Wednesday, 31 July 2013

July 2013 Round-Up

Ballet Central in Celebration
Photo: Bill Cooper

I have also started a new blog series on ballet technique, where I will explore a different ballet step each month. First up, it's the pas de chat.

Other writing:
 
A review of Boston Ballet Programme 1 on Londonist, and a blog on Programme 2
A review of Russian Seasons of XXI Century on Londonist

Two  blogs on English National Ballet's A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev: a write-up of the technical and studio preparations and a piece of the show's dress rehearsal

A write-up of the RAD's Dance and Lifelong Wellbeing Conference (p.24), a feature on Central School of Ballet (p.34) and a review of Urdang Academy's graduate show (p.61) in Dancing Times, August issue

And, Dance UK's July e-news

Saturday, 27 July 2013

RAD Course on Dance for Older Learners

Dance for Older Learners (course), Royal Academy of Dance, Rose Bruford College - 21st July

Photo courtesy of RAD
"Shall we put our ballet shoes on?" Several of the teachers at the Royal Academy of Dance's 'Dance for Older Learners' workshop were unsure how to approach the day's first session. But the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing teachers immediately put us at ease: "Wear whatever you like. Most of the older learners don't even take their coats off, let alone wear ballet shoes! And many of them sit clutching their handbags all through class."

Helen Linkenbagh guided us through some chair-based warm-up movements, encouraging us to sit up tall and breathe deeply. We walked (while still sitting) getting progressively faster to raise heart rate, with Linkenbagh suggesting we imagine running to catch a bus. We waved to the bus driver and stretched upwards to feel the warmth of the sunlight. The story is in exactly the same style as the tales I tell my youngest students to stimulate creativity and engagement. Apparently, the positive effect is identical for older learners, with stories related to real life giving each movement an impetus, meaning and sense of fun.

A standing warm-up Linkenbagh uses revolved around the idea of kneading and preparing bread dough, with patting and massaging movements made all over the body. Linkenbagh used this every week in her classes as it was loved by participants and over time they made improvements in how far they were able to reach.

Sarah Platt guided teachers through ways to include technique in classes. She focussed on increasing the mobility of participants' lower limbs to reduce falls, as well as including counting, rhythms and movements which cross the body to stimulate brain function. Her seated tap class included toe and heel taps, toe-heel 'see-saw' walks and clapping. In ballet, Platt referred to the arm positions as like holding bubbles, encouraging participants to walk with their bubbles and then adding in a hand-held ribbon.

For creative sessions, Hannah Bailes showed teachers a routine to 'Big Spender' with gold sparkly hats. Choices were given to participants as to how to walk into the space at the beginning of the music, as well as segments in which they could improvise or mirror a partner. For her, encouraging pair work was a good way to minimise the loneliness older people often experience. Linkenbagh also demonstrated a full-length partner routine, with cha cha cha steps, holding a partner's hand and circling, and transfers of weight from one foot to another. She also sometimes used a poem to inspire the older learners.

Ideal class numbers for these types of sessions are 16 or less and a long 20-25 minute warm-up is needed. This should be followed by creative exercises and a dance routine. The key to success is in arriving early and getting to know participants outside of the class structure. Praise is also important, with the only useful correction being to encourage 'railway' track feet (ie. feet in parallel) for stability.

For music, it is a good idea to ask participants what they would like. Different groups on the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project had different tastes - from Bob Marley to relaxing, ambient music and Shirley Bassey.

Even if the participants hardly move, whether because they are unwilling or unable, the classes are still of huge benefit as they absorb the energy, joy and inspiration from just watching. For one participant, who suffers from chronic fatigue, the sessions were "very energising" and had a "potent effect". She also highlighted how they encouraged her to be mindful and 'in the moment'.

The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) has published a report with the results of their findings from the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project. The report also includes quotes from participants and sample lesson plans for teachers. For further details, contact the project manager, Dr. Victoria Watts, at vwatts@rad.org.uk.

Ballet Babies

As the world is fixated on the birth of the royal baby, I thought it would be interesting to consider the babies featured in ballets. Of course, Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is the most obvious. For the whole of the first act, the ballet's  heroine is confined to a cradle, while fairies and royal subjects rally around her.

In Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, the situation is rather different. The title character is still a baby during Act I, but Bourne uses five different dolls for various purposes, from lying in a cot to crawling along the floor and even crying. This much more animated baby gives Aurora a personality before the dancer taking the role even steps onto stage, and it is by far the most inventive and successful element of Bourne's Beauty.

