Posted on December 7, 2017
In the second instalment of a regular series of blogs, Graham Watts summarises the dance he has seen in London during November
November’s dance in London came in a succession of pairs. There were two world premieres by the same choreographer; two programmes by Birmingham Royal Ballet; The Place offered two thoughful and topical pieces of contemporary dance theatre; plus there were two opening nights by The Royal Ballet, and even a pair of very different works derived from Jungian pyschology.
It was choreographer Arthur Pita who added the two new works to his opus. I gave his The Wind for The Royal Ballet a fair wind by seeing it twice, from opposite sides of the Stalls Circle. Pita took his inspiration from a Lilian Gish silent movie, interpreting Dorothy Scarborough’s bleak novel of a young Virginian woman transported to the frontier wastelands of Texas, where she suffers prairie madness, is raped and shoots her abuser. It seemed ripe territory for Pita’s special blend of spectacular, image-laden dance theatre but, for me, viewed from the right of the Royal Opera House, the giant wind machines (with rolling panels, like giant one-armed bandits) ruined the show. It subsequently transpired they were largely hidden from the view of anyone sitting on the left, and it made a huge difference to my appreciation of the work’s impact and imagery, as the wind was much more marked when one couldn’t see how it was manufactured. This reminded me that Frederick Ashton would view his work from all over the house, and it’s a tactic all choreographers should consider for the general benefit of their audiences. The cluttered staging of The Wind militated against the idea of a wide open Texan prairie, and there just wasn’t enough memorable choreography to make it work, despite evocative costumes (by Yann Seabra) and an emotional central performance by Natalia Osipova.
Pita’s second world premiere was a brief conclusion to the Men in Motion programme at the London Coliseum, as a solo vehicle for Irek Mukhamedov. Some may have seen it as a courageous exposé of an artist’s soul, others as an intellectual exercise in self-parody or performance deconstruction. Perhaps. I was disappointed by the spectacle of one of the 20th century’s greatest dancers hamming up his portrayal of a vodka-swilling has-been, attempting – and failing – to perform a routine with a tambourine. It had occasional standout moments (such as Mukhamedov guillotining himself under the falling curtain), but it was poorly judged as a means of entertainment.
The pair of Jungian dances came at either end of the month. First, Ballet Cymru made a rare, one-off appearance in Australian choreographer Tim Podesta’s Shadow Aspect at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells. Podesta has developed a close creative relationship with former Royal Ballet principal, Mara Galeazzi, and she is the central figure in his dark tale that derived inspiration from Jung’s notion that shadows represent the unconscious side of human nature. Galeazzi was terrific in this deep dive into her dark side. Although she regularly shared the stage with eight other dancers, Podesta’s muse remained a remote and isolated observer; her gestures were captured in silhouettes that exaggerated the sinister shapes of hooked arms or claws. Galeazzi is a notable example of a ballerina successfully extending her dance life into a freelance career.
The second dalliance with Jung came as a prelude to the opening performance of Ashton’s Sylvia by The Royal Ballet in a world premiere for the Clore Studio Upstairs. Alexander Whitley’s Noumena was billed as a response to Ashton’s three-act work, although, true to Whitley’s style, this was no literal look at Greek mythology. Instead, his Jungian asociation was ambiguouisly explained in the definition of the title, “Things as they are in themselves”. Although it was a wasted effort trying to sustain any direct association with Sylvia, the purity and variety of Whitley’s neoclassical dance form – backed by a live 12-piece musical ensemble – was pervasive and enveloping. More of these new works in the Clore would be much appreciated as The Royal Ballet’s season progresses.
Sylvia was the second opening night for The Royal Ballet in November, in the version partially reconstructed by Christopher Newton for the choreographer’s centenary in 2004. Léo Delibes’ luscious score – including early and effective use of the saxophone – has had a jinxed life as a ballet, with no choreography settling in for the long run. Ashton famously came to Sylvia after dreaming of the composer, and it is absolutely right for The Royal Ballet to preserve and treasure this wonderful ballet – despite its daft story – with its stellar role for a ballerina, which in the run has been beautifully interpreted in three very different ways by Marianela Nuñez, Lauren Cuthbertson and Natalia Osipova.
