Saturday, 28 May 2011

Dance for Parkinson's

ENB Learning: Dance for Parkinson's Open Sharing Afternoon, Markova House - reviewed on 28th May

Since October 2010, English National Ballet has hosted a dance project for people with Parkinson’s at their home in Kensington. On Saturday 28th May I joined participants in its last class. Feeling tired and a little apprehensive, I wasn't sure what to expect. But when I arrived, the atmosphere was fantastic; everyone was warm and welcoming and the ballet studio was buzzing with excitement. And so, in this inspiring and imposing setting, with mirrors, dance posters and photos lining the walls, we sat on chairs in a circle ready to begin.

Led by English National Ballet Dance Artists, the class started with setting up the body’s posture. We woke up our feet and legs, pushing the toes and heels into the floor. Then taking some deep breaths, we began using our voices, making sounds of whoosh and mmm to activate the diaphragm and larynx.

We moved on to typical dance class exercises. We did isolations of the head and shoulders and extended the arms overhead in port de bras. We tap-danced, making rhythms through stamping our feet and clapping our hands. We twisted our backs and held our arms in ballroom dance poses. Imagery was used to make the movements more understandable – creating an oval frame around the face, reaching into a pocket, moving the feet like machine guns.

Later, the chairs were moved away and we danced the tango – stepping forward, back and side opposite a partner. We also travelled across the floor in different pathways, using marching and jazzy heel-toe walks. We even performed a Mexican wave of arm movements rippling across the whole group.

Inspired by English National Ballet’s upcoming production of Strictly Gershwin, the session was accompanied by its fabulous music. We sang ‘lady be good’ and 'strike up the band', using the emphatic gestures of Broadway singers. Its vivacious rhythms added fun, energy and dynamism to the movements.

This session was the culmination of a five-week extension project based on Strictly Gershwin and funded by City of Westminster. The original 12-week course was based on the themes and characters from the ballet Romeo & Juliet. Roehampton University researchers Ashley McGill and Dr. Sara Houston followed participants through these 12 weeks and found the dance classes gave numerous benefits to the Parkinson's sufferers. The final part of the sharing afternoon gave guests and participants the opportunity to hear the results of the research.

Typically restricted to slow, rigid movement, after the English National Ballet course, participants were able to perform flowing and continuous movements. They increased the length of their stride, developed better balance and showed more co-ordination between arms and legs. Spinal mobility was improved and reach distance increased. All of this made general day to day activities easier.

Participants described the course as 'uplifting' and 'joyous' and such pleasure was evident in their facial expressions. It was an opportunity to meet up and socialise with other people with Parkinson's, reducing feelings of isolation. Conversation before and after classes ranged from coping with the disease to what was on TV. Imagination and creativity was stimulated, and participants came together with each other, feeling determined to perform the dance movements. Participants also had the chance to see English National Ballet in rehearsal and performance. This was enjoyable, interesting and made participants feel connected to the company and its work.

The overwhelming message of this project was that through art, not only can debilitating disease symptoms be improved, but feelings of well-being can be gained. The simple pleasures of moving, music, being with other people and feeling part of a major ballet company make this a wonderful and fun project which is clearly invaluable to its participants.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Insight: Scènes and Rite

Insight evening: Scènes de Ballet/ The Rite of Spring, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH – reviewed on 18th May

Ballet master Christopher Carr began by rehearsing Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet with dancers Lauren Cuthbertson, Sergei Polunin and others. Carr described the importance of geometric shapes in the ballet, with lots of angles and straight lines. When he danced it, he felt like he would explode because it was so tiring – not only physically but also mentally as the musical counts are so complicated. The ballet was one of Ashton’s favourites and the choreography he felt most satisfied with. It still has freshness today despite being choreographed more than 60 years ago.

Cutherbertson performed her two solos. The first was firework-like with rapid jumps and changes of direction; the second, a sexy and elegant sequence of shoulder and hip-shaking. As well as her exquisite technique, we saw her joy of dancing and sense of humour as she tried to master the Ashton winding arms under Carr’s guidance. Polunin leapt into his numerous double tours with vigour, managing to master the complicated timing.

Then Gavin Plumley, music writer, spoke about Stravinsky, persuading the audience not to be afraid of his scores, which appear to be (but are not really) impossibly complicated. Using the analogy of lego, he explained how Stravinsky used the building blocks of Tchaikovsky’s earlier ballet music and changed the order of basic melodic bricks to make his works sound different and interesting. In The Rite of Spring, a simple 2/4 rhythm is sometimes used but with variable accents on top, the music sounds deceptively complex.

