Tuesday, 31 December 2013

December 2013 Round-Up

Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov in The Nutcracker
Photo: Caroline Holden

I have also explored the grand jeté in my monthly ballet steps analysis feature, and chosen the top 10 performances of 2013.

Other writing:

A preview of the London International Mime Festival on Londondance

A review of Ballet Cymru's Romeo and Juliet on Bachtrack
A review of English National Ballet's The Nutcracker on Bachtrack
Reviews of Dance Proms (p.75) and Bird College's Joie de Vivre (p.79) in Dancing Times, January issue

A review of Dance Proms (p.54) in Dance Today, December issue
And, of course, Dance UK's December e-news

Friday, 27 December 2013

Ballet Steps: Grand Jeté

Edward Watson in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper
For this month's ballet steps blog, I look at the wonderful split-leap jump, the grand jeté. One of my favourite steps, it is performed at the end of a ballet class as well as in lots of ballet choreography, and gives the feeling that a dancer is flying through the air. It involves springing off from one leg, reaching a 'split' position in the air (with one leg forward and one back) and then landing on the other leg in arabesque.

Kristina Sharpan in Coppélia
Photo: E Fetisova
The step should be taught only when other smaller jumps have been mastered, as the dancer needs to be able to land confidently in plié. For students, it is a good idea introduce the step as a grand battement (a brush and kick of the leg to the front), followed by a small up and over action to land on the kicked leg (with knee bent) and the other leg extended behind. The student can then try stepping into a grand jeté and eventually running. The stronger the push off the supporting leg before the leap, the greater the height of the jump.
Grand jetés can be performed with a variety of arm lines, including 1st, 2nd and 3rd arabesque, 4th and 5th positions, and hands on hips. Higher arms typically give the illusion of a larger jump.

Here are the Royal Ballet's Dawid Trzensimiech and Akane Takada performing a grand allegro (or large jumping sequence), which includes grand jetés. It's worth noting that Takada uses a developpé (flicking) action and Trzensimiech uses the more traditional straight leg grand battement action:

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Strange Blooms

Photo: Chris Nash
Configurations/ Strange Blooms, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Southbank Centre - reviewed on 4th December
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance celebrates its 25th anniversary with a double bill showcasing both the company’s origin and present. In Configurations (pictured), Jeyasingh’s choreography reflects her classical Indian heritage with four dancers performing traditional movements, but in innovative formations and to the unusual accompaniment of a string quartet.
2013 work Strange Blooms is in such contrast that it could have been made by a different creator. Inspired by plant life, masses of rippling bodies reflect the projected scribble animations by Jan Urbanowski. In primarily other-worldly movements, there are only occasional, delightful glimmers of the choreographer’s South Asian background.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

2013 Top 10 Dance

Akram Khan in DESH
Photo: Richard Haughton
It has been a wonderful year for dance in London, with hundreds of performances by companies from both locally and internationally covering styles from hip hop to classical ballet. Here are my top 10 highlights of 2013:

Yuhui Choe in Voices of Spring
Photo: Bill Cooper
10. ZooNation Youth Dance Company's Groove on Down the Road (August)
I couldn't help beaming throughout this vibrant hip hop version of The Wizard of Oz, performed by talented dancers aged just 10-19.

9. Construction Industry Council Gala (November)
This fundraising event, organised by dance critic Graham Watts, included the White Swan pas de deux gorgeously performed by Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov, a charming hip hop solo from Tommy Franzen and the world premiere of Slanjayvah Danza's injury-inspired Minor Tears.

8. FLOW at the Print Room (February)
I had to wear a bin-liner to watch this, but loved Hubert Essakow's choreography with dancers performing in several inches of water.

Northern Ballet's Ugly Duckling
Photo: Martin Bell
7. The Royal Ballet's Ashton mixed bill (February)
This quintuple bill showed the best of Frederick Ashton's choreography, from passionate narrative to strikingly simple shapes and exuberant duets.
6. Akram Khan's DESH (June)
Alas, I didn't review this show and in fact, I didn't particularly follow it - but there was something wonderful and emotive about Akram Khan's choreography that I felt physically in my being rather than understanding logically.

