Tuesday, 30 September 2014

September Round-up

Christopher Saunders and Marianela Nunez in Manon
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH

The latest instalment of my ballet steps series considers attitudes.
Other writing:
A feature on injury management (p.52) in Dance Today, September issue

A feature on Manon (p.27) and a review of Bird College's end-of-year performance (p.79) in Dancing Times, October issue

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Giselle DVD

Natalia Osipova as Giselle
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH

Giselle (DVD), Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 25th September

The story of Giselle is beautifully conveyed in a new Royal Ballet DVD directed by Ross MacGibbon. Through well-timed close-ups, the recording shows narrative details I've never noticed before such that Giselle's weak heart, betrayal and death become particularly poignant.
Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta impress in the leading roles, supported well by Deirdre Chapman and Thomas Whitehead as Berthe and Hilarion respectively. Osipova is sublime in particular, with effortless technique, beautifully held balances and enormous jumps. She is a Giselle to fall in love with - a joyous, carefree peasant girl in Act I and an ethereal, other-worldly Wili in Act II.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Constella Ballet

Ballet for Nancy/ Adagio/ Four on the Floor, Constella Ballet and Orchestra, Lilian Baylis Studio @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 20th September
Originally comprising musicians alone, Constella Ballet and Orchestra's latest incarnation combines live music with dancers from English National Ballet (ENB) and choreography by George Williamson.
The company's debut triple bill at Sadler's Wells' Lilian Baylis Studio commenced with a solo for Nancy Osbaldeston (formerly of ENB and now with the Royal Ballet of Flanders), simply titled Ballet for Nancy. To Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and wearing a gold-coloured lace dress, she walked pointedly onto stage, reaching towards a helium-filled red balloon.

Choreography and music alternated between the mournful and the ecstatic, but Osbaldeston's movement quality was irresistible throughout. Combining flowing circular arm lines with sudden moments of beautifully held balances, choreography seemed to highlight and play with Copland's pleasing melodies whilst perfectly suiting its dancer.

Ksenia Ovsyanick in Four on the Floor
Photo: Rachel Cherry
The ballet was disjointed with Osbaldeston repeatedly running on and off (and changing between pointe shoes and bare feet), but it was a joy to watch. In the final scene, the dancer was able to reach the red balloon but then suddenly let go and proceeded to skip and leap joyously about the stage. I'm not sure what the balloon represented but Osbaldeston appeared liberated at last and I felt an inexplicable emotional response as the lights went down.

Williamson's second ballet, Adagio, was a classical pas de deux for Jia Zhang and Max Westwell set to Samuel Barber's well-known Adagio for Strings. What stood out most, however, was Zhang's ripped costume skirt which detracted from the choreography as she attempted to hold it in place.

The evening's finale, Four on the Floor, was a slightly more contemporary quartet with a score by Judd Greenstein. In high leg extensions and lifts, Ksenia Ovsyanick and Nathan Young's sensual interpretation made for an interesting contrast with Laurretta Summerscales and Vitor Menezes' cheeriness. Williamson's choreography shone brightest in its closing moments with all four dancers onstage together, revelling in the ballet's music.
The evening would have been better programmed in reverse order to end on the undoubted highlight of Osbaldeston's well-constructed and expertly performed solo. Never the less, this was an enjoyable evening with great dance, choreography and music and I will look forward to seeing more from the Constella Ballet and Orchestra.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Manon Insight: "Everybody wants to be Manon"

Manon insight evening, Royal Ballet, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 18th September

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in the
Manon bedroom pas de deux
Photo: Bill Cooper
As Kenneth MacMillan's Manon celebrates its 40th anniversary, original cast members Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell spoke at a Royal Opera House insight evening.

"We were spoilt. MacMillan put the choreography together so quickly  it just seemed to happen," explained Dowell. "The Des Grieux variation took just one session. Working with other choreographers, we'd think 'God, this is going to take forever!'."

"Manon has a bit of 'slut' about her. She's very sexy," described Sibley. "She's come from a convent and doesn't know about life. She really needs men and their touch... She's not a nice character. She's after what she can get. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to be nasty."

Royal Ballet Director Kevin O'Hare agreed: "Everybody  every ballerina wants to be Manon." Dancers Melissa Hamilton (who makes her Manon debut this season) and Matthew Golding were then coached  in the Act I bedroom pas de deux. The pair looked ready to go onstage and performed an exceptionally passionate MacMillan kiss, but Sibley and Dowell gave numerous musical corrections. Even the moment when Manon takes Des Grieux's pen and throws it to the side has a specific note of Massenet's music.

Sibley also guided Hamilton in some of the choreographic details: "Use the plié. The down is as important as the up onto pointe. It makes the step more sensual... The arms should be heavy as if travelling through water. It makes you use the whole body."
Deborah MacMillan also spoke about her husband's ballet. "He went against the idea that ballet had to be perfect and beautiful. In real life, sex rears its not-so-ugly head. Manon is a sexy story! And everyone is as important as everyone else. There's an entire three act ballet taking place at the side of the stage."   

