy any emotional connection between this Odette and Siegfried. The swan spell was broken and I felt grateful I hadn’t forked over the hundred quid plus for a proper stalls seat.

The first interval ended and I piled back into my seat, eager to see how the big palace scene was handled and, of course, Osipova being outrageous and outgoing and out there as Odette. I loved the costumes for this scene – it was all done as a masquerade and had a real feel of Masque of the Red Death about it, a feeling enhanced by Von Rothbart appearing with two children wearing death’s masks. He sat there petting him as if they were his evil monkey minions and he a latter day Elpheba. The upper edges of the ballroom all had giant mirrors on them – echoing the giant mirror at the back of the stage that Odette would appear in (or so I assumed: my blocked view cut this right off). Then we had the suite of dances that makes up the pre-choice of bride extravaganza in this act. The various Russian dances and the Spanish dance were adequate, but I was charmed by the Neapolitan dance, which featured flying tambourines, clever arms-like-ribbon catches, and stolen kisses – I think it’s the best version of this I’ve ever seen. It’s all a build up to the series of solo dances by Odile and Siegfried, which, well, were fine but just lacked emotional intensity for me. My heart was checked out and I could not connect. That said, I love it when Siegfried’s mistake was revealed to him and Odile was essentially snatched off stage in a ball of fiery smoke, practically as if she was being dragged back into the depths of hell. It all worked well with the extremely dark tone of this scene and I enjoyed it.

However, I was pretty much ready to go home at this point, but came back anyway hoping for a bit more niceness in the act four dancing. What I got was some black skirted swans … a nice chance to break up the rhythm of the costuming … and the most unconvincing evil Rothbart scene ever. He seemed utterly powerless, less of an evil sorcerer than the Wizard of Oz. Just to mock me further, whatever actually happened to Odette and Siegfried was utterly hidden. They disappeared from my sightlines, then reappeared on a swan-shaped boat. Did she plunge of a cliff and he dive after her? Death seemed unlikely given that they’d already beaten Von Rothbart (could have done it with a feather duster, really, he was so wimpy), so I have no idea what actually was supposed to have happened in the ending. All I wanted to do was get home, and I dashed out the door. Natalia would never know.

(This review is for the performance that was filmed for broadcast in the Royal Opera House live cinema season on Tuesday March 17th 2015 and I’m pleased to say that from where I sat the cameras were not a distraction. I just discovered that the Neapolitan dance was choreographed by Ashton. How wonderful! It did really have a La Fille Mal Gardee feeling about it. Note: this is the final use of this production, per this article by Judith Mackrell: if you’d like to see a proper critic’s response to the production, it’s worth a read.)

Review – Metamorphosis Titian 2012 – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

July 19, 2012

There will be lots of critical words spilled over Monica Mason’s final event at the Royal Opera House, so I’ll save repeating what everyone else will say (oh, a robot! etc.) and stick with my own views. Consider this an editorial, if you will, rather than a proper review. I’m going to build this as a sort of pre-retrospective, judging the show based, not on how innovative it was, but how likely I think it is to stand the test of time.

Act 1, Machina, a.k.a. “the one with the robot.” Unsurprisingly, this was by Wayne McGregor, who for some reason was sharing the reins with Kim Brandstrup and making him try to do choreography around a giant (15 foot tall?) robot with six planes of motion. Coolness: the early scenes with the scrim behind them and a baleful light poking through, with the ambiance of people dying on a dry plain – the kind of place I imagine mythology happening. Bit I hope to see again: pure hunter Carlos Acosta’s duet with lean-like-a-stag Edward Watson. It was totally McGregor and, while that style of angles does not suit Acosta, his muscular style made this moment electric. Also good: Tamara Rojo sliding across Ed’s body in another duet sequence. I vote this is revived in a special place of too hot to handle stage moments that I can treasure in private.

Act 2, Trespass, a.k.a. “the one with the mirror.” The opening scene of the male dancers posing and dancing in a circle was the most homoerotic thing I’d seen since “Canto Vital” at the Carlos and Friends show back in 2009 – a veritable Kirk/Spock slashfest on the stage of the Royal Opera House. Wahoo! I loved the costumes – the men’s had circuit board patterns on the chests and a stripe of color across the upper thighs, making them look rather like naked robots, while the women’s seemed to be patterns of eyes – except for the woman playing Diana (Melissa Hamilton?), who got to look like she was naked. While there was some interesting stuff going on here in terms of people being able to glimpse each other through the mirror (when it was lit a certain way) and the anger of the violated goddess, it didn’t feel like something we were really ever going to see again. Pity, though, as the costuming was great.