5. The Royal Ballet's Onegin (January/February)
I love this ballet which features John Cranko's superb choreography, Tchaikovsky's beautiful score, and leading roles that are open to really varied and dramatic interpretation.

Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: ROH/ Bill Cooper
4. ROH2's The Metamorphosis (March)
10 litres of treacle and some extraordinary contorting body movement by Edward Watson make this a superb and engaging piece of theatre.
3. Northern Ballet's Ugly Duckling (May)
This charming animal-filled children's ballet was a delightful 45 minute's lunchtime entertainment.
2. Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Swan Lake (June)
This wonderful performance by Laurretta Summerscales was her debut in a leading role, with her serene and impassioned Odette especially moving.

1. Natalia Osipova in the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet  (November)
An impressive MacMillan style, sublimely effortless technique and touching characterisation made for a beautiful and emotive performance that was undoubtedly my 2013 highlight.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rambert Moves

Rambert dancers in their new building
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Rambert Moves, Marie Rambert Studio - reviewed on 4th December

Rambert opens the doors to its £19.6million new home on the Southbank this week. Public events include tours, open rehearsals and a Rambert School performance of Mark Baldwin's The Rite of Spring.
Preparing students for the next generation is also hot topic of a panel discussion. Janet Smith is keen not to manufacture talent only for current company moulds: "We want to train people to shape the future of dance." For Mikaela Polley, students need more confidence to "explore and be expressive in technique class".
Rambert is clearly leading thw way not only in architecture but also with artistic debate. Events continue until 14 December.

Monday, 2 December 2013

BRB Nutcracker

Jenna Roberts as the Snow Fairy
Photo: Roy Smiljanic
The Nutcracker, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome - reviewed on 28th November
Created in 1990 as a gift for the city of Birmingham, Sir Peter Wright's The Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal Ballet is surprisingly different to the choreographer's version for the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. But it has much to like, with its designs by John Macfarlane giving a particularly magical feel as mice emerge from the fireplace and six soldier dolls in a box under the tree come to life to battle them.

The company's performance in Act I was excellent, with the seriously impressive acting skills of the young children (associates and students of Elmhurst School for Dance and the Royal Ballet School) giving the party scenes a wonderfully animated and engaging flavour. Lewis Turner also made a vibrant Jack-in-the-Box with enormous jumps and the Snowflakes shimmered exactly as they should.

Act II was less successful with many precarious moments, including Delia Mathews nearly being dropped in the Arabian dance and a Prince (Yasus Atsuji) who pirouetted out of control. BRB First Artist Yvette Knight gave a sweet performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, in what was only her second attempt as the ballet's lead. She was lyrical and delicate, but didn't yet have the artistry or indulgence that more experienced dancers bring to the role. I am sure she will develop these skills over time, and she certainly has the makings of a great Sugar Plum.

All in all, Birmingham Royal Ballet's production has plenty of magic and sparkle and made for a lovely evening at the theatre, but the cast need greater attention to detail to make it a truly world-class Nutcracker.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

November 2013 Round-Up

Sarah Lamb in Chroma
Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH

I have also explored the battement frappé in my fifth segment of my ballet steps series.

Other writing:

A review of Nutshell Dance's Retrospective on Londondance
An interview with choreographer and dancer Avatâra Ayuso on Londondance
A review of Yat-Sen Chang Dance Company on Londondance

A review of the Liang / Maliphant / Wheeldon bill on Londonist
A review of Stuttgart Ballet's The Taming of the Shrew on Londonist
A review of Mark Morris Dance Group on Londonist

