Posts Tagged ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’

Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum

April 15, 2009

Last night W (“Parsingphase”) and I went to the London Coliseum to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” program, part of the Spring Dance at the London Coliseum series.

My interest in this was due to 1) really enjoying my previous viewings of this groups’ work (they are a strong notch above English National Ballet and, as near as I can tell, the second best ballet group in England) and 2) the pictures for the Penguin Cafe piece were really intriguing.

I was fascinated by the idea of a ballet featuring zebras. Really, how would it work? Would it be like Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds,” or would it be (shudder) more like the “Tales of Beatrix Potter?” It had a look of whimsy (tempered with high artistic skill) that I really appreciated – even though I realized in some eyes the whole thing could come off like a giant Furry fantasy ballet. (But, you know, perhaps best not to go down that path!)

I faffed and faffed about buying tickets, hoping I could get a half price deal and get seats on the floor, but the gods weren’t with me – the deal I saw was for Sylvia, and when I looked at ENO and Sadler’s Wells sites to figure out what seats were available, it in fact looked like it was nearly sold out! I decided that rather risking not going, it was best to get some sort of seat bought, and so I settled on £20 seats in the next to last row of the Coliseum’s upper balcony (aided pricewise by Sadler’s Well’s 20% multibuy discount – I bought seats for Northern Ballet at the same time to get that deal).

As it turns out this was not a bad decision – while the show certainly wasn’t sold out (at least in the balcony), it did NOT come up on the TKTS offerings for the day (though I note it’s there today). Perhaps our balcony seats were a bit warm, but the view was unobstructed, and other than the damage to my knees from the ridiculously narrow space between the edge of my seat and the back of the next chair (a problem for all but the last row of the second balcony), it was most decidedly worth £20, especially since all of the music was done live (yay!).

The first piece was Balanchine’s “Serenade,” which premiered in 1935 and was the first piece he choreographed on American ballerinas. It did show signs of age – some of the movements looked like they’d been lifted right from Martha Graham (right arm straight out Hi-YAH!), and a few of the group bits had a heavy feel of Busby Berkeley – but it was still such a pleasure to watch. Really, his 70 year old ballets look so much fresher than many choreographers’ works from the seventies and sixties. The bit with the five women knotting and unknotting themselves with each other seemed to have almost a mathematic quality to it, and the “menage a trois” scene (rather a more appropriate name that “pas de trois” given what appeared to be the subject matter) had real dramatic tension in it. I didn’t feel like the corps of BRB was as good in this piece as Pacific Northwest Ballet was when I saw them do it some years back – there’s just something about the discipline in the way they hold their arms, and the incredible strength of the women’s torsos, that wasn’t happening for BRB – but the power of Balanchine carried me through (and they were certainly good enough to make it work, just not 100%).

“Enigma Variations,” as choreographed by Frederick Ashton to the music of Elgar, summary: Ashton ain’t for me. I have seen several of his ballets and they just utterly failt to grab me. The program went on about his skill at capturing character through dance – well, he does, that’s great, but there’s more to ballet that just putting some characters on stage and having them “express” themselves. I want to see great movement, I want to be swept away and amazed, and cutesy vignettes (a la his “Tales of Beatrix Potter“) just don’t cut the mustard. Jerome Robinson was his contemporary and managed both the dance and the character, so it’s not like it’s something that wasn’t happening at the time or can’t be done. I did enjoy the pas de cinq (as it were) with the four townspeople dancing around the old man (David Morse, whom they’d imprisoned in a hoop), but I just wasn’t convinced in the least by this dance, which suffered immensely by being placed next to a Balanchine. I am going to either have to have someone seriously explain to me why Ashton is so great (and change my experience of watching him) or just give up on seeing his work altogether and write it off to just not getting English tastes in ballet.

I liked Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design – though, in some ways, the extremely detailed costuming and set rather weighed the piece down in the very way that Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” were utterly freed to just be dance by having nothing else to them but the dancers and the music. And, geez, maybe all of those years of watching PNB perform Balanchine have just informed my tastes in a way I can’t overcome anymore than I can warm up to feathered hair or bell bottom jeans. I like plotless dances in the same way I like vanilla ice cream, plain cheese pizzas, and undecorated sterling flatware – strip all of the nonsense away and you can really see what something is made of and what kind of quality it is.

