Casanova – Northern Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 9 May 2017

New house, as they almost say in Italy

I said whimper, not wimple. Northern Ballet’s Casanova could do with a heads-up.

When will I be able to watch a new story ballet without having to read the synopsis first in order to understand it? There’s no question that a full-length narrative without words is tricky, and Northern Ballet’s Casanova was also Kenneth Tindall’s first attempt, but even so, there were some frustratingly essential markers completely missing. What was the importance of the red book that got Casanova and others imprisoned and tortured? What was the big bunch of papers that Casanova so clearly treasured in the second half? Who was the woman dressed as a man who it looked like he might have fallen in love with? Why did a nun seduce him and why was a priest watching from behind a door?

There were many such questions in a ballet overflowing with people, and I’m not going to harp on about it, but the net result is that it was difficult to care about any of them – why should you when you don’t know who they are or why they’re doing anything? The synopsis should be there to enhance what you’re watching, not to be absolutely crucial reading before the curtain goes up.

Enough moaning; there was still plenty to admire in this work. There was some lovely choreography that generally kept things interesting; the bandage-unravelling pas de deux between Casanova and Bellino was particularly good and packed with emotion. Tindall is also very good at seduction scenes; the alluring fluidity of Abigail Prudames and Minju Kang’s Savorgnan sisters was a case in point.

Although he lacked the personal magnetism that the real-life lover-boy must have had, Giuliano Contadini was a hard-working Casanova and made an excellent partner for the many women that passed through his hands. Unfortunately, these women’s appearances were generally so fleeting that they didn’t have much chance to make a big impact; the most successful was undoubtedly Dreda Blow, whose coyly understated portrayal of Bellino made her stand out from the debauched crowd.

Christopher Oram’s opulent staging was both practical and fabulous and his stylised 18th century costumes were magnificent. Alastair West’s lighting was almost like a rock concert at times but somehow managed to evoke a superb sense of time and place, unlike Kerry Muzzey’s specially commissioned film-like score which, especially in the first half, paid little attention to what was happening on stage. Overall though, this was by no means a bad ballet, it was just annoyingly difficult to fall in love with. Which isn’t like Casanova at all.

Northern Ballet’s Casanova runs at Sadler’s Wells until 13 May 2017 and tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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The Toad Knew – James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton: Sadler’s Wells, London, 3 May 2017

Wind but no willows

Eye as a kite. James Thierree/Compagnie du Hanneton’s The Toad Knew

There are lots of good things in James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton’s delirious The Toad Knew, yet, despite an excellent cast and some great visuals, it somehow struggles to maintain interest levels.

Set in a steampunk laboratory type-place, all sorts of weird contraptions lurk in the furthest reaches; on one side is a self-playing piano that communicates angrily with humans, on the other a luminous pool of water and from the ceiling an enormous upside-down metal lotus flower that harbours some kind of fairy and which swivels about in every direction. There’s also a self-unfolding circular ladder, a skeletal cherry-picker, a small statue of a lion and lots of props that disappear from view as quickly as they arrive. Surrounded by swathes of gothic drapes it’s all wonderful to look at and you never quite know what something is capable of.

Amid all the mechanical marvels an ungainly team of six wander un-methodically about, obeying irrational rules of etiquette and often getting physically stuck to each other. Everything is (deliberately) a bit skew-iff and claustophobically irritating – the closest analogy I can think of is when you’re a kid on a long car journey and your older sibling keeps jabbing you in the arm with their finger.

James Thierrée is a master of mime and his routines, first with a violin he can’t let go of and then with various characters he gets equally attached to, are funny, annoying and very clever. He also has a mesmerising way of moving at times, switching from robotics to slow-mo in the blink of an eye. His physical conversations with the dynamic judders of Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim are fascinating and he fits well as the cog that everyone else revolves around.

There are some marvellous set-pieces; the plate fiasco was terrific, the way the lotus flower thing followed the dancing fairy like it was an eye was delightfully creepy and the giant dragon/fish that invades the stage at the end was beautiful.

But, despite all of the above, the show sagged badly. There were far too many drawn-out periods of inactivity and the surreal world so successfully created also proved problematic in that it wasn’t filled with anything resembling a narrative (emotional or otherwise) or any kind of subliminal momentum to keep us hanging on to. We were left with episodic sketches that invariably petered out into nothing leaving us wondering what it was all for. The toad knows, apparently, so next time I’ll get him to write the review.

The Toad Knows continues at Sadler’s Wells until 7 May 2017. The Sadler’s Wells website has tickets.

Gerard Davis

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The Happiness Project – Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Place, London, 2 May 2017

It’s a warm gun

Not at all sheet. Umanoove’s The Happiness Project. Photo by Richard Haughton

Didy Veldman is an ex-Rambert dancer who’s been successfully choreographing freelance around the world for many years now. Getting a bit brassed off with all the travelling involved, she decided to set up her own company in the UK a year or so ago and called it Umanoove. The Happiness Project is the first fruit borne of her new initiative and, as the title suggests, it’s an exploration of what makes people happy, or otherwise.

