Wednesday, 31 December 2014

December Round-up

The Royal Danish Ballet's Femke Slot in Napoli
Photo: Costin Radu

The latest instalment of my ballet steps series explores développés.

I've also shared my top 10 dance highlights of 2014.
Other writing:

A review of ZooNation's Mad Hatter's Tea Party on Londonist
A feature about Ulrik Birkkjaer and the Royal Danish Ballet on Londondance

Sunday, 28 December 2014

English National Ballet's The Nutcracker

Photo: Photography by ASH
The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum - reviewed on 23rd December
English National Ballet has performed The Nutcracker every Christmas for the last 65 years. Its current version, choreographed by former company director Wayne Eagling, is a seasonal delight, combining Edwardian traditionalism, a clear narrative and sparkling choreography.
Photo: Photography by ASH

The story commences with a family party on Christmas eve, in which young girl Clara is given a nutcracker doll. Later, she dreams the doll comes to life, battles an army of mice and travels with her to a life-size puppet theatre where there are dance performances from around the world. Cleverly, Eagling gives this dream sequence a clear context as Clara’s brother hides a toy mouse in her bedroom at the beginning of the ballet and the Act I party includes a puppet show.
English National Ballet is on excellent form this season, with great performances from all the cast. Cesar Corrales shines particularly in the Russian dance with his effortless spins and sky-high leaps. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Laurretta Summerscales looks serene and confident, demonstrating great acting ability during the battle scenes and some remarkably rapid fouetté turns. Recent company joiner Alejandro Virelles also excels with his jumps and secure partnering.
The Nutcracker is, for me, an essential part of Christmas, and English National Ballet’s production provides plenty of festive spirit.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Ballet Steps: Développé

Photo: Bill Cooper
In the latest instalment of my ballet steps series, I discuss développés, which involve a sustained unfolding action of the leg. Starting in a closed standing position (usually 5th), one leg is lifted upwards, with the toe maintaining contact with the supporting leg, into retiré position, before extending into the air.

Développés can be performed in all three directions (front, side and back) with a wide variety of arm positions and head alignments, but the working leg always goes through retiré position (with the toe by the side, in front of or behind the supporting knee, depending on the particular ballet style) before extending. The extended position may be either an attitude or fully stretched leg. In the latter case, développés to the back finish in arabesque position.

Développés are typically performed at the barre and in the centre as part of adage exercises. Whilst professional dancers may lift their legs above head height, young students should aim for a 45-90 degree angle, ensuring the développé action is fluid and that the leg is turned out. A typical basic développé exercise at the barre would involve développés in all three directions, each time followed by lowering the leg into tendu position and then closing back to a standing position. Royal Ballet dancer Romany Padjak demonstrates a slightly more advanced développé exercise below:

There are different schools of thought regarding the movement of the working hip during a développé. In English technique, the hip is usually kept down, as close to its starting position as possible. In other ballet styles, the working hip may be more noticeably lifted as the working leg is extended. Depending of the height of the leg, the alignment of the body may also have to adjust - either forwards or sideways depending on the développé direction - but such adjustment should be kept to a minimum.

Développés are performed in numerous ballets. In the grand pas de deux of The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy steps onto pointe, takes the Prince's hand and performs a développé to the front. Développés are also used in other dance styles. In Cats the musical, for example, Victoria (the white cat) has a développé to the side in her Act I solo.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

2014 Top 10 Dance

Photo: Patrick Balls
Here are my top 10 dance highlights for 2014:
Ashton’s choreography soared with Natalia Osipova as the unfulfilled housewife and Francesca Hayward as her lovesick teenage daughter.
Marianela Nunez in The Winter's Tale
Photo: Johan Persson
9. Shadows, part of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s mixed bill (November)
Christopher Bruce’s world premiere featured a fascinatingly claustrophobic family in which simmering emotions were left unexpressed under the need to conform to social convention.
Part of Sadler’s Sampled, two of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s reworked duets impressed with their innovativeness.
Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann's 1944 ballet powerfully conveyed its characters' self-loathing and desperation in the slums of Glasgow.
Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography brought Shakespeare’s play vividly to life, with great performances by dancers including Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson and Marianela Nuñez.
Dancers Jonathan Goddard, Clemmie Sveaas, Gemma Nixon and Christopher Akrill excelled in a diverse and engaging programme including humour and dance-drama.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Facada
Photo: Doug Gifford
4. Sushi Tap Show (August)
Tap Do!’s heart-warming and comedic Edinburgh Fringe show had me shouting out ‘kero kero’ and other strange words.

