Against the Stream – Ivan Putrov Presents: London Coliseum, 7 April 2019

A river-ting watch?

Goodness Gracious, great Flames of Paris. Dmitry Zagrebin sets the stage alight in Ivan Putrov’s Against the Stream. Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Ivan Putrov, mastermind behind shows such as Men in Motion, is back with his new blockbuster, Against the Stream. Celebrating choreographers who’ve defied convention in order to move the art of dance forward (although there’s nothing here that modern audiences would view as uncomfortable), it’s essentially a gala that employs dancers from The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet and more. Let’s do this in order of appearance.

Hannah O’Neill was called in last minute to accompany her fellow Parisian Mathieu Ganio and it showed. They never quite clicked together and the choice of Nureyev’s rotating chair Cinderella was an odd one (especially with Ganio’s constantly scuffing boots). Ah well, they looked beautiful when dancing on their own.

The surprise package of the night lay in the partnership of Royal Swedish Ballet’s Dmitry Zagrebin and English National Ballet’s Katja Khaniukova; they seemed so natural together. The Flames of Paris pas de deux held no fears for them and they closed the show with a bang in the Diana and Acteon Grand Pas.

Ex-American Ballet Theatre principal Joaquin de Luz was utterly charming in Jerome Robbins’ Suite of Dances. It’s a neat piece who’s improvisatory feel succinctly captures the dialogue between music and movement. It’s got everything – you’re as likely to see a forward roll as an arabesque – and de Luz and his co-conspirator, cellist Urška Horvat, made it a great deal of fun to watch.

Jerome Robbins featured again with a mesmeric piece called In G pas that was given a gorgeous treatment by New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle. Their tenderness of partnering was a joy.

A relatively obscure Kenneth MacMillan piece, Images of Love, closed the first half. Performed by the Royal Ballet triumvirate of Matthew Ball, Mayara Magri and Ivan Putrov, it lacked context so while the complex choreography was interesting, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. There were, however, some magnificent leaps from Mr Ball.

Putrov reappeared to open the second half with a wonderful performance of Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the blessed spirits. Always a dancer of great expression, this was no exception.

Maria Kowroski changed partners for her second pas de deux, performing Balanchine’s Jewels with Marcelo Gomes. And a thing of beauty it was.

Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri then went on to perform a lovely Awakening Pas de deux before Gomes donned his black tie to stroll out with Orlando Ballet’s Kate-Lynn Robichaux in Twlya Tharp’s Sinatra Suite.

To be honest, the show as a whole never really caught fire but there were so many things and partnerships of interest going on, that it didn’t really matter. There was some terrific dancing, the live orchestra was excellent, and Putrov’s careful methods of ensuring that every piece was given its historical context (right down to listing the original casts in the programme) meant Against the Stream was as much an enjoyable education as a great show.

Gerard Davis

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She Persisted – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 4 April 2019

You got Nora rite to break my wings

Exercising the grey matter. Crystal Costa in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora for English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

In 2016 Tamara Rojo announced that English National Ballet were going to present a Triple Bill of all female choreographers called She Said. It caused quite a fuss at the time, highlighting the lack of female choreographers in ballet and garnering plenty of column inches in the process. Obviously, times have changed since then and, oh, hang on, no they haven’t; classical female choreographers are still as rare as hen’s teeth. To be fair, it was never going to an overnight fix – good choreographers of either sex rarely pop up overnight – so to continue the fight, Rojo’s not only committed her company to another all-female programme in She Persisted but she’s also given a main-stage choreographic debut to one of her own dancers, Stina Quagebeur.

Nora is the result from Quagebeur. Ambitiously based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the story is stripped down to its bare bones, with only three characters surviving the cut; the titular Nora, her husband Torvald and Krogstad the creditor. What basically happens is that innocent-looking Nora’s been up to some dodgy financial dealings and she’s being blackmailed by Krogstad, something that ends with Nora leaving her rather violent husband to protect his honour. To be honest, I only know this from reading the programme notes – from watching the ballet it merely looks like a letter has caused some upset.

Actually though, dramaturgy aside, this is an entertaining work, mainly due to the fizz of the dancing. Even though she doesn’t plumb any great depths of emotion, Crystal Costa is a suitably torn Nora and her relationship with Jeffrey Cirio’s Torvald is fundamentally believable. Cirio is a whirlwind of threatening arms and bullet-paced spins but the always excellent Junor Souza is underemployed as Krogstad. There’s also a group of people in grey who presumably represent Nora’s emotions but they’re completely unnecessary – Costa expressed them quite capably herself. All told, this was a decent effort by Quagebeur and hopefully she’ll be given more opportunities to hone her craft soon.

The only survivor in tonight’s programme from She Said was Broken Wings, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s expressionistic take on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately, the story is told too episodically to really impress and we never get to see the complexity of Kahlo’s nature beneath the weight of all the unfortunate events that happen to her. Katja Khaniukova was excellent as Kahlo – although the work doesn’t really allow room for her to fully develop her character – but the small male corps, though wonderfully dressed by Dieuweke van Reij, were ragged in their movement and overall it seemed to take a long time to get to the end.

The night finished with Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the great works of dance. It’s 43 years old now but stands the test of time like no other piece and ENB did it proud here. Francesca Velicu poured everything into her frightening closing solo but clearly everyone worked hard on it, with Precious Adams’ fierce rhythmical presence being another stand-out. A brilliant way to finish any show.

She Persisted runs at the Sadler’s Wells until 13 April 2019. Tickets and lots more info can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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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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