Tuesday, 30 April 2013

April 2013 Round-up

This month, I have written blogs on the Mikhailovsky BalletMidnight Express, Raven Girl Insight evening and 'The Experiment'. I have also written:

A review of Laurencia (Mikhailovsky Ballet) on Londonist
A review of Romeo and Juliet (National Ballet of Canada) on Londonist as well as some further blog thoughts about the ballet
A review of Uprising/The Art of Not Looking Back (Hofesh Shechter Company) for Londonist

A blog for English National Ballet about Etudes
A blog for English National Ballet about Petit Mort
A blog for English National ballet on ten reasons to see Ecstasy and Death

A review of My First Cinderella (ENB2) on Londondance
A review of The Secret Garden (London Children's Ballet) on Londondance
A write-up of the Youth Dance England Young Creatives residential on Londondance
A London Ballet Circle talk report on Wayne Eagling and Gerald Dowler

A list of the Top 11 theatre annoyances on Londonist and a few extras that didn't make the list

A write up of Move it 2013 (p.30) and the National Dance Teacher's Association Making It Happen conference (p.41) in Dancing Times, May issue.

I also wrote Dance UK April e-news including an interview with choreographer Rosie Whitney-Fish

Hofesh Shechter Company in The Art of Not Looking Back
Photo: Dee Conway

Monday, 29 April 2013

Top 11 Theatre Annoyances - Continued...

Last week I wrote about the top 11 theatre annoyances for Londonist. But there are a few things that didn't make the list and here they are...

1. Programmes that cost more than a book but have almost nothing inside

2. People who sing/hum along with the show

3. Last minute cast changes, or why is the leading ballerina who has broken her arm still being advertised as Giselle?

4. Music and sound effects played at deafening volumes

5. Auditoriums that are so warm that you nearly fall asleep

6. Continuous coughing

7. Shows where the credits are not made available for free either online or via cast list

If you have any other suggestions, let me know and I may add them!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

'The Experiment'

'The Experiment', Female Choreographers' Collective, Laban Theatre - reviewed on 23rd April

Jane Coulston
Photo: Eric Richmond, courtesy of Beyond Repair Dance
Why are there more male choreographers than female (if indeed there are and I don't necessarily believe that to be the case)? Are men simply better at choreography? Or are they more pushy or committed when it comes to getting their work performed?

The Female Choreographers' Collective's experimental performance on Tuesday, put together by Jane Coulston (pictured) and Holly Noble, answered none of these questions. But it has certainly begun an important discussion.

The Experiment featured six works by six choreographers - three male and three female. With the audience left in the dark as to the choreographers involved, they were asked to make judgements about each piece, filling in a questionnaire with questions such as: do you think the work was by a male or female choreographer? Did you like the work? And would you pay to see similar choreography?

My two favourite pieces of the evening were Behind the Smoke and Even the Devil has Demons. The former felt like an extended (and never satisfied) foreplay, with a couple in underwear embracing and exploring each other's bodies with increasing tension. The latter was a hip hop and martial arts-inspired group routine with dancers in black tracksuits and hoodies, swerving and rolling around like James Bond spies. The other works, though convincingly performed, lacked (in my eyes) choreographic clarity and  ingenuity.
By the end of the six, not only was I unable to guess the gender of the choreographer, but I didn't care. Does it matter whether the artist is male or female? I think not - choreography is about quality and innovation, not gender. Though we do need to consider whether female choreographers have equal opportunities to create works.
I also want to highlight that gender isn't as black and white as it might seem. I know many people who are transgender and/or consider themselves neither male nor female. Perhaps this should be addressed as the Female Choreographers' Collective move forward; there are even fewer 'genderqueer' choreographers than female ones.
It will be interesting to see the results of 'The Experiment' when they are presented later in the year. In the meantime, I'm glad to be part of what is an interesting and much-needed debate about gender in choreography.

Edited to add choreographer names:
Behind The Smoke - Travis Knight
Even the Devil has Demons - Caitlin Barnett
Other choreographers - Cindy Claes, Alfie Smith, John Ross, Yuyu Rau and Elena Zaino

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, National Ballet of Canada, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th April
Elena Lobsanova and Guillaume Cote
Photo: Bruce Zinger
I wrote a brief review of Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet, performed by the National Ballet of Canada, earlier this week, but I wanted to consider the ballet in more detail on this blog. Here are my thoughts:
1. Ratmansky's choreography has a refreshing modern feel, with stomach contractions and hip sways. 
2. Ratmansky's whores have wavy hair rather than the curly locks of MacMillan's, but their bright red tights make them just as distinctive.
3. The fighting scenes are very choreographed, with spins and jumps punctuating every hit of the swords. Also, do people really sword-fight at parties? (Then again, do people really dance in perfectly regimented formations at parties?)
4. Richard Hudson's costumes are inspired by period clothing, but have a bright and contemporary feel.
5. In Juliet's opening solo, Ratmansky makes her much more like a naïve, sprightly teenager than MacMillan's young Juliet who plays with a rag doll.

