The Peony Pavilion – National Ballet of China: Sadler’s Wells, London, 29 November 2016

Flowering nicely

Only one of the dancers is reddy but the others are more than all white. National Ballet of China in The Peony Paviion

Only one of the dancers is reddy but the others are more than all white. National Ballet of China in The Peony Pavilion

In narrative terms, The Peony Pavilion asks a lot of its audience – this has to be the first time I’ve watched a show where the main protagonist dies in the middle without any indication that she is now deceased. I’m guessing its assumed that you’re familiar with the original 1598 20-hour long Kunqu opera which, unlike the rest of the world, most Chinese people are. Either that or the singing role of Kunqu Liniang is a narrator of vital plot developments although that’s not a great deal of use for a mono-lingual reprobate like me when she’s singing in untranslated Chinese.

The consequence of this was that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. It was obviously some kind of love story but beyond that, it was up for grabs. Reading the synopsis afterwards was a bit of an eye-opener but, you know what? It didn’t really matter. Visually speaking The Peony Pavilion is absolutely stunning and can virtually be viewed as a full-length abstract piece.

Choreographer Fei Bo has a truly remarkable eye for spectacle that was made apparent right from the off as small groups women dressed in white slotted serenely around the stage to the sensual tones of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It looked gorgeous and set a precedent of tying the choreography in tightly with the eclectic range of music being played. While individual movement was not always the strongest, the ensemble sequences were invariably exquisite and beautifully composed.

Allied to that were the highly stylised designs of Michael Simon. There was minimal use of props and barely any backdrop to speak of but the lack of clutter was wonderfully arranged and distinctly contemporary. Emi Wada’s costumes, for the most part, were magnificent, especially Kunqu Liniang’s flowing robes, although the main dancing role of Du Liniang was let down by her rather drab jump-suit.

The two leads were a mixed pair. Zhu Yan’s Du Liniang was a severe young lady whose expression, both facially and bodily, varied little whether in the throes of joy or in the ebbs of despair. Her lover, Liu Mengmei, on the other hand, was a much more interesting character and Ma Xiaodong portrayed him with a delicacy rare for a male dancer that produced several solos of extraordinary tenderness.

The corps were razor-sharp, especially the women, but the stand-out performer was Jia Pengfei, the Chinese Opera singer who roamed the stage and captivated wherever she went. The all-too-brief moment where she sang alone on the stage was heart-breaking, even without knowing what she was saying.

The Peony Pavilion had me completely hooked. Don’t worry too much about the story, just go with the flow and let your eyes delight in the visual feast that unfolds in front of you. That way, the two (count ‘em!) petal falls will look even prettier.

National Ballet of China’s The Peony Pavilion runs at Sadler’s Wells until 3 December 2016. For tickets, go to the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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Romeo and Juliet – Ballet Theatre UK: Kenton Theatre, Henley-on-Thames, England, 27 November 2017

Credit where credit’s Juliet

Ballet Theatre UK's Romeo and Juliet. Bringing ballet to everyone, ninja-style!

Ballet Theatre UK’s Romeo and Juliet. Bringing ballet to everyone, ninja-style!

Quite rightly there’s been a lot of fuss recently about ballet being brought to a country-wide audience through performances of the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi et al being broadcast in cinemas. There is, however, another way of watching ballet outside of London that’s been happening for years.

Ballet Theatre UK have been performing live on stage from Cardigan to Birmingham to Dorchester and, well, just about everywhere, since 2008. Their new production for 2016 is Christopher Moore’s Romeo and Juliet and, halfway through their tour, they brought it to the Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames.

The country’s fourth smallest working theatre must also be well inside the top five list of the country’s smallest stages so a streamlined production was brought but the storytelling remained clear as daylight.

Erin McNeill made an excellent Juliet. A convincing actress, she brought real depth to the emotional journey of the star-crossed lover (you could only feel sorry for poor old Paris at the way she dissed him right off) and had a delicate lightness to her movement that was lovely to watch. Her Romeo, Oliver Cooper, was an excellent foil and a reassuring partner; between them they conjured up a desperately moving conclusion.

Despite their hectic schedule, the Company looked in fine shape. The supporting cast were solid all round, although Orlando Bond stood out for his merry japery as Mercutio and Grace Carr was a wonderfully expressive Nurse.

Daniel Hope’s costumes are terrific, full of colour and detail, so I can only wonder at how handsome the full production must look. This Romeo and Juliet is completely engaging, very well danced and more than worth the trip to the local theatre.