Finally we have “the one with the singing,” Diana and Actaeon, also known as “the one with the really busy set.” After so much post modern grey and silver, it was wonderful to have something that was riotously colorful in a Marc Chagall kind of way, with bonus “people in dog costumes” (who carried their heads instead of wearing them, which allowed them to dance much better). While I generally loved what people were wearing in this section, I have to bitch about Chris Ofili’s bizarre choice to put Diana (Marianela Nunez) in orange. HELLO GODDESS OF THE MOON not the sun ORANGE IS NOT RIGHT.

A lot of this ballet was Nunez trying to push Actaeon (Bonelli) away, which I found quite mystifying – how did a hunter EVER get his hands on a goddess? How could there even be a hint of her responding erotically to him? I also found the “hands over boobs and crotch” gestures over used. Fun: the dogs, the other hunting group, Actaeon’s costume turning bloody via costume magic when he’s attacked by the dogs.

So when I re-do this ballet as a one act, it’s going to have the good solos from Machina, the costumes from Trespass, and a mixture of the men’s scenes from Trespass, with the Diana of Actaeon … dressed in blue. Plus the dogs and the male/female hunters, because they rocked. But seriously: while I loved the scope and inventiveness of this evening, I don’t feel that any of this will ever be revived (other than out of pig-headedness) and will certainly never make it into the repertoire of any other company. Except, maybe, for Wayne’s bit, because, while he is a bit of a nerd for the technology, he can sure get dancers to look beautiful on stage, and not just because they’re wearing revealing costumes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 16th, 2012. Its final night is tonight.)

Review – Draft Works in the Linbury – Royal Ballet and guests (downstairs at the Royal Opera House)

January 25, 2012

Seeing shows in the Linbury is a treat: it’s a nice, intimate space where you get much closer to the performers. And something like “Draft Works” is an even more special treat, a chance to see dance works – and new choreographers – as they develop.

There’s not much on the ROH website about the show, so here’s the list of choreographers and the names of their dances:

At the River Styx – Robert Binet
Feathers in your Head – Ludovic Ondivela
Gallardo – Fernando Montano
Overtone – Declan Whitaker
Lonesome Gun – Kristen McNally
Within the Hours – Erico Montes
i lean and bob – Thomas Whitehead
Grace – Simon Rice
Into the Woods – Tamara Rojo
Brandenburg Divertissement – Valentino Zucchetti

We started with a lovely, very classical piece by Robert Binet, who is woring as a choreographic apprentice at the Royal Ballet this season. The music was the Biber violin sonata that is based on (to my ears) the old round song “Rose” (“Rose, rose, rose rose/Will I ever see the wed” etc.), lending a melancholy air to the dance; but given that the theme was Orpheus’ ascent from the underworld with Eurydice, when he is unable to turn and look at her, I found it wholly appropriate. Yuhui Choe twined and arced and hovered around Ricardo Cervera, she showing her confusion and fear, he closing his eyes as she passed in front of him and yet somehow managing all sorts of lifts and other partnering that seemed not in keeping with the “don’t look at her or she’ll go back to the underworld” dictum. Cervera pulled of some amazingly fast turns, but the piece overall still felt a bit unsettled – if promising.

Next up was dancer Ludovic Ondivela’s “Feathers in your Head,” performed by Lauren Cuthbertson and Bennett Gartside. I thought Lauren was a great choice to play someone laid low by Alzheimers – she seemed fragile, constantly searching but always lost. I particularly liked the starting motion of typing fingers on her shoulder, a reminder of a more ordered past. Bennet was a good partner, mirroring her moves, protective, but somehow not reaching her.

This was followed by Fernando Montano’s self-danced “Gallardo,” done to Piazolla. Montano was swift footed with his tango moves, seemingly attempting to seduce the audience as he glided and strutted (although I think his hip waggle needed a bit more shimmy). I think the two women he was supposed to have in the piece missed out on a great chance to improve their style of dancing, but then again, perhaps they would have only sat in the chairs. Still, it was a lively and enjoyable piece, if weak in the standard ballet choreography.

Next up was Declan Whitaker’s as dancer/choreographer for “Overtone.” I missed the program note about it being glacier-themed, but I did find it slow and not very interesting. There was a loud buzzing noise over the speakers, some slow poses and twitching, all very serious. I found myself wondering what a dance piece based on “There’s Something About Kevin” would look like. And then it was over.