In some works, there are pregnant characters. In Mayerling, for example, Rudolf's wife (whom he terrorised and raped on their wedding night) attends the Act II Emperor's birthday celebrations with a hugely swollen belly indicative of late stage pregnancy.

Peter Schaufuss Ballet in Sleeping Beauty
In other ballets, births even take place on stage. I return now to Sleeping Beauty because in the Peter Schaufuss version (pictured), the King and Queen perform a love-making rolling-around dance before a curled-up naked adult baby emerges from beneath the Queen's skirt. 

In some versions of Apollo, the birth of the title character takes place in the opening scene, with him appearing in swaddling clothes (which are then unwrapped by handmaidens to symbolise his growing up). Northern Ballet's Cleopatra, choreographed by David Nixon, also features a birth. Cleopatra and Caesar roll erotically in a length of white fabric, which when bundled, cleverly becomes a baby.

I, personally, feel rather excited about the prospect of a new British king, but if you're not a fan of the monarchy, there are plenty of alternative babies, births and pregnancies to enjoy in ballet.

Friday, 19 July 2013

ENB Dancer Promotions

English National Ballet yesterday announced its dancer promotions for the 2013/14 season: 
Ksenia Ovsyanick

James Forbat is promoted to First Soloist
Shiori Kase is promoted to Soloist
Nancy Osbaldeston is promoted to First Artist
Ksenia Ovsyanick is promoted to First Artist
Guilherme Menezes is promoted to 8th Year Artist
Ken Saruhashi is promoted to 8th Year Artist
Laurretta Summerscales is promoted to First Soloist

I recently reviewed Summerscales in Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall, and she was superb. Many congratulations to her on a well-deserved promotion. However, I cannot understand the logic in giving Summerscales such a big leap up the ladder when another extremely talented dancer, Ksenia Ovsyanick, is promoted only to first artist.

Ovsyanick starred recently as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, receiving excellent reviews, as well as creating the title role in George Williamson's Firebird. Earlier this year, she also won the Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Female Performance (Classical). If Ovsyanick remains undervalued at ENB, I wouldn't be surprised if she is rapidly snapped up by another ballet company.

I also question the logic behind promoting corps de ballet dancers within the corps de ballet; Guilherme Menezes and Ken Saruhashi, who both performed in this year's Emerging Dancer Awards, are promoted to from second year artists to eighth year artists. Presumably a pay rise is involved, but not enough to warrant an actual step up to first artist!

I greatly admire English National Ballet's director Tamara Rojo, but I find it hard to understand her reasoning in this list of promotions. I can only hope that her plans for the company's young talents become clearer over time.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ballet Central

Florestan pas de trois/ Insinuare/ Fireside pas de deux/ anon., Ballet Central, The Platform Theatre - reviewed on 12th July

anon.
Photo: Bill Cooper
A fire alarm delayed Ballet Central's performance for more than 40 minutes, and students were forced to stand waiting (tutu-clad) outside the theatre alongside members of their audience. Nevertheless, when the show was able to commence, the dancers seemed entirely unfazed, and gave a pleasing (though sadly shortened) performance.

Opening the bill was the Florestan trio from Sleeping Beauty, which was danced excellently by Laura Boulter and Kotoko Yamamoto alongside Christopher Furlong. Next was Sara Matthews and Leanne King's neatly performed contemporary Insinuare and Christopher Gable's sweet (though overly sentimental) Fireside pas de deux from Cinderella.

The highlight of the show was undoubtedly Christopher Marney's anon., about a geeky but endearing young girl who is transported to diverse and exciting places through her books. Having seen Marney's recent War Letters for Ballet Black (which had some nice ideas but didn't come together as a whole), I was pleasantly surprised by the success and charm of this ballet. At a Friday afternoon matinee, I also felt it was an ideal subject for the many schoolchildren present, hopefully inspiring a love for both dance and reading.

In roles from ballroom dancers and footballers to underwater nymphs and even a postman, the company truly shone, with Victoria Nyström as a particularly lovely leading lady. It may have taken three quarters of an hour for the theatre to be declared safe post-fire alarm drama, but Ballet Central were well worth waiting for.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Coppélia

Coppélia, Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 11th July
Kristina Shapran and Sergei Polunin
Photo: E Fetisova
Coppélia certainly isn't one of my favourite works, as it's so very silly, but a bit of frivolity is fun from time to time and I do enjoy the Royal Ballet's version, choreographed by Ninette de Valois (after Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti). But alas, in the hands of Roland Petit, the ballet becomes nothing more than a pantomime, and a bad one at that. (In fact, my companion and I discussed its horrors in the interval. Then, when she repeatedly chuckled and seemed thoroughly engaged in Act II, I asked her what had brought about her change of heart. She replied: "I'm thinking of it as a pantomime and now I'm enjoying it.")

