Friday, 31 October 2014

October Round-up

Yasmine Naghdi, Vadim Muntagirov,
Marianela Nunez and Yuhui Choe
 in Symphonic Variations
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
This month I have written blogs on Deaf Men Dancing, The Five & the Prophecy of Prana, Shadows of War, the ROH Ashton bill and the ROH MacMillan Wikipedia editathon.

The latest instalment of my ballet steps series considers foot positions.
    
Other writing:

A review of Beauty and the Beast for Londonist

A feature on Tring Park School for the Performing Arts (p.23) and review of the National Youth Ballet (p.73) in Dancing Times, November issue

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

MacMillan Wikipedia Editathon

MacMillan Wikipedia Editathon, Royal Opera House - 25th October

Federico Bonelli, Christopher Saunders & Marianela Nuñez in Manon
Photo: Alice Pennefather / ROH

On Saturday morning, Royal Ballet staff, dance lovers and Wikipedia enthusiasts gathered in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre restaurant to update information about Kenneth MacMillan on Wikipedia.
  
I added background information and open night casting to the entry about Manon, but the editathon highlight was hearing from Monica Mason, who created many MacMillan roles, and Jann Parry, who wrote the choreographer’s biography. 
  
Parry highlighted the key themes in MacMillan’s choreography, including claustrophobic family life, loss of innocence, physical infatuation and being a social outcast. Mason described MacMillan’s passion for new interpretations, repeating his words that ballets need to be “recreated rather than repeated” and emphasising his warmth and genius.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ballet Steps: Foot Positions

1st position
In the latest instalment of my ballet steps series, I look at the basic ballet positions of the feet, which are fundamental both for technique and choreography.
 
In 1st position, the heels are placed together with the toes pointing outwards, usually forming a ‘v’ shape. If a dancer has particularly good turn out, the feet may be in a straight line, but this should not be forced unless the hips can maintain the position without overly stressing the rest of the legs. In certain ballet styles, the heels may be placed slightly apart, especially if the dancer has swayback knees.
  
Marianela Nunez in Apollo
 (4th position on pointe)
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
2nd position is like a wide 1st position with feet apart. To form 2nd, the dancer needs to stand in 1st, point one foot to the side, and then lower the heel of the pointed foot. This gives the correct distance between the feet for most uses of 2nd position, although a slightly smaller gap is common when doing pointe work. The distance is approximately one and a half times the length of the dancer's foot.

4th position also involves feet that are apart, but this time with one in front of the other. There are two variations – open 4th, where the edge of the front heel is in alignment with the edge of the back heel (appearing like 1st position from the front), and closed 4th, where the front heel is in alignment with the toe of the back foot (appearing like 5th position from the front). Grand pliés change according to whether the open or closed position is used – the heels stay on the floor in the former, but lift in the latter. The gap between the feet is also typically smaller - equivalent to the length of one of the dancer's feet - in closed 4th. The picture to the left shows a very wide 4th position on pointe.   
   
5th position involves placing one foot in front of the other, such that the legs are ‘crossed’ with the heel of one foot in line with the toe of the other foot. It’s a particularly useful position because the body weight is centralised, such that the centre of gravity does not have to be shifted when one leg is lifted.
   
3rd and 5th positions
3rd position is rarely used in professional ballet and is instead a training position for young students. It is like 5th position, but the front heel is aligned with the arch – rather than toe – of the back foot. 
    
There are several potential problems in all positions of the feet. Weight is often incorrectly placed, such that it is not distributed evenly between and across the feet. Forcing the feet to turn out excessively is problematic and results in misalignment in the knees as well as ‘rolling’, where the feet rock forward rather than staying flat on the floor. In the wide positions (4th and 2nd), it can also be tricky to get the distance between the feet correct.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

ROH Ashton Bill

Helen Crawford in Five Brahms Waltzes
 in the manner of Isadora Duncan
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
Scènes de Ballet/ Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan/ Symphonic Variations / A Month in the Country, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 22nd October
 
The Royal Ballet’s Frederick Ashton quadruple bill is mixed in quality. The rapid footwork and geometric shapes of Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations feel under rehearsed, but the evening’s other two works delight.
  
In Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, Romany Pajdak gives a confident and engaging performance as the title dancer. But it is the beautiful choreography, evocative Chopin music and well-considered interpretations of A Month in the Country that please most. Natalia Osipova excels as the unfulfilled housewife, dancing an exquisite duet with lover Federico Bonelli. Francesca Hayward also impresses as Osipova’s daughter. It’s heart-breaking that the characters don’t get a happy ending.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Shadows of War

La Fin du Jour/ Miracle in the Gorbals/ Flowers of the Forest, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th October
  
Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond in
La Fin du Jour
Photo: Roy Smiljanic
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War is a real contrast to its fairy tale Beauty and the Beast performed earlier in the week. The triple bill’s links to war are tenuous, but its range of emotion – from elation to despair – is captivating.
  
Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour opens the evening. Bursting in through a door at the back of the stage, a group of enthusiastic young people enjoy swimming, flirting and dancing. Set to a score by Maurice Ravel and led by Yvette Knight, Tyrone Singleton, Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence, the ballet is filled with joy and exuberance. Only right at the end does the impending war become clear when the onstage door is closed and dancers freeze as the lights go down.
  
The bill’s weakest work, David Bintley’s Scottish-themed Flowers of the Forest, ends the performance. Commencing with a playful and humorous section for four dancers in tartan, the ballet quickly becomes tiresome in the later, more sombre group numbers.
 
Sandwiched between these two works is Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann's 1944 Miracle in the Gorbals. Set in the slums of Glasgow and with evocative designs (including high windows with skeletal figures looking out) by Adam Wiltshire (after Edward Burra), the ballet’s setting and narrative bear more than a passing resemblance to MacMillan’s The Judas Tree.
   
Amidst the busy crowds of lovers, shopkeepers and beggars, a girl – performed beautifully by Delia Matthews – dances a desperate solo before deciding to commit suicide. As her body is brought up from the river, desolate crowds gather until a mysterious Stranger (César Morales) emerges and is able – miraculously – to bring her back to life. Horrified at being outshone, the Minister (Iain Mackay) attempts unsuccessfully to humiliate the Stranger and finally – through the actions of a local gang – kills him.

Delia Mathews and Iain Mackay in Miracle in the Gorbals
Photo: Roy Smiljanic

What struck me most about the ballet was how well it was able to convey its characters’ self-loathing. Both the Suicide and the Minister are driven to violence by their self-hatred and lack of others’ approval. I was also impressed by the way in which the very simple choreography was performed by BRB’s dancers to create such a clear and compelling narrative. 
  
Miracle in the Gorbals is a real gem, and it’s wonderful that Gillian Lynne has brought it back to life (just as the Stranger does with the Suicide). It was certainly the highlight of the Shadows of War bill and is a testament to the talents of Birmingham Royal Ballet – not only in performing it so effectively onstage but also in commissioning and realising its reincarnation.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Five & the Prophecy of Prana

Photo: Hugo Glendinning
The Five & the Prophecy of Prana, Boy Blue Entertainment, Barbican Theatre - reviewed on 2nd October
  
Boy Blue Entertainment is a skilled hip hop dance company, but only glimmers of its dancers’ talent are shown in The Five & the Prophecy of Prana.
  
In Japanese comic book style and with a frivolous good vs evil narrative, cast members mouth the words of a voiceover and engage in numerous martial arts-style fights. The highlight is Sander Loonen's set with projections and large moveable blocks that convincingly combine to form all manner of objects from beds to sinks. The rest of the show quickly becomes tiring and I found myself longing for something more similar to Some Like it Hip Hop, where unadulterated dance is at the forefront.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Hear! Hear!

Mark Smith
Hear! Hear!/ Rosa, DMD+, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 28th September

Deaf Men Dancing had to change name for its bill at the Lilian Baylis Studio. With its first female dancer (Natasha Volley), the company was retitled DMD+, though its choreography remained in artistic director Mark Smith's inimitable style.

The afternoon's first work, Hear! Hear!, explored the choreographer's personal experience of deafness. "People ask how I can hear the music and I wanted to show this" explained Smith in the post-show talk. "I wanted the hearing audience to experience what sound is like for me."

In Hear! Hear!'s opening number, dancers wore old-fashioned hearing aid boxes strapped to their chests. Later, a voiceover read out two very different poems, both written in response to an image of a child having his hearing tested. One writer highlighted the child's rescue from a "soundless vice", whilst the other focused on his bewilderment and desire for familiarity. Whilst the work didn't give me the depth of understanding Smith intended, it did prompt me to question and re-evaluate my understanding of deafness.

The afternoon's second work, Rosa, was inspired by Shakespeare's As You Like It. It featured four dancers, representing lust, confusion, anger and love, all vying for the title character's attentions. Interestingly, Michael England's accompanying score was composed in response to Smith's hearing test graphic chart.

The afternoon's choreography combined sign language with ballet and contemporary dance. Performed by DMD+ company members, who come from very different training backgrounds including commercial and hip hop, individual personalities shone but technical weaknesses were exposed.

I was underwhelmed by some of the afternoon's dance content, but DMD+'s programme and especially its post-show talk - with dancers explaining how they hear different frequencies of music - provided interesting food for thought about dance and deafness.