Mám – Michael Keegan-Dolan: Sadler’s Wells, 5 February 2020

Feeling sheepish

Ramming it home. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Mám.

Michael Keegan-Dolan and his company Teaċ Daṁsa (House of Dance) shot to fame with their debut production – Loch na hEala, a fresh take on Swan Lake. Mám is their follow-up and although it got a pretty universal standing ovation on its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells, it bored me silly.

It promised much. When you walk into the auditorium you’re presented with the intriguing sight of a young girl in a white dress being lulled to serenity by a ram playing a concertina. It’s a fabulous image and when a curtain is pulled away to reveal twelve people sitting on wooden chairs wearing paper-bag masks, it looks like it’s going to be a hell of a night.

Mám has a dark Irish flavour (deliberately so) and the ambiguity of the setting (is the girl celebrating her First Communion, her Confirmation, or maybe she’s at a wake?) initially lends a fascinating poignancy to her actions, lost as she looks in a world of strangely behaving adults. But that’s as far as things get. The adults continue behaving strangely and the girl sits down and observes it all. For an hour and a half.

The problem for me is that the choreography doesn’t progress. In itself, it’s enjoyable to look at and has an easy swing that shines particularly brightly in the synchronised ensemble work Keegan-Dolan does so well. But the skipping feet and cheeky little arm shakes go on and on, broken up occasionally by short comedy skits, but they remain as intact and unchanged with ten minutes to go as they were five minutes in. Say something once, why say it again?

Cormac Begley and stargaze’s music was terrific – Begley was magnificent on the concertina – and the small band conjured up a dazzling array of sounds that didn’t deserve the maniacal laughing and screaming that sometimes interrupted it. The dancers showed tremendous stamina and had a satisfying lightness of movement that never left them, but Mám didn’t touch me at all.

Mám runs at Sadler’s Wells until 7 February 2020. Check out their website for tickets.

Gerard Davis

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Ballet Icons Gala 2020 – Various Artists: London Coliseum, 26 January 2020

Not exactly going to the bingo

Would have made a great goalkeeper. Daniil Simkin is football’s loss but ballet’s gain. Photo by Lucian Romano

The costumes were something else at the London Coliseum for the Ballet Icons Gala 2020. Rainbow sequinned split-leg dresses with floor-smothering trains, crystal-embellished silver chainmail headscarves, peach pleated tulle ballgowns with ruffles, and even a man wearing a top hat and cape. And that was just the audience. On stage too, there were lashings of sparkle, elaborately decorated tutus and a liberal dose of ripped torsos peeking out through barely-there outfits. It was as if La Belle Époque never went away.

In theory, at least, everyone was here to watch the ballet, rather than each other, and a fine selection of dancers there was too. Taken from premier ranks of the Bolshoi, Mariinsky, Royal Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, La Scala, English National Ballet and more, they all danced either a modern or a classical pas de deux. With 13 works on show and with no desire to bore you silly with the minutiae, I’ll just rattle through the highlights instead.

Surprisingly coming up trumps was Matthew Golding in Edwaard Liang’s Finding a Light. Somehow, he never really captured the imagination in his stint as Royal Ballet principal but in this modern paean to the sway and yearn of the human body, he looked right at home. It helps, I guess, when you have a partner as pliant and graceful as Lucía Lacarra – she was magnificent – but kudos to Mr G.

In the 19th century repertoire on show, Bolshoi Principals Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko were forthright in their Sleeping Beauty imperiousness, Krysanova in particular showing a sublime sense of control over her limbs. The fabulously balanced Nicoletta Manni was a cheeky Kitri, Yasmine Naghdi an appropriately ethereal Giselle, and Alyona Kovalyova and Xander Parish fought their way to a small triumph in Balanchine’s Diamonds pas de deux. Almost inevitably, it was Le Corsaire that concluded the show but Iana Salenko and Daniil Simkin did it proud. So accurate and wobble-free are her fouettés, that Salenko must have pointe shoes that nail themselves to the floor. Simkin doesn’t possess a big jump (normally a prerequisite for this piece) but what he can do while he’s up in the air is extraordinary – he twists, turns, gives sly grins and arrives on landing with an extra little flourish of body parts. They brought the house down. The two dancers, I mean, not Simkin’s body parts.