A review of Italia Conti's The Workshop (p.77) in Dancing Times, December issue

Friday, 29 November 2013

(Romeo and) Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 21st November
Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: ROH / Bill Cooper
Following hugely successful guest appearances with the company in Swan Lake in 2012, Natalia Osipova was invited to join the Royal Ballet as principal and made her official debut in Romeo and Juliet last week. Having now seen Osipova in Giselle, Don Quixote and Laurencia as well as Swan Lake, my expectations of this superb ballerina were sky-high, but they were thoroughly exceeded.
In Act I, her Juliet was sprightly and playful as she leapt about the stage, playing with her doll and then dancing excitedly with Paris. On meeting Romeo, her passion was tangible - overwhelming and confusing her before she gave in to her feelings. But most moving were the Act III potion scenes, where she displayed the severity of her situation with such clarity and emotion that it brought a tear to my eye. I could read Osipova's every thought as she struggled to find a way to escape her fate. The ballet's tragic ending was equally powerful, with her reaching out to her beloved Romeo as the curtain closed creating a haunting image that is embedded on my mind.
Though Osipova is not trained in the Royal Ballet style, she showed a good understanding of the intricacies of Kenneth MacMillan's choreography in this first performance, and I imagine as she becomes more familiar with the company's repertoire, her classical English technique will develop even  further. This exquisite ballerina is a wonderful addition to the Royal Ballet and I simply cannot wait to see her performing again.

Friday, 22 November 2013


Marianela (art exhibition) by Mark Demsteader, Panter and Hall Gallery - reviewed on 19th November
Marianela in Red 1 with a price tag of £20,000

Marianela Nuñez is the latest muse of Mark Demsteader, who has created a series of artistic portraits of her which are currently on display at the Panter and Hall Gallery in Pall Mall. Whilst it's free to go and have a look, the way in which they are displayed is not conducive to a particularly pleasant viewing experience. In particular, there are a huge range of obstacles - from coat rails to desks - blocking access to the art works,  and the lighting is less than ideal.
The prime aim of the display is clearly to sell the paintings, though with prices ranging from £3,000 up to an enormous £20,000, they were hardly within my price range. But this and the climbing over chairs I had to do  aside, the art itself is a lovely representation of and tribute to Nuñez. She is one of the world's leading (and one of my favourite) ballerinas and the joy she exudes onstage is simply incredible. Demsteader doesn't convey this in his paintings, choosing instead to place her in quiet and intimate poses that are perhaps more represent of her offstage persona.
The artist's style is not really to my taste - apologies for my inability to describe it appropriately, but it's quite scribbly in form and very rough in texture, with extra pieces of canvas seemingly plastered on in random places. But the pictures are beautiful, true to the exquisite dancer who inspired them, and did I have a spare few thousand pounds (and a spare space on the wall), I would love to have a Marianela portrait gracing my home.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Black Swan

Black Swan (film) - Channel 4, 9pm, 16th November

When I tell non-dance people that I write about dance and especially ballet, their first question is usually to ask what I think of 'Black Swan'. The short answer is that I believe Darren Aronofsky's award-winning film is great. It's not a wholly accurate representation of the ballet world but I don't think it's meant to be. It's an interesting and captivatingly-portrayed story about a woman who becomes increasingly disturbed and deluded under the stress of her job and also the pressure she puts on herself. The ballet setting is merely a lens through which this idea is explored. (I often make a comparison to the film 'Snakes on a Plane', which is neither representative of snakes nor planes.)
As the film had its network premiere on Saturday, I decided to watch it again and offer here some more detailed thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses.
Reasons to like the film:
1. Natalie Portman is superb in the leading role as ballerina Nina Sayers. Whilst she doesn't perform much of the choreography herself, the dancing she does do demonstrates a great respect for and understanding of ballet as an art form. Portman's acting is also excellent, giving her character a real depth and inviting the viewer to sympathise with her state of mind. It's no wonder Portman won an Oscar for her performance in the film, as well as a Golden Globe, BAFTA and numerous other awards.

2. The narrative is intelligently conveyed, so that the audience doesn't know what is Nina's paranoid fantasy and what is reality. That leaves a sense of confusion and disorientation that matches exactly how the lead character feels, and encourages questioning of what has actually happened and when Nina's behaviour became madness.
3. There are several elements of the film that accurately represent the ballet world (and indeed this fact was tweeted on Saturday night by Royal Ballet dancer Olivia Cowley, though she refused to disclose exactly which). For example, the preparation of pointe shoes, which requires meticulous attention and is unique to each dancer, is shown effectively. The pain of physiotherapy/massage to release tension in the body is also correctly conveyed, as is the pain of finding out whether or not a role has been given by reading a cast list on a noticeboard.

