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

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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

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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

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Morphed – Tero Saarinen Company: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 10 August 2017

Music Man

Hair-raisingly raising hair. Tero Saarinen Company in Morphed

The most striking thing about the Finnish Tero Saarinen Company’s Morphed was the extraordinarily clamorous music by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Slightly dissonant but heaving with mighty swellings of glorious noise, it was a series of three constantly surprising orchestral scores that weren’t going to let you ignore them. Would Saarinen’s choreography stand up against this tremendous aural assault?

Well, the first twenty minutes or so was quite brilliant. It started with all seven hooded male dancers sharply walking squares and diamonds of differing sizes to the tippling sound of a horn – it was mesmeric tracing the paths of how they kept narrowly missing each other. After a short while the first whack of Salonen’s Foreign Bodies kicked in and the dancers were set loose with big, expansive ensemble movements; suddenly we were in Pina Bausch Rite of Spring territory. The dancing was ferociously mobile but strictly organised and it worked fantastically with the music.

After that, however, Morphed started focusing in on individuals and small groups and somehow it lost momentum. There were still some wonderful moments – the excellent Ima Iduozee juiced out a sinewy solo and can bounce to heights like no man I’ve seen before, and all seven dancers rotating with joined hands was a hugely powerful image – but there was an awful lot of padding to wade through too. Like a surprisingly large amount of contemporary dance, an art-form that invariably claims subversiveness in its DNA, Morphed can’t resist a good cliché. Ferocious staring at the audience? Check. Someone walking very slowly across the back of the stage for no good reason? Check. Bare-chested man? Check, times seven.

Mikki Kunttu’s intriguing set was underused. It consisted of loads of pairs of ropes hanging from the flies across three sides of the stage. At one point they were all given a good shake to a particularly vigorous section of music, unsettling the watching mind and looking great in the process. Apart from that, however, they were generally used for the dancers to walk through and occasionally mould into crazy hairdos.

Even if it does run on way too long at one hour, there are plenty of original and interesting ideas in Morphed, as well as some terrific dancing. In the end, though, the music came out on top – not a big problem, really, as it sounds so darned good you don’t mind sitting through the duller bits at all.

Gerard Davis

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Romeo and Juliet – English National Ballet: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 5 August 2017

We aren’t family

Hey Juliet, why do monks wear brown? It’s just a habit they get into. ENB’s Isaac Hernandez and Erina Takahashi in Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet

Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet is forty years old now, which means it’s lasted more than twice Juliet’s life span. It’s English National Ballet’s very own production, the legendary Russian having created it at the behest of Dame Beryl Grey for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 (although our dear monarch clearly had better things to do than actually watch it – she sent her sister to the premiere instead).

While Ezio Frigerio’s traditional designs are clean and unfussy (with some stunning backcloths), Nureyev’s choreography is as busy as it comes. This Romeo and Juliet must have one of the highest steps per minute count of any ballet in the history of the art-form. At first this works very much to its advantage; the high tempo captures the energy of the enthusiastically warring families and also of the butterflies-stirring moments of first love.

Then comes the crucial ‘balcony pas de deux’ (or here, the ‘short flight of steps pas de deux’) and where you want the young lovers to communicate the depth of their passion through tender, yearning expressions that infect their entire bodies, instead you have faster and faster and relatively superficial balletic gestures. It’s a little disappointing to be honest but the rest of the ballet has so many things to recommend it that it almost seems churlish to point it out.

The guttural squabbling of the Montague and Capulet families are very effectively realised with a series of rude gestures and massive unruly brawls in which the women get as involved as the menfolk. The principal characters are given a great deal of humanity – Tybalt isn’t just a rudderless psychopath, for example, but a chap who’s affectionately close to, and highly protective of, his cousin Juliet. Likewise, Mercutio (who was brilliantly performed by Fernando Bufalá) is funny but bloody annoying and although my sympathies were with James Streeter’s manic Tybalt by the time of their confrontation, the way everyone takes the piss out of him when he’s dying is heartbreaking. Even the nurse has another, rather naughty, life going on.

Crucially, Juliet is given a lot of emotional turmoil to deal with. For her, the decision to run away with Romeo is not as simple as is usually made out in other productions; she agonises over whether suicide would actually be the best option after discovering it was Romeo who killed her beloved cousin. Funnily enough, the character we learn least about is Romeo himself; he just seems to be a romantic dreamer and it’s pretty much left at that.

To that end, Isaac Hernández played him very well. All floppy hair and doe-eyed intensity, Hernández was convincing as the naïve youth, and his classical technique and stamina was superb. Erina Takahashi was outstanding as Juliet. An attractive dancer with quick, neat steps, she caught her character’s progression from young girl to womanhood perfectly and was totally in tune with her confusion regarding family duty and personal desire. It was desperately sad to see her plans of escape unravel in such devastatingly cruel twists of fate.