Bringing the repertoire into the 20th century, Vladislav Lantratov was a mightily impressive Don Jose in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite, and Vittoria Valerio and Claudio Coviello gave one of the performances of the night in their delicate interpretation of Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc. Reaching out into the 21st century, Erina Takahashi and James Streeter produced a fine account of Akram Khan’s Dust and there were even two world premieres on show; Giuseppe Picone’s nicely sculpted but largely forgettable Elegie, and the perfectly decent wranglings of Jason Kittelberger’s Once With, performed by Kittelberger himself and Natalia Osipova. Not even a world premiere yet was a duet by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, taken from Frida, her upcoming ballet for Dutch National, an expanded version of the one-act Broken Wings she made for English National Ballet in 2016. In truth, it felt a bit long, with no real progression of character, but there’s plenty of promise in it.

Supporting the dancers was a live orchestra in the shape of the English National Ballet Philharmonic under Valery Ovsyanikov, and in short the show was something of an event, full of good dancing and the opportunity for some excellent people-watching.

Gerard Davis

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Le Corsaire – English National Ballet: London Coliseum, 8 January 2020

A coarse hare. That’s so bunny

Surely your character is Pasha its best. Erina Takahashi and Michael Coleman discuss Orientalism in the 21st Century in ENB’s Le Corsaire. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

The plot is ludicrous, the music is so rompty-pompty it’s laughable and there are so many individual variations that it feels like you’re submerged in the quagmire of the Prix de Lausanne, but somehow Anna-Marie Holmes’ production of Le Corsaire for English National Ballet rises above all that and gives you a cracking night out. As long as you can stomach the idea of the 19th century slave and sex-trafficking industries being played for laughs, that is. The idea that the lecherous Pasha (who pays traders to secure captive women to become part of his harem) is at heart a jolly old soul, leaves me feeling queasy. Surely his character can be amended to truly show what a despicable lout he is without losing the essential essence of the ballet.

That aside, it’s the awesome choreography that’s kept Le Corsaire going for over 100 years. It’s a whirlwind of virtuoso solos and pas de deux that requires a lot of different dancers to display their wares. Erina Takahashi was the lead ballerina tonight but although her Medora was assured and correct with some tremendous floating balances, her performance didn’t quite bubble over into extreme excitement. Jeffrey Cirio let rip as Ali, his big moment in the famous pas de trois brought alive by some dazzlingly fast jumping spins. Brooklyn Mack as the contemptible slave trader Lankendem showed a clean pair of heels in a steady performance that lacked fizz, while Erik Woolhouse strained every muscle to give the morally dubious Birbanto real energy.

For me, there were two revelations on the night. Firstly, Shiori Kase,as Medora’s friend Gulnare, was fantastic. Her spins in her first act pas de deux with Mack were astonishingly quick and contrasted perfectly with her long-held attitudes. Secondly, Francesco Gabriele Frola as the night’s hero, Conrad: what a jump! He floated through the air. He’s also an excellent partner and knows how to engage an audience. Excellent performances by the pair of them. Elsewhere, Julia Conway and Precious Adams (who has charisma to burn) shone as Odalisques.

Bob Ringwoood’s sets are an attractive mish-mash of fantasy Arabic, Turkish and Mughal designs and his costumes sparkle like an exploding disco ball. The English National Ballet Philharmonic played the dog’s dinner of a score expertly and surely all the acting royalty watching tonight (including Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) would have gone home feeling like they’d watched a proper show.

English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire runs at the London Coliseum until 14 January 2020 and tickets can be found on the ENB website

Gerard Davis

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Svetlana Zakharova – Modanse: London Coliseum, 3 December 2019

Classy and fabulous

Chanel-ing her inner fashionista. Svetlana Zakharova in Yuri Possokhov’s Gabrielle Chanel. Photo by Jack Devant

Svetlana Zakharova is the undisputed doyen of the Bolshoi Ballet, a superstar in Russia and many other countries. Like several other world-renowned ballerinas before her, in Modanse she dabbles in creating a show beyond the confines of the Company she calls home. Unlike most of her predecessors, however, she hasn’t veered off into dodgy contemporary dance territory but instead remains fixedly in pointe shoes. And when I say ‘beyond the confines’, she actually hasn’t travelled too far – the rest of the 17-strong cast also all ply their trade with the Bolshoi.

