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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Manon – English National Ballet: London Coliseum, 16 January 2019

52B or not 2B

Oh ship! Why did we have to use this staging? ENB’s corps make the best of it in MacMillan’s Manon. Photo by Patrick Baldwin

It says a lot about the strength of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography that this Manon’s power remains undiminished despite Mia Stensgaard’s underwhelming staging. Very different in style from Nicholas Georgiadis’ original designs, Stensgaard made hers for The Royal Danish Ballet but it looks cheap and lightweight with no sense of place or atmosphere – the sets are flat and two dimensional, and I’m not convinced that puff-ball skirts have ever been the go-to outfit for prostitutes on the hunt for work.

Regardless, the choreography’s intact and with Alina Cojocaru in the lead role, it was a very moving performance. She still has her technique and the superb attention to detail in her acting turns Manon into a real person with thoughts and motivation of her own – her disbelieving despair at the death of the gaoler was both subtle and electric. Joseph Caley was Des Grieux and after a slightly clunky start with his partnering in the first act, he slowly grew into the role so that by the end he was going at it full throttle – his frantic spins after killing the aforementioned gaoler were fabulous.

Jeffrey Cirio was a feisty Lescaut, an excellent dancer, he showed he can act a bit too, a claim that’s more difficult to make stick to Katja Khaniukova, who was playing his mistress – she danced beautifully but never captured the gritty spirit of a woman in her character’s position. James Streeter was terrific as Monsieur GM, really seedy but decidedly nasty, and the rest of the cast danced well (although some of the background shenanigans, especially in the brothel scene, were ham with bacon on) of which the three gentlemen of Daniel McCormick, Aitor Arrieta and Ken Saruhashi were particularly good.

The music’s been given a freshen-up by Martin Yates, which appears to have resulted in a softer sound that doesn’t lose its grand support of the choreography. In the end, though it was MacMillan and the interpretative and technical skills of Cojocaru that won the day.

Manon runs at the London Coliseum until 20 January 2019. Tickets can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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Swan Lake – English National Ballet: London Coliseum: 3 January 2019

Corps don bleu

Blue Moonday. English National Ballet’s new order take charge in Swan Lake

The sight of a tightly-knit group of white tutus arranged in their geometric patterns in the lakeside acts of Swan Lake is one of the great experiences in world theatre. English National Ballet have got it nailed down to a tee at the moment – the corps were outstanding in this show, precisely organised but also transmitting bucket-loads of emotion, they were the undoubted highlight of this performance.

It was a bit of shame that not everyone else danced with such rigour and passion. Isaac Hernández was Siegfried and he’s a dancer with beautiful line who started and stopped his steps in exquisite posture. And yet, in-between he seemed to only offer a need to get from A to B – it was the destination, not the journey that mattered to this Prince. It wasn’t until the Black Swan pas de deux that he finally linked everything together to create a real sense of purpose to his character.

His Odette/Odile, Jurgita Dronina, relied on stillness for effect and her deft balances as Odette were a joy. As Odile, however, she lacked sauciness and although both she and Hernández didn’t put a technical foot wrong, they left something of an emotional hole at the centre of the ballet.

Flashes of the Black Swan pas de deux aside, the best bit of solo dancing came in the 1st act pas de trois. Daniel McCormick (winner of ENB’s 2018 Emerging Dancer) showed a welcome attack and a series of almighty jumps and he was accompanied by the wonderfully fleet of foot Julia Conway who gave her role the happy weightlessness it requires. The national dances came and went in the third act, all proficiently done but with Crystal Costa and Barry Drummond standing out for a terrifically sharp Neapolitan.

Derek Deane’s production still tells a good yarn, has some lovely visuals in it and the English National Philharmonic Orchestra sounded marvellous. Still, nothing could beat those swans all lined up in a triangle.

Gerard Davis

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The Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Royal Albert Hall, London, 28 December 2018

The Holy Treenity

Rats, it’s Christmas! BRB’s Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall

Completing this year’s triumvirate of Nutcrackers in London, Birmingham Royal Ballet have taken over the Royal Albert Hall for a few days to sometimes spectacular effect. Unfortunately there’s also a lot of slack and a sense that the production doesn’t quite fill the venue’s enormous space. Unlike English National Ballet’s in-the-round productions that spread across the whole floor of the Hall, BRB have chosen a more traditional front-facing stage that protrudes about half-way but is completely wing-less. Apart from various props that whizz on and off, the only real set is Drosselmeyer’s clever little shop that opens the show and a set of rotating panels that line the back of the stage, on top of which sits the orchestra.

