Jane Eyre – Northern Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 15 May 2018

Eyre to the throne

I’ve got a Jane in the neck. Javier Torres & Dreda Blow in Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre. Photo by Dave Morgan

Nineteenth century British literary fiction  has something of a low profile when it comes to ballet. It’s surprising really – perhaps everyone’s too busy doing Shakespeare remakes – but Cathy Marston has proved there’s plenty of potential with her adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet.

The narrative is fairly true to the novel but, in all honesty, the first half fell flat. The choreography looked fussy, with lots of empty-gestured flat palms being thrust about. It was confusing to have someone playing Young Jane (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) who suddenly turned into Woman Jane (Dreda Blow) despite looking the same age. There was also a group of six men roaming about who appeared at vital moments for no obvious reason – symbols of patriarchal oppression maybe, but it wasn’t clear. Things perked up a bit when Javier Torres’ commanding Mr Rochester cropped up but his budding relationship with Ms Eyre lacked tension.

The second half, however, was way better. There seemed to be a lot less faffing about and a real focus on getting some emotion into the choreography. The ball scene worked brilliantly as Mrs Rochester wannabee Blanche Ingram (played beautifully by Abigail Prudames) teased the life out of Jane with her flirting of the man they both wanted. The pas de deux that followed between Jane and Rochester was even better; full of fire, big lifts and more than a touch of the Manons, it brought the whole ballet up another level. Jane’s brief affair with St. John was a tad lame (as it is in the book, to be fair), but the finale with Jane and the blinded Rochester was deeply moving and superbly acted out.

This ballet might well have been called Rochester, though; Torres dominated the show with a performance of strength, charisma and total persuasion. Blow’s Jane danced prettily and was an excellent foil but it never felt like she took control of the situation until the very end, when he needed her help. Likewise, Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha was not the ominous presence she might have been and made far less impact than Rachael Gillespie’s boundless energy as Jane’s pupil Adele Varens.

Patrick Kinmonth’s grey-slashed designs were simple but effective, as were his costumes. Philip Feeney’s score evoked a fine sense of period with some good tunes along the way and the narrative was generally easy to follow. I do hope the watching Prince Edward (patron of the Company) enjoyed himself as much as the rest of us.

Northern Ballet perform Jane Eyre at Sadler’s Wells until 19 May 2018. See the Sadler’s Wells website for tickets.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Cathy Marston, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Voices of America – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 12 April 2018

Forsythe Hindsight

Spring is in the air. ENB in William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1, 2)

The big news in English National Ballet’s new Mixed Bill, Voices of America, was a world premiere from William Forsythe, his first creation in the UK for 20 years. In the event, Playlist (Track 1, 2) was a rather small affair – about 10 minutes long – but it was fun while it lasted.

Forsythe’s days of shaking ballet by its throat until all the gold teeth have fallen out have long gone, but Playlist (Track 1, 2) has a carefree virtuosity that sits easily on the eye. Wearing red t-shirts with their names printed on the back, 12 men dance for the apparent joy of it, both in sync and in exuberant solos. This is nightclub ballet, the smooth dance remixes that make up the soundtrack give the feel of an Alvin Ailey piece, the bounce and skip of the dancers never waver. The ENB men looked great in it, happy as larks, and ten minutes turned out to be exactly the right length.

Approximate Sonata 2016 was also on display, something which Forsythe originally created in 1996 (although this was the reworked version he made for Paris Opera Ballet in, yup, you guessed it, 2016) which shows him at his most typically post-modernist. Backdrops rise and fall, a random ‘Yes’ sign is on stage, the music dribbles along without impetus, dancers huff and puff loudly, and choreographic phrases are started, halted and repeated. The thing is, it’s done with humour and considerable technical pizzazz, and therein lies its appeal. Not all the four couples on show caught the zip and drive of the extensions but Precious Adams really shone, especially in the ripple of her arms and the lime green of her trousers.

Jerome Robbins’ The Cage was another work in the hands of ENB for the first time. It was created in 1951 and visually it shows – the hair, costumes and spider’s web set look lost in a black and white sci-fi B-movie – but much of the choreography is excellent, with a couple of absorbing pas de deux holding everything together. Jurgita Dronina was terrific as the callously deceptive Novice giving the suitably bewildered James Streeter no chance.

