Mixed Bill – Dutch National Ballet Junior Company: 5 July 2019, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

Making Sense

Hmm, bus? Train? DNB’s Junior Company ponder the big questions in Daniela Cardim’s What Got You Here.

As part of the Royal Opera House’s Young Talent Festival in the Linbury Theatre, Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company showed London just how good they are. Aimed at bridging the gap between leaving school and joining a company full-time, they also tour internationally as well as across the Netherlands and nothing seems to hold any fear for them.

Ernst Meisner’s No Time Before Time started things, a perfectly eloquent slice of neo-classical ballet set to Alexander Balanescu’s score of the same name. The stage was probably a little small for such an ensemble piece but the dancers floated through it beautifully with Dingkai Bai standing out for his elevation, quick feet and presence of manner. Charlotte Edmonds’ Fuse popped up next, which saw her in surprisingly balletic mode, with strong extensions, intricate partnering and a real appreciation of the percussive score.

Daniela Cardim took to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for inspiration for her opus. What Got You Here cleverly uses a voiceover (which explains just how unlikely a conglomeration of atoms it took for all of us simply to exist) to power the movement and does so in a way that’s both funny and thought-provoking. It even manages to leave us with a strong message warning of the environmental dangers facing the planet. Excellently put together and a great watch.

Following the first interval was Juanjo Arqués’ frankly frustrating Fingers in the Air. The audience were given finger-lights that allowed us – at selected moments – to choose what would happen next, e.g. a solo or a duet. In terms of getting the audience involved, it was a nice idea but the choreography – a sculpturally emotionless set of big extensions – meant it really made little difference what was voted for.

The final offering was an absolute gem from Hans van Manen. In the Future is a satisfyingly bonkers arrangement of green and red unitarded dancers to the unlikely accompaniment of David Byrne’s slightly oompah music. It shouldn’t have worked in a million years as a combination but the stringent physical adherence to a sense of line and bounce somehow gelled to perfection. That the dancers looked just as good in this as all the other pieces is a testament to their superb abilities.

Gerard Davis

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Hobson’s Choice – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 29 June 2019

A Proper Gentleman

If you had to pick one, it would have to Samara Downs. I mean, she is a Hobson after all. Photo by Bill Cooper

This was the last performance of David Bintley’s 24-year long directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet [BRB] and it was held not in Birmingham but in London’s Sadler’s Wells, the Company’s abode in a previous guise. At the end of the show Bintley appeared on stage to take a standing ovation; flowers were thrown, Peter Wright made a moving speech and Bintley himself said a few words before striding off the stage before the curtain finished coming down.

Leading up to that had been a performance of one of Bintley’s best-loved ballets, Hobson’s Choice, which he created in 1989 for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (the Company that would soon morph into BRB). It’s a light, comedic affair, very much in thrall to Frederick Ashton, pitched somewhere between Enigma Variations and La Fille mal gardée (it even features its own clog dance), but it’s a charming enough piece in its own right. True, the humour is a tad outdated – very much of the whoops-a-daisy, trousers-down variety – but there’s enough invention in the choreography and Hayden Griffin’s spot-on designs to survive that.

The story is wafer-thin; the three daughters of Henry Hobson – a drunken cobbler – are all trying to get themselves married off, and (spoiler alert) they succeed. Its telling is pure music hall – the spirit of an ‘oop north Tommy Steele is heel-clickingly alive in this one – but many of the pas de deux are balletically very beautiful. The characters are archetypes but well-drawn and excellently brought to life by a strong cast; Samara Downs’ tight-hipped Maggie was a stand-out and although Will Mossop is annoying in his perpetual bafflement with life, Lachlan Monaghan gave him a human heart that made you happy for him. A special mention must also go the six-strong Salvation Army band in the second act – a terrific mix of comedy, characterisation and technical expertise, led by the devotedly prim pairing of Momoko Hirata and Tyrone Singleton.

But the night belonged to Bintley and the sign that came down from the flies at the end of the show said it all really. It simply read ‘Thank you David’.

Gerard Davis

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[Un]leashed – Birmingham Royal Ballet: 25 June 2019, Sadler’s Wells

Wolfing it up

Is it a plane? Is it a superman? No, it’s a bird. Tzu-Chao Chou don’t need no wings to fly in BRB’s Peter and the Wolf

[Un]leashed constitutes the first part of David Bintley’s last foray to Sadler’s Wells as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet (his Full-length Hobson’s Choice comes later in the week) and it features a trio of works all by female choreographers. Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces is up first and is a pretty slice of neo-classical choreography that trots along inoffensively to selected piano music by Edward Grieg. The thing that’s odd about it are the large concertina props the dancers pull on from the wings and kind of dance around, sometimes but not always. They just distract really without adding much of interest; furthermore they seem to be crying out for a dash of humour but that never really materialises. The piece is saved by stunning pas de deux from Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence; it’s lyrical, emotional and they dance it with an intimate understanding of each other’s movement. It really is a beauty.