Como un Respiro was the first piece on this Double Bill of new work. Created by Mauro Bigonzetti, it’s a plotless affair of solos and duets set to a series of Handel’s Keyboard Sonatas and performed in Helena de Medeiros’ excellent steampunk costumes. The choreography is a genuine hybrid of classical and contemporary with a predilection for putting the dancers into awkward positions and strange shapes. What it’s all for is anybody’s guess but it’s an interesting enough watch even though it does go on rather too long.

It’s all fantastically danced, of course, with Ana Turazashvili standing out for her poise and control but she was no match for Zakharova, Queen of the Right-angle. She has such extraordinary control over her body that her left eyebrow could probably knock off a decent Odette, and Bigonzetti’s elongated extensions and switch-backed limbs suited her down to the ground. Her duet with fellow Bolshoi Principal Mikhail Lobukhin was a thing of twisted beauty.

Of course, what had garnered all the publicity for Modanse, including the striking photography that’s been on display in the tube for the past few weeks, was the second half of the show – Gabrielle Chanel, a ballet based on the life of the legendary fashion designer. Much has been made of the Chanel costumes that adorn the dancers and quite right too, they look stunning. In fact, everything looks great about this ballet. Ilya Starilov’s projections are attractive and informative, Ivan Vinogradov’s lighting is pretty as a picture and the overall choice of visual imagery is richly imaginative. Yuri Possokhov’s choreography is expressive and varied and Ilya Demutsky’s score has a great feeling for period.

Crucially though, the thing that’s missing is any sense of drama. For example, we witness the pivotal death of Arthur Capel, the love of Chanel’s life in a car crash, so how does Chanel react? How does she feel about that? No idea, because the next thing we see is her making perfume and he’s not referred to again. There’s no sense of struggle or set-back to her life and, beyond a few pat quotes between scenes, no attempt to understand what was going on in the mind below the cropped hair. Nevertheless, it’s a decent enough ballet, with a couple of excellent pas de deux between Zakharova and Jacopo Tissi to enjoy. And anyone thinking that Zakharova would be taking things gently for a show that runs three nights in a row would be wrong; she goes full-throttle while negotiating tricky steps and risky lifts. And a final word of praise for the designers of the Modanse programme; its fashion magazine-look is marvellous.

Svetlana Zakharova’s Modanse runs at the London Coliseum until 5 December 2019. Tickets can be found on the London Coliseum website.

Gerard Davis

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Preview: Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre – Chopiniana/Scheherazade: London Coliseum, 17 November 2019

If you go down to the woods today

We’re waiting! Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Chopiniana. Photo by Nikolay Postnikov

If you like your ballet full of harem pants and sylphs, then the snappily-titled Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre’s UK debut performance may be just the thing for you. They’re a long established company having made their home in Kazakhstan’s former capital Almaty in 1934 and they have a strong connection to the Russian balletic tradition. Underlining that is their choice to present Chopiniana (more commonly known as Les Sylphides in the West) and Scheherazade (based on the story from 1001 Nights) in London, both created by the legendary Russian choreographer Michel Fokine.

It’s a one-night only performance at the London Coliseum and it takes place on Sunday 17 November 2019, starting at 7.30. It’s not often we get to see international touring companies performing the classics anymore, even in London, and this is a unique opportunity to see a new-to-you company. And that’s not even to mention the great music that’s on offer too.

Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre perform Chopiniana/Scheherazade on 17 November 2019 and tickets can be found on the London Coliseum website.

Gerard Davis

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Giselle – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 1 November 2019

Wili or won’t he?

Question 1 – fill in the comedy blank: ‘Act II of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Giselle gave me the WHAT?’

Galina Samsova and David Bintley’s 1999 Giselle is as traditional as they come – in fact, it’s more traditional than most, even to the point of restoring music from the original 1841 production (a perfectly pleasant peasant pas de deux in the first act). Mind you, it also has a live horse, Wili’s that literally fly in from the wings and a subtle but significant tweak at the end.

