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Log-in from London

Posted on November 8, 2017

In the first instalment of his new blog, dance writer Graham Watts summarises what he has seen on stage in London during October

October. A month of darkened afternoons, falling leaves and frequent need of an umbrella. It’s also the time to unfurl the Dance Umbrella, the annual festival that pops up in mainstream theatres, as well as unusual indoor and outdoor venues across the capital. This year’s opening braved the elements with a free al fresco event, Origami by Paris-based Satchie Noro and Silvain Ohl, which featured the surreal spectacle of a lone woman (Noro) performing a duet with a huge shipping container. Beginning at Battersea Power Station, Origami then moved venues along the Thames (ten shows at five venues over five consecutive days).

I prefer to experience dance, sitting cosily, rain-free, in a theatre, and I took advantage of three excellent opportunities to do so, from this year’s Dance Umbrella: beginning with the extraordinary flamenco dancer Rocío Molina at the Barbican Theatre, then Rachid Ouramdane’s Tordre at the Artsdepot (a good claim for London’s best, least-known dance venue), and finishing with Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues at Sadler’s Wells (a good claim for London’s worst, best-known dance venue).

Molina bared all in Caída del Cielo (Fallen from Heaven), inverting the traditions of her art through a forensic deconstruction of flamenco in an ebullient one-woman masterclass (not forgetting four excellent musicians). Tordre was a striking duet for another two outstanding female dancers – Annie Hanauer and Lora Juodkaite – but one in which they rarely danced together. Having worked with the pair, independently, for many years, Ouramdane created highly personal portraits that focused on their distinctive, individual skills. Juodkaite’s compelling – and compulsive – spinning was a feat of marathon endurance. When Hanauer intervened to end it, her partner just began again (and again).   Thousands of spins. Incredible.

“You can’t dance to Beethoven”, is a line voiced by the late River Phoenix in the 1988 film, Running on Empty. Lyon Opera Ballet disproved this oft-quoted adage by presenting a trio of different interpretations to three separate recordings of Beethoven’s rythmically challenging Die Grosse Fugue, composed near the end of his life when already profoundly deaf. Lucinda Childs’ theatrical work for six couples had shifting layers of intensity, reflecting the dissonant (sometimes chaotic) musical patterns in diverse solos and duets. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s piece rattled along, using eight dancers (six men, two women) wearing business suits, mixing frenetic, gestural action to reflect the contrapuntal music in a defiantly masculine work that also appeared to defy the music. The best of the triptych was Maguy Marin’s female quartet who – in stark contrast to De Keersmaeker – dance as if the music is inside them, pulsating through their bodies like an electric current. These three widely-differing interpretations of the same challenging music demonstrated the distinctive value added by the fascinating art of choreography.

This October brought another wonderful festival to London, since it was the month in which Kenneth MacMillan died 25 years’ ago. To mark that anniversary, The Royal Ballet’s director, Kevin O’Hare, opened up the treasure chest of MacMillan’s one-act ballets and, together with Birmingham Royal Ballet (the other bearer of MacMillan’s legacy) shared them with the three other major UK ballet companies – English National Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet – to create a National Celebration that comprised three mixed programmes at the Royal Opera House.

These main stage bills were prefaced by a smaller work in the Clore Studio Upstairs, firstly with Jeux, and then Sea of Troubles. Jeux was the only festival work not to have been choreographed by MacMillan, but by Wayne Eagling (who created roles in seven MacMillan ballets). Eagling began with fragments of dance created by MacMillan for the 1980 biopic Nijinsky, representing the latter’s long-lost ballet, from 1913, to make his own reimagined version of Jeux. Given that MacMillan’s early choreographic forays were often in collaboration with other emerging choreographers (John Cranko and Alfred Rodrigues, for example), it seemed an appropriate start.

The other Clore offering was a welcome revival of Sea of Troubles, from 1988, a miniature masque evoking the style of Jose Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane, but to an essence of the Hamlet narrative (rather than Limón’s reduction of Othello). It was expressively performed by the six dancers and three musicians of Yorke Dance Project.

The main stage of the Royal Opera House saw a mesmerising interpretation of some of the finest music for orchestra and voice ever written, in MacMillan’s blissful choreography for Song of the Earth. Often performed in that place by the home company, here it was delivered magnificently by English National Ballet, with Erina Takahashi, Isaac Hernández and Jeffrey Cirio superb in the lead roles of the woman, the man and the messenger of death. In another of MacMillan’s glorious synergies of choreography created to beautiful sung music, Northern Ballet relished the opportunity to perform his work by giving an emotional, heart-stirring portrayal of Gloria; a huge credit to the whole company.

Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Javier Torres in Gloria. Photograph by Lauren Godfrey.

Birmingham Royal Ballet performed Concerto (made in 1966), a work that broke the mould of MacMillan’s expressionism by showing he could create pure classical dance to sit alongside the great purists of that age. At the opposite end of this creative spectrum, The Royal Ballet reprised his controversial final work, The Judas Tree, set on a scrapyard/construction site, nestled in the hinterland of Canary Wharf, with both allegorical significance to the final days in the Life of Christ and contemporary relevance (MacMillan was inspired by the image of a lone man facing a line of tanks during the Tiananmen Square insurrection in Beijing). It is a ballet that always courts controversy, not the least for a graphic depiction of gang rape, but The Judas Tree endures as one of MacMillan’s most viscerally striking works. The performances of Lauren Cuthbertson and Melissa Hamilton (as the woman, jointly inspired by the Madonna/Magdalene); Thiago Soares and Bennet Gartside (as the Judas figure, the Foreman) and Edward Watson and Matthew Ball as the allegorical representation of “Christ” were superb, albeit in subtly differing interpretations.