The first half of the show is where all the special effects happen. The transformation scene is a vast video projection plastered all over one side of the Hall that operates concurrently with a group of giant baubles descending from the roof; it should look impressive but somehow doesn’t quite hit the mark. Far more successful is the Snowflakes scene where snow inevitably falls from above but it looks absolutely beautiful. Generally though, things drag. Notoriously, there’s not much dancing in the first act of The Nutcracker and there’s not enough people on stage to give a sense of spectacle. On a pettier note, Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks are a bit rubbish – you can even see the wire on his floating ball, clear as day.

The second act is visually much plainer, the dancers only having some frosted mirrors and a circus entrance for company (there are video projections lurking around but they’re way up high and, certainly from the lower seats, you don’t really notice them). However, this is where all the best dancing is, the highlights of which were Delia Mathews’ thoughtful Arabian, an energetic Spanish from Maureya Lebowitz, Gabriel Anderson and Miles Gilliver, and a superb Waltz of the Flowers with the always exquisite Céline Gittens at its heart. Can we not, though, get rid of the pointy fingers from the Chinese Dance? There really is no justification for it.

Somewhat strangely, César Morales’ Nutcracker abandons Karla Doorbar’s Clara to perform the grand pas with Momoko Hirata’s Sugar Plum Fairy. He has lovely line and glides effortlessly across the floor but his performance didn’t ignite. Hirata is a very precise dancer, her movements sometimes a little too sharp and sudden to create magic, but as a pair she and Morales gave a decent account. Clara is something of an empty vessel as a character – all dumbstruck wonder with no personal development – but she was danced prettily by Doorbar. The other main figure is Drosselmeyer, who essentially holds the ballet’s thin narrative together, but he felt a bit lame with no real purpose other than to go to ludicrous lengths to give his young niece a nice present (which, now I write it, sounds kinda creepy). Still, overall, BRB’s Royal Albert Hall Nutcracker is a perfectly acceptable night out and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Koen Kessels were terrific.

Gerard Davis

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Layla and Majnun – Mark Morris Dance Group, Silkroad Ensemble: Sadler’s Wells, 13 November 2018

Layla, Layla, wherefore art thou Layla?

Orange isn’t the only colour. Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silkroad Ensemble delight in diversity. Photo by Susana Millman

Layla and Majnun is a centuries old Middle-Eastern love story common to cultures across ethnic and religious divides. The two eponymous characters love each other but Layla’s parents disapprove of Majnun and force their daughter to marry someone else. Heartbroken, Majnun devotes himself to poetry and, despite their best attempts, they never meet again.

Mark Morris’ version of the tale is based on the Azerbaijani opera by Uzeyir Hajibeyli and it’s a good ten minutes before you get any dancing – there’s a beautifully sung overture to set the tone first. The set-up is simple. A small platform, covered by a mat, sits centre-stage and the two singers sit cross-legged on it, flanked by a pair of musicians playing a tar (a small guitar-like instrument) and a kamancheh (a teeny-tiny cello). Behind them is a small ensemble playing a mix of western and eastern classical instruments while all around them is a stepped walkway on which the dancers perform. Simple but attractive.

The story is told through the vocals. Rather like the ents in The Lord of the Rings it takes a long time for something to get said but it’s said beautifully – the depth of sounds created by Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova was a masterclass in breath control. The dancers in turn express the characters’ emotional responses through a melding of folk, contemporary and classical. At first it’s a little weird – the dancers seem to be overly reverential of the material – but Morris’ innately musical choreography is so stringently knitted together that everything soon seems perfectly natural. There’s also the neat idea that Layla and Majnun don’t have to be played by the same couple all the way through – they’re depicted by whoever’s wearing the red and the white scarf – and the subtle finale of two lanterns being snuffed out is very touching.

It’s the whole that works; the soft rhythm of the music, the swirl of the ladies dresses and the colourful swab of the backdrop all contribute to the atmosphere of the song and dance. It also benefits from telling the story and ending it there – it doesn’t force a particular take on it, it lets you, the audience draw what you will from it. Ah, it feels good to have a choreographer not lecture you on something unfathomably obtuse.

The dancers were terrific in the end, performing with a rich variety of movement and expression without ever trying to take over the music which was played with a deft appreciation by the Silkroad Ensemble. Layla and Majnun was a thoughtful and intelligent show, a welcome alternative to the wham, bang, thank you ma’am of much modern work.