Whilst Manon received mixed opening night reviews (one critic complained that it was "so badly constructed that you can't applaud the entrance of the male star"), it has become a firm favourite with both dancers and audiences. Here's to the next 40 years of success!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Cassandra Insight

Cassandra insight evening, Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 9th September
Ludovic Ondiviela’s first full-length work was explored this week at an insight event as part of the Deloitte Ignite festival. The evening opened with academic Emily Pillinger guiding the audience through Ondiviela’s inspiration, the myth of Cassandra. In the ancient story, the title character is a beautiful Trojan princess. Greek god Apollo falls in love with her and bestows the gift of prophecy. But when she rejects him, she is cursed so that no one believes her predictions. War shortly follows and Cassandra is raped by a soldier and finally murdered by the wife of another soldier.
Ancient image of the myth of Cassandra
Pillinger explored the myth's key themes. The notion of the female body is important, as it is Cassandra's beauty which triggers her downfall. The story also looks at the brutality of war and how it changes people, as well as what happens when words fail and verbal communication is impossible.
Ondiviela's Cassandra has a more modern slant, centring on a girl experiencing psychosis. The scene being rehearsed for the insight evening was in a hospital bedroom as Cassandra's lover came to visit. Haunted by visions and possibly also medicated, she is unable to connect with him.
In the title role, Lauren Cuthbertson was constantly distracted by the voices in her head, staring at the ceiling and unable to acknowledge or seek comfort from her lover, Thomas Whitehead. “Don’t look at him, but look at the presence of something there… He’s trying to get you to reach out, but there’s a sense of absence in you,” explained Ondiviela.
Both characters had moments of clarity, but were lost amidst technique and the choreography’s mechanics in others. However, with seven weeks to go, there is plenty of time for the roles to become more fully formed and consistent.
Ondiviela then spoke in more detail about his intentions for Cassandra, alongside composer and singer Ana Silvera: “There’s a very blurred line between madness and normal behaviour,” he stated. “Madness is often just a perception of what people don’t understand. Is Cassandra driven to madness because people don’t believe her prophecies? Or do people think she’s mad because of the visions?
“I did some research by going to a psychiatric ward in Hackney, and I noticed the physicality of illness. The hospital felt more like a prison than a place of care. The effect of medication, the loss of freedom and the disconnection between body and emotion has really interested me. The dancers have also made me think deeply about what I’m trying to convey as they ask so many questions. Lauren will ask what a step means and sometimes I don’t know. It’s annoying! But it means I have to think about it more." 
As well as having written the score, Silvera will be singing live onstage during the performance, representing the ancient Cassandra and her experiences. A centre point for modern Cassandra’s visions, she will act as both imaginary friend and delusion for Lauren Cuthbertson’s character.
Having seen Ondiviela’s excellent duet for Draft Works in June, it will be fascinating to watch this latest ballet in just a few weeks’ time.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Sampling the Myth

Sampling the Myth, Linbury Studio @ Royal Opera House (live stream) - reviewed on 6th September

Claire Calvert in The Indifferent Beak
Part of the Deloitte Ignite festival, Sampling the Myth combined old and new in a diverse programme.
The highlight was Kim Bandstrup's film, Leda and the Swan, which featured beautifully crafted choreography for Tommy Franzen and Zenaida Yanowsky. Following an impassioned duet, Yanowsky's legs supported a 'floating' Franzen as the film ended.

Yuhui Choe and Valeri Hristov impressed in a pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Ondine. Another dance film, The Indifferent Beak, also engaged with its classical movements created by 17 year old Charlotte Edmonds. 
Sampling the Myth was streamed live and was a great chance to see superb dancing and choreography from my living room.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Deloitte Ignite

Deloitte Ignite, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 7th September
The latest Deloitte Ignite festival at the Royal Opera House included mythically-themed dance, art, music, poetry and film throughout the building. In the Clore Studio, Kristen McNally rehearsed dancers from BalletBoyz The Talent in her latest work inspired by the myth of Prometheus. With audience members walking in and out and children crying throughout, it was amazing that McNally was able to concentrate on her choreography.
One group number, referred to as ‘the pendulum’ and designed to demonstrate the passing of time, involved dancers walking repeatedly across the stage with gradually increasing pace and complexity of movement. Another duet focused on the creation of mankind, including an exploration of what it means to be human. Opening and closing with McNally trademark quirkiness, dancers removed and put on pairs of glasses while staring intensely at each other. The central part of the duet featured more fluid contemporary dance, with the dancers’ close proximity giving a powerful and sexually charged feeling.
In the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare led a discussion with Principal Character Artist Gary Avis about villainous roles in ballet. “Who better to talk about villains than Gary?” joked O’Hare.
Avis was extremely articulate and gave some interesting insights: “Ballets often have a triangle of lead characters. It’s fun to be the evil part of that triangle, causing all the problems for the main couple!