Ballet Theatre UK’s production of Romeo and Juliet continues until 29 January 2017. Giselle and Alice in Wonderland are also coming up this season – you can find out more about performances on the Ballet Theatre UK website.

Gerard Davis

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Akram Khan’s Giselle – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 17 November 2016

Gisbloodyelle this is good

Cesar Corrales gets the point in Akram Khan's Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Cesar Corrales gets the point in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Every now and again you watch a show that simply blows your mind. This was that show. Somehow Akram Khan has taken the hackneyed tale of a 19th century love-struck peasant girl and turned it into something very modern and very weird but completely intelligible and totally compelling.

It works on so many levels, each element in harmony with the other. The narrative has been abstracted considerably, is slow to unfurl and is reduced to key pointers but it works brilliantly because the main thrust of the story is completely clear and requires no knowledge of the original tale to make sense of it.

Khan’s choreography gives English National Ballet a new language to communicate with but also utilises their classical training to create something wholly unexpected. The gnarly humanistic yanking that populates the first half is reminiscent not only of Khan’s contemporary work but also of Pina Bausch’s ferocious Rite of Spring and of Hofesh Shechter at his most agile. Conversely (perversely almost), the pointe work of the Wili’s in the second half stands them out as menacingly alien; they’re not a group of people you’d want to spend time with.

The superbly danced ensemble work is sensational to watch, a powerfully febrile use of arms and emphatic rhythm. Initially, the solo dancing makes less of an impact, subjugated as it is to the development of strong characterisation – it’s such a relief to find a contemporary choreographer prepared to tell their stories through movement rather than relying on gimmicky sets and florid programme notes – but the second half slowly gives way to the individual.

And here the marvellous trio of Tamara Rojo’s Giselle, James Streeter’s Albrecht and Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha take over. Their love/hate triangle is full of tension and it’s never quite certain how it will end. The main pas de deux between Rojo and Streeter, full of stunning sculptural shapes, has you believing that Albrecht does love her and, as a consequence, the ambiguity of her final disappearance is genuinely moving. It also must be said that Cesar Corrales has adopted Khan’s style with astonishing dexterity and conviction – his Hilarion is such a bastard that at last we understand why the Willis kill him.

For those familiar with the classical ballet version, there are a huge number of choreographic references to it, often out of place but hugely effective because of it. This is something that also applies to Vincenzo Lamagna’s fantastic reinvention of Adolphe Adam’s original score. Interspersed with rumbles, silences and odd noises, Lamagna takes key themes from the original, twists them inside out and slowly builds them up into ominous, pulsing wind tunnels of sound. The effect is loud and hugely dramatic but it always works with events on stage, never overpowers them.

Tim Yip’s designs are just as effective at realising the world inhabited by the dancers. Stark, minimalist and grey, they look towards depictions of dystopian futures found in movies such as Metropolis and 1984 for inspiration (there’s even a touch of A Clockwork Orange in Hilarion’s bowler hat). Mark Henderson’s lighting brings it all to life by paradoxically emphasising the claustrophobia. Yip, Henderson, Lamagna and Khan’s united vision is never bettered than in the entrance of the all-powerful Landlords – the combination of klaxon, tilting wall, back-lighting, far-out costumes and eye for spectacle is astonishing.

There’s so much more I could say about this piece but I think you get the idea. It’s brilliant. I loved it. If you get the chance, go see it. It’s more than a wonderful dance piece, it’s a great work of contemporary theatre.

Akram Khan’s Giselle runs at Sadler’s Wells until 19 November 2016 (returning again on 20-23 September 2017 – tickets already on sale). More info and tickets can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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Quint-Essential – New English Ballet Theatre: Peacock Theatre, London, 9 November 2016

Hail the youth

Taxi! New English Ballet Theatre on their way to London's West End. Photo by Patrick Baldwin

Taxi! New English Ballet Theatre on their way to London’s West End. Photo by Patrick Baldwin

New English Ballet Theatre (NEBT) specialise in giving opportunities for young dancers straight out of some of the world’s top ballet schools a chance to develop and perform their craft on the professional stage. As a Company they’re only a few years old but have already met with considerable success – Isabella Gasparini of The Royal Ballet is just one dancer with reason to be thankful for the experience they offered.

Another, less heralded, aspect of their work is the opportunity given to young choreographers with the constant programming of new work. This season’s new show, Quint-Essential, features no less than five world premieres and a satisfyingly consistent standard of output.