Gerard Davis

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The Emperor and the Concubine – China National Peking Opera Company: Sadler’s Wells, 20 October 2018

It’s opera Jim, but not as we know it

I can’t quite put my finger on why I love Chinese opera so much. Li Shengsu and Yu Kuizhi in China National Peking Opera Company’s The Emperor and the Concubine

You have to love bright, bright colours to enjoy Chinese opera. The costumes and staging dazzle with the stuff, and that’s not to mention the sparkle of the women’s remarkable headdresses. With the edge-of-range singing and thunder-crashing percussion, the only understated thing about the art-form is the acting. Characters don’t visibly emote much, they rarely touch each other and the formality of interaction is extreme in its politeness. It is however, this very formality that tautens heartstrings as it slowly disintegrates under the story’s circumstances.

The Emperor and the Concubine seems to hold a narrative typical for Chinese opera. An Emperor falls in love with a woman and takes her for his concubine; unfortunately political events soon take over and the concubine has to kill herself in order to save her lover and his empire. Not a happy lot for either of them and one that’s sadly based on historical fact.

Li Shengsu is fabulous as Yang Yuhuan (the concubine). There’s a tremendous scene where she decides to cut off a piece of her hair to show her love for the Emperor; I’m not quite sure of the cultural significance of this action but she demonstrated her absolute terror of doing it through the simple trembling of her fingers. Throughout, her every movement was poised and deftly controlled – the way she slowly lowered herself into a bath, for example, was exquisite, and her unexpected ritual suicide at the start of the second half was startlingly beautiful.

As is often the case, the Emperor himself is something of a ditzy character, impetuous and prone to rash decisions. Yu Kuizhi played him as a fairly happy-go-lucky fellow, with plenty of hahaha-ing, all of which contributed to the humanising of his role which in turned led to a convincing sense of a genuine love for Yang. The other roles are fairly small although Chen Guosen made a great deal of Gao Lishi, the Emperor’s advisor, through whose eyes we see much of the story.

Without any apparent relation to western notions of melody or musical structure, the singing is undeniably an acquired taste. However, technical ability is a universal appreciation and the long-held notes are remarkable, as was Li’s ability to express herself with barely any movement of her mouth. As always, the acrobatics proved a highlight of the show but in the end the happy/sad reunion of Li and the Emperor in heaven was the standout moment; Chinese opera at its most divine.

Gerard Davis

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Polarity & Proximity – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 16 June 2018

Give us a hug

Boxed in. Birmingham Royal Ballet in George Williamson’s Embrace

One of David Bintley’s last major initiatives as Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet is the ambitious long-term project Ballet Now. Twice a year over the next five years, a new work is going to be produced for the main stage, each using a new choreographer, designer and composer.  George Williamson, who’s previously created works for English National Ballet and Lithuanian National Ballet, is the first choreographic recipient of the opportunity, and he’s joined for Embrace by young composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and designer Madeleine Girling.

Sadly, it’s not a great piece. There’s a fragmented narrative that follows a young man (Brandon Lawrence) as he discovers his true sexual identity. It’s a nice idea, especially as the honest experience of gay men is surprisingly rare in dance, but choreographically it suffers from having the kitchen sink thrown at it. It’s not helped in this case by the super-busy score and the lit box of a set that is, ironically, unenlightening.

By far the best moments are clutter-free, the highlights of which are the tender duets between Lawrence and Max Maslen. Their understatement is moving and the emotions touched upon are meaningful; it’s a shame they weren’t developed further. Never mind, the beauty of Ballet Now is that there’ll be a new piece coming along in a few months’ time.

Also on show tonight was Alexander Whitley’s Kin, a piece that’s slow to get going but once it’s in its stride, it’s a joy to watch. The company danced it well; Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley were terrific in the main pas de deux and they were swiftly followed by the hundred mile an hour spins of Tzu-Chao Chou.

Signing off Polarity & Proximity was Twyla Tharp’s calling card, In the Upper Room. It’s a happy, virtuoso piece, packed full of tiny choreographic wonders that can really expose a company’s shortcomings. While BRB weren’t always on the money, the energy and joie de vivre they brought to it was wonderful – Momoko Hirata and Miki Mizutani as the two girls who constantly spin in and off of stage were particularly good to watch – and we all went home with a smile on our face.

Gerard Davis

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