Perhaps I am missing the point; I, and probably most of the audience, was not there just to see Coppélia. I was there, of course, for Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin, who has a remarkable talent that has become unfortunately overshadowed by his repeated last-minute disappearances from productions. And if I were to judge the performance on Polunin alone, then it was a roaring success.

Kristina Shapran and Anton Domashev
Photo: E Fetisova
The problem is that there was very little to like apart from Polunin. His effortless pirouettes and leaps will always excite, but partner Kristina Shapran was decidedly wooden and cold onstage. (This, incidentally, made her surprisingly effective when briefly in the guise of a mechanical doll.) The corps de ballet have dull, repetitive and strange choreography, with 'slutty' girls continuously wiggling their bottoms, flashing their knickers and kissing every man in sight. The male corps fare little better (apart from gaining these many kisses), forced to perform numerous sequences of stamping and small two-footed jumps. 

The saving grace came in the form of toy-maker Anton Domashev. He created an engaging portrait of a man desperate for love, with a slightly sinister passion for dolls that reminded me of several Channel 4 documentaries. He was tragic, humorous and endearing - always acting with the right level of necessary 'crazy magician' exaggeration and interacting cleverly with his bizarre array of life-size props. 

With the exception of Domashev, Polunin was the metaphorical 'diamond in the rough'. Since he left the Royal Ballet last year, he's had more freedom to choose his hours, dancing partners and repertoire, but he lacks a superb company behind him onstage to match his prowess. If he continues performing in sub-standard productions like this, I shall soon cease wishing to see him perform. And I wonder if other Polunin fans will feel the same.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Dance Education

With only about 60% of 16-year-olds currently achieving five good GCSE passes including English and maths, our education system clearly needs a shake up. But should dance and other artistic subjects be sacrificed in order to bolster academic achievement?
 
There is no simple answer to this. Whilst some students would no doubt respond well to a more focused academic schooling, for the majority of young people, the arts have the capacity not only to develop abilities relevant to the particular discipline, but also to boost achievement across all areas of the curriculum. This is because the arts teach vital skills such as team work, confidence and expression, which play a pivotal role in students' success in academic subjects.
 
Janette Wallis, the editor of the Good Schools Guide, describes how "never, in the history of education, have there been so many ways to rate children’s ability”, and perhaps this is the greatest problem. Schools focus on results and the best ways to achieve well in league tables and other government markers of satisfaction, rather than on a holistic education for young people, including preparation for the responsibilities of life as an adult.
 
I wrote to my local MP (Jane Ellison) a few of weeks ago about the importance of dance in schools. I described how it promotes not only physical activity in young people, but also creativity, team work and confidence. She in turn wrote to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Elizabeth Truss, who replied to say that she recognised the importance of dance in the national curriculum. Truss also described how the Department for Education is not only proposing to retain the statutory duty for schools to teach dance at Key Stages 1 and 2, but also planning to extend the teaching into Key Stage 3.
 
I recently attended the National Dance Teachers Association's conference on dance education. Linda Jasper, director of Youth Dance England, made an important point: “We all need to be able to answer the question ‘why dance?’” Indeed, as dance experts and enthusiasts we probably know the power of the arts to inspire young people and transform their lives. But we need to keep expressing this and making sure our voice is loud enough to be heard.

Los Vivancos

Aeternum, Los Vivancos, London Coliseum - reviewed on 9th July

Publicity materials described the show as mixing "fearless flamenco with ballet, martial arts, tap dance and a sprinkling of magic", but what really persuaded me to attend was the fact that this was a company of seven dancing brothers. How can this be possible? I had to see for myself. 

The show didn't start well, with the performers stamping about the stage in asymmetric laced up white shirts and tight trousers, with looks on their faces as if to say "we're gorgeous, talented and deserve to rule the world". The effect was less than thrilling choreographically, and, needless to say, incredibly camp. But at least they could dance.

Unfortunately things proceeding distinctly downwards from there. Whilst the seven brothers are undoubtedly skilled, most of the show, with its poor attempts at narrative (horned monsters attack cape-swishing Rothbart wannabe), costume (cowboy boots and wristbands) and lighting (flashing, flashing, flashing) utterly overwhelmed the quality of the dancing. 

There were, however, a few moments that did display the promised 'magic'. One dancer managed to interweave playing complex drum beats with the rapid rhythms of his flamenco feet, and another was even able to combine excellent flute playing with some superb dancing. 
 
