Russian Ballet Icons Gala – Anna Pavlova

London Coliseum 4 March 2012

2012 marks the centenary of Anna Pavlova making Ivy House in London, her home. Pavlova lived at Ivy House from 1912 until her death in 1931, and it is in this setting with the surrounds of Hampstead Heath at her doorstep, that we remember some of her most enduring photographic images. According to the London Jewish Cultural Centre “she created a lively cultural haven here, away from the bustle of city life … rehearsing in her specially designed studio, training young dancers, landscaping the gardens and entertaining the most famous artistes of the day at her extraordinary soirees and garden parties”. It is this centenary that was the inspiration for a Russian Ballet Icons Gala dedicated to the spirit of Pavlova.

Ballet Gala’s can be tricky to put together, too much bravura and they look cheap, too many risky pieces and they can fall flat. Most are ultimately unsatisfying – this one providing just a taste of a smorgasbord offering of current ballet stars. A taste however, is better than nothing and the audience were most grateful for it.

Alina Somova partnered by an earth-bound David Makhateli, invited us into the hauntings of Act 2 Giselle. Somova approached the choreography with respect. Her lovely forever arms and lithe upper body compensate for her more gymnastic lower half.

Alina Cojocaru partnered by Alexandre Riabko superbly displayed the fruits of her recent creative partnership with choreographer John Neumeier in La Dame aux Camelias. An artist at the peak of her profession, she is quite simply to be admired.

Svetlana Zakharova and Andrey Merkuriev offered up a welcome change of pace with a Nacho Duato piece Cor Perdut. Zakharova was impressibly beautiful and fluid in this piece and quite outdanced Merkuriev.

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin put on a spectacular and bravura Raymonda Pas de Deux. A supremely confident Rojo whipped off impressive double fouettes and held steely strong balances with flair. Polunin was equally supreme and it’s wonderful to watch his effect on the audience – gasping and transfixed. He is a class act, and there is so much more he most certainly has to offer, but which won’t come to fruition by being a show pony at one-off Gala’s. I do believe his heart is in his performances, that the stage is his home. Watching him is bittersweet.

Irina Dvorovenko and husband Maxim Beloserkovsky performed a car crash of a pas de deux by Jessica Lang. Choreographed around a long and oversized skirt, a more frustrating piece I can’t remember  – unfortunately the vision did not practically translate.

Elsewhere, Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino were beautiful in Roland Petit’s La Prisonniere and Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov were familiarly charming in the Manon pas de deux.

And to Ulyana Lopatkina, the words ‘class’ and ‘elegance’ fall short. We were in the presence of a unique creature. The definitive Swan of her generation, it is unforgivable that she did not dance Pavlova’s signature piece, The Dying Swan. Alas, we were denied the indulgence.

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Draft Works 2012

Hayley Forskitt & Thomas Whitehead in Kirsten McNally's 'Lonesome Gun'

26 January 2012

Each year, the Royal Ballet offer a programme of Draft Works where dancers from the Royal Ballet (who self-select to participate) choreograph a short piece which is presented to an audience in the Linbury Studio Theatre (beneath the main stage at the Royal Opera House). Draft Works allow dancers an opportunity to try their hand at the choreographic process. These pieces are critiqued upon in the mainstream press, so it is a courageous step and not without risk that these dancers put their work forward for public consumption.

This year we were presented with ten works, seven of which were choreographed by Royal Ballet dancers, and three that were choreographed by non-company members.

Of the Royal Ballet pieces, the standouts were:

  1. i lean & bob by Company soloist Thomas Whitehead, a self-confessed ‘newcomer’ to the process his piece was not only an audience pleaser (think swinging 60’s) but it was smartly put-together blending theme, character and setting perfectly (despite the absence of costume or scenery). Dancers Sian Murphy and Ryoichi Hirano bought the piece to life vividly.
  2. Into the Woods by Principal dancer Tamara Rojo was a seemingly abstract bondage piece containing a chair and a rope, which was tied around dancer Camille Bracher’s ankle. The piece drew it’s audience into a complex and intimate conversation between Bracher and Jose Martin. Consuming, but for the music (Caprice OP.25 by Alfredo Piatti) which was neither a juxtaposition nor a complement to the choreography – this piece would suit a completely different piece of music altogether. Bracher shows a natural aptitude for modern movement.
  3. Brandenburg Divertissement by First Artist Valentino Zucchetti was a gorgeously visual piece put together in a most seasoned manner. Zucchetti also picks his dancers well, lovely to see Yasmine Naghdi’s easy presence and charisma on stage, Claudia Dean’s soaring ballon and Dawid Trzensimiech’s clean technique on show.

