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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Mixed Bill – Dutch National Ballet Junior Company: 5 July 2019, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

Making Sense

Hmm, bus? Train? DNB’s Junior Company ponder the big questions in Daniela Cardim’s What Got You Here.

As part of the Royal Opera House’s Young Talent Festival in the Linbury Theatre, Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company showed London just how good they are. Aimed at bridging the gap between leaving school and joining a company full-time, they also tour internationally as well as across the Netherlands and nothing seems to hold any fear for them.

Ernst Meisner’s No Time Before Time started things, a perfectly eloquent slice of neo-classical ballet set to Alexander Balanescu’s score of the same name. The stage was probably a little small for such an ensemble piece but the dancers floated through it beautifully with Dingkai Bai standing out for his elevation, quick feet and presence of manner. Charlotte Edmonds’ Fuse popped up next, which saw her in surprisingly balletic mode, with strong extensions, intricate partnering and a real appreciation of the percussive score.

Daniela Cardim took to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for inspiration for her opus. What Got You Here cleverly uses a voiceover (which explains just how unlikely a conglomeration of atoms it took for all of us simply to exist) to power the movement and does so in a way that’s both funny and thought-provoking. It even manages to leave us with a strong message warning of the environmental dangers facing the planet. Excellently put together and a great watch.

Following the first interval was Juanjo Arqués’ frankly frustrating Fingers in the Air. The audience were given finger-lights that allowed us – at selected moments – to choose what would happen next, e.g. a solo or a duet. In terms of getting the audience involved, it was a nice idea but the choreography – a sculpturally emotionless set of big extensions – meant it really made little difference what was voted for.

The final offering was an absolute gem from Hans van Manen. In the Future is a satisfyingly bonkers arrangement of green and red unitarded dancers to the unlikely accompaniment of David Byrne’s slightly oompah music. It shouldn’t have worked in a million years as a combination but the stringent physical adherence to a sense of line and bounce somehow gelled to perfection. That the dancers looked just as good in this as all the other pieces is a testament to their superb abilities.

Gerard Davis

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Hobson’s Choice – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 29 June 2019

A Proper Gentleman

If you had to pick one, it would have to Samara Downs. I mean, she is a Hobson after all. Photo by Bill Cooper

This was the last performance of David Bintley’s 24-year long directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet [BRB] and it was held not in Birmingham but in London’s Sadler’s Wells, the Company’s abode in a previous guise. At the end of the show Bintley appeared on stage to take a standing ovation; flowers were thrown, Peter Wright made a moving speech and Bintley himself said a few words before striding off the stage before the curtain finished coming down.

Leading up to that had been a performance of one of Bintley’s best-loved ballets, Hobson’s Choice, which he created in 1989 for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (the Company that would soon morph into BRB). It’s a light, comedic affair, very much in thrall to Frederick Ashton, pitched somewhere between Enigma Variations and La Fille mal gardée (it even features its own clog dance), but it’s a charming enough piece in its own right. True, the humour is a tad outdated – very much of the whoops-a-daisy, trousers-down variety – but there’s enough invention in the choreography and Hayden Griffin’s spot-on designs to survive that.

The story is wafer-thin; the three daughters of Henry Hobson – a drunken cobbler – are all trying to get themselves married off, and (spoiler alert) they succeed. Its telling is pure music hall – the spirit of an ‘oop north Tommy Steele is heel-clickingly alive in this one – but many of the pas de deux are balletically very beautiful. The characters are archetypes but well-drawn and excellently brought to life by a strong cast; Samara Downs’ tight-hipped Maggie was a stand-out and although Will Mossop is annoying in his perpetual bafflement with life, Lachlan Monaghan gave him a human heart that made you happy for him. A special mention must also go the six-strong Salvation Army band in the second act – a terrific mix of comedy, characterisation and technical expertise, led by the devotedly prim pairing of Momoko Hirata and Tyrone Singleton.

But the night belonged to Bintley and the sign that came down from the flies at the end of the show said it all really. It simply read ‘Thank you David’.

Gerard Davis

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[Un]leashed – Birmingham Royal Ballet: 25 June 2019, Sadler’s Wells

Wolfing it up

Is it a plane? Is it a superman? No, it’s a bird. Tzu-Chao Chou don’t need no wings to fly in BRB’s Peter and the Wolf

[Un]leashed constitutes the first part of David Bintley’s last foray to Sadler’s Wells as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet (his Full-length Hobson’s Choice comes later in the week) and it features a trio of works all by female choreographers. Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces is up first and is a pretty slice of neo-classical choreography that trots along inoffensively to selected piano music by Edward Grieg. The thing that’s odd about it are the large concertina props the dancers pull on from the wings and kind of dance around, sometimes but not always. They just distract really without adding much of interest; furthermore they seem to be crying out for a dash of humour but that never really materialises. The piece is saved by stunning pas de deux from Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence; it’s lyrical, emotional and they dance it with an intimate understanding of each other’s movement. It really is a beauty.

The same pairing were also the best thing about Didy Veldman’s Sense of Time, the latest piece to spring from BRB’s ongoing Ballet Now programme whereby choreographers new to the company are given the opportunity to set work on the dancers of their choice. Gabriel Prokofiev’s music does some interesting jazzy stuff but there’s a bit too much stop/start going on to give things any real impetus, Joana Dias’ wall of suitcases looks great but its purpose is baffling and the choreography is solid enough but gives no sense of what Veldman’s trying to express in the wider picture. I, as you can tell, didn’t get on too well with Sense of Time but my companion for the evening really enjoyed it; such is life.

Ruth Brill’s new take on Peter and the Wolf concluded the night. Set on a non-descript urban playground with basketball hoops, discarded traffic cones and a large amount of scaffolding, my heart sank at first, but actually Brill adapted the story of the wily Peter pretty well; Bird was still a bird, Duck still a duck, but they were all wearing hoodies, headphones, tracksuits and the like, which gave it a believably contemporary feel. The movement is mainly balletic, with some gentle hip-hop thrown in, and the stand-out performances came from Brooke Ray as a somewhat sassy Duck and Tzu-Chao Chou who flew about the stage as Bird with impressive speed and exciting batterie.

 Gerard Davis

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