It’s not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drift in and out of focus, Alexander Balanescu’s violin score is a bit on the pedestrian side (as is his physical role in the action) and, at 70 minutes with no interval, it feels very long. There is, however, plenty to make up for these shortcomings, not least of which is the quality of the dancing.

The cast of four were excellent, each with distinct, believable personalities. Madeleine Jonsson was at her best when drifting hazily around in her own lost world of happiness deficit. Estela Merlos could definitely have been used more, as her superb duet with a glass of water demonstrated. Mathieu Geffré was a decent dancer but an even better comedian – his proclamations of ecstasy upon receiving various designer clothes were beautifully judged.

The standout display, though, came from Dane Hurst. Straight from the off he showed what a phenomenal performer he is; he has terrific control over his body and an outstanding ability to shift body weight and balance. He’s that rare performer who can make his body speak all of its own and he was utilised brilliantly here.

Just as importantly, Veldman gave them all plenty of inventive choreography to get their teeth into. Highlights included Hurst’s smile-chasing solo at the beginning, a trio full of fabulous lifts for Hurst, Geffré and Merlos, and a quartet for the entire cast that was dripping with an erotic yearning for strawberries.

In the end, the piece drew no apparent conclusions regarding its subject matter but I left happy enough.

The Happiness Project continues at The Place in London until 3 May 2017 and then moves to Bournemouth. Didy Veldman’s website has more information and a video clip.

Gerard Davis

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The Legend of Mulan – Hong Kong Dance Company: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 15 April 2017

Like father, like daughter

This was my favourite part of Hong Kong Dance Company’s The Legend of Mulan. Watching it could be quite armful, mind.

For Hong Kong Dance Company’s The Legend of Mulan, we were promised a mix of contemporary, ballet, Chinese Classical dance and martial arts and that’s exactly what we got. Unfortunately, we also received large doses of repetitiveness, empty posturing and narrative bafflement. A level beyond all that was possibly the worst music I’ve ever heard set to a dance piece – a hideously synthesised movie-style epic more conducive to ordering Special Fried Rice at the local Chinese restaurant than being a vital ingredient in an internationally touring show.

The story of Mulan is a classic of Chinese culture but here it seemed to boil down to a woman joining the army, feeling sad because she left her Dad at home and then participating in a long, long war that involved the army fighting an invisible adversary. The entire second half consisted of her feeling a bit homesick and then arriving back home, whereupon a petal shower took place.

Often simple stories work best with dance but here Yang Yuntao simply provided no choreographic emotion with which to fill the gaps between narrative yardsticks. Instead there was an endless series of heroic tableaux and a tiring array of acrobatic leaps and extensions whose main duty appeared to be that of filling time.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. The dancers themselves were decent; the men took on their acrobatics with relish and there was a lovely scene with some white-robed women working looms (I think they might have been friends or servants of Mulan, it was difficult to tell). Best of all was the lady playing Mulan herself, Pan Lingjuan. Incredibly versatile, she skipped through the various strands of choreography without missing a beat, could twirl a staff like a helicopter and didn’t knock out six ‘o’ clock extensions so much as ten past six extensions. Her closing, classical Chinese solo was the closest things got to a genuine outpouring of feeling and showed off her exquisite arms and fingers to boot.

I can’t deny it was a disappointing show but I really hope the dancers are given the opportunity to come back and perform in London again. The Company has been in existence since 1981 so they must have better repertoire up their sleeves.

Gerard Davis

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Bausch/Forsythe/van Manen – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 23 March 2017

Pina Will Hans

You’ve probably red it all before. English National Ballet in Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Finally, after gawd knows how long, I finally got to see Pina Bausch’s soil-strewn The Rite of Spring. Not by Tanztheater Wuppertal but, unthinkable as it would have seemed just a few years ago, by English National Ballet. It’s a mark of the Company’s progress under Tamara Rojo that not only did it seem a fairly logical fit for one of their programmes but that it was also no surprise they performed it so well.

It’s a brilliant piece of work. For someone used to watching the excitingly peculiar juxtapositions that’s more typical of Bausch’s output, it was something of an eye-opener to see her pure dance choreography. It was created in 1975 but it might as well be a new work for 2017, so contemporary does it remain.

It’s raw, it’s powerful and the ensemble sections are spectacular in their force and beauty. More surprising was the vitality of the solos, vicious in their intensity, and the Company’s dancers tore into them with a furious passion; the Chosen girl looked shattered at the end. With the English National Ballet Philharmonic backing them up with some compelling musicianship, this Rite was truly memorable.

It made a great conclusion to a night which had opened with a disappointing performance of William Forsythe’s signature work In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. First performed by Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, it ultimately became a key section of the full-length ballet Impressing the Czar but is still performed regularly as a stand-alone piece. It comes across like a work in rehearsal; the dancers often appear to be walking through steps before suddenly exploding into unified jabs and extensions.