The first of The Royal Ballet’s November opening nights featured another world premiere – in adition to The Wind – albeit that it effectively refurbished a work make by Twyla Tharp on the Joffrey Ballet way back in 1973. The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ augmented this earlier piece to the final two works of Haydn’s 45th Symphony by front-ending it with the prequel of a long duet for Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae. Tharp mixed lyrical classical movement with quirky, modern gestures that sat well on the natural insouciance of this pairing, who made light work of the marathon duet.
This first triple bill of the season concluded with a welcome return of Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, which seemed more satisfying, perhaps because its 2015 premiere was sandwiched between two modern classics (George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth). This time, the contrast with the two preceeding ballets played to its advantage. Shechter carves out some arresting imagery in the complex interactions of a 20-strong, apparently androgynous, identically-dressed group, although it sometimes seems indistinguishable from other works by this choreographer.
Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) came in style to Sadler’s Wells at the beginning of November. Up first was David Bintley’s delightfully old-fashioned Aladdin, with the evergreen César Morales, surviving an early, bruising encounter between his hand and a Eunuch’s schimitar, to give a delightful performance in the title role opposite Jenna Roberts as Princess Badr al-Budur. It was followed by an outstanding triple bill that showed the company’s past, present and future to great effect.
The future came first with Arcadia, amply demonstrating the burgeoning talent of yet another emerging female choreographer, Ruth Brill (a first artist with the company) and providing the opportunity for a strong performance by Brandon Lawrence as Pan. Later in the month, Lawrence was nominated in the 2017 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards for his role in Jessica Lang’s Wink.
Despite my unbounded admiration for the work of Kenneth MacMillan, I failed to warm to his version of La Baiser de la fée, as staged by Scottish Ballet last month at the Royal Opera House. I much preferred Michael Corder’s later version for BRB of this strange take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden; the sumptuous designs are by John Macfarlane. At the Saturday matinée, Roberts was an imperious fairy, the ethereal Mimoko Hirata a delightful bride and there was purposeful and strong dancing from Lachlan Monaghan as the young man saved by the fairy’s kiss, as a baby, to become enslaved to her in adulthood.
This excellent bill ended with one of Bintley’s finest ballets – perhaps his signature ballet – in the killer combo of whimsy and seriousness that is ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café (definitely a contender for the cleverest title in all of ballet). This seminal work was lovingly danced by the whole ensemble, enveloped in wonderful costumes by Hayden Griffin and – of course – Simon Jeffes’ inspirational music.
Highly evident amongst the cast – as he has been for almost 19 years – was Iain Mackay, BRB’s long-serving principal, whose retirement from the company (to become artistic director of the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School) has recently been announced. His charismatic stage presence will be missed. The excellence and sheer joy of these BRB performances made me resolve to see this fabulous company more often, and not just on this annual return to its spiritual home at Sadler’s Wells.
The Place provided the setting for thoughtful works by two of today’s leading modern choreographers. First, in a revival and update of the meaningful, episodic Border Tales by Luca Silvestrini’s Protein, that amplified – in spoken text, comedy and dance – the complex spaces between people who come from different places and viewed multiculturalism from both ends of the telescope. In text that veers from hilarious to excrutiating, Silvestrini illustrates the dichotomy between Brexit attitudes and the multi-cultural melting pot that is London.
Charlotte Vincent made a similarly challenging and episodic piece about being a man, greatly enhanced by an excellent and eclectic group of teenage and adult performers. SHUT DOWN – a sibling piece to her Virgin Territory, from last year – offered a host of male imagery, from a particularly age-diverse boy band, to a rugby scrum, through to toilet humour and transvestism that was mixed with film and computer game references, street dance, spoken word, conscious rap and the poignancy of focusing on the emotional male. Both Border Tales and SHUT DOWN managed to present serious and challenging issues in performances that nonetheless entertained.
The last full week of the month saw a different opening, each night. Beginning with a one-night-only gig for Arlene! The Glitz. The Glamour. The Gossip, a thoroughly enjoyable chat show with the queen of dance, Arlene Phillips, ably hosted by her former dance pupil, Jacqui Storey. They covered Strictly Come Dancing, of course, but this was the least of a show that focused on her career as a choreographer on television, film, pop videos and musical theatre. It was a show that fully captured the subject’s natural warmth within an environment of universal affection, and explored – with memorable film content – her huge catalogue of choreography. She also danced.