The same pairing were also the best thing about Didy Veldman’s Sense of Time, the latest piece to spring from BRB’s ongoing Ballet Now programme whereby choreographers new to the company are given the opportunity to set work on the dancers of their choice. Gabriel Prokofiev’s music does some interesting jazzy stuff but there’s a bit too much stop/start going on to give things any real impetus, Joana Dias’ wall of suitcases looks great but its purpose is baffling and the choreography is solid enough but gives no sense of what Veldman’s trying to express in the wider picture. I, as you can tell, didn’t get on too well with Sense of Time but my companion for the evening really enjoyed it; such is life.

Ruth Brill’s new take on Peter and the Wolf concluded the night. Set on a non-descript urban playground with basketball hoops, discarded traffic cones and a large amount of scaffolding, my heart sank at first, but actually Brill adapted the story of the wily Peter pretty well; Bird was still a bird, Duck still a duck, but they were all wearing hoodies, headphones, tracksuits and the like, which gave it a believably contemporary feel. The movement is mainly balletic, with some gentle hip-hop thrown in, and the stand-out performances came from Brooke Ray as a somewhat sassy Duck and Tzu-Chao Chou who flew about the stage as Bird with impressive speed and exciting batterie.

 Gerard Davis

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Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella – English National Ballet: Royal Albert Hall, London, 6 June 2019

You shall go to the Hall

ENB publicity shot for Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the performance actually took place inside the Royal Albert Hall.

Following their blockbuster shows in-the-round of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, English National Ballet tackle Cinderella for their latest foray at the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. Instead of creating something entirely new, however, they’ve taken Christopher Wheeldon’s production for Dutch National Ballet and got him to adapt it for this unique space. And what a wonderful thing he’s created.

Choreographically, it’s not Wheeldon’s strongest piece but it does the job and there are plenty of funny cameos to enjoy; Tamara Rojo as the Stepmother is hilariously convincing when drunk and then hungover, for example. In fact, some of the side-stories are better developed than the main love interest of Cinders and her Prince – Katja Khaniukova’s Clementine and Jeffrey Cirio’s Benjamin came across as having a much more authentic attraction. Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández in the title roles made a sweet enough couple but there was a lack of sparkle between them, no sense of a love beyond time.

It’s spectacle that makes this Cinderella work. The ‘back’ of the stage is filled with a screen onto which carefully thought out video-projections set the scene. The use of props and scenery is excellent, from the mobile archways, to the fireplace, to the magnificent chandelier that adorns the second act. Unobtrusive video projections are beamed down onto the floor and the tree that features so heavily in the proscenium production is recreated using an alluring array of silks. Most stunning of all is the stagecoach that closes act 1, a visual treat that brought the entire audience out in spontaneous applause.

The floor space is filled brilliantly, either through sheer numbers of dancers in sections such as the ballroom scene, or by the mobility of the performers roaming across the entire stage space in more intimate moments. Julian Crouch’s costumes are beautiful and, at times, wonderfully surreal, and the English National Ballet Orchestra played Prokofiev’s eerie score with true purpose. In short, Cinderella was a great night out at the theatre.

ENB’s Cinderella plays at the Royal Albert Hall until 19 June 2019. For more info and tickets, see the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis  

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Against the Stream – Ivan Putrov Presents: London Coliseum, 7 April 2019

A river-ting watch?

Goodness Gracious, great Flames of Paris. Dmitry Zagrebin sets the stage alight in Ivan Putrov’s Against the Stream. Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Ivan Putrov, mastermind behind shows such as Men in Motion, is back with his new blockbuster, Against the Stream. Celebrating choreographers who’ve defied convention in order to move the art of dance forward (although there’s nothing here that modern audiences would view as uncomfortable), it’s essentially a gala that employs dancers from The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet and more. Let’s do this in order of appearance.

Hannah O’Neill was called in last minute to accompany her fellow Parisian Mathieu Ganio and it showed. They never quite clicked together and the choice of Nureyev’s rotating chair Cinderella was an odd one (especially with Ganio’s constantly scuffing boots). Ah well, they looked beautiful when dancing on their own.

The surprise package of the night lay in the partnership of Royal Swedish Ballet’s Dmitry Zagrebin and English National Ballet’s Katja Khaniukova; they seemed so natural together. The Flames of Paris pas de deux held no fears for them and they closed the show with a bang in the Diana and Acteon Grand Pas.

Ex-American Ballet Theatre principal Joaquin de Luz was utterly charming in Jerome Robbins’ Suite of Dances. It’s a neat piece who’s improvisatory feel succinctly captures the dialogue between music and movement. It’s got everything – you’re as likely to see a forward roll as an arabesque – and de Luz and his co-conspirator, cellist Urška Horvat, made it a great deal of fun to watch.

Jerome Robbins featured again with a mesmeric piece called In G pas that was given a gorgeous treatment by New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle. Their tenderness of partnering was a joy.

A relatively obscure Kenneth MacMillan piece, Images of Love, closed the first half. Performed by the Royal Ballet triumvirate of Matthew Ball, Mayara Magri and Ivan Putrov, it lacked context so while the complex choreography was interesting, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. There were, however, some magnificent leaps from Mr Ball.