Reasons to dislike the film:

1. There was a huge amount of controversy surrounding the use of Portman's body double, Sarah Lane. Lane claims that only 5% of the full body shots shown in the final 'Black Swan' were Portman herself, and yet her involvement was played down by the film's stars. It has even been suggested that digital enhancement was used post-production in certain scenes to put Portman's head onto Lane's body. As I have said above, I think Portman did a great job in her role and have no problem with her use of a body double for the more difficult ballet movements. But Lane's contribution should have been properly acknowledged.

2. The way the director behaves towards his newly-cast Swan Queen is sexual harassment and nothing less. Seeing a dancer asked to go home and masturbate, being groped and being expected to perform sexual favours in return for roles is a horrible and inaccurate reflection of the dance world.
3. The lead character has a real lack of independence; she seems emotionally stunted, with her pink bedroom filled with fluffy toys and her overbearing mother tucking her into bed every night and sewing the ribbons onto her pointe shoes. Whilst this is effective in story-telling terms, it is highly unlikely that a professional ballerina would become like this, as they would probably have to leave home at the age of 11 (or at the latest, 16) to attend full-time ballet school.
On balance, I think 'Black Swan' makes for great viewing. The ballet aspects of the film offer  a framework within which an interesting character and her mental state can be investigated. The fact there is also Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music and some fabulous dancing is the metaphorical icing on the cake.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Ballet Adverts

Is it 'Strictly' fever or has ballet become trendy? Whatever the reason, dance is definitely getting more exposure in popular culture. Here are the some of the best adverts using ballet and dance to sell their products.

Using Royal Ballet stars Steven McRae and Thiago Soares as well as guest artist Iana Salenko, this advert reinvents The Nutcracker into an alpha male battle over a woman in Candyland. Whilst the ending caption (recommending spending time with the girls) seems misplaced, there is some great choreography (by Benjamin Millipied) and I especially love the pointe shoe punch-kick!
English National Ballet dancer and artistic director Tamara Rojo shows her moves to represent the precision and strength of Lexus cars, with a tagline of "a stronger body for greater control":
Levi's Stretch to Fit Jeans
Dancers from Korea National Ballet take to the streets of Seoul to show that Levi's new denim legwear stretches with movement. It's beautiful choreography against an even more beautiful city backdrop:

Citroen DS3
Arsenal football players join English National Ballet dancers to show that a new Citroen car is "refined, redefined":

And here are a few others...

Haagen-Dazs 'Melt Together' - including the Ukrainian National Ballet  performing Swan Lake

Gap - hip hop dancer Lil' Buck shows how "denim moves you"

Volvo Trucks 'The Epic Split' - not strictly dance but Jean-Claude Van Damme's daring stretch proves that Volvo's vehicles have precise steering. Just one question: why are the trucks reversing instead of driving forwards?

Smiths Lites - ballet dancers show that these crisps are "the daintiest way to stuff your face"

Volkswagen Polo - tango is used here to demonstrate the car's combination of toughness and beauty

Nike - this Russian ad for the popular sportswear brand features a street dancer and ballet dancer battling it out
Malteasers - ballet dancers were advertising these chocolate treats all the way back in 1993

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ballet Steps: Battement Frappé

The latest instalment for my ballet steps series is a barre exercise, battement frappé. Frappé means 'strike' and the movement is a striking of the ball of the foot against the floor.
There are numerous variations, but the most common (at least in my experience) is one where the working foot starts in a flexed position with the heel placed on the ankle bone of the supporting leg. The working foot then strikes against the floor as the working knee straightens, with the movement finishing once the leg is fully extended and slightly off the ground. This frappé can be performed en croix, ie. in three directions for each leg - to the front, to the side and to the back. 
Youth Dance England Young Creatives 2013
Photo: Brian Slater

Another variation of the battement frappé commences with the foot pointed and the toe placed on the ankle bone of the supporting leg. This is followed by the same strong extension of the working leg, but usually without the ball of the foot striking the floor. Frappés may also be double of triple, where the working foot is beated against the working leg before extending. For example, a triple frappé to the front would involve the working foot beating to the front, back and front of the supporting ankle bone before 'striking' out.    
Key points in the technique of a battement frappé are ensuring the working leg and knee is fully turned out in the preparatory position before extension, and making the frappé action as strong and sharp as possible. There should also be a moment of pause held in the extended position before the foot returns to the ankle bone.
Battements frappés are typically performed to a 2/4 beat but the timing and accents can be varied and made more complex to develop students' rhythmical understanding.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Human Seasons

Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli in The Human Seasons
Photo: ROH / Bill Cooper
Chroma/ The Human Seasons/ The Rite of Spring, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 9th November

The Rite of Spring
Photo: ROH / Johan Persson
David Dawson's first work for the Royal Ballet, The Human Seasons (pictured above), is inspired by John Keats's poem of the same name which likens the annual changes of weather with the human life cycle. While this theme was not in evidence to me, what was shown was a visually-exciting piece of choreography, with interesting patterns and shapes and some fabulous lifts, especially those involving first soloist Melissa Hamilton.
Performed beautifully by the crème de la crème of Royal Ballet talent, including Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae, Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez, the work was classically-rooted with some interesting modern twists, such as unusual pas de deux grips. The new musical score by Greg Haines was also exquisite and skilfully changed mood from vibrant and upbeat to haunting and meditative and back again.

The Human Seasons was sandwiched between two other great works by British choreographers - Wayne McGregor's Chroma and Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring (pictured left). Both were equally well performed, with special praise going again to Hamilton for her superb McGregor contortions.

Wigs and Make-up

ROH Insight Evening: Wigs and Make-up, Linbury Studio Theatre - reviewed on 6th November

Wigs and make-up have a long history. As early as 5000 years ago, the Egyptians wore wigs, and the first use of theatrical make-up was recorded more than 2000 years in the past (it was a toxic white lead-based paint). In Shakespearian times, actors wore chalk and soot but as lighting developed, better products were needed, and in the 1870s a greasepaint stick was invented. Stage wigs and make-up have continued to improve and their creation and application are now a real art form, as demonstrated at the Royal Opera House insight evening last week.
Sarah Lamb in The Nutcracker
Photo: Johan Persson
The opera house has 16 full-time members of wig and make-up staff - eight in opera and eight in ballet. The word 'technician' is used in their job titles to represent the technical aspects of the work, with a master/mistress as head of department. Everyone has a different area of expertise from hairdressing to prosthetics, but all have to work across the board, from sourcing make-up products to measuring and preparing wigs.
As far as possible, each member of staff works with the same performers in different productions. Caroline O'Connor, who works in the Royal Opera team, describes: "You're part therapist and confidante, just like a hairdresser. But it all stays within the dressing room." Principals always have their make-up and hair done by the team, but the corps de ballet and chorus tend to do their own. When there are large number of performers needing wigs or make-up, a couple of extra freelance technicians are hired, and cast members line up and get seen in turn. For a production like The Nutcracker (pictured), there are 200 wigs and so 10 wig and make-up staff are needed for each performance.
The team stay around for the whole show, in case any touch-ups or adjustments are needed. They also help the performers to remove their make-up and wigs post-performance.
Ballet and opera require slightly different approaches. For ballet, the designs are reproduced accurately, but with opera, hair and make-up styles tend to be adapted to suit individual singers. Ballet dancers also require their wigs to be very tightly secured so that they don't move when they are dancing.
Bennet Gartside in Don Quixote
Photo: Johan Persson
For wigs, the Royal Opera House team predominantly use human hair, which is sourced from Asia and is very expensive. (Interestingly, the cost increases as the hair colour gets lighter, with white hair the most costly.) They do, however, occasionally use yak hair as it shines differently onstage. Yak hair works especially well for theatrical beards and moustaches.
Each wig is made to measure for each individual performer. The head size and shape is modelled using cling film and cellotape and from that, a wig can be created to match the person's unique features. It takes 40 hours (or five days work) to create an average wig as one hair is attached at a time. Machine-created wigs are getting better in quality, but with hand-made ones, the measurements are more exact and there is much greater choice in how colour and length is varied across the wig.
What else does the team get up to when not making-up performers or creating wigs? They liaise with other staff in order to perfect wig and make-up designs for new productions. There is also a huge amount of work in the maintenance of wigs (including washing, conditioning, setting in rollers and styling) and the need to plan for and order products for upcoming performances.
Thank you to the Royal Opera House for another interesting evening and a great insight into the hard and detailed work of the wig and make-up team.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

