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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Romeo and Juliet – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 12 June 2018

Similar but not the same

Romeo, Romeo, now is the splinter of our discontent. You have to hand it to Cesar Morales and Momoko Hirata in BRB’s Romeo and Juliet

This is Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet all right, it just looks different, that’s all. Birmingham Royal Ballet acquired MacMillan’s masterpiece in 1992 but both company and choreographer agreed that new designs would be in order. So out went Nicholas Georgiadis’ creations that are still in use by The Royal Ballet today, and in came new kid on the block Paul Andrews with a lighter approach that has a more intimate feel – Juliet’s bedroom, for example, is not the cavernous black hole of Covent Garden but a more homely, curtain-draped affair. Overall, however, none of it’s a million miles away from Georgiadis.

Regarding the choreography, there are a few odds and sods dotted around that are slightly different as well, but not enough to make any significant impact on what is such a brilliantly told story – it’ll still make you cry. Which is exactly what happened to much of the audience watching César Morales and Momoko Hirata in the title roles.

Morales was an excellent Romeo, both tough and tender, while Hirata physically and emotionally aged from 14 to about 40 in front of our very eyes. They convincingly portrayed a couple in love/lust with each other and Hirata created real tension with her family. Equally, her hopeless, pre-poisoning duet with Feargus Campbell’s beautifully played Paris, was devastating in its despair.

The rest of the Company looked bright with Tzu-Chao Chou standing out as a wonderfully expressive Mercutio. Kit Holder knocked out a good stint as leader of the Mandolin dance but I don’t care how authentic their ticker-tape costumes may be, they looked ridiculous. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia gave a good, dramatic account of Prokofiev’s score, and the show as a whole came together well. A fine night out at the theatre.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet runs at Sadler’s Wells until 13 June 2018. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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The Sleeping Beauty – English National Ballet: London Coliseum, 6 January 2018

Rising to the Occasion

Alina Cojocaru is awesome in ENB’s The Sleeping Beauty. Simple as that. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Alina Cojocaru is back! And how. After a decent warm-up in William Forsythe’s Approximate Sonata 2016 at Sadler’s Wells in April, she took to the Coliseum stage in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty for English National Ballet and she stormed it. From the moment she bounced into view she grabbed the ballet by the throat and declared it her show. The meticulous nonchalance of her Rose Adage took the breath away and her precision of movement was astonishing throughout. Over and above that, she just looked so happy dancing.

Joseph Caley gave excellent support as her Prince, the best I’ve seen him dance yet – he was composed, assured and gave plenty of emotional depth to his first, lonely solo. His partnering has come on leaps and bounds too and the pair of them made a convincing regal couple.

The whole show was good though. The first act fairies knocked their solos off with aplomb; Senri Kou managed to make some sense out of the Songbird variation with her astonishingly nimble fingers, and Rina Kanehara gave the Fairy of the Golden Vine some very welcome oomph. Kanehara shone again in the Bluebird pas de deux, making an excellent foil to Daniel McCormick and his terrific leaps; together they were a lovely pair. Unusually for ENB nowadays, the corps weren’t at their best in the vision scene, but James Streeter did a wonderful job as the crotchety Carabosse to help keep things moving.

MacMillan’s production still looks handsome, although the scrimmed set designs look a little dated now, and Nicholas Georgiadis’ costumes stand out as opulent as ever. The orchestra played at a good tempo and the show sped by, something you can rarely say about The Sleeping Beauty. It was a treat to watch and a privilege to witness Cojocaru in action.

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty runs at the London Coliseum until 16 June 2018. The ENB website can give you more info and provide you with tickets.

Gerard Davis

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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

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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

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