6. Scene changes are smooth and neat but it seems odd that more than half the stage is curtained off in Juliet's bedroom.

Guillaume Cote, Piotr Stanczyk and Robert Stephen
Photo: Bruce Zinger
7. The Masks dance (pictured) is delightful with great choreography, big jumps and some very amusing comedy creeping.
8. Heather Ogden as Juliet appeared to rather like Paris, and was only interested in Romeo after he virtually stalked her around the Act I ball. Ratmansky's Romeo is persistent. 
9. Romeo and Juliet strangely have their first duet while everyone else is eating just metres away.
10. Ratmansky includes some excellent funny moments, especially for Benvolio and Mercutio.

11. The choreography is so busy that there is little time for emotional expression. Stillness is underused and it is only when Mercutio is killed that Guillaume Côté was able to display Romeo's anguish.
12. The dream-like sequence where Juliet imagines what will happen when she takes the potion is genius. It makes the tragedy all the more touching.
13. As does the fact that Juliet wakes up before Romeo has died and they have a few final moments together before he collapses and she commits suicide.
14. This is a good ballet - entertaining and with a clear narrative, but I missed the drama of MacMillan's choreography.

Raven Girl Insight

Raven Girl Insight Evening, Royal Ballet, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 16th April

"Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven" is the opening line of Audrey Niffenegger's new novel, written in collaboration with Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. Niffenegger is a well-known author, having published The Time Traveller's Wife and other bestselling books, but this is the first time she has written a fairy tale (or about ravens).
The book, which is not yet on sale, tells of the Postman and Raven meeting, falling in love and having a daughter. This Raven Girl comes out of an egg and squawks like a bird but has a human body. She spends her childhood wishing she could fly and lamenting her human arms, so when she meets a plastic surgeon who can replace these arms with wings, she immediately agrees. Once transformed, the Raven Girl meets a raven prince and as all fairy tales end, they live happily ever after.
McGregor and Niffenegger have been working together for several years, planning the project. It takes place in three stages - the book (pictured, to be published on 2 May), the ballet (premiering at the ROH on 24 May) and a film to be created in the future. McGregor was initially interested in Niffenegger's graphic novels, as he felt the lack of words left space for dance to fill in the gaps in the narrative. However, due to time constraints, Raven Girl has become an illustrated (rather than graphic) novel, as its 22 aquatint images were very time-consuming to make.
The book was originally about a Bird Girl, but Niffenegger thought this was too generic, so she researched different types of birds and their characters. She chose to make her novel about ravens because they are very clever, as well as being long-lived and monogamous.
Did Niffenegger try to write her novel in a way that was 'danceable'? McGregor answered: "You've heard the story - what do you think? No way!" But he had actually asked her not to make any concessions for him and to let her imagination run wild. Niffenegger began her work by exploring fairy tales and then creating a modern and more psychologically complex tale in the same format. "I wanted the characters to be bullet-proof but for the story to be pushed/pulled." Indeed, the choreographer's incarnation diverges from the novel, with certain characters missing and elements of the story changed.
Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
McGregor describes his main challenge as translating the images from Niffenegger's prose and pictures into movement. He particularly wants to create the effect of flying but without using wires; he is therefore planning to use huge industrial fans to give a sense of wind onstage.
At the insight evening, Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood demonstrated the ballet's final pas de deux. Having only been rehearsing for a week, it was in a draft stage, but in typical McGregor style with the notable addition of many complex lifts to indicate flight.
How does McGregor feel about creating his first narrative work at the ROH? He doesn't feel the pressure that everyone else seems to feel, as he has extensive experience choreographing in theatre and opera, where it is necessary for dance to tell a story. "Besides," he says, "ballet is inherently narrative."

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Midnight Express

Midnight Express, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 10th April

Photo courtesy of Midnight Express
Peter Schaufuss's works are more about controversy than choreography. He tackles brutal themes with little concern for interesting narrative exploration or well-considered movement, even making the delightful Sleeping Beauty into a nightmare.