All five companies shared in the fun of Elite Syncopations, performed in varying casts over two programmes, with its slinky, sexy, cool nightclub devoted to ragtime, made more memorable by Ian Spurling’s skintight, multi-coloured costumes decorated in the stars, stripes, buttons and bows of the good old US of A.

The only disappointment – perhaps best left to rose-tinted memory – came in Scottish Ballet’s revival of Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss), the oldest MacMillan ballet in the festival, dating back to 1960. This dark and loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden has pretty choreography but fails to deal convincingly with the lack of synergy between Stravinsky’s music and the narrative, or the vagaries in the storyline itself. It was at a disadvantage when set alongside Michael Corder’s 2008 choreography, to the same story and music, danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet in early November.

 Constance Devernay as The Fairy with dancers of Scottish Ballet in Le Baiser de la fée. Photograph by Andy Ross.

This National celebration gave a roller-coaster presentation of just a few MacMillan ballets and left the notion that it should be repeated, perhaps every five years, alternating with a similar quinquennial festival celebrating the work of the UK’s other great ballet choreographer, Frederick Ashton, starting in 2018 (the 30th anniversary of his death) and thereafter. There’s certainly enough material to make it all worthwhile.

My month in dance had opened at the Royal Opera House with an excellent, charismatic portrayal – by Akane Takada – of the heroine in Christopher Wheeldon’s triumphant, theatrical telling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has grown in stature and enjoyment through Wheeldon’s judicious tinkering since its premiere in 2011.

In a busy Sadler’s Wells Autumn season, Wayne McGregor diced with Cunninghamesque chance in his new work, Autobiography, which – in typical McGregor style – has nothing to do with memoirs but all to do with his genetics; having had his genome sequenced by scientists and then converted into an algorythm, which randomly determines the performance order of the 23 sections that comprise both McGregor’s genome and his choreographic interpretation thereof. An almost infinite number of variations inevitably leads to a mixed bag, juxtaposing beautiful imagery and lyrical choreography alongside sections that seemed derivative of the movement of past work. These occasional moments of sameness, however, did not detract from an innovative and generally fascinating piece.

Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski.

Another bout of innovation came the following week, when the BalletBoyz invited four choreographers (Javier De Frutos, Iván Pérez, Craig Revel Horwood and Wheeldon) to each make a work in Fourteen Days. It was an intriguing prospect that offered up an enjoyable and diverse programme. Wheeldon crafted a beguiling and ultra romantic male pas de deux, Us; De Frutos’ exploration of balance and counter-balance through the interaction of ten men and a Korean plank was both imaginative and arresting; and Revel Horwood used an ancestor’s celebrated clog dancing to create a brief work with a pleasing sense of theatre. Pérez’s whimsical playground ideas in Human Animal lacked the depth of the other 14-day wonders, responding to Joby Talbot’s striking music with a lesser sense of adventure. The “risk” factor was offset by a rerun of Russell Maliphant’s Fallen, with its incessant, ebullient, pulsating fluidity. I wonder, however, whether a programme that was created and performed by 26 men and just one woman is altogether suitable, given the generally accepted lack of equality in creative dance opportunities.

At the Peacock Theatre, Cirque Éloise brought its special mix of talents to Saloon, a magical, image-laden tale of the pioneers who opened up the frontiers of the Wild West, with a narrative that derived inspiration from just about every cowboy film ever made (minus all the non-PC elements) and a songbook that plundered the best of the Country and Western idiom.

Cirque Éloise in Saloon. Photograph by Jim Mneymneh.

Shobana Jeyasingh dealt with issues of cultural appropriation in her thought-provoking reimagining of La Bayadère, explained initially through the eyes of two modern-day Indian brothers, one telling the other – in WhatsApp messages – about seeing the ballet, before the narrative morphed into Théophile Gautier’s contemporary (and, unashamedly lustful) descriptions of a company of real bayadéres (temple dancers) touring Paris in 1838. Somehow, one of the Indian brothers transforms into an exotic bayadére as all these elements fused together in a radical deconstruction of Petipa’s famous ballet, dominating the last sequences of this imaginative work. It was a long overdue debut by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells.

The Wells’ month ended with reprises of two very succesful dance theatre works, both based on fantasy tales reimagined by the Disney Studio as cartoon films. In both cases – Pinocchio (1940) and Aladdin (1992) – the film has redefined the narrative for generations of young people that have been conditioned by the movie (in the case of Pinocchio, many of these young people have now grown into very senior citizens).

It is to Jasmin Vardimon’s credit that her Pinocchio deals with the undercurrent of adult themes hidden within the novel’s narrative, but retains a child-friendly focus, although greatly distanced from Disney’s incarnation of the puppet-boy. It is a work full of imaginative designs and magical happenings, topped off by the wonderful irony in the puppet-who-wants-to-be-a-boy being played – brilliantly – by a young woman, Maria Doulgeri.

David Bintley’s Aladdin is one of this prolific choreographer’s finest full-length works, made very much in the style of Imperial Russian ballets but inverted so that the feast of danced divertissements (traditionally in the final act weddings or such-like) occur in Act I, when the ballet’s hero is entertained by the dances of various jewels in human form while trapped in the famous Aladdin’s cave. The all-round, pleasing excellence of Bintley’s choreography and sumptuous set and costume designs by Dick Bird and Sue Blane are superbly balanced by Carl Davis’ excellent score (originally composed for Robert Cohan’s production of Aladdin for Scottish Ballet in 2000).

So, my first log-in represents a very busy month for dance in London, comprising so many different forms – ballet, flamenco nuevo, dance theatre, contemporary dance, kathak, circus-based theatre, even scientific dance – that it reflects this wonderful city’s immense diversity.

Main picture: Satchie Noro in Origami at Battersea Power Station. Photograph by Johnny Stephens.

Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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