The piece that opened the whole occasion was Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, a work that first saw the light of day in ENB’s She Said programme. It felt too long then and it feels too long now. The snaky urgency of the neo-classical movement is fine in itself but, coupled with Mason Bates’ indeterminable music, solos and duets blur indistinguishably, leaving no room for personality or characterisation. It does, however, look beautiful and there were some fine performances throughout. But, as Playlist (Track 1, 2) showed, sometimes shorter is sweeter.

Voices of America runs at Sadler’s Wells until 21 April 2018. For tickets try the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Aszure Barton, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells, William Forsythe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Emily Molnar/Crystal Pite/ Sharon Eyal – Ballet British Columbia: Sadler’s Wells, 6 March 2018

BBC Heaven

They’re a closely-knit lot, Ballet British Columbia. Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo photographed by Wendy D

The first thing to say about Vancouver-based Ballet British Columbia is how fricking good the dancers are. Fantastic technique, genuine artistry and terrific musicality – they simply mean what they do. The women look equally as comfortable when bare-foot as they do on pointe, the men are in incredible shape, and together they’re all frighteningly in synch.

This was the Company’s first visit to London and if they wanted to make a good impression they succeeded. Emily Molnar’s ensemble piece 16 + a room was a fine start; the first section in particular showing the dancers at their best. On a dark, empty stage and dressed in black, their togetherness in negotiating Dirk P Haubrich’s harsh electronic rhythms was exemplary. The softer strains of the middle section, while still impressive, lagged a little and the piece had run out of steam by the end but it was nevertheless something of an eye-opener.

As is so often the case nowadays, it was Crystal Pite who provided the best work of the evening. Solo Echo was created on Nederlands Dans Theater but the Canadians have made it their own. It’s a thing of tremendous beauty; snow falling is hardly original but in an oasis of black, it looked magical. The partnering in the first section was extraordinary – performed at enormous speed, it was slick, inventive and in total harmony with Brahms’ Cello Sonata.

This is where Pite scores over so many of her rivals, and why her work is also in such demand with ballet companies – she’s so musical. But she’s not always musical in the way you expect; in Solo Echo, there’s a short sequence where the dancers stand up one by one in time to a series of plucked bass strings. At first it looks like the last guy has stood up too early, only for him to start a new movement perfectly attuned to the final note. With Pite it’s often like the dancers are fingers playing a harp.

Last up was Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s white unitard-clad Bill. It started well with a couple of excellent male solos to a screwy cha-cha-cha but then drifted off into nowhere along with Ori Lichtik’s club-like ‘soundtrack design’. There was some engaging stuttered movement akin to that in Daft Punk’s Around the World music video but the quasi-spiritual ending was out of step with everything that had bounced along before.

After one more date at Sadler’s Wells, Ballet British Columbia then head off on a three week tour of the UK that takes them to Brighton, Newcastle, Birmingham, Salford and Bradford. It’s definitely worth catching them if you can – they’re superb. You can find tickets and more info on the Dance Consortium website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Ballet British Columbia, Crystal Pite, Emily Molnar, Sadler's Wells, Sharon Eyal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Earth/La Sylphide – English National Ballet: London Coliseum, 9 January 2018


A good grounding. Tamara Rojo in Song of the Earth. Photo courtesy of The Royal Ballet

You can see why Tamara Rojo has added Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to the repertoire of English National Ballet – Mahler’s music looks so good on her body it could make you cry. The years she spent at The Royal Ballet steeping herself in the MacMillan tradition has left a burning intensity that ripples through her every limb; the stretch of her arms, the tilt of her head, even the turn of an elbow, is suffused with a dramatic foreboding of desolation. I know that sounds pretentious but I don’t know how else to put it. She was magnificent.

Understandably, the rest of her company weren’t up to her level in this one (few in the world are) but they made a good fist of it. It’s an unforgiving piece for a small ensemble, with stylised movement and an exposing synchronisation that magnifies the smallest misdemeanour, but, on the whole, the dancers were assured, focussed and produced an intelligent performance. Fernando Carratalá Coloma gave excellent support as The Messenger of Death, Senri Kou stood out for her crisp line and Joseph Caley more than did his bit in a truly memorable duet with Rojo towards the end.

Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker were the thoroughly decent on-stage singers and the English National Ballet Philharmonic played Mahler’s testing score with aplomb. This is the Company’s first season performing Song of the Earth so there’s every chance it’ll get even better over the next few years.