On the evidence of tonight, Royal Ballet soloist Valentino Zucchetti has gained the most out of his association with NEBT. Enticement’s Lure is his second commission for them and it shows a considerable step up in choreographic maturity. It’s a well-crafted, beautifully paced examination on the perils of checking out the other side’s greener romantic grass.

It’s not saddled with a melodramatic plot, it relays emotions through its dancing and it entwines itself within Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque No.1 extremely well. It’s also helped by some stylish performances from all five members of the cast, although Alexandra Cameron-Martin stood out in particular for her elegant movement and subtle portrayal of a wronged woman.

Marcelino Sambé, another current star of The Royal Ballet, also hits home with 80% of his creation Land of Nod. The abstract tale of a woman having a rather naughty dream with two men features some exciting and inventive choreography but is slightly let down by an unnecessary pause in the action to reveal the ending’s twist.

Kristen McNally is now an NEBT stalwart and Moonshine is another of her idiosyncratic miniatures. It consists mainly of bold gestures and playful Hungarian folk dancing all set to music from The Grand Budapest Hotel movie. It skips along nicely.

George Williamson’s Strangers is a much more serious affair and while it weaves a delicate and complex web of intricate partnering it also struggles to hold the attention. Daniela Cardim’s Vertex operates in a similar neo-classical vein but fares much better with an array of interesting ensemble patterns and visually striking postures.

Overall, the addition of live music from the Gildas Quartet and pianist Anne Lovett coupled with accessible musical choices that stay away from obvious material is a great asset for the company. On top of everything it’s great to see that the standard of dancing is increasing year by year, especially regarding partnering. This year’s crop looked assured, confident and completely at home on the London stage.

Quint-Essential continues at London’s Peacock Theatre until 12 November 2016. The Peacock Theatre website is where you can buy tickets.

Gerard Davis

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The Legend of White Snake – China National Peking Opera Company: Peacock Theatre, London, 14 October 2016

Here I go again

Good golly, nice brolly. China National Peking Opera Company in The Legend of White Snake

Good golly, nice brolly. China National Peking Opera Company in The Legend of White Snake

Xu Xian doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for when he falls for a beautiful woman he meets by a lake. It turns out she’s actually a 1000 year-old snake-spirit with a penchant for devouring her husbands. Fortunately for him it transpires that she truly loves him but it’s a somewhat hazardous journey involving Divine Mushrooms, Heavenly Guards and power-crazed Buddhist monks to find that out.

The Legend of White Snake is a famous piece of Chinese folklore and China National Peking Opera Company’s adaptation is blindingly good. The singing may an acquired taste to most Western ears but there’s no denying its quality. Far more accessible are the dazzling costumes, the slapstick comedy and, above all, the acrobatics and dancing.

Everything appears choreographed, from the precision in how the characters walk to the delicate use of arms and fingers. And the eyes! The eyes are overwhelming; deeply expressive and absolutely the emotional core of the piece.

Most spectacular are the acrobatics. The tumbling and sword-play is stunning and there are no words available to describe the extraordinary nature of the big battle scene in the second half. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to see someone fall flat on their back like a plank of wood, this is the show for you.

The White Snake character is a consistently ambiguous role but Li Shengsu makes her a highly sympathetic woman caught between her goddess status and her human desires. Liu Lei’s Xu Xian is a bit of a lily-livered sort but he’s a likeable chap despite his numerous frailties.

Best of all is Dai Zhongyu. She plays Green Snake, the hot-headed sister of White Snake, and not only does she act brilliantly and sing magnificently but she’s also an astonishing acrobat and dancer. In one incredible scene she’s juggling and kicking away three-foot long lances being thrown at her from around the stage. Volleys, back-heels, overhead kicks – Lionel Messi has nothing on this lady.

I absolutely loved The Legend of White Snake. It’s just so precise, well-performed and goddamn entertaining. Hao!

China National Peking Opera Company are at the Peacock Theatre in London until 15 October 2016. Tickets for The Legend of White Snake and also for The General and the Prime Minister are available on the Peacock Theatre website.

Gerard Davis

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The Tempest – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 13 October 2016

Storming the balletcades

Snail Male. Tyrone Singleton in BRB's The Tempest. Photo by Bill Cooper.

Snail Male. Tyrone Singleton in BRB’s The Tempest. Photo by Bill Cooper.