Finally, Monica Mason spoke about Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite. She created the lead role in 1962 after MacMillan was inspired by both her Zulu background and seeing her dancing wildly at a Royal Ballet party. Mason was told to come to the studio ‘prepared for anything’ and immediately loved the ballet’s style, as there was no need to worry about beauty, turn out or pointed feet. The focus was all on music, rhythm and pushing the body to its limits of energy. All involved had great fun in creating it. This season she has also taken the interesting decision to cast male dancers Edward Watson and Steven McRae as the Chosen One, where females are typically seen.

Mason coached Valentino Zucchetti – he’s covering the role and danced it with plenty of energy and exuberance. Mason directed him through the unusual and aptly-named ‘rabbit jump’, ‘heart attack’ and ‘hiccup’ movements. She highlighted the important details of finger and hand positions and praised Zucchetti for learning the choreography so well from the back of the studio.

The insight evening was as fun and informative as ever and I’m now looking forward to seeing the upcoming triple bill in performance even more.


Cleopatra, Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th May

Based in Leeds, Northern Ballet is best-known for its creation of innovative story ballets which are toured around the UK. Its vision is highly commendable; producing a regular stream of new and colourful ballets from Wuthering Heights to Madame Butterfly and Hamlet and bringing them to mass audiences is no small accomplishment.
Martha Leebolt as Cleopatra
Photo: Bill Cooper

Their latest offering, the tale of Ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, is flashy but enjoyable. The complicated story of love, sex and murder is told succinctly and effectively.  From Cleopatra’s marriage to her brother, through to her romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, the unremitting and dramatic action flows smoothly. Martha Leebolt was passionate and emblematic as the lead. Fresh from her award for Outstanding Classical Female Performance, she danced radiantly and was enticing to watch. Kenneth Tindall as Wadjet, the serpent-like god of pharaohs who guides Cleopatra through her destiny, sinuously and captivatingly slithered about the stage. The rest of the company also performed well – the army men were particularly unified and striking.

Choreographer and company director David Nixon uses a multiplicity of dance techniques – classical ballet and contemporary dance merge seamlessly into more surprising musical theatre style. His vision for the ballet is artistic and well-executed. Cleopatra and Caesar roll erotically in a length of white fabric, which when bundled, becomes a baby. Every gesture is imbued with meaning and dancers repeatedly strike powerful symbolic poses. Focus is on hands and wrists, which constantly meander and twine to make beautiful patterns.

The brand new score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, composer of Les Misérables and Miss Saïgon, was a joy to listen to. Its grandeur and boldness contrasted with moments of quiet lyricism and perfectly suited the ballet’s dancing and story. Costumes by Christopher Giles were equally praiseworthy, evoking the Egyptian setting with glamour and style but still allowing dancers freedom of movement.

All in all, Cleopatra is a lovely ballet, suitable for both seasoned ballet-goers as well as newcomers. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is well-danced, uncomplicated and fun – and certainly worth a pleasant evening’s viewing.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Triple Tremendous

Ballo Della Regina/ Live Fire Exercise/ Danse a Grande Vitesse, the Royal Ballet –reviewed on 13th May

Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, a virtuosic showcase set to music from Verdi’s Don Carlo, has the instant drama of a bright blue backdrop and costumes shimmered with glitter. With lightning-quick jumps combined with poise, exuberance and charm, Marianela Nuñez looked as if the steps had been created for her. She danced with a sense of fun, showing off her immaculate technique and timing as she made complicated patterns with her feet and jumped with perfect balance onto pointe. Sergei Polunin jumped explosively, leaping high into the air continuously without tiring. Four short solos were also well-performed, especially by Yuhui Choe who danced playfully, making her movements look deceptively simple and light. The work is a wonderful addition to the Royal Ballet repertoire and a great chance for dancers to entertainingly show off their technical prowess.

Wayne McGregor’s latest work, Live Fire Exercise, attempted to highlight the links between ballet training and military drills. Against a background projection by John Gerrard, showing trucks and cranes driving across a bleak landscape, dancers marched onto stage in darkness. An explosion ensued on the screen, followed by typical McGregor choreography of swirling, contorting and rippling bodies. However, despite the captivating movement, the piece felt underwhelming; its theme didn’t make cohesive sense or provide the emotional drama intended. The projection was more innovative and attention-grabbing than the choreography.

