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.