Monday, 31 March 2014

March 2014 Round-up

Rehearsals for Shadowland
Photo: John Kane
This month I have written blogs on IJAD's In-Finite Space, Young British Dancer of the Year, A Winter's Tale insight, Good Swan, Bad Swan, Exodus and the top online destinations for dance. I have also discussed pirouettes in the latest instalment of my ballet steps series.

Other writing:

A review of the Russian Ballet Icons Gala on Bachtrack
A review of Kings of the Dance on Londonist
A feature on English National Ballet's Lest We Forget masterclass on ENB's blog

A review of Shadowland (p.51) in Dancing Times, April issue

And, of course, Dance UK's March e-news including a feature on Kathak dance and Carlos Pons Guerra's gay version of Les Noces

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Ballerina's Journey into Warriorhood

Exodus, The Crossword Ballet, Swiss Church - reviewed on 28th March
   
"Empowerment" is the word on Symeon Kyriakopoulos's lips as he introduces the Crossword Ballet's debut performance.
   
At the Swiss Church in Covent Garden (with an altar forming part of the stage), ballet meets martial arts as a young ballerina “journeys into warriorhood”. Though the recorded voiceover is largely incomprehensible, the strength, precision and power required in the choreography’s divergent movement forms is displayed effectively.
   
It is when lead dancer Michelle Buckley is onstage and her movements are kept simple that Exodus is most effective. The piece could use refinement and especially a clearer narrative, but Kyriakopoulos’s vision excites and I look forward to seeing more from the Crossword Ballet.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Top Five Online Destinations for Dance

Lauren Cuthbertson in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH
Looking for some rainy day entertainment? Here are my top five websites for dance news and inspiration:

1. Londondance
A great range of features, interviews, news and reviews about dance in London. There are also listings of local jobs, events, classes and opportunities.

2. Royal Opera House
The ROH site has an array of features related to Royal Ballet productions, with video clips of rehearsals, Q&As with dancers and insights into ballets in the repertoire.

3. Dance UK
The website has news from the dance world across the UK, with frequent features focusing on particular dance issues, styles, companies and productions. The Friday afternoon dance clip on Dance UK's Facebook is always fun too.

4. Kenneth MacMillan website
Dedicated to one of my favourite choreographers, the site gives detailed information about MacMillan's ballets as well as articles, photos and rehearsal footage.
 
5. Youtube
I couldn't miss Youtube off this list as its dance performance and insight videos offer almost endless entertainment. Search for your favourite dancer, company or work.
 
Other useful sites include the London Ballet Circle (a charity with news and event recommendations) Ballet News (especially its 'Cupcakes and Conversations' series), Dancing Times (with major international news and occasional special offers), The Guardian dance blog (opinions and reviews from critic Judith Mackrell) and the Ballet Bag (with blog posts on all things ballet).

Monday, 24 March 2014

Good Swan, Bad Swan

Tamara Rojo with Matthew Golding in Swan Lake
Photo: David Jensen
Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake (TV documentary) - BBC4, 9pm, 9th March
 
English National Ballet Artistic Director and Lead Principal Tamara Rojo gives a fascinating insight into the dual ballerina role of Swan Lake in the BBC documentary, 'Good Swan, Bad Swan'. Showing both her intelligence and passion, she describes the details of the two characters (Odette and Odile), looks at the meaning of specific gestures in the choreography and also explores the history of the ballet as whole.
 
"Dancing Swan Lake is every ballerina’s dream... I remember as a student watching swans in the water, trying to work out how they move so I could incorporate it into my dancing. Years later I realised the ballet was not about swans but about two ideals – the White Swan: innocence, purity and honesty, and the Black Swan: manipulation, dishonesty and eroticism."
 
Tamara Rojo
Photo: Johan Persson
Rojo describes Odette, the white swan, as not only a victim of misfortune (she has been transformed into swan form by the evil von Rothbart) but also a fantasy female projection of the troubled male lead, Prince Siegfried, who feels trapped by the formality of his royal upbringing. The role involves embodying both the characteristics of a swan, a big, powerful animal, and also Odette's sorrow and vulnerability.
 
Odile, the black swan, is instead a "woman of the night" who takes pleasure in teasing and torturing the prince. But Rojo enjoys the character's strength: "she doesn't apologise for being good at what she does or going into enemy territory... It's so much fun."
 
Also interesting is the way that Rojo explains how both roles perform the same steps, but in unique ways, such that the intention is completely different. She references how Shakespeare's Romeo and Macbeth both use the word 'love' but the intention with which they say it alters the meaning.
 
