Saturday, 26 March 2011

Rhapsodic, Rippling and Rare

Rhapsody/ Sensorium/ 'Still life' at the Penguin Cafe, the Royal Ballet - reviewed on 23rd March
The Royal Ballet’s triple bill displays three very different works from British choreographers. The first is Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, choreographed in 1980 for the Queen Mother’s birthday. Danced wearing muted earthy tones, one leading couple and six supporting pairs interweave to a beautiful Rachmaninoff score. Originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, it was designed to showcase his dramatic firework-style leaps.
Sergei Polunin’s powerful jumps have just as much vigour. He hovers in the air long enough to perform complicated leg twists and barely lands before springing back up. Laura Morera dances playfully – her steps are light and poised. Partnered by all seven men, she glides through the air as if weightless. The Morera/Polunin twirling pas de deux is divine – quiet, delicate and exquisitely understated.
Sensorium is less impressive. Alistair Marriott’s choreography plays with the body’s ability to contort itself into uncomfortable poses with high leg extensions. Implying a watery theme, dancers perform in simple leotards of pale blue and yellow and ripple their spines like waves. The main roles were executed with considerable strength and athleticism by Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead, Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather. But even their beautiful shapes do not compensate for the laborious and repetitive overall nature of the piece.
Last was ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café – David Bintley’s 1988 work designed to draw attention to the world’s endangered species. With some dancers completely dressed as animals and others in typical dancewear with animal heads, the intention of the work and its human-animal metaphor is not clear. But it still has an emotion and humour about it that reaches home. It has charming penguin waiters with jazzy waddling walks and an elegant Utah longhorn ram, danced gracefully by Zenaida Yanowsky. Combined with an eclectic score by Simon Jeffes and colourful lighting from John B. Read, the joy of different creatures and the danger of losing them is well-illustrated. The ‘now nothing’ trio (representing a rainforest-dwelling species now extinct) is particularly touching, with Kristen McNally and Nehemiah Kish moving seamlessly through embraces and jumps, wonderfully accompanied by a tiny ballerina from the Royal Ballet School.  Still Life is a fun-filled yet poignant treat to round off the evening.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Black and White

Black and White, English National Ballet – reviewed on 17th March
An interestingly-titled programme with five different ballets was English National Ballet’s latest offering at the London Coliseum.
The highlight was Van Le Ngoc’s triumphant new ballet Vue de l’autre. With wonderful piano music by Ludovico Einaudi (much like the gorgeous soundtrack of movie Amélie) and ingenious lighting by David Richardson (think starry, romantic nights), it was a delightful mix of melting, leaping and encircled bodies. Supposedly abstract but with a red rose implying a love theme, ten dancers showed many facets of passion and emotion. Some partnerships were blissful and some filled with pain and regret; it was English National Ballet displaying agony and ecstasy at its most beautiful. All dancers performed well but Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov were outstanding. They moved seamlessly from one knotted embrace to another with a sense of electricity between them. Continually separated and reunited, their yearning and infatuation for each other was almost tangible.
Choreographer Le Ngoc is a first artist with ENB. Born in Vietnam, he danced with Ballet National de Marseille before joining the company. He cites Einaudi’s music as his main inspiration for Vue: “there is so much beauty, delicacy and depth in it... each time it opens up new horizons, new ideas and inspiration”. Le Ngoc is a testament to why British companies should continue to fund and nurture the talent of such young choreographers.
The evening’s other works were less noteworthy. The Black Swan pas de deux was performed smoothly by Erina Takahashi and Dmitri Gruzdyev. Artistic director Wayne Eagling’s two works, Resolution and Men Y Men, showed the company’s athleticism. Suite en Blanc, with choreography by Serge Lifar, gave a few lesser known dancers the chance to shine. Nancy Osbaldeston, in particular, demonstrated an exemplary ability to hit sudden and awkward balances on pointe.
None of these were anywhere near as enjoyable as Vue and it was this all too short glimmer of brilliance that made worthwhile an otherwise unremarkable evening.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Alice #2

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet - reviewed on 15th March
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
A second viewing of Alice validated my initial observations. It is an enchanting ballet but lacks magic in the choreography. Whilst Christopher Wheeldon has made a reasonable attempt, the tale of Alice in Wonderland, which is filled with wordplay, doesn’t translate into non-verbal dancing. It just doesn’t make sense to watch, scenes don’t flow into one another and the action drags on until it becomes tiresome.