Accompanying this deeply thoughtful piece was the altogether more svelte La Sylphide. Brought over from its Bournonville home in Copenhagen, Frank Andersen’s production is unlikely to win any Olivier Awards for stage design but it’s an entertaining romp nevertheless. The Scottish-based plot is silly (think Giselle with soft wilis, ho-ho) and characters such as Effy and Gurn verge on the irritatingly naff. ENB, however, played it with just about enough ham, epitomised by Jane Haworth’s brilliantly over-the-top wicked witch Madge.

Jurgita Dronina took on the title role and somehow turned her winningly cheeky Sylph into a distinctly moving figure  by the end. The stand-out performance belonged to her human lover James; Isaac Hernández displayed some fabulously quick feet, impressive jumps and lightning fast skips and looked truly at home in both the role and Bournonville’s specialised technique. Elsewhere, Daniel Kraus’ Gurn was suitably daft, Precious Adams was impressive as First Slyph, and the corps (as they so often are nowadays) were terrific.

Song of the Earth/La Sylphide runs at the London Coliseum until 13 January 2018. La Sylphide then carries on from 16-20 January 2018 but partnered instead with Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. Tickets and more info can be found on ENB’s website.

Gerard Davis

Posted in August Bournonville, English National Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Royal Albert Hall, London, 28 December 2017

Hallmost done

Go on, just one more wafer thin Nutcracker. Jonathan Payn and Karla Doorbar in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo by Annabel Moeller

As ever there are plenty of Nutcrackers inhabiting London’s theatres this year and even Birmingham Royal Ballet [BRB] have upped sticks from the Black Country for a week to show what they have to offer. The cavernous Royal Albert Hall was their host which meant bigger audiences but also a whole new approach to how they stage their much-loved production. John MacFarlane’s lovely costumes are still there but apart from a few props, that’s about all that remain of the visuals.

Rather than perform in-the-round as English National Ballet have done at the same venue with Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, BRB have created a sort of semi-stage with the audience covering half of the Promming floor, with more of the audience where the wings would normally be. The amplified orchestra is perched up on a raised platform behind the stage and there is a mirrored wall at the back whose individual panels can be rotated to allow people and props access to the stage. There’s also a wing on either side of the stage which involves quite a jog for the dancers to get into. Got all that?

The first act works quite nicely. Kids run around, old people dance, some weird automatons do funny things with taut limbs, soldiers march and rats wave their claws about to no great effect; you get the gist. The transformation scene doesn’t dazzle the eye – the Christmas tree only grows on vast projections beamed onto the back wall – but you get the idea. The best bit is the snowflakes where it snows, and I mean, it pours, even on parts of the audience. In short, the trickily large space of the Royal Albert Hall is used pretty well.

Sadly, in the second half, it isn’t. Apart from some extraneous projections on the back wall and some distracting (if beautiful) lighting the dancers perform in front of the same mirrors we’ve already grown used to. The sense of being in a marvellous place it’s taken the entire interval for a giant swan to fly to, is absent – all the magic is in the first half.

Also, to be honest, the company were not dancing on top form. The snowflakes were good, the Mirlitons mirled merrily, Céline Gittens was lovely in the Waltz of the Flowers, Max Maslen, Lachlan Monaghan and Gus Payne made a striking trio in the Russian Dance and Karla Doorbar’s Clara hit all the right notes of innocent cutesiness, but apart from that, things felt a little flat. Even César Morales was a little underwhelming as the Prince although Momoko Hirata looked terrific at times as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Despite everything, it’s still an enjoyable show and as the company bed in to the vastness of their temporary home, I’m sure the dancing will project in a more enticing way.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 31 December 2017. Tickets can be found on the RAH website. Whatever you do, don’t use ViaGogo.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Birmingham Royal Ballet, Celine Gittens, David Bintley, Nutcracker, Royal Albert Hall | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Arcadia/ Le Baiser de la Fée/‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 4 November 2017

Miss Kiss

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Le Baiser de la Fée. No fairy-veil wedding. Photo by Bill Cooper

In no physical way does Le Baiser de la Fée resemble a London bus but it is true that you wait years to see one and then two come along at once. Just weeks after Scottish Ballet presented their re-creation of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale at Covent Garden, Birmingham Royal Ballet show off their 2008 one, choreographed by Michael Corder, at Sadler’s Wells.

Having watched both I reluctantly conclude that Stravinsky provided too much music for the story. The result is overlong pas de deux and laborious passages with nothing of narrative relevance happening. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty to admire in Corder’s re-telling; his more classical style choreography suits the Tchaikovsky-esque score better.

