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


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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Triple Bill – Ballet Black: Barbican Theatre, The Barbican Centre, London, 3 March 2017

Wolfing it down

Tail of the unexpected. Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Red Riding Hood

Tail of the unexpected. Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Red Riding Hood

The big draw of Ballet Black’s new Triple Bill was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s world premiere of Red Riding Hood. Taking a sidelong look at ye olde faerie tale it gives the main characters a bit more contemporary chutzpah and a soundtrack to die for.

It worked best in the more comedic first half, with Mthuthuzeli November’s Wolf stealing not only the heart of every female he encountered on stage but also the entire show. Smooth, suave and overflowing with charisma, he had the audience bent double with laughter; the scene where he seduced three ladies simultaneously was downright hilarious.

The very masculine Grandmother was also an on pointe joy to watch, all of which made Cira Robinson’s Red Riding Hood less striking, more of a vessel for events happening around her who only gets control of herself right at the end.

It’s a very adult interpretation of Red Riding Hood’s development into womanhood, full of sensuous choreography and unsettling characters. However, when our heroine becomes yet another conquest of the Wolf, the lurch into a darker narrative jars a little and some of the ballet’s hard-won momentum is lost. Still, this is an entertaining, thoughtful piece full of brilliant moments and worth watching just to witness November’s big bad wolf.

Opening the Bill had been another premiere, that of Michael Corder’s House of Dreams. Centred around two couples who, on the whole, seem fairly happy with life, it’s a series of charming classical duets brimming with musicality. Sayaka Ichikawa stood out for her delicate expression and somehow Yukiko Tsukamoto managed to design shiny gold bodices and short, brightly coloured tulle skirts that looked rather fetching.

Martin Lawrance’s 2012 piece Captured focusses on a young couple who seem to be caught in the midst of a relationship crisis. It’s way too long but Cira Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November play it from the heart; they’re terrifically in tune with one another and handle their individual stories superbly. An older, presumably parental, couple are lurking in the sidelines but, despite some decent dancing from Isabela Coracy and José Alves, their roles aren’t defined enough to hold the attention. All in all, though, this Triple Bill was a fine night out.

Ballet Black perform at London’s Barbican Centre until 4 March 2017 before embarking on a UK tour. More info and tickets can be found on the Ballet Black website.

Gerard Davis

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Robot – Blanca Li Dance Company: Barbican Theatre, The Barbican, London, 22 February 2017

Robot ears

Two obljects in this photo aren't real robots. Can you spot them?

Two are two pretend robots in this photo. Can you spot them?

I would liked to have said Blanca Li’s Robot was a case of style over substance but there wasn’t even a great deal of style in it. It was a messy hotch-potch of vignettes that didn’t connect to each other and went on for far too long.

The robots were good. They appeared in many shapes and guises and also supplied the music via a series of Heath Robinson-style contraptions. They also provided the star of the show in the lead NAO robot. NAO is a little chap, about two feet high, who looks humanoid and has the ability to manipulate joints in a convincingly human fashion. He also has a pair of endearingly round eyes and a gently becoming manner.

Sadly he’s also not very good at standing up – he and his four identical cohorts were constantly falling over. At first it just seemed like it was part of the show, a way of demonstrating the fragility of life, but it just kept happening and, frankly, it got annoying. However, when they did stay on their feet, they were entrancing. The scene where NAO no.1 is taken out of his box and treated like a new-born child by one of the dancers was utterly charming.

Which brings me to the eight, very fine dancers who dealt with a bewildering array of styles extremely well and never gave less than absolutely everything. What they were given, however, was not very interesting; plenty of sculptural posturing and manic run-arounds, but rarely anything that related to the mechanical world around them.

It was telling perhaps that their most effective moments were as background fodder to the robots. Li is best-known for her work with Daft Punk and Beyoncé and there was a definite sense here that left to its own devices (which it was, for long periods), the choreography lacked a focal point that only the robots could provide.

Still, Charles Carcopino’s video projections were excellent and any show that has a feather-boa’d NAO robot in a sparkling silver suit singing the whole of Besame Mucho clearly can’t be all bad.

Robot runs at the Barbican until 25 February 2017. Tickets can be found on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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German Cornejo’s Tango Fire – Peacock Theatre, London, 2 February 2017

Smouldering really

Bella Gisela with her fella. Gisela Galeassi and German Cornejo in Tango Fire

Bella Gisela with her fella. Gisela Galeassi and German Cornejo in Tango Fire

It can be easy sometimes to sneer at shows like this that are seen to be peddling tired old cultural clichés. And while it’s true that Tango Fire does nothing to dispel the notion of the macho Latin male and the feisty Latin female, where is it written that it has to? The dance form has survived commercially for over a century now by presenting it thus and choreographer German Cornejo knows whose legs wear the stockings.

Therefore we find ourselves in a nightclub with men in sharp suits and women in sparkly evening gowns split up to the crotch and beyond. The men cavort and peacock themselves about while the women flutter fans and coyly cross their legs with knowing smiles. It’s laughable really but it works, it’s what we expect and, to be honest, when the dancers are as good as this team of ten, a multitude of sins can be forgiven.

The duets are best. The dexterity and speed of the footwork was universally outstanding so the differences between couples came mainly in the choice and execution of the money-shot lifts and drops.

Definitely the best were German Cornejo and Gisela Galeassi who had such a tight understanding of each other’s bodies that they seemed glued to each other whatever outlandish stunt they were pulling. Sebastian Alvarez and Victoria Saudelli pulled off an astonishing series of slip-sliding shoulder-high spins and Marcos Estaban Roberts and Louise Junqueira Malucelli’s second half routine burst out into a splendid legs-akimbo climax. Although the lower-key choreography of the intermittent ensemble routines didn’t hold the same appeal, there was absolutely no questioning the authority of the dancers as a whole.

They were let down a little by the supporting band and singer. While Quarteto Fuego are clearly excellent musicians, their playing lacked life (possibly not helped by a dodgy speaker) and although Jesus Hidalgo’s vocals had a soft, rich tone, he didn’t really inspire either. Never mind, despite a disappointingly weak finale, the dancing pressed all the right buttons.

Tango Fire runs at London’s Peacock Theatre until 18 February 2017. Tickets can be bought on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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