Inspired by the speedy French TVG, Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse creates the dynamic feeling of a train and its people in motion. With excellent lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Zenaida Yanowsky and Eric Underwood made simple arm movements defined and enticing, moving their bodies in waves. Melissa Hamilton glided with the sleekness of a cat from knotted poses to high leg extensions and lifts. The corps provided a backdrop to the four main duets, travelling in group undulations across the stage. With beautifully orchestrated music by Michael Nyman and awe-inspiring dancing, this was a superb finish to the evening.

The programme’s main weakness was the fact that it was almost 50% interval. If only the ROH could rethink their scheduling (or offer free interval drinks!), it would be as near to a perfect triple as could be hoped for.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Choreographics, English National Ballet - reviewed on 11th May

Photo: Laurent Liotardo
ENB’s annual evening of experimental works showcased creations by six company dancers and two guest choreographers.

The highlight was Stina Quagebeur’s Conformity. For three males and three females, the work investigated gender inequality. It commenced with men standing side by side, forming a ‘wall’ of masculinity, which the women behind attempted to break though, each time being thrust back. The males held the females and manipulated them, swinging their legs from side to side like pendulums, asserting their control and male dominance. The women were left frustrated and desperate to be free, but at the same time totally dependent on their male partners for support and protection. Crystal Costa turned desperately to each man in turn, every time being thrown and spun like a helpless ragdoll. The piece ended powerfully as she walked away with her partner but then turned back, unsure whether to conform or keep fighting for her independence.

Zhanat Atymtayev’s choreographic work had dancers moving in wave patterns, one after another, forming attractive, rippling shapes. Van Le Ngoc, fresh from his success at the Coliseum with Vue de l’autre, displayed Black Gold – a piece moving between intimidating tribal movements and haunting and precise contemporary dance. The high point was a duet between Kei Akahoshi and Yonah Acosta of grasping, reaching and folding splendour.

F.I.S.H. by Daniel Paul Jones was performed to an interestingly eclectic mix of music – from bagpipes to rock to the sounds of kittens meowing. However, the dancing felt disjointed, and the piece lacked a coherent theme running through it. James Streeter’s A triangle without a shape used interestingly uncomfortable movements to create abstract patterns. The final work by a company dancer (Yat-Sen Chang) evoked a ballroom atmosphere with dancers dressed smartly and swirling their partners across the dance floor in a simple and enjoyable manner.

Guest choreographer Daniela Cardim created Inertia. With fabulous performances by dancers including Begoña Cao, Inertia’s movement reached break-neck speed, before suddenly dropping to a requisite moment of tranquillity. In Jennifer Jackson’s Time Chant, the nine female dancers appeared like other-worldly zombies, performing strange and unnatural movements accompanied by frighteningly imposing music.

Wayne Eagling introduced and closed the evening, rightfully praising the choreographers for their bravery in exposing works to an audience. Seeing the talents continue to develop over the next few years will no doubt be both captivating and rewarding.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Draft Works

Draft Works, the Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH – reviewed on 26th April

In the words of Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Draft Works "provides a unique opportunity for dancers to create new work, and/or to experiment and risk-take with short choreographic sketches". Such opportunities are rare and most welcome considering the lack of successful British ballets produced in the last 15-20 years. This season, eight dancers took part in the programme, all daring to put their creations in front of a discerning public. Lots of interesting work with potential was shown, but my highlights were:

Sian Murphy’s Hold it Down – a pas de deux created to music the choreographer likes to listen and dance to when she’s not at her usual ballerina work. Her first choreography, she used ballroom and ballet inspired movements in a fun and funky way, bringing them up to date alongside the repeated beat of the lyrics ‘hip hop’.

Vanessa Fenton’s And I Always Will – a solo danced on a small onstage platform and performed by Fenton herself. Accompanied by excellent live singing and guitar by Lynne Jackaman and Ivor Sims, Fenton kept her eye focus down and her back to the audience. Wearing a baggy shirt, she placed her foot out and in from her body and rolled down her sleeves, grabbing the flesh underneath. Fenton seemed to be investigating her body as if hating it, feeling constantly embarrassed and disgusted by its form. And I Always Will was intense, emotional and beautiful.

Ludovic Ondiviela’s untitled piece – an ensemble for five dancers full of surprising, jerky and unnatural movements. Knees buckled and arms flapped with each twitch a pleasingly sharp contrast to the smooth flow of the rest of the dancing. Olivia Cowley’s role was particularly fascinating; she appeared like a disturbed mental patient, rolling on the floor, convulsing her head and extending and retracting her fingers.

Other choreographers Natalie Harrison, Alexander Whitley, Erico Montes, Samantha Raine and Valentino Zucchetti also deserved high praise. With such talent on display, let’s hope the next few years will bring plenty more British dance to look forward to.