Hayden Griffin’s staging is excellent. Act 1 is in the usual forest location and has all the picturesque detail required of the rustic architecture while, just for fun, there’s also a waterfall. The costumes here, however, aren’t always the best; a bit dull for the most part and overly clean and neat for peasants dwelling in the middle of the countryside. The Wilis’ costumes in Act II, on the other hand, are beautiful, especially when enshrouded in their oversize veils. Unusually, this act is set in the ruins of a church but it really adds to the sense of Gothic menace.

Momoko Hirata played the eponymous heroine and was wonderful. As delicate as a fallen leaf in the first act, she was bashful to a fault, a wide-eyed innocent in total thrall to the numpty of a Count seeking his own amusement. As said Count, César Morales’ dancing was so refined and full of care you almost forgave him for his misguided tomfoolery. Nevertheless, the inevitable tragedy struck and Giselle was whisked away to Wililand on discovering her heart had been broken.

I shall never understand why Giselle is so forgiving of Albrecht – I just don’t see the evidence to support her defence of him – and my sympathy usually leans towards Myrtha to win the day but, alas, she never does. Samara Downs was the Queen of the Wilis here and although she’s certainly perfected the stony-face for the role, she was somehow not quite terrifying enough, preferring to remain aloof rather than express any real fury towards her intended victims. Perhaps the dancing between Hirata and Morales convinced her early on that she was on to a loser – they danced so beautifully together it would have been a pity to have separated them unduly.

Among the lesser dancing roles, Beatrice Parma executed her Harvest pas de deux extremely well and Yaoqian Shang shone out for her unhurried poise as Moyna, but a fine effort was made by all. All said, this was a lovely show to watch and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Koen Kessels did a fine job with the music as well.

Gerard Davis

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Triple Bill – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 29 October 2019

Nein, Sinatra Songs

Grey Matters. BRB in Jack Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia

As ballet triple bills go, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest was as diverse as they come. The night opened with a brand new piece, Jack Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, and closed with Twyla Tharp’s ballroom-lite Nine Sinatra Songs, while the middle work was presented by an entirely different company, namely Ballet Black.

A Brief Nostalgia certainly looked the part. A stark staging of several large grey walls against which the dancers regularly pressed themselves was made beautiful by the constant shifting of shadows within Alexander Berlage’s interchanging lighting. Tom Harrold’s music was also interesting; rumbling climaxes interspersed with calming episodes and plenty of rhythmic progressions meant there was a lot to listen to. At times there were short bursts of compelling choreography to watch but on the whole it was unclear what was trying to be said; the abstract nature of the physical form fought too much against the narrative nature of the music, leaving a curious emotional void at its heart.

Cathy Marston’s The Suit has quickly become something of a winner for Ballet Black. It relays the story of a man who comes home unexpectedly one day to find his wife hard at it with another fella. Understandably cross, he forces his disgraced woman to live with his rival’s discarded suit and tragedy soon follows. Though it sounds odd, the suit makes an excellent visual representation of the un-erasable memory of personal betrayal and Marston generally handles the complexity of the consequences very well. Although it goes on a little too long, the central relationship of Philemon and Matilda is clearly relayed and rarely overstated and José Alves and Cira Robinson give them decent portrayals. The soundtrack of recordings from the Kronos Quartet is wonderfully curated and Jane Heather’s costumes give an excellent sense of place. What lets The Suit down somewhat is Marston’s insistence on filling the stage with superfluous figures that hover around the action, distracting attention away from the emotional core of the story.

Last up was Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Nine songs by Frank Sinatra are given a balletic take on the glamorous dancing of the 1950s musical – think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, only on this occasion it was about as successful as Fred and Ginger doing Swan Lake would probably be. Of the seven couples only César Morales and Momoko Hirata and (especially) Brandon Lawrence and Eilis Small came anywhere near the smooth glide and soft melt required of the piece. Elsewhere it looked awkward and uncomfortable on the dancers. Mind you, it’s something of an odd ballet and quite why the domineering male bully of the last couple should get by far the biggest cheer at the curtain call is beyond me.

BRB’s Triple Bill continues at Sadler’s Wells until 30 October 2019. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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