There was a swaggering confidence to Rambert’s dancers in an outstanding programme at Sadler’s Wells featuring a rerun of Itzik Galili’s spectacular, hi-energy A Linha Curva and two new works. First was an abstract piece, Symbiosis, by Andonis Foniadakis (resident choreographer at Greek National Ballet), that presented neoclassical form against a backdrop that suggested rows of metal bars bent out of the horozontal by some giant power. Miguel Altunaga was the mesmerising central presence in a group of 16 dancers. He returned to another central role, albeit largely delivered in spoken text, as the compere in Ben Duke’s extraordinary Goat. A candidate for the best capsule of Pina Bausch creativity, not made by Pina Bausch: an allusion given more weight by a set that echoed Kontakthof and a narrative that revolved around The Rite of Spring. By Duke’s own account it was not an easy creative process, but certainly a successful one, and a candidate for best new work of the year.
Unfortunately, on the next evening was a candidate for the worst work of the year. There is clearly a serious message in Daniel Proietto’s The Mockracy, the opening of Ivan Putrov’s latest iteration of Men in Motion, concerning false news, social media and crypto-fascism, but it was entirely lost in an overlong and boorish delivery. It’s a good while since I have heard catcalls, boos or slow-handclapping at a dance event, but this had all three. Given that the second item on the programme was an orchestral piece, with the curtain down, the first 30 minutes of Men in Motion contained hardly any men in motion. The show picked up with some excellent performances – exclusively in the solos and duets – by Mathieu Ganio, Matthew Ball, Proietto (doing what he does best – dancing), Anton Lukovkin (in a brief extract of Petrushka) and Marian Walter; but the programme struggled to shrug off its dreadful beginning, and it was not helped by long pauses between the brief pieces.
After the opening of Sylvia came Svetlana Zakharova’s exquisite triptych known collectively as Amore. This was a highly professional staging of three diverse choreographies in the dramatic narrative of Francesca da Rimini by Yuri Possokhov, poignant emotion by Patrick De Bana in his charismatic and fascinating Rain Before It Falls, and the carefree joy of Marguerite Donlan’s Strokes Through the Tail. The programme was both unequivocally serious and insouciantly lighthearted, providing an opportunity to see four charismatic male dancers (De Bana, Denis Savin, Mikhail Lobukhin and Denis Rodkin) but, above all else, it presented one of the greatest ballerinas of recent times in three very different guises. I loved it.
In addition to SHUT DOWN, the month ended with a pair of oddballs. First, in a visit to the luxurious surroundings of the Official Residence of Argentina for a dance event that wasn’t. Billed as A Lexicon of Famous Passages in Baroque Ballet, created by two of Argentina’s outstanding artists, Pablo Bronstein and Marianela Nuñez, it transpired these busy people couldn’t find enough time to make a work together, so they settled instead for a cosy chat, with Bronstein reinvented as interviewer. Though the lack of dance was disappointing, it still turned out to be a charming evening in which their chat ranged from Black Swan to Sylvia.
My last evening in November ended in the same seat where my month in dance had begun, back at Sadler’s Wells for Michael Keegan-Dolan’s highly personal version of Swan Lake, set – like so many of his works – in the Irish Midlands around the county town of Longford. Clever, dark and full of twists, it’s like no other Swan Lake. There is no Tchaikovsky; there are no tutus; and there is no-one called Odette, Odile, Siegfried or Rothbart, although several characters are called McLoughlin, all played by Mikel Murfi (who also portrays a tethered and bleating goat) – it is a tour de force in each of his many guises.
November in London was the month of Amore; where I fell in love all over again with the immortal Sylvia; the wonderful people of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Rambert; and with an unlikely pair of the most glorious queens of dance – Arlene and Svetlana.
Pictured: Marianela Nuñez in Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, photograph by Tristram Kneton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House; Mara Galeazzi in Ballet Cymru’s Shadow Aspect, photograph by Siân Trenberth; Dancers on Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake, photograph by Justin Tallis.