October 2013 Round-up

This month I have written blogs on TooMortal, Sylvie Guillem: Force of Nature and top pas de trois. The fourth installment of my ballet steps series looks at the plié.
Other writing:

A review of L.A. Dance Project on Bachtrack
A review of BRB's Sleeping Beauty on Bachtrack
A review of Rambert Dance Company's The Castaways on Bachtrack

A review of Cirque Eloize on Londonist
A review of Dracula on Londonist
A review of The Nutcracker on Ice on Londonist
A review of National Dance Company Wales on Londonist
A 2000 word exploration of circus, ballet and art (p.52) for Unpack the Arts
A  piece on the Royal Opera House's Chance to Dance (p.27) and a review of the National Youth Ballet (p.73) in Dancing Times, November issue (I'm also mentioned on the letters page on p.11)
And, of course, Dance UK's October e-news including an interview with Andre Portasio, founder of ArtStreamingTV
Marion Tait in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty
Photo: Roy Smiljanic

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Top Pas de Trois

To brighten up the wintery weather, I've chosen some of my favourite pas de trois videos.

Frederick Ashton's Monotones I is both frighteningly lime green and exquisitely beautiful. Here Emma Magiure, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensmiech perform the incredibly musical trio:

This pas de trois from Swan Lake is where up and coming dancers are often cast, so it's a good place to look out for stars of the future. Here are the already 'up and came' Laura Morera, Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae performing:
This is a more unusual trio from Manon, which takes place after the title character has run away and slept with her lover. Following a passionate morning pas de deux, Manon is found by and dances with her brother, Lescaux, and a wealthy admirer, Monsieur GM,  performed below by Clairemarie Osta, Stéphane Bullion and Stéphane Phavorin:

This pas de trois is one of the Act III divertissements of Sleeping Beauty, danced here by Deirdre Chapman, Laura Morera and Valeri Hristov:
Finally, the Masks dance from Romeo and Juliet is a fabulous pas de trois for Romeo and his two friends, Benvolio and Mercutio. Here are Steven Heathcote, Adam Marchant and David McAllister of the Australian Ballet in John Cranko's version:

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Sylvie Guillem - Force of Nature

The Culture Show: Sylvie Guillem - Force of Nature - BBC2, 10pm, 9th October

Sylvie Guillem in Bye
Photo: Bill Cooper
This BBC Culture Show special explores one of the most famous international dancers of today, 48-year-old Sylvie Guillem. Renowned for her talent and especially her extreme flexibility, she was hand-picked by Rudolf Nureyev at the age of 19 to become the Paris Opera Ballet's youngest ever étoile.
Extremely outspoken, Guillem earned the nickname 'Mademoiselle Non' but she defends her artistic choices: "You have one life. If you spend it doing just what other people tell you to, it's not your life... I couldn't compromise. I never could do things that I didn't feel."
Guillem originally trained in gymnastics before discovering a love of dance. She took part in an exchange programme with the Paris Opera Ballet School and hated the training but loved performing onstage. "It triggered the rest. It was incredible. I knew something was there."
In 1989, she shocked the dance world by leaving Nureyev and Paris and joining the Royal Ballet in London. The company's director at the time, Anthony Dowell, describes: "I was thrilled that she was here but my suggestions were often met with a rather blunt 'non'." Nevertheless, Dowell was amazed by Guillem's physical capabilities. "With Sylvie, there were never any limitations... what you got onstage was worth it."
After a classical career with numerous international ballet companies, Guillem now continues dancing worldwide in more experimental contemporary dance works. "I am lucky to have a body that I don't have to force. I am strong enough and supple enough at the same time and haven't had a lot of injury. I feel good and I am 48. Maybe it's not normal, but I feel good."
She does, however, suffer with an intense fear of performing: "It's getting worse and worse. But once I am onstage, it's over... One day I was not afraid and I danced but I didn't have the pleasure. So I said, next time I'm not afraid, I won't go onstage."
Photo: Gilles Tapie

She lives in the Swiss mountains, enjoying the solitude and quietness of the countryside. "I don't have kids. I have dogs. It's hard enough to take care of yourself without having to raise kids on top of that, especially in the world we are living in."
While continuing to perform regularly, Guillem also has a passion for extreme environmentalism, supporting the work of Sea Shepherd, an organisation which uses direct action to protect marine life. Described as 'eco-terrorists' by some, Guillem views Sea Shepherd's approach as "less communication and more action. It's like me. You can't wait for things to get worse and worse."
So what is next for Mademoiselle Non? "Things have an end. A transition has to be made… but I have other things that I am interested in. I can’t just stop and cry all the tears in my body because I will stop dancing. I will use it as a springboard to go up again.”