“In the Royal Ballet version of Swan Lake, I dance Von Rothbart. It takes an hour and a half to get all the make-up and hair done, so I have plenty of time to prepare and get into character. But Rothbart isn’t onstage much so it’s important to get the character across in short bursts. You need to create a feeling of darkness that is always there in the background. I’ve also done the English National Ballet version in the round, which has less dancing but lots of running around the stage. I did get to come out of the floor in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall, which was one of the best entrances ever!
“The costumes and choreography are different in the two productions so you approach the role completely differently. But I have little mannerisms that I always like to include, such as when Von Rothbart is getting bored of all the folk dancing in Act III. He just wants to get on with bringing Odile and the Prince together. I’ve been told off for stealing focus sometimes, but I just say that I’m doing my job and maybe the principals need to raise their game!”
Avis described the importance of thinking about characters’ backgrounds and trying to understand their history to deepen the performance. However, sometimes the choreography gives the greatest clue to a particular role.
Gary Avis in The Firebird
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
“For Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, there is lots of research you can do, but the choreography tells you everything you need to know. You couldn’t get a richer movement palate. MacMillan has created some really deep, dirty and nasty character parts that are great to dance. I perform both Monsieur GM and the Gaoler and try to respond to individually to the dancers playing Manon. For example, in Act III, Zenaida Yanowsky fights back a lot more than Marianela Nuñez. It’s interesting trying to get the right balance and partnership.”
For Avis, the key to a character is in the way they walk: “I used to spend hours looking at people on the tube and copying them! In Act II of Manon, Monsieur GM has to walk in with confidence, with the beautiful Manon on his arms. When I rehearsed it for the the first time, Monica Mason kept stopping and telling me that it looked wrong. I panicked that it would never work – but after trying lots of different ways, I got it right.”
Deloitte Ignite was another brilliant and very welcome glimpse of life behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ballet Steps: Attitude

Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in Don Quixote
Photo: ROH / Johan Persson

In the latest edition of my ballet steps series, I consider attitudes. An attitude position is formed by lifting a bent leg to the front, back or – much less frequently – side of the body. The height of the leg is highly variable but the hips should appear level and the foot should be pointed. The supporting leg is straight and may be either flat on the floor or on demi or full pointe.
The lifted leg is turned-out, such that when it is at hip height to the front or back, the knee and foot are level. The degree of bend at the knee depends on the style of ballet being performed and varies from a ‘short’ attitude with an angle of 90o or less to a ‘long’ attitude where the angle is much greater. In the famous Rose Adage from Sleeping Beauty, where Aurora is paraded by four suitors in turn, it is the former ‘short’ attitude position that is used.
Lauren Cuthbertson in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Bill Cooper
There are virtually unlimited possibilities for arm positions in attitude. Often the arm on the same side as the lifted leg is curved overhead and the other arm is curved to the side, as shown in the picture to the right.  
When I am teaching attitudes, I start with the front first. I encourage students to point the leg forward on the floor and then lift it off the ground and bend it to a 90o angle. The most common faults include lifting the working hip and not maintaining turn-out. To counter the latter, there should be a feeling of the heel being lifted in attitude devant (front) and of the knee being lifted in attitude derrière (back).
Just like arabesques, attitudes are performed in many ballets, both as a held pose and during a variety of movements, such as in jumps and pirouettes. Two roles in which attitudes are very common are Odette in Swan Lake and Kitri in Don Quixote (pictured above).

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Dance Marathons

After seeing Arthur Pita's The World's Greatest Show, I felt inspired to do some research into dance marathons. Taking place in 1920s and 1930s America, competitors would dance for 45 minutes of every hour, day and night, for weeks and months at a time. Here are some interesting facts about dance marathons:
1. The last standing couple would win a cash prize, typically of a few hundred dollars. To give a means of comparison, $1000 in 1930 is worth approximately £11,500 today. Marathon promoters made a much greater profit.
2. Contestants tied scarves and other items of clothing around each other, so that one person could sleep and be dragged while the other continued moving.

3. For an entrance fee, locals could watch competitors dancing. In fact, cinema owners opposed dance marathons because people attended them rather than buying movie tickets.

A dance marathon in 1923
4. Every American city with a population of 50,000+ people hosted a dance marathon.
5. Participants were disqualified if their knees touched the floor.
6. Dance marathons gave competitors a roof and regular meals as well as the hope of winning. Food was served 12 times a day and included oatmeal, eggs and oranges. Some competitors even gained weight during the dance marathons, in spite of the heavy exercise.
7. Couples could gain a small income through sponsorship if they wore a company's name while competing.
8. In 1928, a woman in Seattle attempted suicide after coming fifth in a dance marathon.
9. Professional dancers often competed, and marathons were sometimes fixed so that they would win.
10. Dance marathons included regular 'endurance events' such as sprinting and 'grinds', both to attract spectators and to eliminate competitors. 'Grinds' involved dancing without rest periods.
11. Competitors who wouldn't wake up at the end of the 15 minute rest period were slapped or dunked in ice water.
12. Competitors performed choreographed routines and songs to entertain audience members, who would throw coins in appreciation.
13. Dance marathons employed an estimated 20,000 people in jobs including judges, promoters, nurses and professional competitors.
14. The longest recorded dance marathon lasted more than 5000 hours (seven months) between August 1930 and April 1931. Winners Mike Ritof and Edith Boudreaux gained $2000 dollars in prize money.
15. Dance marathons were outlawed in 1937.
More information about dance marathons can be found here.