Friday, 31 January 2014

January 2014 Round-up

This month, I have written blogs on Ballet Black in rehearsal, the Royal Ballet rehearsing Hansel and Gretel, ROH Family Sundays and Anatomia Publica.

Other writing:

A review of The Merchants of Bollywood on Londonist
A feature on Robert Helpmann (p.18) in Dancing Times, February issue
And, of course, Dance UK's January e-news including a feature on hip hop dance

The Merchants of Bollywood
Photo: G. Gill

Sunday, 26 January 2014

ROH Family Sundays

Family Sunday, Royal Opera House - reviewed on 26th January
Participants at David Pickering's workshop on The Firebird
On the last Sunday of each month, the Royal Opera House opens its doors to families with a range of interactive activities.
Today's theme was storytelling and I went along out of curiosity and hoping to see some Royal Ballet dancers. Whilst I only saw David Pickering (who led a dance workshop), I did observe lots of enthusiastic children and parents.
It is imperative to engage new audiences with ballet and opera. These Sundays, with workshops, demonstrations and plenty of chances to ask questions, are an ideal way to get even the youngest dancing, designing, making music and feeling inspired.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Anatomia Publica

Anatomia Publica, Man Drake, Barbican - reviewed on 22nd January
Sandrine Maisonneuve in Anatomia Publica
Photo: Axel Perez
Creator Tomeo Vergés introduces Anatomia Publica. With a butcher father, childhood trips to the slaughter house began a lifelong fascination with flesh, which continued in her career as a doctor and now through choreography.
Named after the public dissections of the 19th Century, the work is a dissection of awkwardness, with three dancers – representing an uncomfortable ménage a trois – moving jerkily and repetitively. To equally disjointed sounds, performers read a newspaper, remove their coats and embrace, constantly getting ‘stuck’ in uneasy positions.
Initially fascinating, this shuddering choreography quickly becomes tiresome. The situation’s discomfort is effectively conveyed, but the idea is not developed further.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Hansel and Gretel Rehearsal

The Royal Ballet in Rehearsal, Clore Studio @ ROH  - reviewed on 17th January

Laura Morera as the Stepmother
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
It is always a pleasure to see the Royal Ballet in rehearsal, but I was particularly excited to see themHansel and Gretel. I reviewed the ballet when it was first performed last year and felt like I didn't really understand the characters or narrative, so it was fascinating to get an insight.
working on Liam Scarlett's

Scarlett is away for the whole rehearsal period so the work's restaging of has been entrusted to First Soloist Ricardo Cervera. "It's a privilege but also a huge responsibility. I assisted during the creation period and took lots of videos and made notes so I know the ballet well. But the dancers remember most of it anyway."

Taking the roles of the "chronically depressed alcoholic" Dad and the "confident, in control and child-hating" Stepmother were Johannes Stepanek and Kristen McNally. They began with their Act I duet, with Cervera stepping in briefly to represent Gretel: "That's the great thing about leading rehearsals - you can play all those roles you always dreamt of!"

The dancers seemed confident but Cervera helped them unpick a few incorrect grips and positions. He also encouraged McNally to maintain a more dead-pan facial expression: "You're happy that you're in control and abusing your husband, but sometimes you just feel like you can't be bothered."

The ballet includes lots of props which make life tricky for the dancers. Everything has to end up in exactly the right place, even if it is dropped or thrown. McNally worries particularly that when she has to smash a beer bottle over her partner's head that she will pick up the wrong (and not specially designed) one!

The fact that the audience sits on both sides of the stage is also a challenge. To give the best views in all directions, Scarlett has put much of the choreography at angles rather than flat to the front. But Stepanek enjoys having the audience up close. "We can be much more minimalistic and sensitive with the acting as people can see the subtle nuances that would be lost in the main house."

The father character is quite one-dimensional but the Stepmother's emotions are much more changeable onstage. When she first enters, she is like a caricature, full of exuberance and self-assurance.  But she soon becomes overwhelmed by anger at the household's numerous unpaid bills and her husband's lethargy.

McNally described feeling inspired by Jennifer Lawrence in the film 'American Hustle': "I want to make the Stepmother feel real."

Brian Maloney and Paul Kay
in Hansel and Gretel in 2013.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
The ballet's timing is also difficult as it is performed to a recorded score with sound effects and all actions need to match the correct moment in the music. The skill required in this usually goes unnoticed, but becomes clear in rehearsal when musical cues are not as familiar as they will be for the final performances.

Stephaek and McNally also worked on their third duet, which takes place after they discover their children are missing. Cervera described himself as "like a dog with a bone" as he wouldn't let go of even small mistakes and kept working with the dancers to ensure all details were correct.

Alongside the title characters and their parents, there are two other roles - the Sandman and the Witch. The former is a terrifying human 'doll' who lures Hansel and Gretel to the Witch's house, where a character more like a serial killer than a fairy tale 'baddie' ties them to chairs and paints their faces with clown-like make-up. Needless to say, it's a rather disturbing version of Hansel and Gretel.

Clearly dark stories appeal to Scarlett, but what exactly is his choreographic style? For Cervera, it is the influence of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan that define it. "He's definitely a British choreographer, with precise footwork and expansive use of the arms and upper body."

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Ballet Black Insight

Insight evening: Ballet Black, Clore Studio @ ROH – reviewed on 10th January

At last year's insight evening, Ballet Black Director Cassa Pancho said that although her company was set up to promote the work of UK black and ethnic minority dancers, it had become equally well-known for its creation of exciting new ballets by both upcoming and more experienced choreographers. Now 12 years old and an associate company of the Royal Opera House, Ballet Black is in great shape, and its latest triple bill (at the Linbury Studio Theatre, 25 February - 4 March) will feature work by Arthur Pita, Christopher Marney and Martin Lawrance.

It was the former who rehearsed his version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the insight evening last week. "I have been creating a lot of dark work so I wanted to do something a bit more light-hearted and fun. I'm not a big fan of Shakespeare but his writing lends itself really well to dance. Plus everyone knows the stories and what to expect which is easier when creating narrative work."

Pita's A Dream within a Midsummer Night's Dream turns the original tale on its head, with a female Puck character wearing Boy Scout uniform and gay affairs between both Oberon and Lysander and Helena and Hermia. But Pita is also including the traditional classical ballet elements of tiaras and tutus: "I wanted the girls to feel like real ballerinas. They've never got to dance in tutus with Ballet Black before."

Pita rehearsed Cira Robinson and Damien Johnson as Titania and the donkey in a duet where Titania has just awoken feeling "drugged up and lustful". He encouraged Robinson to dance with her eyes closed to convey her character's sense of sleepiness, even though much of his choreography involved off-balance poses and tricky lifts.

An opening solo for Robinson also had to be added as Pita had been forced to change the accompanying track after he was refused permission for his first choice. (This had been a song from the film 'Mary Poppins' that was somewhat shorter in length than its replacement. Interestingly though, Pita tends to plan his movement ideas before choosing music, so choreography is not robustly linked to its music.)

Having seen (and loved) The Metamorphosis, Pita's fabulously contorted and engaging tale of a man who is transformed into an insect, I will be very interested to see how this Dream turns out in performance. But whether it is a success or not, it is always a joy to see the small-in-size but big-in-power Ballet Black onstage.