Precious Adams made a good stab of her solo and Cesar Corrales really found the thrusting angles of his, but generally the dancers seemed to be lacking the razor-sharp edges and the element of danger so vital to the success of Forsythe’s work.

Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier was much more to the Company’s liking. A wistfully musical turn set to the adagio of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.29, it was performed with a wonderfully lilting quality by the required three couples. The fragile lifts and delicately drawn lines seem to weave their own thread through Beethoven’s opus and even managed to calm the ubiquitous chorus of audience coughing that had accompanied much of In the Middle.

Bausch/Forsythe/van Manen continues at London’s Sadler’s Wells until 1 April 2017. Check the English National Ballet website for info and tickets. If there any seats available, I’d grab some if I were you.

Gerard Davis

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The Challengers – Yamato: Peacock Theatre, London, 17 March 2017

Drum-ti-drum-drum-drum

Japanese drumming. You say Yamato, I say Yamato.

How do you make a show that’s basically people whacking drums for a couple of hours interesting? Yamato managed it. Not just that, they made it hugely entertaining. Artistic Director Masa Ogawa says he’s trying to preserve the traditions of Japanese Taiko drumming while taking it in new directions. What that amounts to is transforming the art-form into something akin to a rock gig, complete with pop concert lighting and call-and-response audience engagement.

That the five male and five female musicians are supremely talented is unquestionable. The speed, dexterity and sheer stamina of their stickmanship was mightily impressive, as was their unity in the spectacular synchronised ensemble pieces. Funnily enough though, it wasn’t this that really brought the show alive; it was the individual personalities and the regular comedy skits that did the trick.

The second half in particular took full advantage of this, especially in the very funny routine where the rhythmic muse is thrown around between tiny hand-held cymbals. There are nice touches throughout the performance; the way the other drummers look constantly surprised at an individual’s virtuosity is endearing and the way they effortlessly involve the audience in en masse clapping is lots of fun. The whole time though, you remain aware of just what good musicians they are.

It’s true that The Challengers is highly commercialised and Kansai Yamamoto’s neon urban warrior costumes only just reside on the right side of acceptable. There were also some issues with clanky amplification for the duelling banjo-type instruments but on the whole this was such an enjoyable show, it didn’t really matter.

Yamato’s The Challengers runs at London’s Peacock Theatre until 25 March 2017 before embarking on a fairly extensive UK tour. See the Yamato website for tickets and more info.

Gerard Davis

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Echoes & I Imagine – Aakesh Odedra Company: Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London, 9 March 2017

Ring my bell

Learning the ropes. Aakesh Odedra in Aditi Mangaldas’ Echoes. Photo by Mark Harvey

There’s no denying that Aakesh Odedra is a beautiful dancer – The Guardian newspaper even says he is on the front of the programme. On this double bill currently touring the UK, one piece demonstrated this superbly, the other less so.

Odedra’s grounding lies in Kathak and renowned Indian choreographer Aditi Mangaldas has, in Echoes, created for him a work that shows him at his best. Long golden braids full of small bells dangle in a cluster on one side of the stage while opposite is a small pile of them on the floor. Dusky forest lighting dapples down from above and branch-like paths of light zig-zag along the ground. The effect is extremely pretty. The symbolism of the braids was lost on me but it was what Odedra was up to among them that mattered.

His mastery of his chosen art is sublime; his timing is exquisite and his hands are to die for. He has a fluidity and assurance about what he’s doing that’s absolutely captivating to watch. His spins are devastatingly fast but appear unhurried and they included a one footed extravaganza that started almost in arabesque before quickly spiralling up into supplication to the heavens. Mangaldas has given Odedra a work that is perfectly paced and full of interest; ancient in tone yet modern in appearance. It really is wonderful.

On the other hand, Odedra’s own choreography has yet to scale such heights. Created in collaboration with spoken word artist Sabrina Mahfouz and circus practitioner David Poznanter, I Imagine was really more of a performance piece, with the dance mostly playing second fiddle to acting and the spoken word.

It’s a worthy examination of an immigrant experience in a newly adopted country but its construction is messy. The three excellent masks that Odedra dons appear to represent different generations of immigrants but it’s not clear who the maskless Odedra is, thereby rendering a large chunk of the choreography a bit meaningless. In fact, Odedra’s at his best in this when he’s mimicking his ancestors’ dyed-in-the-wool vocal accents.

There are some choreographic moments that catch the eye – the prostrating pink-shorted Jesus figure was a quite startling image – but, on the whole, there was too much shuffling around of suitcases and Mahfouz’s looped narrations added little. At least I Imagine offered up a rarely seen view of the wold and, anyway, Echoes made it worth attending all on its own.

Aakesh Odedra performs Echoes & I Imagine at Sadler’s Wells until 10 March 2017 before continuing its UK tour.

Gerard Davis

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