Marianela Nuñez as Alice provided a different flavour to Sarah Lamb. She portrayed the character as a spoilt child – blissfully happy when enraptured with the wonderland’s magic, or grumpily stamping her feet when unable to go through a door that’s too small. This one-dimensional interpretation may well be faithful to the book (which regretfully I haven’t read) but wasn’t to my taste. Normally I am a huge fan of Nuñez and love her spirited facial expressions, but here she seemed like a typical moody teenager. An interesting point muttered in the interval questioned Nuñez’s casting as Alice. A fellow audience member commented that she was just too sexy to play the part of a child. And even in her temper tantrums, I admit she did ooze a sensuous charisma.
Aside from Nuñez’s comment-worthy performance, everything else was much the same - the myriad of wonderful costumes and sets from Bob Crowley, including tartan pointe shoes, and beautiful music by Joby Talbot that had me humming in the interval (let’s hope they make a CD recording). If only the choreography could match up...

The future of British ballet

English National Ballet Emerging Dance Award - reviewed on 28th February
With young dancers performing, the Emerging Dancer Award provides an enticing glimpse into how the future of British ballet will look. The competition is designed to showcase ENB talent and allow up-and-coming dancers to stretch themselves with principal roles. Battling to win a small amount of prize money and a large amount of prestige, each dancer learnt, researched and rehearsed two solos in the little time they usually have free. Judged by leading dance figures including Carlos Acosta and Dame Beryl Grey, the event took place at the Southbank Centre in front of an enthusiastic audience.
Shiori Kase, the youngest at just 19, was a deserving winner with her pure lines and clean technique. She danced Giselle with a quiet, lyrical innocence and her Black Swan showed power and precision. Also performing was Vadim Muntagirov, an already rapidly-rising star, who jumped sky-high and dazzled with multiple pirouettes. Laurretta Summerscales presented a wide-eyed, radiant and youthful Aurora; her Carmen was contrastingly teasing and seductive. Max Westwell was handsome in Don Quixote but lacked vibrancy.
Deserving highest praise are James Streeter and Ksenia Ovsyanick for their artistry. Streeter danced Les Bourgeois with jollity and highly detailed characterisation from his raised eyebrow to his staggering walk. As James from La Sylphide he wore a kilt and irresistible grin which couldn’t fail to make us smile with him. As the Black Swan, Ovsyanick displayed wonderful dynamics of movement and an alluringly sultry gaze seen through long, dark eyelashes. Her daring solo from William Forsythe’s contemporary ballet In the middle, somewhat elevated was even more mesmerizing. Her body curved and circled in every conceivable direction, with jellyfish-like fluidity in her upper back.
With filmed clips of the dancers punctuating the action, we also got a feel for their offstage personalities. What shone out most was their sheer love for ballet. Their total commitment to hard work and self-development as performers was inspiring. As Summerscales put it “I just want to show the best that I can be onstage”.
All in all, the Emerging Dancer Award was a delightful evening and proof that the future of British ballet is in safe hands.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Alice is a Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet – Reviewed on 3rd March 2011

This week was the premiere of the Royal Ballet’s first new full-length work in 15 years. Christopher Wheeldon’s creation has been eagerly anticipated and taken more than 12 months to complete. With fabulous costumes and sets by Bob Crowley, Alice was an endless stream of surprises – truly curioser and curioser. A newly commissioned score by Joby Talbot was magical, twinkly and perfectly suited to Lewis Carroll’s enchanting tale. But the choreography itself, which should have been the centrepiece, did not shine as brightly as the production’s other elements.
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesey of ROH
Some moments were wonderful. The caterpillar, danced with fluid brilliance by Eric Underwood, was enthralling. The Mad Hatter’s tea party saw Steven McRae perform a sparkling tap dance surrounded by oversized cakes including a trampoline of a Victoria sponge. And the Queen of Hearts (Tamara Rojo) pas de cinq with four knaves was a hilarious parody of the famous Sleeping Beauty Rose Adage.
But the overall feeling in the production was that dancing took a backseat. Wheeldon allowed Alice’s fantasy to be created not through his choreographed movement but through costumes, set and visual effects, which although fantastic in this case, do not make a ballet.
The Royal Ballet danced well. The corps were especially notable and performed with unity and cohesion. Sarah Lamb, second cast as Alice, danced lyrically but was unremarkable. It was Tamara Rojo with her wicked, funny and powerful Queen that stole the show.
Any attempt to create a full-length ballet is deserving of high praise, and Wheeldon has made a work that is worth viewing. But is it a lasting classic? I think not. The plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is all too complicated and scenes feel disjointed. And a ballet that stands the test of time needs high quality choreography throughout, which unfortunately is not present here.