Of the non-royal ballet pieces, I enjoyed Declan Whitaker’s piece Overtone, which was self-danced. Despite starting slowly it revealed a good union between the music (a combination of three pieces) and the movement.

Elsewhere, Kristen McNally’s Lonesome Gun would look fabulous in a musical theatre context (bought to life perfectly by dancer Hayley Forskitt), and the original score Three Waltzes For Cello and Piano by musician Oliver Davis used by Enrico Montes was particularly charming.

I applaud the dancers, and I applaud the support given to them in presenting these works.

Polunin Walks

Will we see this again? Sergei Polunin with Tamara Rojo Photo Tristram Kenton

Friday 27 January 2012

The dance world is mystified at the resignation, with immediate effect, of the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal and most anticipated future star, Sergei Polunin.

Polunin’s story, born to a poor background in the Ukraine, his family enduring great sacrifice to secure him a better life, hints at the pressure and expectation placed upon him. Once Polunin’s talent was recognised, his life as a ballet dancer appeared to proceed without difficulty – a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School, winner of the Prix de Lausanne, Young British Dancer of the Year, a place with the Royal Ballet and promotion to Principal Dancer at the age of 19 – the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Such quick succession is rare. For most professional dancers progression is not quite so automatic, a labour of love, dedication and drive, each knock toughening them up, increasing their appetite to succeed.

If Polunin ‘no longer wants to dance’, as has been reported, the signs were few but nevertheless suggestive. Past comments by Polunin “I would have liked to behave badly, to play football. I loved sport. But all my family were working for me to succeed. My mother had moved to Kiev to be with me. There was no chance of me failing” (The Guardian) provide an insight into his current thinking.

Every so often someone in possession of ‘God-given’ talent quits and walks away from it all. Shocking everyone, except of course the decision-maker whose ‘forbidden thought’ takes hold and grows until there appears to be no alternative but to act, even if it causes complete disarray. In this case, Polunin was scheduled to appear in the lead male role on the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s production of The Dream on Wednesday 1 February. To walk away a week before the opening night, to leave a partner in the lurch, and leave an audience baffled is upon first judgement, selfish, immature, disappointing. On reflection, it signals perhaps, the strength of feeling he has and will have been struggling with for who knows how long. The nature of the resignation, out of the blue, unexpected, ‘shocking’ Covent Garden and colleagues and with no apparent back-up plan suggests he may not have been able to carry on living a life for everyone around him, but a life which seemed at that point, to hold no meaning for him.

A dancer simply cannot dance, cannot do class, cannot look their partners in the eye, if they lose their love and dedication to the art. It is simply not possible to function as a dancer, so demanding is the art, if this is the case.

So how should great talent be nurtured? It can’t be ignored, it can’t be told to fit in, it can’t be taken for granted. It has to be celebrated, it has to be promoted and it has to be challenged, and that is what both the Royal Ballet School and the Company appear to have given him.  The problem with great talent is sometimes the obvious goal is achieved fairly predictably, even easily. What has Polunin had to fight for? Awards, a place with the Company, the highest rank, the best roles? None of it – it was all a matter of time. So really what is he fighting for? An independent life, the carefree wanderings and discoveries he may have missed as a teenager, mistakes which affect no one? All this he arguably hasn’t had a chance at – and that provides him with something to focus on, something to fight against.

The signals suggest he needs time to enjoy the rebel within, to make mistakes without the world watching. To binge in whatever form, without having the pressure of a rehearsal or performance lurking. It might take some time away from ballet to explore, to pursue other interests and just hopefully the ‘pull’ with start to re-grow, where waking up and doing a ballet class will be motivational to him again. Where that incessant need dancers have, sprouts within him again – to perfect the ‘imperfectable’.

I only hope that he is going to dance somewhere else or may, in the future, dance somewhere else. To lose his talent completely, is a set back to the progression of the art form. At least when Viviana Durante left the Royal Ballet, she continued to dance. Above all, in his own time, I hope that is what Polunin decides to do.

The Nutcracker

Alina Cojocaru as the Sugar Plum Fairy photo by Bill Cooper

The Royal Ballet: 31 December 2011

The current smothering of Nutcracker productions showing in the UK has been the subject of much critique. Articles such as We Need to Talk About the Nutcrackers (“…what can be done – what must be done – to cure this endemic, epidemic Nutcracking?”) and The Economics behind ‘The Nutcracker’ are no fairy tale (“Those little mushrooms, snowflakes, clowns, dancing rats and sugar plum fairies are the chief reason the ballet can put on shows at all”) provide a flavour of the debate which pulls us back and forth between resenting this stereotypical ballet, yet thankful for the guaranteed patronage which essentially allows for more progressive programming elsewhere in dance company seasons.