One final part of the documentary that stands out is seeing Rojo applying foundation in front of the mirror. She loves that moment where her own identity is erased, leaving a "blank canvas to put on the face of a new character".

You can view the full programme (in four parts) here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Ballet Steps: Pirouette

For the eighth instalment of my ballet steps series, I discuss pirouettes, in which dancers spin on one leg. Pirouettes are typically performed in retiré position with the supporting leg straight and the working leg bent with the foot placed just below below the supporting knee (see the picture to the right).
 
Pirouettes may be performed both en dehors, which is towards the supporting leg, or en dedans, towards the working leg. There are many different preparations - from a lunge position, to 5th, 4th or 2nd, but pirouettes always commence with a relevé action, where the legs move sharply from a plié into the pirouette position on pointe or demi-pointe with a straight supporting leg.

Whilst the most common pirouette position is in retiré as I have described above, the options for placement of the working leg are virtually endless. If the working leg is extended (for example, into arabesque), the dancer's balance will, of course, be affected and the body posture will need to be adjusted to maintain balance and rotation.

Good pirouetting involves a technique called 'spotting' where the dancer's eyes remain fixed on a point at the front for as long as possible, before the head spins rapidly around to fixate on the same point again. This means that the movement of the head is very different from (and much faster than) the rest of the body. Other important points are the correct use of arms, which can be in many positions but are often held in 1st or 5th, good turn-out and maintenance of the working leg's position.

When I am teaching children to pirouette, common problems are them pushing too hard and knocking themselves off balance, failing to use eye focus (spotting) effectively and not having a strong starting relevé. It is helpful to begin with quarter turns and gradually build up to single and eventually multiple pirouettes. The most talented male dancers are able to do seven or eight pirouettes at a time.
 
Here Royal Ballet dancers Dawid Trzensimiech and Akane Takada demonstrate various different forms of pirouette, including those performed in pas de deux, where the male dancer supports his partner. In the pas de deux pirouettes en dehors, the female dancer usually prepares with a couru forward:

 
The most difficult pirouettes are performed with the working leg in extended positions such as à la seconde (lifted to the side) or in arabesque. One of the toughest demands on female dancers is 32 fouettés, pirouettes taken in sequence without putting the working leg down. These occur in the codas of numerous ballet pas de deux including Swan Lake and Don Quixote, but I will save indulging any further in the joys and challenges of fouettés for a future ballet steps blog!
 
For now, here is Trzensimiech demonstrating a typically male virtuoso pirouette sequence with the working leg raised in second position:

Friday, 14 March 2014

Winter's Tale Insight

Insight evening: The Winter's Tale, Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 11th March
  
Soon to premiere in ballet form at the Royal Opera House, The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's late romantic plays. It tells the story of Leontes, King of Sicily, who accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of cheating with his best friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. Convinced of his wife's guilt, he imprisons her and has their newly born daughter Perdita sent away. (This abandonment is when one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions takes place - after Antigonus, a friend of Hermione, leaves the baby on the shore of Bohemia, he "exits, persued by a bear".) Even though Hermoine is shortly proved innocent, the stress of events cause not only her death but also that of her and Leontes' other child, Mamillius.
Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson in performance
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
  
Leaping forward 16 years, the abandoned royal baby has been brought up by shepherds and is in love with Florizel, son and heir of Polixenes. Unimpressed by the seeming lowliness of his son's choice, Polixenes demands the couple part ways, but instead they escape together to Sicily, where it is revealed Perdita is Leontes' missing daughter. 
   
Still grieving for his wife, Leontes takes Polixenes (who was in hot pursuit of his son), Florizel and Perdita to friend and noblewoman Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Hermione has been recently finished. Suddenly, the statue starts to move and it is Hermione, restored to life. (Interestingly, the exact nature of Hermione's reappearance is left unclear. The way in which the statue comes to life suggests a magical influence, but it is also hinted that Paulina has been secretly looking after Hermione over the years. This latter possibility, however, is at odds with the fact that Leontes insists on seeing his wife's dead body in Act I and this request is not denied.)
      
Whilst The Winter's Tale's ending is primarily one of happiness and reconciliation, the unresolved issue of young Mamillius's death means that it is often considered a problem play.
  
So what is it that drew choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to such a curious Shakespearean tale? "There are operatic scale emotions which work well for dance. It's a story of contrasts - two differing worlds in the form of dark Sicily and the light and energy of Bohemia. The play has lots of good ingredients for a ballet."
    