There are three quite separate things going on in David Bintley’s new creation for Birmingham Royal Ballet, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Firstly there’s the story. It didn’t make much sense to me. Important moments are hurried and crucial characterisations are muddy; Caliban and his gang, for instance, aren’t threatening at all (despite Tyrone Singleton’s brilliantly wiry Caliban), they just look like a group of nice but dim lads out on a stag night.

That didn’t particularly matter however because the second major thing is the choreography. As traditional as new ballet gets Bintley’s even included the time-honoured sight of the two leads deeply in love and sitting watching a series of dances prepared especially for them at a pre-nuptial party. This was fine though because there was some lovely stuff in there; Ferdinand and Miranda’s pas de deux at the end of the first act was beautifully performed by Joseph Caley and Jenna Roberts, Lachlan Monaghan’s leaps and spins as Neptune were sensational and it was just a joy to watch Céline Gittens lock herself into her arabesques as Ceres.

It was the third element that really let things down; Sally Beamish’s score. Apart from a lovely waltz in the first act and an exciting few minutes to finish the whole work, the music was off doing its own thing – mostly the sort of noodly thing reserved for a very small audience on Radio 3 at two in the morning. It primarily served to deaden the atmosphere in the auditorium and meant the dancers were constantly fighting against it rather than working with it.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty else to admire in this Tempest. Rae Smith’s sets are decent (especially the golden ship at the end), most of the costumes are excellent (the outfits for Neptune’s fishy friends are up for debate, mind) and the puppet of baby Miranda was absolutely wonderful. Also, I never realised until this evening how much I wanted a shining floating chair in the shape of a peacock.

The Tempest runs at Sadler’s Wells until 15 October 2016 before continuing on a UK tour. Tickets for the whole tour can be found on the Birmingham Royal Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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Wink/The Moor’s Pavane/The Shakespeare Suite – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 10 October 2016

Willing it on

'No, really, I can look after my own scarf, thank you.' Desdemona should have listened to the voices in her head in Jose Limon's The Moor's Pavane. Photo by Andrew Ross

‘No, really, I can look after my own scarf thank you.’ Desdemona tries to stick to her guns in Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane. Photo by Andrew Ross

It’s right that the greatest ever Brummie, William Shakespeare, should have his legacy celebrated by Birmingham Royal Ballet. Whether this Triple Bill was the best way to do it remains to be seen.

Jessica Lang’s Wink was up first. Read aloud by Alfie Jones, five of Shakespeare’s sonnets form the backbone of the work, interspersed with music by Jakub Ciupinski. The end result is nowhere near as interesting as it should be.

Peter Teigen’s rust-coloured lighting has a beautiful autumnal feel and the costumes a fresh, modern look that flatters the dancers’ bodies. The big drawback is that Lang’s choreography is rather bland; perfectly pretty but indistinct and heading nowhere. Brandon Lawrence stood out for his elegant and unhurried manner but quite what the small revolving panels that lined the stage were for is anyone’s guess.

Created in 1949, José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane shows its age but retains plenty of interest; its steady pacing and slow unfurling of the Othello narrative wins over any initial misgivings with the highly stylised posturing. Placing it within the formalism of Renaissance dancing and focussing heavily on individual characterisations helps give it an hypnotic appeal that reaches out beyond mere historical references. Tyrone Singleton, Delia Mathews, Iain Mackay and Samara Downs all gave the piece a satisfying emotional resonance.

Poor old Desdemona finds herself having to die all over again in David Bintley’s The Shakespeare Suite. Her cold-blooded murder at the hands of Tyrone Singleton’s impressively callous Othello is repeated with far more shocking brutality here, something quite at odds with the joie de vivre of the rest of the piece.

The jazz of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn rings out wonderfully from the instruments of Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra while a number of Shakespeare’s characters get their turn to ham things up in the spotlight, mainly for laughs. Inevitably some come out better than others – the view that what women really want is to be bullied by their spouse just isn’t funny, even under the guise of The Taming of the Shrew – but for the most part The Shakespeare Suite is good fun.

Céline Gittens and her long, long legs worked wonders as Lady Macbeth, Kit Holder and Momoko Hirata made a charming Bottom and Titania respectively and Mathias Dingman was an unexpectedly sprightly Hamlet. The last movement where everyone came together in a rush of sweeping legs was a great watch and finished the night on a welcome high.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Triple Bill continues at Sadler’s Wells until 11 October 2016. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website, as can those for David Bintley’s newest creation The Tempest which runs from 13 – 15 October 2016.

Gerard Davis

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