Friday, 18 October 2013


TooMortal, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, St Pancras Church - reviewed on 10th October
Photo: Yaron Abulafia
Shobana Jeyasingh's 20 minute TooMortal is a fabulous work designed for performance in churches. I've seen it in London (at St Pancras Church) both in 2012 and then again last week as part of Dance Umbrella. It's a beautifully crafted non-narrative piece for six females - here are five reasons why I love it:

1. The dancers seem to appear from nowhere - with limbs popping up from behind pews and then disappearing again
2. The relationship between the dancers is fascinating - they ignore each other for the majority of the piece and then suddenly start to interact by looking at and reaching out to each other towards the end
3. The church surrounding creates an interesting an unusual atmosphere for dance which is very different from the usual theatrical setting
4. The shapes made by the dancers' bodies are very striking, with deep back bends and bold arm lines
5. The work has no story, but the way the women are dressed in blood red and stare expressionlessly into space makes me wonder if they are dancing a prayer for forgiveness after killing their husbands or some other extreme misdemeanour...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Ballet Steps: Plié

In the fourth issue of my ballet steps series, I discuss the plié, a fundamental movement which forms the basis of many other steps. It is a bend of the knees that may be either demi (half) or grand (full), and is typically performed as the first exercise at the beginning of ballet class.
Pliés can be performed in all positions of the feet - 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th (open and crossed) and 5th. In all positions, the heels stay on the floor in demi-plié; in grand plié, the heels come off the floor, except in 2nd and open 4th.
The picture above shows a young dancer demonstrating both demi and grand pliés in 1st position. This is how I teach the movement to students - I ask them to face the barre and stand in 1st position, before bending the knees as far as possible without lifting the heels. This can be referred to as 'diamond position' for young children as the shape made between the legs forms a diamond shape. The key corrections given to students are regarding posture - keeping the body upright and especially not sticking out their bottoms! - and turn-out, which means ensuring the knees bend outwards, over the toes.
Sylvie Guillem in Rearray
Photo: Bill Cooper

Once a demi-plié has been mastered in 1st, 2nd and 3rd position, I proceed to teach the full plié, for which the same corrections apply. 4th position is technically the hardest plié position to achieve and is therefore typically not introduced until Intermediate or Advanced level.

Most ballet classes commence with a plié exercise at the barre to warm up the muscles, with pliés performed in three or four different positions, combined with port de bras (arm and upper body movements), rises (onto the balls of the feet) and other simple movements.
As the plié forms the basis of so many steps, it is found in every ballet, but usually only used as a preparation for more complex steps such as jumps and pirouettes. However, Sylvie Guillem, demonstrates to the left how a simple plié in 2nd position can be used to great choreographic effect, with only the minor enhancement of one lifted heel and a striking arm line.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

September 2013 Round-Up

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in Indigo Rose
Photo: Jane Hobson
This month I have written blogs on West Side Story, fun dance videos to brighten up September, Christmas presents for ballet lovers, and the ROH Don Quixote dress rehearsal.
The third installment of my ballet steps series explores the couru.
Other writing:

A review of the opening night of the GOlive festival on Londondance
A review of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet on Londonist
A piece on English National Ballet Head of Costume, Wizzy Sawyer (p.17), and a review of Step LIVE (p.77) in Dancing Times, October issue
And, of course, Dance UK's September e-news including a feature on Richard Alston

Don Quixote Dress Rehearsal

Don Quixote dress rehearsal, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 28th September
Mayara Magri, Pietra Mello-Pittman, Claudia Dean, Sabina Westcombe,
Carlos Acosta and Benjamin Ella rehearsing Don Quixote. Photo: Andrej Uspenski / ROH
As this was a dress rehearsal rather than a performance, I can't write a full review, but I enjoyed Carlos Acosta's new production of Don Quixote so much that I felt compelled to blog!
I am not really a Don Q fan, thinking it a silly and laborious story, but the narrative in this version is so clear, well-constructed and convincingly performed that it makes the work a real pleasure. The sets and costumes are superb, although a minor criticism would be that scene changes are often too noticeable with houses sliding repeatedly across the stage. The atmosphere onstage, however, is nothing short of spectacular - as the corps de ballet click, clap and shout 'olé', there is a really vibrant feel that it is impossible not to enjoy.