His 2000 ballet, Midnight Express, currently in performance at the London Coliseum, is another example of a good idea poorly-executed. The story of Billy Hayes, immortalised both in a book and on film, tells of a man imprisoned for five years in Turkey following an unsuccessful drug smuggling attempt. The experience of being incarcerated took "a profound toll on body and soul" in Hayes's words, as he was repeatedly tortured and interrogated and then segregated in a cell for mentally-disturbed prisoners before eventually escaping.
Schauffuss translates this remarkable tale into a mixture of ballet and contemporary language, but choreography is so repetitive and uninspired that it takes away from rather than adding to the narrative. Prison guards move robotically to frenzied house music as if dancing in a 1990s gay nightclub and the supposedly violent scenes are so unrealistic they become almost comic.

20-year-old Danish dancer Johan Christensen stepped into the lead role with just three days to prepare after Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin unexpectedly disappeared from rehearsals. And whilst he performed with conviction and prowess, Christensen couldn't make a purse out of the meagre sow's ear of material on offer.

Prison officer Hamid was danced by Johan King Silverhult, another last-minute replacement, this time for Igor Zelensky. Even worse than the role of Hayes, the character's choreography involved merely walking around the stage and banging his faux-metal baton aggressively against the ground.
In case the choreography wasn't bad enough, Schaufuss chooses to use an inexplicably diverse and incohesive range of music from classical choral sounds to electronic disco. At one point, the soundtrack resembled an Islamic call to prayer as topless men engaged in athletic duos, before instantaneously metamorphosing into a melodic string-accompanied scene where the Angel of Death bourréed on pointe across the floor like the Queen of the Wilis. The sets also add a strange dimension, with constantly opening and closing panels and a number of awkwardly-placed ladders on which prisoners unfathomably climb.
There are a few nice moments; Wayne Eagling, as Hayes's father, performed a tender and impassioned duet with his son, and the moment where Christensen revealed his blood-stained face (after biting out a fellow prisoner’s tongue) was just the right amount of shocking and arresting.

Seeing the choreography, it's no surprise that Polunin walked out from the production. As much as I disagree with him dishonouring his contract and his fans, it was probably for the best that he wasn’t involved in such a painfully-drawn out and utterly bizarre ballet. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Mikhailovsky Ballet

Without Words/ Nunc Dimittis/ Prelude, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 7th April
Natalia Osipove and Ivan Vasiliev
Photo: The Mikhailovsky Theatre

The Mikhailovsky Ballet have made a remarkable impression on London audiences over the last two weeks. During their season at the Coliseum, they have performed four different full-length ballets and one triple bill, and while the choreography hasn’t always been of the highest quality, the company’s dancers have unceasingly excelled.
With worldwide superstars Natalia Osipova (whose brilliance I have blogged about before) and Ivan Vasiliev at the helm, the Mikhailosky Ballet can guarantee ticket sales. The couple, together known as ‘Osiliev’ (and pictured right in Don Quixote), are like fireworks in the way that they leap and spin with seemingly boundless energy. When Osiliev are onstage, the rest of the company fades into insignificance.
It is therefore only when this couple take the day off that the Mikhailovsky can demonstrate the strength of their lower-ranking dancers. In yesterday afternoon’s triple bill, they seemed so confident amidst the strikingly contemporary vocabulary that it was easy to forget that the company is predominantly a classical one.
The three works (Without Words, Nunc Dimittis and Prelude) were by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who is also the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s artistic director. Whilst his movement choices are often clichéd, they do give company dancers the chance to shine away from Osiliev’s enormous shadow.
All three ballets had spectacular scores (by a variety of notable composers: Schubert, Pärt, Azagra, Britten, Beethoven and Handel) and it is perhaps because of this that choreography felt lacking in punch. The music was exquisite, where movement was merely ‘nice’. In Prelude, there are some innovative moments and Ekaterina Borchenko sparkled particularly, but choreography was cluttered with incohesive images and unnecessary scene changes. Choreography was similarly cluttered in both Without Words and Nunc Dimitti, but there is little need to dwell on the weaknesses of the works.
What is important is that the Mikhailovksy’s season at the Coliseum has been but a brief taster into the company’s power. Osiliev’s development will undoubtedly be awaited with bated breath, but I shall also be keen to see in which direction the rest of the company proceeds.
Leonid Sarafanov in Prelude
Photo: The Mikhailovsky Theatre