Soloist Kristen McNally wrapped up the first half with the lighthearted “Lonesome Gun,” six dancers in plastic cowboy hats performing to music as diverse as Nick Cave and Ennio Morricone (and we have been long overdue for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to be used as dance music!). I laughed as the blondest woman mouthed “What are you lookin’ at?” before hawking and (mime) spitting. She described it as a skeleton of a dance, and it seemed to be hitting a lot of the cowboy points – gambling, fighting, some male/female rescue drama. It seemed to need more flesh on it but as what it was, a sketch done for a one-off, it was a breath of fresh air. (I can’t imagine she’ll really finish it, nobody does comic one act any more.)

After the interval, we had the high point of the night: Erico Montes’ “Within the Hours,” performed to original (being debuted) music by Oliver Davies (Three Waltzes for Cello and Piano, Helen Leek on piano and Ivan McCready on cello). The whole piece seemed a meditation on the fragile nature of life and our essential loneliness, performed by (in my eyes) very young dancers. Montes seemed to really know how to handle ensemble movement, with a yearning in their togetherness, and elements of unexpected as they came apart. The music was echoed and emphasized in the dance while never seeming to dictate what happened next. I found myself thinking of “Serenade.” Thank you, Mr. Davies, for this lovely work, and pass a thank you on to your dancers and musicians for helping make it happen.

“i lean and bob” was a very short piece, another comic one that I think won’t be seen outside of this small room despite the fact it was so fun. It started in the stalls, with Ryoichi Hirano slapping his hands on the stage as “Kringle” by Analogik started to play. He was watched closely by Sian Murphy, who then dashed past the front row patrons trying to catch up to him as he ran onto the stage. They then danced together, he ignoring her at times, then lifting her up awkwardly (and to her surprise), both of them bouncing, Ryoichi grooving, Sian disappointed at being ignored. It all ended with a kiss, a little burst of excitement and passion to wrap up Thomas Whitehead’s engaging first attempt at choreography.

This was followed by “Grace,” a modern dance piece choreographed by Simon Rice and danced by his own troupe. The dancers moved so differently from the ballerinas that I had to regear my brain substantially, but in the end, the language of half turns, bending forward, rolling across each other’s bodies, et cetera, seemed so old to me, like being in Seattle in 2000 and watching Pat Grainey. Modern dance has moved forward a lot and what I was shown did not engage me at all.

Next to last was Tamara Rojo’s “Into the Woods,” danced by Camille Bracher and Jose Martin. The set up was a man on a chair to which a sylph-like woman is tied by the ankle. As the man conveyed his adoration (and occasionally lust) for the woman – lifting her up while she struggled to get away, running his hands over her body – I saw in it echoes of other myths, such as The Firebird (and even Diana and Actaeon, but without the happy ending). But as it became clearer she was his prisoner, I started having flashbacks to Silence of the Lambs and wondering if he was going to tell her to “rub the lotion on its skin” (“or else it gets the hose again”).

Then Bracher’s character had what seemed to me to be a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” moment as she decides she is attracted to the man, and the dance ends with her laying the rope around him (as he sits) and then curling at his feet on the floor. I was hoping for some rope around the neck and a violent escape, but … well, this did give me rather a lot to think about with only a simple story, so I think it must be considered a success.

Finally we had Valentino Zucchetti’s “Brandenburg Divertissement,” which was described as being architectural and Baroque, with a little passion. With a cast of eight, there was a lot of room for artistic creation, but ultimately I think its success was as a showcase for the up and coming dancers of the company (Yasmine Naghdi, who looked to me like the perfect Balanchine ballerina, and Claudia Dean, whom I was happy to see again after her promotion into the company, and all of the young men but especially Kevin Emerton). The choreography was unfortunately quite mechanical, a real contrast with the depth of “Within the Hours.” Perhaps it is the fault of Bach, or perhaps Zucchetti was just too literal in his interpretation.

Overall this was an enjoyable evening, a good introduction to both many dancers I did not know well and to many choreographers of all shades of experience. And at £11 a ticket, it was a good deal, with a special bonus: Ed Watson smiled at me during the interval *swoon* from about two feet away.

(This work is for a performance that took place on January 24th, 2012. Draft Works in the Linbury continues through January 26th, so just for two more nights. For more information please see Judith Flanders’ writeup for The Arts Desk or Clement Crisp’s shorter yet as always God-like review. Apologies for the many misspellings as trying to do this in 10 minute snatches during the workday is not conducive to cross checking what I’ve written with a program.)

Ticket deal – Royal Ballet triple bill (Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria) two-fer

November 7, 2011

Spotted in this morning’s Metro: a two for one deal for orchestra stalls seats to the Royal Ballet’s next Triple Bill (Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria) – normally £63 each. It’s good for November 19th at 2pm, and the 23rd and 29th at 7:30. To get the deal, go to the Royal Opera House’s website and enter Metro into the “Do you ave a code” box (and click “Go”) or call the box office and quote the Metro offer. When you enter the code into the website, the prices will show up at normal price AND at the “Metro discount” price – select the radio button for the discounted tickets. (And it appears it isn’t a two-fer so much as a half off, so feel free to take advantage of this offer in odd numbers if you need to.)

Review – Triple Bill (Limen, Marguerite and Armand, Requiem) – Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

October 9, 2011

It’s been two years since I first saw Limen, and the newness of it has worn off well enough for me to appreciate it more structurally. Saturday afternoon I was amazed by the lighting much more – the opening, with the animated, digital clock-font glowing numbers floating around on a scrim while dancers stepped into the numbers and then disappeared into the darkness just a foot or two away from the screen … the very cool white box of light that had the dancers in a negative space in the middle … the colored lights that at one point made a box border that matched the dancers’ shirts (crayon primaries) and then later sliced straight across the stage (in a recreation of the Mount Olympus scene from Xanadu – am I the only one who saw that?) … then the final scene with the great blackness at the back of the stage with little blue lights flickering around it that the dancers all eventually went to stand in front of, completely disappearing in the gloom. It all seemed a metaphor for how we have such brief moments of life and then it’s snuffed out. And yet … the one thing in this ballet that just really kills me is the Yin Yang duet Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood perform just past the halfway point. He is pure power, she is tiny and (seemingly) fragile, and he moves her with the grace and strength that I think is one of the mind blowing things about sex, that two humans who could be destroying each other instead are so careful and vulnerable together. It’s a pas de deux that makes you hold your breath and I feel lucky I was able to see it again with the originators of the roles.

No such luck with Marguerite and Armand, but given that Fonteyn and Nureyev were performing it until the late 70s, I almost could have (if I’d been living in England thirty years ago). But it was wonderful to have it be my debut as an audience member, with Rojo and Polunin instead, letting me revel in thirty minutes of unfiltered Ashtonian sap. Now, I am not a fan of Traviata (based on the same story, Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias), as I don’t care for heroes or heroines who are willing to let social norms dictate their actions. Yet somehow as a ballet, with so much of the irritating moral conflicts stripped away, the story moved on to a higher plan of abstracted feelings; love, longing, betrayal, duty, rejection, regret. Ashton wrote the emotions and relationships wonderfully through movement; Marguerite’s weakness captured by Armand lifting her using his legs; her heart and body broken as she shuffles offstage in toe-dragging pointe. I still wanted to hit Armand at the end for not being able to forgive Marguerite (for what I am still not sure; something about a necklace) in time to be able to enjoy what little of her life there was going to be for them to spend together; why must people dwell on the faults of those they love while they live only to suffer so much regret when they die – when a little less rigidity could have led to such a different outcome? Ah well, midway into my forties I see Armand’s pigheaddishness is just as contemporary as ever. Women may not be dying of consumption like they used to but oh, it was just a lovely little thing, this ballet was.

This brought us to the third ballet of the afternoon, Macmillan’s Requiem, something I’ve been interested in seeing because of its place in his ouvre both as a critical one-act and as a historical moment as a choreographer’s tribute to his mentor. What does a ballet constructed of pure grief look like? At the start, as the white-clad dancers paraded, hunched over, on stage, it looked a whole lot like Ashton’s Rite of Spring; there was even a body being carried aloft by the crowd. But then, as we listened to the just beautiful choral work (Fauré’s “Requiem”), I realized … we were watching pretty little angels being carried around on stage! The message was, “Don’t be sad! They’ve moved on to a better place and we’ll get to see them again.” Maybe that’s what the dancers of the Stuttgart ballet needed to hear but I found it just as candy-coated as the ribbon dance in La Fille mal Gardee. Grr. More grief! Ah well, it wasn’t badly danced, the music was very good, but my heart was not touched.

(This review is for the matinee performance of Saturday, October 8th, 2011. This triple bill continues through October 20th and like all of the Royal Ballet’s triple bills is a spectacular bargain. I highly encourage you to attend.)

Review – Alice in Wonderland – Royal Ballet

March 3, 2011

Alice in Wonderland is not just a favourite book for me, but a favourite theme; for puppet shows, for costume parties, for clothing. It’s like Christmas fairy dust for me: sprinkle some on to whatever you’re doing, and with luck the sparkle will stick. I can’t avoid the call of the Alice any more than some people can wrestle down the attraction of the Olympics or events involving royalty. And thus, in a world in which I love ballet but my hometown team keeps tossing overly-lengthy, spirit-deadening tragedies (Manon, Mayerling) or treacley kiddy fluff (Beatrix Potter, Cinderella) at me, it was with a supernova of excitement I read that the end of winter was going to feature a Royal Ballet, NEW production of Alice. Yippie ki-yi-yay! Top notch dancers, a fat budget, brand-spanking new choreography (always something to be happy about) … my hopes were high!

As usual, I avoided all media coverage before my designated night (including the Ballet Bag girls’ stint as guest Tweeters for the Royal Opera House, although I knew it was happening), so I had no idea that the music was by Joby Talbot, creator of the amazing music that accompanied Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma, or that Simon Russell Beale was apparently doing a Dame (not the red queen thank goodness), but I did know that Chris Wheeldon, founder of Morphoses, was handling the choreography (which Twitter scuttlebutt declared an “audition” of some sort). I didn’t recall being particularly impressed by his choreography on previous outings, but … hey, Alice!

I’m not going to pussyfoot around with a lot of “this is good” and “this is bad” but just get to the meat of it: the first 70 minutes is pants, but the second “half” (50 or so minutes) spanks it six ways to Sunday, so much that it almost seems like two entirely different shows welded together by an intermission. Had, perhaps, Wheeldon spent a year working on “Alice goes to the Queen’s garden” section and completely neglected the rest of the show? The first half managed a fair amount of faith to the text, but the growing/shrinking bit played horribly (too much reliance on projections), the pre-rabbit hold set-up was dull, and Ibi and I were unable to find much in the way of dance for the entire act. Yes, a story was told, yes, there were some great costumes, but, ahem, BALLET. Please to give us the dancing and not just at the very end for the flower dance (which was actually kind of dull).

However, teases of hope were sparked by the delightful handling of the Cheshire cat (proving to me that stage magic is much better created through cardboard and imagination rather than technology) and the brilliant Mad Hatter’s tea party. Fessing up, it was Steve McRae’s tap-dancing hatter that stole the entire first act through the clicking of his hypnotic, metallic toes; I didn’t see what it had to do with the story, but suddenly we had an electric moment on stage and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was truly novel and a moment of choreographic genius; and McRae may now be the ideal of the Hatter in my eyes (even though his costume stole a bit too much from Mr. Depps incarnation).

Act Two will forever in my mind be the Dance of the Red Queen (Zenaida Yanowsky), or possibly the Red Queen pas de cinq. The brilliance of this bit is that she is being partnered by four terrified playing cards who are expecting every minute that they are going to be executed. They are afraid not to hold her hand or lift her or turn her, but at the same time they are also clearly revolted by doing so. I’ve never seen such a broadly comic dance like this; it wasn’t coarse like the ugly stepsisters are in Cinderella, but again by upturning the expectations of sweetness (a la the Rose Adagio), it made for some genuine laughs. Whatever else happens to this ballet, this scene alone is a work of genius that I hope I’ll have the opportunity to see again.

As for the rest of the ballet, well, dancing flamingos cute, hedgehog croquet fun, all of the characters chasing each other around the queen’s court dull, Beale wasted, ending returning us to modern times bizarre, Alice’s romance (with the Knave of Hearts, Sergei Polunin) absolutely not in the original and too much of a change for me to accept. Maybe if her duets with the Knave had been more exciting I would have felt differently, but as it is it seems like the romance was introduced to allow for the dances, and they were, well, forgettable. As was almost all of Alice’s dancing. And this is a shame, because Lauren Cuthbertson is no clod-hopping pig herder (stage roles aside), but she, like the production, never had much opportunity to show off her brilliant moves. Still, the second act was SO very much better we about forgave the first. Trust me Mr. Wheeldon; you must let the story take care of itself, as the secret to successful adaptations is to make a work of art that is good in the medium in which it is presented, not to be utterly faithful to the original.. Go back to it, cut and redesign, put Alice in blue and let her dance brilliantly in a shorter first act, and suddenly this ballet will become something we’ll all be cheering for.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011. The final performance of Alice will be Tuesday, Marcy 15th.)