In the title role, Gary Avis was his usual captivating self, acting charmingly and and finding a great sense of humour in the choreography. There were also some other great supporting performances - Anna Rose O'Sullivan was a bright and sprightly Cupid, and Thomas Whitehead (Gamache) and Jonathan Howells (Don Quixote's Squire) played their comic characters with excellence.
Photo: ROH/ Johan Persson
The Royal Ballet has lost many of its star dancers recently, with the retirements of Mara Galeazzi and Leanne Benjamin and then the sudden departure of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg. Left without an in-house partner, Steven McRae is performing Don Quixote alongside Staatsballett Berlin principal Iana Salenko, and it was this pair that took to the stage as the leads for the dress rehearsal.

While they have had little rehearsal time as yet and so their partnering was wobbly at times, individually both McRae and Salenko shone. The former's firework leaps and spins were an undoubted crowd-pleaser and the latter's beautiful coquettish smile, impressive balance and elegant, long lines delighted equally. What was perhaps even more enjoyable in this cast is how McRae flirted with Kitri's friend, danced by his real-life wife, Elizabeth Harrod, and then had to insist she meant nothing to him!

Acosta descrives the ballet as "very uplifting" with "big jumps and big dancing". As the first work of the Royal Ballet 2013/14 season, Don Quixote has a real bang and gives the company a great start to the year ahead.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Christmas Presents for Ballet Lovers

It's only 100 days until 25th December and therefore time to start thinking about Christmas presents! Here are my suggestions for great gifts for ballet lovers:
1. Theatre tickets
The best gift has to be tickets to a live ballet performance, especially if you can get a nice pair of seats and enjoy the evening with a couple of glasses of champagne! If you're not sure which show to choose though, theatre tokens offer a good alternative.
Released on 22 October, this is an insight into the world of internationally-renowned star, Natalia Osipova, as she prepared to perform the lead role in Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House last year. With 150 black and white photos by Royal Ballet dancer Andrej Uspenski, I'm sure this will be a great book and a fitting tribute to a superb ballerina.
This documentary follows six aspiring dancers as they enter  one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix, in a fascinating showcase of talent and determination.
4. A ballerina pendant
There are lots to choose from, all hand-made from Sterling silver and plated with white gold. I particularly like this one of a grand jeté.
5. Tyrell Katz ballet print items
Tyrell Katz makes a range of useful objects from bags to water bottles and bowls covered in a delightful pink pattern with cartoon figures performing ballet steps and positions (pictured). If you don't know which item would be best, I suggest this rather lovely umbrella.
Featuring five ballets including Tamara Rojo's farewell performance of Marguerite and Armand, this is a DVD that displays both the Royal Ballet's excellence and the incredible talent of choreographer Frederick Ashton.
7. Binoculars
The essential item for any ballet lover who sits in the cheap seats.
8. A ballet poster
The Royal Opera House have lots of lovely ones, but if you fancy something Christmas-themed, try this one of Sarah Lamb in The Nutcracker.
A charming book, with pictures of dancers in all manner of everyday situations from hair salons and bookshops to the beach. It really does celebrate the joy and 'dance' in every day.
10. Ballet-themed bath products
The Royal Ballet have this overpriced but very posh hand and foot cream set, made by Berkeley Square Cosmetics, and there's even a ballet dancer photograph on the box.
Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Fun Dance Videos

Here are some fun videos to brighten up September!

A little girl does 54 pirouettes:

A baby penguin tap-dancing in the snow aka 'Happy Feet':

Two very talented children (aged six and seven) performing on 'Ukraine's Got Talent':

And, just in case you didn't know that ballet is hard - here is, quite possibly, my favourite video ever!