Upon sitting in the Royal Opera House waiting for the curtain to rise on the Royal Ballet’s production two things occurred:

(1) The number of performances (the Royal Ballet are doing 27) allow for varied casting choices (there are 6 different Clara casts) which is mutually beneficial for both the audience and the dancers who may otherwise be hidden in the corps with rare opportunity to emerge; and

(2) There are children in the audience, and this makes The Nutcracker an immensely important occurrence. Could our ballet companies continue to attract children (and their parents) with an alternative ballet? Theoretically, yes. Realistically? I suspect not or companies (I’m sure) would shorten their Nutcracker runs.

Selfishly, I’d prefer an alternative offering. Selflessly, we’re doing it for the kids. If only The Tales of Beatrix Potter or Alice in Wonderland had a 30ft Christmas tree.

But then lets admit, we all enjoy the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, and in this performance the Royal Ballet offer up a couple of angels on their tree in the form of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Cojocaru’s Sugar Plum is not on automatic. She approaches it as though it is a new-found object, a discovery that reveals much more than it may have previously. Fascinating to watch the way she unexpectedly emphasises and accentuates certain steps, transfixing her audience to her every move. In the pas de deux her developpe a la seconde with her back to the audience gently supported by Kobborg, is remarkable not for its height (neither grotesque nor flashy but supremely placed) but for the slow and controlled way her leg unfolds, squeezing out every moment of Tchaikovsky’s music as it makes its way up. It is in part Kobborg’s harmonious partnering of Cojocaru, which allows such luxuriousness in her movement.

A magical partnership – I would sit through 27 Nutcracker’s to see Cojocaru dance.

The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lamb as Aurora photo by Johan Persson

The Royal Ballet: 28 October & 10 December 2011

The narrative of The Sleeping Beauty is but a child’s fairytale. Such a simplistic tale means that it is Beauty’s pure classical ballet choreography and the challenge it presents, that gives it a meaningful place within 21st century ballet repertoire. This ballet is the ultimate test of a dancer’s line, stamina and focus. It is for this reason that different casts of dancers can make for such varied viewing experiences.

The prologue centers on six short solos by the fairies. The key to these solos lie in the lightness and fleetness of the dancers footwork, and disappointingly the majority of dancers in these roles fell short of the mark. Also present were a few stiff backs making it clear the Company need to make way for some of the talent we know lies in the corps de ballet. The stand out fairies were the ever-delightful Yuhui Choe as the Fairy of the Crystal Fountain (and an effortless Princess Florine in Act III), and Emma Maguire as the Fairy of the Gold Vine who has such an appealing stage presence.

Claire Calvert as the Lilac Fairy photo by Johan Persson

The revelation however, of this season’s Beauty has been Claire Calvert in the role of the Lilac Fairy. Calvert’s Lilac Fairy is mature, commanding and technically astute. She achieved the difficult set of Italian fouettes with ease and beauty (she is more than just a pair of exquisite legs and feet). She is an exciting and interesting talent and I shall be watching her future casting with interest.

Princess Aurora is one of the most difficult classical female roles to dance. Former Royal Ballet dancer Deborah Bull describes the famous Rose Adagio as “quite simply, the most terrifying dance in the ballet repertoire“. In Act 1 Sarah Lamb emerges on stage in a calm and self-assured manner achieving the round of balances and promenades beautifully. Lamb’s Aurora is light and elegant but can sometimes fade into the background. In an alternative cast, Lauren Cuthbertson as Aurora emerges on stage slightly manic perhaps in anticipation of the very difficult Rose Adagio. However, she is sublime in Act II particularly in the Vision Scene solo where she draws her audience into Tchaikovsky’s haunting melodies.

Lamb’s Prince Florimund, Steven McRae is perfection in motion. The carriage of his body, his wonderfully expressive eyes and of course, his resplendent technique, make him an absolute joy to watch. In an alternative cast, Cuthbertson’s Prince, Sergei Polunin has the ideal face and stature of a fairytale prince – his dancing as always, can take your breath away. The Royal Ballet have a rare gift, two incredibly gifted and versatile male dancers. I only hope that future programming (if we are to see Beauty again within the next few years) will keep the run short as there are so many alternative, relevant ballets that will keep these two dancers interested and challenged – and along with them, the audience.

Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria

Gloria Sarah Lamb & Thiago Soares Photo by Alistair Muir

The Royal Ballet: 30 November 2011

This triple bill, whilst so interesting in its parts, is melancholic as a whole. However, it is in melancholy that we become reflective, and it is in our reflection that we are kept company by the music of Francis Poulenc and Edward Elgar, and the ethereal presence of the Royal Ballet dancers.

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett (premiered in 2010) is a flowing energetic neoclassical work, interspersed with moments of stillness between the dancers. Built around three pas de deux movements, these moments of stillness give the work an emotional depth in an otherwise abstract yet wholly consuming piece.  In the first pas de deux the audience is drawn to the beautiful face and shapes formed by Marianela Nunez. She is partnered by Rupert Pennefather and together they dance in a trance-like state. The second pas de deux was performed by Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside – both dancers who just know ‘how’. In the third pas de deux Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera give us a lesson on how two become one. What a gift to see such an experienced cast and what talent Scarlett promises. My only wish is to see this piece recostumed – the unimaginative dull brown costumes are disappointing.

Asphodel Meadows Marianela Nunez & Rupert Pennefather Photo by Johan Persson

Is Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations anything other than a folly in 2011? Choreographed in 1968 to the music of Edward Elgar, its effect is mildly amusing, the balletic choreography limited. In recalling the creation of the piece former Royal Ballet dancer Patricia Linton reminds us that “…the genius of Ashton resides in what he gives us in the moment of watching…”.  If this is correct, then Ashton’s gift to the ballet audience is the music, which so splendidly reaches its climax during the ‘Nimrod’ variation. Bennet Gartside as A.J Jaeger and Christina Arestis as The Lady manage to push past the folly element, and offer us touching portrayals. Perhaps the key to this piece is not to fight against it but to let our emotions go and become involved in this bygone era, to become involved in the enigma that this ballet is.

In contrast, Kenneth Macmillan’s Gloria will always stand the test of time. Inspired by Vera Brittain’s memoirs Testament of Youth, this piece is an expression of grief and sorrow for those lost in World War 1.  Premiered in 1980 to critical acclaim, this piece continues to force reflection on the human carnage of war.  Set in no mans land; the audience follows the grief and sorrow of two soldiers in all their misery, longing and sadness. Is the woman on stage a figment of their imagination? They long for her, they mourn for her. The two soldiers danced by Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares were aptly tormented and tortured, with Soares’ projection across the stage lights into the audience mesmerising. However, it is Ed Watson’s portrayal of the soldier in this ballet that is the defining of his generation (seen in an alternative cast). And so to the Woman, danced by Sarah Lamb. This is an ethereal role and her physical lightness and purity in line are gifts to the audience.

Manon

Manon Lauren Cuthbertson & Sergei Polunin Photo by Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet: 8 November 2011

Manon is a role every royal ballet dancer wants to dance. And so when it is gifted to a dancer, a debut is a time of anticipation, a time of fear, a time of exploration and a time of admiration for all the dancers who have gone before. It is really only after the debut, that a dancer can really understand the role, that a dancer can shred the anticipation of the milestone.

This evening was a double debut, with the fearless Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon and rising star Sergei Polunin in the technically difficult non-bravura role of Des Grieux. When the ballet debuted in 1974 one critic described the role of Manon as a ‘slut’ and Des Grieux as a ‘fool’.

In the first Act we see the fool in Polunin, the earnest bookworm transfixed by the slightly more worldly Manon. Polunin’s first difficult solo is achieved with relative ease, though this solo often makes for uncomfortable viewing, the choreography revealing the slightest nerve, the slightest off balance. In Scene Two in Des Grieux’s lodgings in Paris the bedroom pas de deux is danced with such speed and daring, the result of which is a premature climax rather than the building of a passionate love for each other.

It is the genius of Macmillian’s choreography that comes to the fore in the Second Act as Manon is handed around – each man wanting his piece of her. Des Greiux watches from the sidelines, torn and distraught at the sight of Manon being flaunted before his eyes. With Polunin’s heart on his sleeve, his large eyes and dramatic stage presence it is him I am drawn to and his heartbreak I follow; despite him not dancing a step. We do not see the obvious slut in Cuthbertson’s Manon in this Act, rather she conveys Manon’s conflicts through her physicality – her expressive arms and upper body and her light extension. In Manon everyone has a price, and in Cuthbertsons reading, her price is low. We do not sense her prostitution has come at any great cost.

It is in Act 3 that Cuthbertson comes to the fore. We are drawn into her despair, her ability to make every step she takes look as though she thought of it only as she steps out of it. In the years to come I look forward to following her maturation in this role – it is through her brilliant technical execution and appetite for daring, that will in time, I hope, lead to a fascinating portrayal of the flawed Manon.

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