Review – Royal Ballet Triple Bill (Asphodel Meadows, Carmen +1) – Royal Opera House

May 16, 2010

On Saturday I did something I’d never done at the ballet before: I deliberately skipped seeing a piece. In fact, I came late so that I could skip said piece. In fact, I changed my tickets from the matinee to the evening show so that I could completely and utterly miss a work I didn’t care for. The object of my disdain? Chris Wheeldon’s “Electric Counterpoint,” which I reviewed when it was new and thought would never be revived again. My dislike of video being used with dance has only increased since then, and there was no way I was going to sit through this torture again. An hour late arrival it was.

What did manage to drag me out of my torpor? The promise of a new ballet (not that I haven’t been burned before, but you gotta support it), but by Liam Scarlett, who’d really impressed me in last year’s outing for New Works at the Linbury. The Royal Ballet had decided to give him the big hall treatment? Excellent! In addition there was a ballet version of Carmen, which though not new was new to me, and as Carmen is my favorite opera and one I thought would hold up well dramatically as a ballet, I was excited about the possibilities.

Scooching into my amphitheater seats (row M, kind of far off to the side but 11 quid was about all I could manage), I wondered what “Asphodel Meadows” would hold. We were shown three main couples, dressed in grey, brown, and rust (or so it seemed), with some five to seven corps couples in a beige so pale they looked washed out. Hmm. The movement was good, to me lacking the complexity of Balanchine but showing an ease at considering how bodies should be balanced in space and time, with some unusual arm movements and a confident use of “the pause” – moments when there was no dancing, and sometimes even no music. I was very much feeling like Scarlett was ready for this move up, though I, unfortunately, as an audience member and writer was not entirely ready for him – I’d forgotten to bring paper to write on. I don’t think I would have had much to say, though – it was good but not amazing, though I’m glad I got to see it – and I think it was worth reviving, far more so than the Wheeldon.

I think it may also be true that my ability to recall this show well was hindered by the evening’s finale, Mats Ek’s Carmen. The whole thing was so over the top that it went into the realm of the hysterically awful I refer to as “the baddicle,” right there with de Fruto’s infamous spectacle at the Sadler’s Wells’ Diaghilev show last fall. I might have been able to make some love in my heart for dancers in metallic fake-flamenco ruffles, but put them in front of a giant, polka-dotted, open-crotched panty set (with some crotch spilling out of it thanks to the lighting design), then drop the dancers on their butts to writhe with their legs spread open … I could buy the Carmen, but I found the dancing comical. Laughter kept breaking out up in the gods, and when at one point one of the nauseating ward of snifflers and coughers keeping us company blew his nose in time to a roll of castanets, I, too, couldn’t help but laugh. And after that it was all just a sad comedy of histrionic dancing (though seriously, Tamara Rojo should learn how to flip a “bata de cola” – I saw five days of flamenco in which not a single person had to use their hands to turn their skirts, and it just looked amateurish). I heard from the Tyro Theatre Critic that this ballet is very popular among some people, and that’s why they keep reviving it: for me, I leapt over the other five people to run for the staircase and the fresh outdoor air before the curtain calls started, because while I couldn’t really blame it on the dancers, I did really, really want to get away from it. The Baddicle comes but once a year, but when you’ve had a visit you always want it to end as soon as possible.

(This review is for the final performance of this set of dances, which took place Saturday, May 15th, at 7 PM. I didn’t show up until 7:55 and yet I felt I got my money’s worth out of the evening. Thank you to the Royal Ballet for making your shows affordable to people at all income levels.)

Review – Cinderella – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

April 11, 2010

Boaters have their annual opening day, but ballet and opera fans have one of their own: first day of sale for the general public for the season at the Royal Opera House. It’s a bit of a madhouse, with the ROH computers inevitably maxing out their capacity and the lucky ones merely having a sign on the computer saying “You are 1263rd in line. This page will continue to refresh. You are 1239th in line. This page will continue to refresh,” while you sit there going completely crazy imagining everyone is stealing all of the good seats while you are stuck in the ROH equivalent of purgatory, waiting for that magic moment when the page finally refreshes to show the normal calendar. It’s particularly maddening because most of the other pages on the ROH website are blanked out at the same time, so you can’t see any details about the various performances that are for sale so that you can prepare yourself (if you haven’t already done so, possibly with a paper copy of the season schedule): what will you want to buy when your time finally comes?