The main plus point with tonight’s performance was the quality of the dancing. Céline Gittens was all poise and nasty intentions as the wicked fairy who seduces a groom away from his bride-to-be; I really could watch her all night. Mathias Dingman convinced as the duped Young Man and showed a clean technique in his variations. His Bride, Miki Mizutani, was also lovely to watch, pretty in both footwork and demeanour, and she caught her character’s innocence beautifully.

John F. Macfarlane’s costumes were good and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia played Stravinsky’s subdued score with real elegance but I can’t honestly say that I’d be in any great hurry to see Le Baiser de la Fée again. It feels like something of a shame because there’s probably a great ballet in that story somewhere.

Storytelling also popped up as an issue in Ruth Brill’s look at the ancient Greek myth of Arcadia; it never seemed to quite make up its mind whether it wanted to be narrative or abstract. However, considering that it’s Brill’s first formal Main Stage commission for the Company and that she‘s still plying her trade as a First Artist in Birmingham, it’s not a bad start at all.

She set the tone beautifully; a preening yet mysterious solo for Pan in front of three vulvic forest clearings, each containing an elemental nymph. The nymphs dance with Pan before a goddess of the moon appears who seems to have a liking for the half-man, half-goat creature. The inherent sexuality was underplayed and, to the work’s benefit, a suggestive eroticism took its stead.

Tyrone Singleton was fabulous as Pan; arrogant and self-obsessed, yes, but also vulnerable and desirable. Delia Mathews was technically on the ball as the moon goddess but lacked seductive allure. The mostly superfluous corps were well drilled but what gave Arcadia a welcome, if occasionally combative kick, was the North African, Latino, full-on 70s US cop show jazz of John Harle’s score. It’s a very excitable stretch of music, really well-played by Harle himself and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, that rarely reflects what’s happening on stage but somehow complements it.

The grand finale of this Mixed Bill was David Bintley’s much-vaunted ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café. It’s not a piece I’ve ever fallen in love with and I didn’t tonight either. I don’t get on with Simon Jeffes’ music, Hayden Griffin’s designs look weak to me and the choreography is too twee to bring home its powerful environmental message. That all said, as always, just about everyone else in the theatre loved it, and I have to confess that even I have a soft spot for the cutesy jigs of Homboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Birmingham Royal Ballet, Celine Gittens, David Bintley, Michael Corder, Ruth Brill, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saloon – Cirque Éloize: Peacock Theatre, London, 5 October 2017

Bar tender is not the night

‘Ok, we’ll split the difference.’ Justine Methé Crozat gains the upper hand with Jérémy Saint-Jean Picard in Cirque Eloize’s Saloon. Photo by Jin Mneymneh

There are a couple of major issues with Cirque Éloize’s newest work, Saloon. The first may not be their fault – the music in The Peacock Theatre was cranked up way too loud for such a relatively small space, the sound quality was poor and you could barely make out a word that was being sung by the on-stage band. The second problem was that the narrative of rival cowboys vying for the same woman was so scrappily flung together that it didn’t really make much sense.

Mind you, when you have a group of performers as multi-talented as this lot, these flaws aren’t as problematic as they ought to be because the Company simply dazzle you with their physical abilities instead.

As you might imagine, we’re in the Wild West for this one so cue lots of hat-flipping, twangy American accents and shameless hoe-downing, all against a backdrop of a wonderfully adaptable wooden set. It runs at a hectic pace (too hectic at times) but it’s the individual acts that give the goose its pimples.

Particular highlights were the mind-boggling cyr wheel spinning of Shena Tschofen (the weight placement looked like it should have been all wrong but she simply defied gravity), the incredible hand-to-hand acrobatics of Justine Methé Crozat and Jérémy Saint-Jean Picard (the way Crozat pirouetted on her hand when upside-down above Picard’s head was both stunning and beautiful), and the spectacular teeterboard finale (packed full of somersaults and crafty manoeuvres along the plank). A special mention must also go to Johan Prytz who’s listed in the programme as an acrobat but proved himself an extremely funny mime, although his numerous routines could have done with stronger punchlines.

There were plenty of other ‘ooh’ moments – some blatant crowd-pleasers but other more subtle delights too – and it’s all performed with such charm and energy that Saloon is hard to resist.

Saloon runs at The Peacock Theatre in London until 21 October 2017. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website, as can a video clip of some the show’s astonishing feats.

Gerard Davis

Posted in Cirque Eloize, Peacock Theatre, Sadler's Wells | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment