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The Morphoses London Season opens tonight at Sadler’s Wells with a programme dedicated to 100 years of Ballets Russes, an appropriate choice for a company structured in the same way and whose mission to “broaden the scope of classical ballet through the creation of innovative productions and collaboration with the seminal artists of its time” ties in with the feats of Diaghilev‘s own legendary troupe.

Three years and many accolades on, Christopher Wheeldon‘s company continues to match some of ballet’s brightest stars to new work by the best choreographers and designers around.  By nurturing these quasi pro bono collaborations, Morphoses projects the image of a fresh and accessible company whose main objectives are to target the 25-34  year old public not familiar with ballet and to challenge some of the preconceptions associated with the art form.

As part of Wheeldon’s target demographic, we think the existence of a company like Morphoses sends a very positive message, a promise for the future of ballet.  Its mission strongly resonates with us as we also believe ballet can and should be made accessible to younger generations while staying true to its traditions, with no dumbing down of the art form. We only wish their seasons were longer (only 4 days in London) and that we could see more of Wheeldon’s work this side of the Atlantic.

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Wheeldon's Morphoses in Commedia. Photo: Erin Baiano © Source: Danceviewtimes

Morphoses in a Nutshell

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company was founded in 2007 by Christopher Wheeldon, previously NYCB’s resident choreographer, together with Lourdes Lopez, ex-NYCB Principal and Former Executive Director of The George Balanchine Foundation. The troupe attracts dancers from major companies in the world who appear at reduced fees. The repertory is a mix of modern classics and new pieces created by Wheeldon or by guest choreographers, in collaboration with innovative designers and composers, very much in the spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Originally Morphoses would function as a pickup company, hiring dancers on a season basis until Wheeldon had secured enough financial backup (around US$5 million) to have dancers on a fixed payroll, but the credit crunch  has forced the company to carry on with a small administrative staff of three and to remain at its donated Manhattan base for the present. Dancers continue to be recruited on a season-by-season basis while Wheeldon has kept working as a choreographer outside Morphoses, which allows him not only to continue staging big budget works for the major ballet companies, but also to bring in extra funds for his own Morphoses projects. His long term plan is to  be able to support a permanent troupe of 12 dancers alongside the regular guests.

Morphoses’s inaugural performance took place at the 2007 Vail International Dance Festival. After a heavy media build-up, this first appearance received mixed reviews from the American press. Some critics thought the ballets in the programmes looked too similar, with too many abstract ballets (including pieces by Forsythe and Edwaard Liang) and prominently featuring too many pas de deux, but they generally praised Wheeldon for elevating the artistry in his dancers (NYCB‘s Wendy Whelan, often regarded as Wheeldon’s muse, was nominated for an Olivier Award) and for creating a rapport with the audience by coming onstage to introduce each piece with insightful commentary.

That same year Morphoses became a Guest Resident Company at New York City Center and at London’s Sadler’s Wells. Wheeldon was appointed as Associated Artist for Sadler’s Wells and the London season won a South Bank Show Award. Since then, Morphoses has also appeared at the Sydney Festival.

The Many Faces of Morphoses

Guest Dancers

Tyler Angle, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Hélène Bouchet, Ashley Bouder, Darcey Bussell, Batkhurel Bold, Thiago Bordin, Alina Cojocaru, Jonathan Cope, Ángel Corella, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Jason Fowler, Gonzalo García, Marcelo Gomes, Craig Hall, Drew Jacoby, Johan Kobborg, Nehemiah Kish, Carla Körbes, Maria Kowroski, Edwaard Liang, Tiler Peck, Rubinald Pronk, Teresa Reichlen, Danielle Rowe, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Edward Watson, Miranda Weese, Wendy Whelan

Collaborators

Composers James MacMillan, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich and Bright Sheng; Artists/Set Designers James Buckhouse and Jean-Marc Puissant, Adrianne Lobel; Designers Francisco Costa, Narciso RodriguezIsabel & Ruben Toledo; Director Nicholas Hytner

Repertory

The inaugural programme presented in 2007 featured two new Wheeldon pieces – “Fool’s Paradise” and “Prokofiev Pas de Deux” – alongside his exisiting works “Mesmerics”, “After the Rain” and “Morphoses”. It also included William Forsythe’s “Slingerland”, Michael Clark’s “Satie Stud”, Liv Lorent’s “Propeller”, and Edwaard Liang’s “Vicissitude”.

The following year brought a mix of premieres led by Wheeldon’s “Commedia” (to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite), Lightfoot León’s “Shutters Shut” (at City Center) and Emily Molnar’s “Six Fold Illuminate” presented together with classic works by Sir Frederick Ashton – The Dream Pas de Deux (in Vail) and Monotones II – Robbins’s “Other Dances” and Wheeldon pieces “Polyphonia” and Fool’s Paradise”.