Wheeldon grew up loving other Shakespeare-inspired dance works such as MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and Frederick Ashton's The Dream. Translating the famous playwright's rich language into dance is not a case of creating choreography for each line of text but rather "boiling things down to their essence and emotion". Wheeldon has, however, had to use a certain level of artistic licence as much of the action in The Winter's Tale takes place offstage and is revealed through characters' conversations. "You can't do that in a ballet!"
  
Wheeldon is using with the same artistic collaborators he used for his last full-length work for the Royal Ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in the form of composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley. But he is excited to be portraying a "more grown up story, a more complex narrative. To be successful, I felt like I needed my friends around me - and great artists they are too."
  
Crowley's sets give the ballet a fantastical feel, with cloudscapes representing the two main settings - in dark grey and black for Sicily and bright blue and sunny for Bohemia. Talbot's music uses lots of percussion, representing different sounds of winds which anchor the piece. Whilst he wrote to strict timings conveying different sections of the narrative, Talbot's intention was to make the music feel natural, as if he would have composed it that way anyway.
      
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in performance
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
At the insight evening, Wheeldon rehearsed three sequences, one from each of the ballet's acts. From Act I, he coached Lauren Cuthbertson in Hermoine's courtroom dance, explaining how she "has been so wronged and yet is so composed and elegant".
   
The variation bears similarities to MacMillan's choreography for Manon's Act II solo, with similar steps onto pointe and other delicate footwork, but Wheeldon's arm shapes are much bolder and more emphatic. The character makes one gesture towards her inner arm as a reminder of the royal blood in her veins; she also repeats the port de bras used to symbolise her and Leontes's marriage vows, as will be introduced in the ballet's prologue.
   
From Act II, Wheeldon took second cast Beatrix Stix-Brunell (Perdita) and Vadim Muntagirov (Florizel) through a romantic  and classical pas de deux. It opens with the latter touching his partner, to which she responds by "fluttering her arm with love". Wheeldon spent a long time working on the choreographic details, especially this opening movement.
   
Finally, Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson rehearsed Paulina and Leontes' Act III duet, which takes place by Hermoine’s gravestone. Here Wheeldon's focus was on the musical timing and spacing for his choreography, which featured more bold arm shapes and a real sense of drama building.
  
The Winter's Tale will be onstage in just under a month's time and it will be interesting to see the final results.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Young British Dancer of the Year 2014

Young British Dancer of the Year, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 8th March
 
Now in its 15th edition, Young British Dancer of the Year (YBDY) promotes British and British-trained talent in an annual competition. Applicants come from schools across the country but 2014’s finalists were all Royal Ballet School students, making the Linbury Studio Theatre final round last night feel more like an in-house showcase.
   
Erik Woolhouse
Photo: Johan Persson
Secure technique and compelling performance seemed almost mutually exclusive, with many of the young dancers displaying only one or the other. There were also a lot of wobbles – presumably a result of nerves as performing in front of a jury including Kevin O’Hare, Tamara Rojo, Christopher Hampson and others can’t be easy.
   
The clear winner was Erik Woolhouse, one of the few who combined high levels of both technique and presentation. His variation from Le Corsaire in particular was well-executed and exciting to watch.
   
Other impressive solos came from 15-year-old Phoebe Fenwick with her elegant Crystal Fountain Fairy, Joseph Aumeer who showed superb elevation, Ricardo Castellanos with a dynamic and virtuosic solo from Don Quixote, and Connie Vowles who was a technically-strong Giselle.
   
Unfortunately only the boys were rewarded, with none of the top six prizes going to young female dancers. Nevertheless, if previous YBDYs are anything to go by, Woolhouse – and indeed the other finalists too – have a bright future ahead.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Twitter-inspired Dance

Infinite Reach, IJAD Dance Company, The Vaults - reviewed on 5th March
    
Photo: Barry McDonald
For IJAD's In-Finite Space, the audience is given written instructions: explore the surroundings and then tweet about a favourite physical, emotional or virtual space.
     
Perhaps I took things too literally when I typed of being snuggled up beneath the duvet. The tweets projected into the performance area were more metaphorical (and saccharine), for example "the eternity between my mother's arms". They supposedly affected the dancers' movements – interestingly making the audience the work’s co-choreographers – though I could see no evident link.
   
IJAD’s dancers gave an energetic and committed performance, but I was underwhelmed by this show’s concept.