Enough grousing. The final piece of the night, David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe,” choreographed to music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, wound up the program in high style. I had great fears that it would be insufferably horrid, that it would get nauseatingly cutesy (due to having humans dressed as animals) or irritatingly preachy (with its underlying environmental message). Somehow, it avoided either of these big wide pitfalls and was both entertaining and fun to watch – with good music. Each of the pieces had an animal as its center, with dancing done in a particular style that the choreographer had taken a shine to – the Utah “Longhorn Ram” (rather a comic name as it was clearly a she-sheep rather than a ram, and a “bighorn” as “longhorns” are a type of cow!) with Angela Paul as a glamorous ’30s Hollywood starlet dancing with her tuxedoed (human) partners, the Texas Kangaroo Rat (Christopher Larsen) a yee-hawing country bumpkin, the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao per the Teenage Theatre Critic) a bit of a chanting tribal shaman dancing amidst fashion models.

I realized, while watching this, that it’s a horrible thing to have a dancer perform with a mask on. It reduces our ability to see what emotion they are experiencing, and while they should be able to express themselves quite competently with their bodies – well, as humans, we’re programmed to look for the face for clues to what’s going on in the head. And I began to wonder, as I watched the Texas Kangaroo Rat, if maybe having a mask on puts a dancer at a serious disadvantage, not just in terms of movement and weight, but in terms of their ability to connect with the audience. I felt like Mr. Larsen was maybe not feeling as “there” as he could of because of his own restriction in seeing the audience, as if perhaps wearing a mask made him feel like it was not really “him” performing the role, and that he didn’t need to give his all because he was just an anonymous body performing as an animal. At any rate, I was seeing a lack of fire and commitment in his movement, so ultimately this proved the most disappointing to me of the scenes.

This, however, was but a small twinge in the overall pleasure of “Still Life.” I’ll focus on my favorite bit, “The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas,” starring a made-up species, the Humbolt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. It started with an orange-clad dancer (Carol-Anne Millar) skipping on stage, being bouncy and fun, followed by a platoon of … wait for it … Morris Men. I kid you not. Never before have I seen such a queer embodiment of English culture depicted in the highbrow world of ballet (though of course we have bastardized versions of Scottish, Spanish, and Hungarian folk dancing galore) and I was laughing. Then the bizarre factor was really turned up as the flea and the dancers interacted. She danced with them, they carried her, she ran away as they swung their sticks, she refused to participate in leap-frog – it was just totally fun and great to watch and really a good time.

But it got better and better. The big finale with the Brazlilian Woolly Monkey had us all thinking we were going to end the night on a simple high note of “crazy monkey in a top hat” plus Carmen Miranda/Caribbean ladies in full skirts … then the Morris Men and the Zebra’s fashion models came back on stage – only suddenly Hayden Griffin’s costumes had been pared back to just the black and white, and they all blended together nicely while still maintaining ties with their earlier incarnations (I was really impressed by this).

There was a huge “everybody come out and party” finale … and then … it turned out it wasn’t the finale. The masks came off of the animals, and everyone was dealing with a sudden burst of rain … and rifle shots, occasionally hitting the people as well as the “animals.” (Or was it lightning strikes? Both seemed possible.) The lighting was really great – swirls on the floor, shimmers (of water) on the backdrop – and somehow it didn’t make the whole thing feel like, “Ooh, ooh, save the pwecious cute animals from extinction,” but rather a more generalized panic, a desire for shelter, a bit of truth about death – and while I found the final image of the Noah’s Ark (painted on a scrim so the animals could show “within” it) a bit twee, it was pretty enough as a framing device and didn’t wreck the mood. (The painting itself was childlike and I didn’t care for the use of an ark – it’s just too fraught and felt a bit inappropriate being used outside of the context of a Norman cathedral.) If I just focused on the glowing bodies huddling together behind the scrim … it was nice. And really, this whole ballet was just really great. I could talk about the rest of it at length, but 1800 words seems like quite enough! I’m really glad I had a chance to see it and I look forward to seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they come back to Sadler’s Wells in the fall, presenting David Bintley’s “Cyrano” (thanks to the head up from Rob at BRB) and hopefully another program of shorts – which will, of course, be what I’ll be seing.

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, April 14th, at 7:30 PM. Two more performances take place on April 15th, at 2:30 and 7:30.)

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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.)