This year Morphoses brings a host of new works to both its transatlantic headquarters. It also continues to collaborate with influential fashion designers Francisco Costa (Creative Director of Calvin Klein), Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Commemorating the Ballets Russes’ centenary, the first programme will  include Wheeldon’s “Commedia”, Ratmansky’s “Boléro” (to the eponymous Ravel piece) and a new work by Tim Harbour.  Two days later, a second programme brings “Softly as I Leave You”, originally choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (resident choreographers of Nederlands Dans Theatre) for dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk, in addition to old and new Wheeldon: “Continuum” and  “Rhapsody Fantaisie”  (a world premiere set to Rachmaninoff’s suites for two pianos).

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise:

One of the wonderful things about Mr. Wheeldon’s work is that there are new discoveries to be made each time you watch it. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Morphoses does have a provisional air. For the moment it remains an assembly of dancers, albeit extraordinary ones, from other troupes, and Mr. Wheeldon hasn’t yet had the opportunity to develop a group of performers to his own ends. But he is a choreographer with an instinctive grasp of dancers and their abilities…To see major ballerinas like Ms. Benjamin and Wendy Whelan on the same program is reason enough to watch Morphoses. Roslyn Sulcas at the NYTimes [link]

Trained on Balanchine, most New York ballet critics absorb meaning and sense syntactically, because with Balanchine it’s the action between the notes–the syncopated rhythms–that shape the steps and their portent. With Wheeldon, the ballet’s color and emotion may be rooted in the score, but the organizing principle is visual. Apollinaire Scherr at Foot in Mouth / ArtsJournal [link]

Wheeldon has set his standards about as high as a new company could aim for. We can really look forward to what follows. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

It is an absolute pleasure to watch this group of top-rate dancers running through their paces in this way. With ages from the teens to the over-forties, in all shapes and heights, they are so full of personality and presence that they make this a most uplifting evening. Sarah Crompton at The Telegraph [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company Website [link]
  2. The Newcomer by Joan Acocella. The New Yorker [link]
  3. Metamorphoses by Astrida Woods. Dance Magazine, October 2008.
  4. Ballet without Borders by Peter Aspden. Financial Times, September 2008. [link]
  5. The dancers are Young, Beautiful, Sexy and Smart by Valerie Lawson. The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2008. [link]
  6. How to watch a Wheeldon ballet by Apollinaire Scherr. Foot in Mouth at ArtsJournal, October 2008. [link]
  7. Risky Business by Gia Kourlas. Time Out New York, October 2007 [link]
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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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As the Mariinsky comes to the rescue of ballet-starved Londoners this week, we kick-off our series of features about ballet companies around the world, outlining their history, traditions and differences. Most readers will immediately associate the name Mariinsky to one of the premier ballet companies in the world but equally important are its links to the theatre, the city and the era where it originated, the regal and distinctive tsarist St. Petersburg.

The Theatre

Russia’s first theatrical events took place following a decree in 1742 by Tsarina Elizabeth, a patron of the arts who loved Italian opera and theatre. Initially, performances in St. Petersburg were given in the wooden stage of the Karl Knipper Theatre and in the Hermitage Theatre (for the aristocrats), but in 1783,  a bigger and better theatre, Antonio Rinaldi‘s Imperial Bolshoi (big) Kamenny (stone) Theatre, purpose built for the emerging ballet (see “The Ballet Company” below) and opera companies opened its doors with Il Mondo de la Luna, an opera by Paisiello.

The Bolshoi Kamenny theatre was renovated in 1836 by Alberto Cavos, who also conceived a neo-Byzantine building in Theatre Square (1849) first occupied by an Equestrian circus and later by Opera stagings. This other theatre burnt down in 1859 and re-opened one year later as the Mariinsky, a full-fledged opera house with more than 1500 seats and the biggest stage in the world, named after  its royal patroness Empress Maria Alexandrovna. Ballet productions alternated between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Kammeny (where La Bayadère and The Pharaoh’s Daughter premiered)  until 1886 when the Mariinsky underwent new works, finally acquiring its trademark blue façade and becoming the permanent home for both the opera and ballet companies.

The re-inauguration festivities were dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, and included the premiere of the first all-Mariinsky ballet, Marius Petipa‘s Les Pilules Magiques. In the years that followed, many other masterpieces would originate here: from the Petipa canon (The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker in 1892, Raymonda in 1898 and Swan Lake in 1895), to a number of classic works by Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

During the Soviet years, the Mariinsky Theatre changed its name to Kirov Theatre, to honor General Sergei Kirov, the well-known early communist leader and Lenningrad’s party chief, but the theatre went back to its former Imperial name in 1992.

You can take a virtual tour around the theatre here (Quicktime required).

The Ballet Company

The ballet company timeline goes back to 1738, before the Bolshoi Kammeny and the Mariinsky theatres existed. It was the year Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurated  the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training dancers at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. These dancers, initially children of the Palace’s servants, were the first generation of the Imperial Russian Ballet, the school which eventually became the Imperial Ballet School, and later the Vaganova Academy. The school and the company attracted some of the most influential teachers (Franz Hilverding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giovanni Canziani, Charles Didelot) and famous stars from abroad ( Pierina Legnani – whiz ballerina who first performed 32 fouettées, Carlotta Brianza – the original princess Aurora – and Enrico Cecchetti), performing between 1783-1885 in the Bolshoi Kammeny and from 1860 onwards in the Mariinsky Theatre.