For me the whole thing becomes like one of those contests involving mad dashes through a grocery store, tossing as many things in your basket as you can before the time runs out and your golden opportunity is lost. When my number came up for the spring season, the “meat” aisle for me was “35 quid main floor tickets for Royal Ballet Triple Bill featuring Wayne Macgregor!” But then I still had some time left, and I went and poked around the rest of the season to see what the Royal Ballet had on offer. “La Fille Mal Gardee?” It looked (and was) cute. “Cinderella?” I’d never seen it before, and look, the first performance was on a Saturday, at 12:30, making it cheaper and easier to attend than a weeknight performance. In the basket it went, and off to the ballet I went yesterday, freshly back from my Easter travels and basically utterly ignorant of what I was going to see.

My faith was well rewarded. We started with a beautiful score by Prokofiev – I’d never heard it, although I like his music quite a lot, and as we settled down into our “normal” amphitheater seats (slightly blocked view, little leg room, great price), I caught the gorgeous, skilled notes of one of the three masters of ballet music composition. The choreography was by Frederick Ashton, one of the two men whose style is a touch point of the entire Royal Ballet style and repertoire, but someone whose work I am still just learning about. I knew as an “Ashton,” this meant it was likely to be rather old feeling (at least 40 years), and that the costumes might be just a wee bit on the dusty side, but my guess was that it was all going to feel very classical and “just right,” exactly what you want for a story ballet.

The setup itself is a bit different than the Cinderella I have in my head (which nowadays is a thin pastiche of the old fairly tale over a thick chunk of Disney, the whole thing wrapped in a ribbon of English Panto). We open with Cinderella (Alina Cojocaru) in front of her fireplace, stepsisters (Luke Heydon, Wayne Sleep) sitting nearby acting crudely, with no stepmother in sight (I thought the taller one was the mother based on how familiar she was with Mr. Ella, but per the program it was just the sisters), and a loving but witless father (Christopher Saunders) who couldn’t seem to stop his daughters from spending what little is left of his fortune. A noticeably missing character is the “evil” stepmother; her absence means there was a lot less drama and unhappiness in this version (and certainly no chopping off of toes like in the Lyric Hammersmith’s rather too faithful play). Indeed, with the gawky, cross-gender sisters, this version seemed to very much lean toward the Panto tradition, with lots of hamming, clumsy goofball dancing bits involving the Uglies, and jokes (in pantomime) about how ugly they actually are – plus the requisite stunningly heinous dresses. I’m glad I’ve been to enough Panto to “get” them; my guess is that for non-English audiences, the production’s emphasis on these two characters might have been confusing.

But we also had lots of ballet fun, especially in the drawn-out scene in which Cinder’s fairy godmother (Laura Morera) whisked her away to the “land of the fairies” (not a scene I remember from any other version!), where four fairies representing four different seasons do lovely little dances capturing the spirit of their seasons, with a cute boy and girl in appropriate costume accompanying them (reminding me of 18th century English country paintings); award for most brilliant costume had to go to icicle-gauntleted Winter (Hikaru Kobayashi), whose entrance in a cloud of smoke was truly dramatic. That said, Cinderella’s transformation was a little less than wow, and the pumpkin just seemed to be begging for Robert Wilson to get a hold of it (in fact I propose he design ROH’s new version of it in another 3 years – this one is due for a face lift) even though the pretty boy-drawn carriage that showed up to carry her away did seem most ethereal.

Then we’ve got the fun of act 2, set at court where the jester (Paul Kay) makes more of an impression than anyone else; our prince (Rupert Pennefather) winds up feeling a bit of a cipher next to him, especially with the Uglies parading around with two mismatched “suitors” (Gary Avis, Michael Stojko) in a rather heavy-handed scene I felt tired out its welcome long before it left. (The same sort of gag was done much less painfully in “Elite Syncopations.”) Cinders finally shows up, the prince falls in love, they dance, it’s midnight, we duck out for some ice cream, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail (and 25 minutes of interval) the star-spangled toe shoe is reunited with its owner (who has to hurry off stage to actually get some tied on properly) and BANG it’s over. Two intervals, 3:10 running time, WHOOSH it’s done before you know it!