Despite some unnecessary symbolism crowbarred in (the figure of death hovering behind Juliet while she contemplates suicide, for instance) and an overly-long build up to getting to the tomb (how many dances does Paris have to do before he opens the bloody curtain to find Juliet dead?), this is an intelligent and very enjoyable production. It was also excellently danced by English National Ballet who were wonderfully accompanied by their orchestra.

Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet has finished at London’s Southbank for this season but it re-appears at the Bristol Hippodrome from 21 November 2017. Check the English National Ballet website for dates and tickets.

Gerard Davis

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Hoochie Koochie – Trajal Harrell: Barbican Art Gallery, The Barbican, London, 23 July 2017

London is voguing

Pouching Tiger, Hidden Rag On. A solo from Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. Photo by Getty Images Europe

There’s a ballet by Alexander Ekman called Cacti that basically takes the piss out of critics trying to misguidedly pin meaning onto a choreographers intentions. I felt I was being sucked into the same trap with Trajal Harrell’s performance exhibition Hoochie Koochie at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Like many living choreographers Harrell talks (or writes) a good game. The white walls of the gallery are bedecked with literary paragraphs detailing context and inspiration, and they reference all the right names from the world of postmodern dance. As this is essentially a retrospective, that’s fair enough, you’d expect the equivalent if you went to a Duchamp exhibition.

Harrell’s primary focus is the world of voguing, a dance form that sprang out of the Harlem dance halls in the 1960s, and its relationship with the postmodern ideas of Judson Dance Theater who were simultaneously rejecting the existing practices and theory of Modern Dance. Although there are similarities between the two in the assertion that anyone can be a dancer, there are mostly huge contradictions, especially in the areas of glamour, camp and make-believe transformation. So many contradictions, in fact, that you wonder why Harrell continues to define his work against what Judson Dance Theater is not. It was 50 years ago, man, give it a rest.

The exhibition itself is cleverly laid out by giving each of the 14 works its own separate space. Sometimes just one performance is happening, at others, three or four across the gallery. It’s not a massive room, so everything’s easily accessible (sometimes you even find yourself accidentally walking into a performance) and the sound of a new piece of music is invariably the herald of another work starting elsewhere.

It’s the frenetic bursts of several things happening at once that are the most exciting; such as the rampant voguing of Let’s Get Sick scampering across the whole gallery while a statuesquely Grecian solo to P.J.Harvey hovers in one corner and the erotic tension of the yarn-linked The Untitled Still Life Collection unwinds in another.

Harell’s longer works don’t really survive his relatively limited choreographic expression – generally speaking, the ideas seem to be on the walls rather than in the movement – but the catwalk exuberance of In the Mood for Frankie was entertaining for a while. Hoochie Koochie is definitely something to take your brain along to, although whether that’s enough, I’m not sure.

Hoochie Koochie runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 August 2017. It only opens from Thursdays to Sundays though, so it’s worth checking the opening times on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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Tanguera: Sadler’s Wells, 21 July 2017

Fight night

Suits you Señora. Tanguera, photo by Stefan Malzkorn

Most tango shows designed for the theatre operate on a fairly abstract basis. There’s usually an element of sleazy love but essentially they’re a long line of episodic dance sequences with no connection to each other. When you get a good one, it’s a fantastic experience.

Tanguera has been rolling around the world now for 15 years and takes the unusual step of following a narrative. It tells the story of Giselle, a beautiful young French girl emigrating to Argentina in the early 20th century who, within one minute of setting foot on shore, falls in love with a docker and then inexplicably walks off with a pimp.

It’s quite interesting for half an hour or so, as choreographer Mora Godoy uses the more aggressive aspects of tango to explore male manipulation of women in the dark underworld of prostitution. As the story progresses though, the characters don’t develop – the baddies remain cliché-ridden baddies and the goodies are irreproachable. Giselle at the end of the story is the same naïve angel she was when she arrived, despite the extreme violence and deprivation she’s been subjected to.

This may not have mattered if the dancing had been allowed to breathe. The performers were excellent – quick fast feet and a tremendous glide to their steps – but every time a duet was beginning to flourish it was interrupted by yet another fight scene. There were also about ten too many slow-motion sequences highlighting something important happening. And the ending is botched – I remain unsure whether they died or not.

Still, Valeria Ambrosio’s staging looks good, the costumes are just what you want and the (mostly hidden) band are terrific. There’s also a decent singer playing a character on stage, but she seems a bit random to a non-Spanish speaker like me – maybe she’s relating events? There’s some very good dancing to see, especially in the encores, but the overwhelming feeling at the end was one of frustration about what might have been.

Tanguera runs at Sadler’s Wells until 6 August 2017 and tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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