The cast got a standing ovation for their skill, but it would be a good idea if the show's creators reworked Aeternum to put this at the forefront.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Dying for Art

Just over a week ago, Sarah Guyard-Guillot died after slipping free from her safety wire and falling 15m at a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. Her death was the first fatality during a live performance in the show's 30 year history.
 
Guyard-Guillot's death was clearly a tragic accident. But it has made me consider whether there can ever be any justification to die for art, and whether the notion of death and the very real danger involved in many circus disciplines is undervalued by audiences and directors.
 
For dramaturge Bauke Lievens, circus is a “a celebration of life through the challenging of death, a demonstration of the superiority of the human race to master the universe.” I wonder, is this really necessary? Why not have a safety net?

Search for circus deaths on Google, and there are numerous incidents described, from angry circus animals attacking their owners, to trapeze artists falling or missing crash mats. In ballet on the other hand, stories are obsessed with and frequently end in death (think Swan Lake and Manon), but thankfully, dancers do not generally put themselves at risk of death in performance.  
 
Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb rehearsing Trespass
Photo: Johan Persson
Nevertheless, contemporary choreographers have become increasingly interested in creating movements that defy the usual laws of gravity and the body's capabilities. Dancers also frequently cause long-term damage to their bodies through eating disorders or dancing when injured. In fact, ballet dancers can even die for their art; in 1997, Boston Ballet's Heidi Guenther died at the age of 22 after suffering from anorexia.
 
So is it worth it, for that brief moment of glory onstage? Most professional dancers would say they'd do anything to perform, believing that it is. But for those who don't succeed or end up hospitalised or dead, the response would probably be different.

What can we do as audiences and directors? I think we need to provide a safety net, whether literally or in the form of sports psychologists and physiotherapists. And we need not to tolerate unsafe practice, by demanding better safety checks on equipment and ongoing health education and advice for performers.

At Central School of Ballet, dancers that are too thin are not allowed to take classes, but in the professional world, performers have to make their own decisions. For Kevin O'Hare, Royal Ballet director, "we can provide all the tools for health and wellbeing, but the dancers are adults, and it's up to them whether they choose to use them or not."

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Ballet Schools and Circus Skills

Boston Ballet's Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga in Polyphonia
Photo: Gene Schiavone
I wrote my MA dissertation on artistry in ballet and whether and how it can be taught to vocational students. I found that most ballet teachers focus on technique rather than choreographic style or expressiveness, no doubt due to (or possibly caused by) the fact that today's dancers require undoubtedly greater strength and athleticism than those of the past. (See the incredibly acrobatic choreography of Christopher Wheeldon's 2001 ballet, Polyphonia, pictured above.)
 
But in professional companies, dancers are artists and not just technicians and I have heard numerous complaints from coaches and critics that dancers are performing too many 'circus tricks' at the expense of the artistry of ballet. Of course, virtuosity is appropriate in some cases, such as the bravura pas de deux of Don Quixote or any of Wayne McGregor's athletic works, but multiple pirouettes and high leg extensions don't have a place in the likes of Giselle or Coppélia.
 
Are ballet schools to blame? Do they need to make their training programmes more artistic? Yes, they do. In my dissertation, I suggested they include as much professional repertoire as possible, as well as choreographic style classes where they exist, such as in the case of Balanchine. But there is also a balance to be struck. Realistically, young dancers will not be given jobs if they lack the impressive technique of their peers. So technical training has to be balanced with the need to produce creative, adaptable artists.
 
Interestingly, I discovered at the Humorologie festival in Belgium that key figures in the world of circus have similar fears about the training of circus artists. As festival director, Koen Allary, lamented: "Circus schools are very focused on skills, skills, skills and not how to develop students as artists.”
 
An audience member at one of the festival shows also described circus to me as “the art of body expression”. Perhaps instead of considering circus to be ballet's inferior cousin, both disciplines need to work out a way in which to balance the training of impressive tricks with developing students' artistry and expressiveness. Maybe then we will end up with a generation of performers who have the ability to wow with virtuosity but also touch the soul with their art, and who will, most importantly, know when each is required.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Boston Ballet Programme 2

The Second Detail/ Polyphonia/ Bella Figura, Boston Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 6th July
Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, and Yury Yanowsky in Bella Figura
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
I was really impressed by Boston Ballet last week, as they visited London for the first time in 30 years. In Programme 1, they performed a stunning quadruple bill of works by George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinsky and Jorma Elo. Their second programme, of entirely modern repertoire, was equally impressive, with complex choreography by William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Jiří Kylián.