During the 1830’s Maria Taglioni performed with the company and impressed audiences with her virtuosity and artistry, her presence having left a profound impact. Later in 1859, Arthur Saint-Leon was hired as the Imperial Ballet’s maître de ballet. Saint-Leon created various pieces, of which unfortunately only Coppélia and Pas de Six (reconstructed for the Paris Opera Ballet) remain more or less complete, and inscribed the first ballet notation method, documenting the movements of the upper body. He was succeeded by the legendary Marius Petipa who created more than 60 ballets and introduced novel academic views.

Corps de ballet in La Bayadère. Photo: The Mariinsky Theatre © Source: Exploredance.com

The Soviet Era

At the time of the Russian revolution, under the modernist/neoclassical influence of Fokine (resident choreographer since 1910), the Mariinsky repertoire had evolved beyond the 19th century Petipa classics. Many of its stars joined Sergei Diaghilev in his European tours, collaborating with new influential artists and musicians. The 1917 revolution not only stalled this burst of creativity (Fokine and Diaghilev having left for the West), it also brought difficult times for the company, perceived by the government as unwanted symbols of the tsarist regime and depleted of many dancers (who had emigrated).

Thanks to Anatoly Lunacharsky, then minister of culture, the 1920’s saw a gradual acceptance of ballet as an art for the people. Ballet school and company, now re-established as the Leningrad State Choreographic School and the Soviet Ballet respectively, were to observe the principle that dance was a collective expression of the spirit and new ballets based on Russian literature or the struggles of the working class were created. At that time, former dancer turned teacher Agrippina Vaganova “fought tooth and nail” to preserve Marius Petipa’s and the Imperial Ballet’s legacy. During her directorship Vaganova managed to preserve some of the traditions inherited from the former Imperial Ballet while also developing new ideas into a new form of training, the renamed “Vaganova method”, which now has become synonym with the style of the Company.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Soviet Ballet became the Kirov Ballet in 1934. During the Soviet years, many notable dancers emerged, including Lydia Lopokova, Galina Ulanova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Yuri Soloviev, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was also during this time that Petipa’s choreographic texts were replaced with Konstantin Sergeyev‘s new versions: classics such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire underwent cuts, such as those made to mime passages, and in the case of Swan Lake (1950), a happy ending was adopted.

During the 70’s, with defections aplenty (Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov) and the Company’s morale at a low, director Oleg Vinogradov (1977) sought to retain and appease his crop of dancers by expanding the repertoire. Bournonville‘s La Sylphide and Napoli were brought in and staged by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, founder of the Scandinavian Ballet. Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were invited to create new works. The Tudor Foundation allowed Lilac Garden and Leaves Are Fading to be performed, while Jerome Robbins staged In the Night. The current repertoire also includes ballets by George Balanchine (given his direct links to the Mariinsky), Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe and the debated yet acclaimed Sergei Vikharev reconstructions of Petipa’s original masterpieces which now coexist with Sergeyev’s Soviet versions.

The Style

The Mariinsky dancers have always distinguished themselves in their beautiful port de bras and upper body épaulement, both features of the Vaganova training method. The overall feel is of aristocratic elegance (think Petipa’s princesses), with fluid arms and expression (even if acting is not the main priority),  perfect coordination between head, shoulders, neck and torso. Attention to the smallest detail such as positions of the fingers in the hands – that meticulous – give us a sense of movement with musicality. The corps are always praised by their unity and purity of style. Their principal dancers prioritize lyricism and nobility over bravura, qualities that set the Mariinsky apart from its peers.

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Their work day

Under the supervision of newly appointed artistic director Yuri Fateyev, dancers are given three-day schedules listing their activities. They attend class first thing in the morning. There are four classes, two for men and two for women with teachers switching between both. Members of the corps de ballet attend a specific class whilst soloists can attend either and then it’s rehearsals for the rest of the day. The Mariinsky continuously rehearses all the ballets in their repertoire, since the company usually stages two performances of one production in a row and then switch onto another ballet. There may be five different ballets staged in a week, sometimes with half of the company at home and the other half performing on tour (thanks to their roster of over 200 dancers). Corps members often carry on rehearsing until the last minute and end their day around 10 pm (as they appear in all ballets),  while for the soloists it’s a mixture between rehearsal-only and performance-only days.

Videos

Legends

The current generation

* Indicates dancers who are due to perform in 2009 London tour

Sources and Further Information

  1. Mariinsky Theatre Main Webpage [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, September 2008 [link].
  3. Mariinsky Theatre Wikipedia Entry [link]
  4. Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet Wikipedia Entry [link]
  5. Superstars of Dance: The Mariinsky Ballet by Zoe Anderson. The Independent, August 2009 [link]
  6. The Mariinsky Theatre by Nick del Vecchio at Living at the Opera [link]
  7. Interview with Ekaterina Osmolkina by Margaret Willis. Dancing Times Magazine, August 2009.
  8. Kennedy Center information about the Mariinsky Ballet. [link]
  9. Light Steps from Leningrad by Martha Duffy. Time Magazine, May 1982. [link]

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