I’m afraid to say that throughout most of this ballet, I was having such a good time and being so enchanted by the show that I just utterly forgot to put my reviewer hat on and took no notes whatsoever of the performance (other than to tell myself that I must learn more proper ballet terms so I can discuss things properly with Those In The Know). Alina Cojocaru was just sweet and breathless (and apparently weightless) as Cinderella, reminding me of how incredibly spoiled I am to be able to expect such excellence in both dancing and characterization simply by virtue of having bought a ticket for this great company. Rupert Pennefeather, well, he doesn’t even show up until Act II, does he, and he doesn’t have too much to do – I don’t think the prince’s choreography was nearly as excellent as it could have been (I never had the “wow” feeling I did today while watching a selection from Don Quixote), but he carried the role well. And, damn, if there’s ever a ballet that makes little girls wish they could be ballerinas, it would be Cinderella, and with this score I have to say, it made me glad to live in a city where such riches at these are forever at my doorstop. A most excellent afternoon and highly recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, April 10th, 2010. It continues through June 5th. Remember, ballet doesn’t have to be expensive; my amphitheater seats were great, though I was so distracted by the costumes I found myself wishing I was sitting much closer. For another view, please see The Arts Desk.)

Review – La Fille Mal Gardee – Royal Ballet

March 28, 2010

While I love modern ballets, there is definitely a soft spot in my heart for the classics, especially the big standards like Giselle and Swan Lake. Who couldn’t love their great stories and wonderful dancing? It was with them in my mind that I approached La Fille Mal Gardee, which, as it turns out, is a classic, one that even precedes Petipa, going all the way back to 1789 and substantially reworked by Frederic Ashton (though many others had their hands on it in the intervening years). I was a little terrified by some reviews I’d read, that made it all just to be a bit too cute, and I was cringing just a bit as I sat down at the Royal Opera House on Friday night. Was it going to celebrate the more revolting aspects of ballet, the tutu-loving tweeness that makes me think of little girls dancing in their bedroom at the expense of producing good dance? Was I going to run screaming into the night?

It turns out I need not have worried. While there may have been a bit too much wuv in the just slightly-starcrossed lovers Colas (Johnathan Kobborg) and Lise (Alina Cojocaru), Ashton managed to stay just this side of treacle and delivered a really good evening’s entertainment. The story is clear-cut and required almost no mime-reading skills to interpret; Colas wants to marry Lise, but her mother has engaged her to Alain, the son of the local rich man and a clear candidate for village idiot. We of course get to laugh at gangly Maman (Will Tuckett) and her hopeless attempts to keep Colas and Lise apart (which at one point leads to a clog dance, TOO funny), and the affianced’s ridiculous attempts to make a good impression on Lise are also the source of humor. But there’s only one question to be asked in all this: will Colas and Lise get together? Well, as this is a comedy (and I can’t remember seeing any other comic story ballet besides Coppeliaa so let me tell you it was welcomed), there was only one way it could end; happily ever after.

There are probably three things that come to mind when discussing Fille: there is the live pony (pulling a cart, cue little girls squeeing); there are chickens dancing on stage (several times, hysterical and much less nauseating than in the Beatrix Potter ballet); and ribbon dances. When I read in the notes that XX was going to leave a love-knot tied for Colas on the stage, I had no idea that it was leading into a major dance theme for this show, and there were ribbons everywhere, really, almost all due to Ashton. I adored the way Alina and Kobborg played with the ribbons; they tied each other up, tangled them behind each other’s heads to force kisses, used it to spin Alina like a top, harnessed Kobborg like a pony – it really just went on and on. But I found the trope inventive and fun. Maybe it’s been done elsewhere, but it was so elaborate and perfectly executed that I really enjoyed it. In fact, it felt genre-setting, like the flower garden sequence in Le Corsaire, and yet unburdened by stiffness. Then the theme carried on in the second act, in which the village girls made pretty designs in the background while Colas and Lise danced away – it was all just really yummy and top-of-form choreography that could have really fallen limp if designed less confidently or danced with less skill.

In the end, I’d describe La Fille as a raspberry meringue – pink and fluffy and not really much of substance but still a treat. Like Proust says, pink does always taste better than other flavors, and it suited La Fille to a T – lighthearted, fun, and full of joyous dancing – the perfect antidote for a blustery spring day. Catch it while you can!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 26th, 2010. It continues through April 28th. For more reviews, please see the Ballet.co.uk Royal Ballet listings. I bow to the superiority of Clement Crisp’s review, though. The man is god.)