Wheeldon's Polyphonia made the least impression, with the majority of choreography feeling like wading through mud in search for gold. There were a few moments of 'gold' - notably a beautifully lyrical pas de deux and solo for Ashley Ellis and a playful duet for Adiarys Almeida and Jeffrey Cirio - but the rest I could have done without.

John Lam in The Second Detail
Photo: Gene Schiavone
Forsythe's The Second Detail was a fabulous feast of contemporary ballet, with classical jumps and pirouettes interspersed with high leg extensions and modern arm lines. Dancers moved in and out of solo and group numbers with remarkable vitality and stamina, constantly interweaving and overlapping.
 
Bella Figura completed the bill with style. Kylián's choreography is very precise with every movement having a specific meaning. Whilst I was unable to appreciate each of these meanings, such as a dancer embraced and lifted by fabric arms, topless females, shoulders that refused to stay down and curtains suddenly opening/closing, it was fascinating to watch and attempt an interpretation.
 
What I enjoyed even more than the significant but unexplained choreography, is the way Kylián never failed to surprise. His works are always challenging, engaging and confrontational, and Boston Ballet gave a stellar performance delivering Bella Figura's  numerous unexpected moments.
 
It has been a pleasure to see Boston Ballet this week and I hope they don't leave it another three decades to return to London.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Contemporary Dance - Pet Hates

Boston Ballet's Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio and Bo Busby in Plan to B
Photo: Gene Schiavone
For critic Donald Hutera, it's flexed feet onstage that make him cringe. Here is a list of my pet hates in contemporary dance:

1. Knee pads and socks
I understand that dancers need to protect their knees, but I think knee pads are hideously unattractive and should be kept hidden under trousers. Similarly, socks should be used but not seen. If the costume is a skirt or dress, I suggest going for bare legs with bare feet or ballet shoes..
2. Non-music 
If it's electronic, with no tune and no variation, it's not music. Though anything is better than silence. Does it make the choreography more profound when all you can hear is the dancers breathing? Not to me.
3. No wings
I guess I'm old fashioned and like a bit of mystery onstage. I want dancers to appear from the wings, and when I can see them standing waiting at the side, the surprise for me is spoilt.
4. Aimless walking/running
In ballet, dancers often run across the stage to greet another character, or round to the stage's back corner to give themselves space for diagonal travelling step. But why do contemporary choreographers seem to love aimless running and walking, and the even worse 'cousin' movement, running backwards? Perhaps it's a clever statement on the aimlessness of life that I don't understand.
5. Sudden inexplicable falling over
Why? I have no idea.
6. Magical force in the hand
This is a hard one to describe, but see my live mime demonstration and you will know exactly what I'm talking about. It's when dancers seem to be holding a magical force in their hand that causes all kinds of crazy, contorted responses in the body. As if Flubber has borrowed Harry Potter's invisibility cloak and decided to give contemporary dance a go.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Ballet Steps: Pas de Chat

Carlos Acosta in Mayerling
Photo: Bill Cooper
I am starting a new series of blogs discussing different ballet steps - including their technique, teaching and variations.

First up is the pas de chat, or 'step of the cat'. This jump starts with the feet together in fifth position, with one leg after the other lifting up into the air and bending under the body, before landing again in fifth position. There may be a point, at the peak of the jump, where both legs are mid-air in a 'frog' position (pictured). This will depend on the style of the choreography and the height of the jump, but is something I always encourage my students to aim for.

The Royal Academy of Dance describe the pas de chat as "a light, springing step moving sideways from fifth to fifth, jumping off one foot and landing on the other foot before closing en demi-plié [knee bend]". See below for a demonstration by the Royal Ballet's Akane Takada. (Note: she has a lovely bouncy quality but does not display the 'frog' position.)
 
 
The pas de chat is one of my favourite jumps to perform, but it requires quite a lot of co-ordination that can be challenging to young children. I teach it by going through the four positions - demi-plié, one leg retiré, other leg retiré and demi-plié - which are then joined up to form a smooth jump. I also encourage students to lie down in the 'frog' position so that they can feel what they should ideally achieve mid-air.

Swan Lake cygnets performing
the pas de chat
The pas de chat features in many choreographers' works. It is a part of the famous 'Fred step' (arabesque, coupé over and under, petit devéloppé, pas de bourée and pas de chat) which Frederick Ashton used in most of his ballets. Sir Peter Wright also includes it in the grand pas de deux of his Nutcracker, where the Sugar Plum Fairy performs a series of pas de chats diagonally across the stage, lifted by her Prince.
 
It is known perhaps most famously (and unusually, considering it's a 'cat' step) as part of the Cygnets dance in Swan Lake (pictured), where four small swans interlink hands and perform it an exhausting 16 times in succession.