Putrov reappeared to open the second half with a wonderful performance of Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the blessed spirits. Always a dancer of great expression, this was no exception.

Maria Kowroski changed partners for her second pas de deux, performing Balanchine’s Jewels with Marcelo Gomes. And a thing of beauty it was.

Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri then went on to perform a lovely Awakening Pas de deux before Gomes donned his black tie to stroll out with Orlando Ballet’s Kate-Lynn Robichaux in Twlya Tharp’s Sinatra Suite.

To be honest, the show as a whole never really caught fire but there were so many things and partnerships of interest going on, that it didn’t really matter. There was some terrific dancing, the live orchestra was excellent, and Putrov’s careful methods of ensuring that every piece was given its historical context (right down to listing the original casts in the programme) meant Against the Stream was as much an enjoyable education as a great show.

Gerard Davis

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She Persisted – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 4 April 2019

You got Nora rite to break my wings

Exercising the grey matter. Crystal Costa in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora for English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

In 2016 Tamara Rojo announced that English National Ballet were going to present a Triple Bill of all female choreographers called She Said. It caused quite a fuss at the time, highlighting the lack of female choreographers in ballet and garnering plenty of column inches in the process. Obviously, times have changed since then and, oh, hang on, no they haven’t; classical female choreographers are still as rare as hen’s teeth. To be fair, it was never going to an overnight fix – good choreographers of either sex rarely pop up overnight – so to continue the fight, Rojo’s not only committed her company to another all-female programme in She Persisted but she’s also given a main-stage choreographic debut to one of her own dancers, Stina Quagebeur.

Nora is the result from Quagebeur. Ambitiously based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the story is stripped down to its bare bones, with only three characters surviving the cut; the titular Nora, her husband Torvald and Krogstad the creditor. What basically happens is that innocent-looking Nora’s been up to some dodgy financial dealings and she’s being blackmailed by Krogstad, something that ends with Nora leaving her rather violent husband to protect his honour. To be honest, I only know this from reading the programme notes – from watching the ballet it merely looks like a letter has caused some upset.

Actually though, dramaturgy aside, this is an entertaining work, mainly due to the fizz of the dancing. Even though she doesn’t plumb any great depths of emotion, Crystal Costa is a suitably torn Nora and her relationship with Jeffrey Cirio’s Torvald is fundamentally believable. Cirio is a whirlwind of threatening arms and bullet-paced spins but the always excellent Junor Souza is underemployed as Krogstad. There’s also a group of people in grey who presumably represent Nora’s emotions but they’re completely unnecessary – Costa expressed them quite capably herself. All told, this was a decent effort by Quagebeur and hopefully she’ll be given more opportunities to hone her craft soon.

The only survivor in tonight’s programme from She Said was Broken Wings, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s expressionistic take on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately, the story is told too episodically to really impress and we never get to see the complexity of Kahlo’s nature beneath the weight of all the unfortunate events that happen to her. Katja Khaniukova was excellent as Kahlo – although the work doesn’t really allow room for her to fully develop her character – but the small male corps, though wonderfully dressed by Dieuweke van Reij, were ragged in their movement and overall it seemed to take a long time to get to the end.

The night finished with Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the great works of dance. It’s 43 years old now but stands the test of time like no other piece and ENB did it proud here. Francesca Velicu poured everything into her frightening closing solo but clearly everyone worked hard on it, with Precious Adams’ fierce rhythmical presence being another stand-out. A brilliant way to finish any show.

She Persisted runs at the Sadler’s Wells until 13 April 2019. Tickets and lots more info can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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Preview: Ivan Putrov presents Against the Stream: London Coliseum, 7 April 2019

It’s all going swimmingly

Someone shut the curtains! Ivan Putrov’s Against the Stream is warming up nicely.

Ex-Royal Ballet star turned impresario who’s gained something of a reputation for excellence with his Men in Motion shows, Ivan Putrov has put together a very special one-off performance at the London Coliseum on 7 April 2019. Against the Stream – A Gala Night Celebrating Ballets Greatest Pioneers has gathered together some of the very best names in world ballet.

Dancers confirmed include Matthew Ball (Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet), Mathieu Ganio and Eleonora Abbagnato (Étoiles, Paris Opera Ballet), Maria Kowroski (Principal, New York City Ballet), Marcelo Gomes (Guest Principal), Dmitry Zagrebin (Principal, Royal Swedish Ballet), and Katja Khaniukova, (Soloist, English National Ballet).

The list of works being performed isn’t bad either – Diana and Actaeon Pas de Deux, Le Parc, Suite en Blanc, Diamonds and In G Major Pas are all lined up. As Putrov himself says: “The evening will celebrate some of the remarkable choreographers who took ballet to new heights by daring to go against the stream. Great ballet is even more powerful when it is performed close to the original vision of its creator. For this reason I have invited dancers schooled in those companies where the works were originally performed.”

Tickets for Against the Stream are available to buy from the London Coliseum website and you’ll also find a rather lovely photo gallery there.

Gerard Davis

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