3. DV8's John (November)
This verbatim physical theatre work compellingly conveyed the disturbing, abusive and very sexual real-life narrative of the title figure.   
2. Facada, part of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev’s Solo for Two (August)
Arthur Pita’s tale of a jilted bride perfectly showcased the versatility of its two stars, even culminating with an aggressive solo for Osipova on her groom’s grave.
1. Dust, part of English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget (April)
Akram Khan combined animalistic movements with tenderly entwined shapes to powerful effect in his World War One inspired choreography.

Monday, 22 December 2014


Cats, London Palladium - reviewed on 18th December
Nicole Scherzinger
Photo: Alastair Muir / REX
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical has a strange story – of cats gathering for an annual ball to decide which of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. But this strangeness aside, Cats is a great musical with catchy songs and utterly brilliant choreography by Gillian Lynne.
The London cast – headed by pop star Nicole Scherzinger – is on good form, impressing particularly in group dance numbers. As the characters’ human-like personalities – from burglar Mungojerrie to former glamour cat Grisabella – are introduced, it’s hard not to warm to their feline charm, and I haven’t been able to stop humming ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘Jellicle Ball’ since.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Matthew Bourne at Danceworks

Matthew Bourne in Conversation, Danceworks - 15th December
How did Matthew Bourne, a boy from East London, become such a celebrated choreographer? “It was always there” answered Bourne, to this huge opening question at Danceworks’ In Conversation evening. “From the age of four or five I went to see Disney movies and then tried to recreate them at home with other kids. I was usually the star, and my brother was often dressed as a woman to be my leading lady!”
Matthew Bourne
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Bourne’s parents introduced him to musical theatre and film at a young age, but he didn’t discover ballet and contemporary dance until his late teens. After leaving school, he worked in a box office, as a theatre usher and in the National Theatre bookshop. His first experience of ballet was seeing Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake at the age of 18 or 19: “I was surprised at how the swans moved. I expected them to be ethereal but they moved very quickly. I thought it was odd and eccentric, but I loved the music. I wanted to see another Swan Lake as soon as possible, so I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s version later that week. It was eye-opening how different the same ballet could be in different productions.”
After that, Bourne started seeing ballet and dance several times a week, as well as reading widely about the subject. At the age of 22, he applied to train at Laban and believes he was offered a place not on the basis of his audition (as he had no practical dance experience) but because of his enthusiasm in the interview. He studied on Laban’s three year degree course, focusing on choreography and dance history, and then joined Laban’s touring company, Transitions, for a fourth year.
After graduating in 1987, Bourne set up a dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, with some fellow students. It was funded initially through an Arts Council Encouragement Grant and weekly government enterprise allowances for people setting up new businesses. The company still exists today, under a slightly different name, as Bourne’s hugely successful New Adventures.
Bourne currently spends most of his time reviving (and revising) his existing works and only creates new pieces every 3-4 years. He has lots of ideas but always likes to create something that can be summed up in one short sentence, such as ‘Cinderella during the Blitz’ or ‘Swan Lake with male swans’. He can’t choose his favourite choreography as his works are like his children and are all special for different reasons.
Other choreographers Bourne enjoys watching are Mark Morris, Pina Bausch and Frederick Ashton. About the latter, Bourne described: “His works touch me. I get in a lovely place when I watch them. I love the variety – abstract, narrative, humour, full-length, cabaret-style.”
Despite his own focus on narrative works, Bourne tends to appreciate the more abstract choreography of others. When he does watch narrative dance, he gets frustrated when the storyline isn’t clearly conveyed. “You should be able to see the story onstage without reading it beforehand. You wouldn’t read the synopsis of a movie before you went to the cinema."
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Photo: Bill Cooper
Bourne regularly receives CVs from dancers who want to join his company, but he only holds auditions once a year. “Anyone whose letter starts with ‘dear Sir’ goes straight onto the ‘no’ pile. I’m looking for dancers who want to work with me and perform my choreography. If a dancer says ‘I love your work’, they’re half way there!
“During auditions, I’m considering whether dancers can do the rep and if they show passion. Politeness also goes along way. I need dancers who can work well together as they’ll be rehearsing and touring for long periods. So I look at how dancers get along with each other.”
Bourne reads reviews of his work, but only pays attention to the critics who generally like his style of choreography. He finds, however, that positive reviews have a limited effect on box office success. In contrast, his company recently invited celebrities to attend and tweet about Edward Scissorhands, and ticket sales doubled the next day.
Bourne finished by speaking about his future plans for New Adventures. In 2015, the company is touring both nationally and internationally. Bourne is also starting to think about his next creation, which may be a version of the famous 1948 ballet film, The Red Shoes

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 14th December

Photo: Phil Conrad

“Pretend you’re a five year old” Arthur Pita recommended when I spoke to him before a performance of his latest work, The Little Match Girl. But such a young mindset was unnecessary. Whilst his choreography is evidently intended for children, there is plenty to like as an adult too.
In the intimacy of the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, five dancers and musicians excel in his adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story. In the freezing cold winter (powerfully conveyed by Pita’s movements and Yann Seabra’s sets), an impoverished young girl tries desperately to sell some matches, before being beaten up and having her shoes stolen by a rival seller. Colder than ever and taunted by three wealthy residents enjoying a luxurious feast, the Match Girl sets fire to their house and then runs away to curl up by her grandmother’s grave. As she dies, her grandmother appears and helps her climb to the moon where she uses her matches to light the night stars.
Photo: Phil Conrad
The piece is extremely well done, with a combination of dance, song and speech (in Italian) that perfectly expresses the characters’ personalities and the hardship of the Match Girl. That is, with the exception of one very surreal scene in which the Match Girl arrives on the moon and dances with an astronaut. This bizarre interlude ruined the beautiful and emotional moment preceding it, in which the Match Girl lay dead in the snow, and should undoubtedly be cut.
This aside, The Little Match Girl is an excellent work with brilliant performances by all of the cast but especially the sprightly Corey Claire Annand in the title role. It's a sad tale for the festive season but one that captivates.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Ballet Black Insight Evening

Ballet Black insight evening, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 10th December
At Ballet Black’s insight event in the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio, Mark Bruce guided dancers through The Second Coming, his creation for the company’s 2015 mixed programme. Having last worked with the dancers in July, Bruce spent most of the evening asking them to perform and then trying to recall his original thought processes, focusing on the transitions between steps.
Bruce and Ballet Black Artistic Director Cassa Pancho also chatted about The Second Coming. Pancho commissioned a 30-40 minute narrative piece after seeing Bruce’s Dracula on tour last year. “It’s a narrative ballet in the broadest possible terms,” explained Bruce. “There’s a narrative that you can follow but it’s my work, so it’s dark, surreal and strange.

“I’d been reading old myths and the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales and was interested in the idea of someone who’s crucified and comes back after 2000 years. He would be pretty annoyed. There’s a wicked king in charge – maybe he’s the devil – and imagery of Mary Magdalene. The person who comes back could be the king’s lost son. He falls in love and has to make a choice. If it’s the wrong choice, he turns into a monster.
“That doesn’t make any sense, does it? But the Grimm fairy tales don’t make any sense either. The ballet has a general narrative and a philosophical narrative and I don’t want to share too much.”

After this frustratingly cryptic introduction, it will be interesting to see if Bruce’s work makes more sense once it’s on the Linbury Studio Theatre stage in February.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ballet Cymru's Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast, Ballet Cymru, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre @ Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 28th November
At the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre last week, Beauty and the Beast wasn't as successful as Ballet Cymru's other works - like Little Red Riding Hood and Romeo and Juliet - that have been programmed at the same venue. It commenced charmingly, with words appearing on the backdrop as movement patterns rippled through ten dancers onstage in front. "Children believe what we tell them" the audience was reminded, with further text encouraging us to use our imagination. "It always begins with a child's 'open sesame'. Once upon a time..."

Whilst the ballet was well-performed, it has two main issues. The first is David Westcott's score, which is so melodic that it is completely at odds with the more dramatic passages of choreography. For example, When Belle enters the Beast's castle, music is almost lullaby-like in its lyricism, such that there is no sense of impending menace or the character's fear.

Secondly, Beauty and the Beast's narrative is difficult to follow. Darius James's  choreography gives a clear identity to the leading roles, but secondary characters are poorly-defined. The Beast also lacks impact in his movements, which are impaired by visually effective but choreographically restrictive stilt-like hooves.

The ballet has some lovely moments. As the Beast nears death and Belle rushes through the forest to see him, two female dancers are lifted in deep backbends to form an archway under which she travels. Projections work well to set each scene, and there's a delightful interaction between them and the live action onstage when a dancer seemingly uses a match to light the backdrop's fireplace. Beauty and the Beast also has a joyous finale, with streams of dancers leaping across the stage, although it's a shame there's isn't a final romantic pas de deux for the title characters.

Even though I was underwhelmed by this production, Ballet Cymru is still a company I greatly admire, and one that deserves to fly the metaphorical flag for high-quality ballet in Wales.