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A while ago we wrote about the joys of seeing different casts in the same ballet.  While classics such as The Sleeping Beauty do not leave much room for highly individual interpretations of the central roles they still provide an interesting study of technical and artistic abilities of different ballerinas. In that spirit we took advantage of a mammoth run (8 principal casts & countless performances between October & January this season) to watch 5 different Auroras and Prince Florimunds in the Royal Ballet’s exquisite production.

Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora, Elizabeth McGorian as the Queen and Christopher Saunders as King Florestan in The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Rather than bore our readers with details of each of these equally stunning performances (although we did write about “guest of honour” Obraztsova back in Nov) we thought we’d do something different. Last season we drew inspiration from PJ Harvey’s romantic indie rock to write a Giselle & Albrecht roundup; we now look at the dancers’ styles and align them with some of our favorite fashion designers. Thus, in order of performance:

Alina Cojocaru + Johan Kobborg = Vintage Balenciaga

Forget Nicholas Ghesquière’s sacrilegious reinterpretation of this emblematic fashion house. We’re thinking Alina & Johan’s Sleeping Beauty has the same grandeur as Cristóbal Balenciaga’s original designs of the 50’s: superbly cut dance, rich in accents, clear in steps. Alina’s Rose Adagio is a thrilling display of how artistic maturity can make the impossible seem easy. One marvels at how she – whilst balancing on pointe – lowers her arms so slowly to take each suitor’s hand; or at the way she alternates her port de bras while zipping through piqué turns. It all looks as easy and effortless as Balenciaga’s illustrious cape. And this most elegant of Auroras has the lucky draw of Kobborg’s perfectly tailored prince, the most attentive of partners.

Yevgenia Obraztsova + David Makhateli = John Galliano for Dior

Like Dior’s maverick designer Obraztsova and Makhateli showed an incurably Romantic streak in their rendition of Sleeping Beauty. Softly touching the Prince in the Act II vision scene as if to tease him (the only Aurora to do this), Obraztsova creates a dreamy, young love mood. This is a pairing which was never too flashy or too daring, opting instead for polished dancing combined with Romantic touches like Dior’s perfectly cut, well structured taffeta gowns. Further reading here.

Roberta Marquez + Steven McRae = Marc Jacobs

This was a fun performance to watch. Young, bold, colorful just like the US fashion designer who gives traditional fashion cut a modern twist. We particularly loved the way this pair told the story: Marquez’s totally likeable, coquettish & sure-footed Aurora gradually melting the heart of McRae’s spoiled Prince. His passionate temper spoke volumes in the most exciting Act III variation we have seen over the last two seasons of Beauty.

Marianela Nuñez + Thiago Soares = Versace

In the same way Versace is all about female empowerment, plunging necklines, sparkling fabrics and vertiginous cuts, so is Nuñez’s Beauty. She is radiant: her dancing razor-sharp, her Act II variation lush and sinuous. The wedding in Act III is a grandiose event where a fully grown, very womanly Aurora confidently takes centre stage. Soares was her fairytale Prince, handsome in posture and completely spellbound by this princess-goddess.

Tamara Rojo + Rupert Pennefather = Prada

This was a très chic Sleeping Beauty. Rojo & Pennefather’s polished reading for Aurora & Florimund seems cut in the same symmetrical minimalism – not a pleat in excess or out of place – as garments from this very stylish Italian fashion house. Any Auroras out there with a penchant for ultra-extended développés à la seconde (more on the evolution of this ballet step here) should watch Rojo’s demonstration of how “less is more” in classical ballet. Her balances are now the stuff of legends and her pure, classical style, so admired by Mr. Clement Crisp, is well matched by Pennefather’s danseur noble Florimund. His Ashtonian solo during the vision scene is an eloquent counterpoint to Aurora’s own Rose Adagio. While this is not the pair for those who need their romance with extra layers of pink, you could not wish for a more regal and musical Act III wedding pas de deux where Rojo’s trademark travelling fouettées in the coda are the bonus.

Clockwise from left: Vintage Balenciaga, Dior by Galliano, Versace, Prada, Marc Jacobs (img sources: V&A, Style.com, Stylehive, Coutorture)



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A staple in the repertoire of all major ballet companies, Giselle has always been an audience favourite. Romantic ballet fans will have a sentimental connection with this quintessential story dealing with man’s encounter with supernatural characters. They cherish not only its iconic solos, the challenges they pose to the the central ballerina and her partner  but also the dark beauty and awe of its ensemble pieces, one of the ultimate tests for a company’s corps de ballet.

Elena Glurdjidze and Artists of English National Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

Mary Skeaping, a scholar of Romantic ballets, created for the English National Ballet a very particular production of Giselle. It attempts to stray as little as possible from its original conception in 19th century France. Missing pieces of the choreography have been restored, the second act featuring an additional scene where a group of gamekeepers is surrounded by the ghostly Wilis, as well as the complete fugue in which the Wilis circle Giselle and Albrecht, arms raised in threat.

Skeaping’s production also employs mime more frequently (she learned the original mime directly from Tamara Karsavina) and alters certain sequences to emphasise key aspects of the story. Thus, the peasant pas de deux, with one variation for each peasant and Giselle’s solo woven in, becomes a sort of divertissement for the nobility. Since the villagers are gathered to celebrate the vine harvest, the group dances center around the event, with a new pas de deux and additional solos for Giselle and Loys/Albrecht. For those familiar with Giselle, a first glimpse at Skeaping’s version might come as a mild shock; differences between hers and other more conventional productions popping out here and there. Whether these changes actually enhance the storytelling is a question I can only answer after additional viewings.

Any successful production of Giselle will also depend on a strong leading ballerina and, in this respect, Elena Glurdjidze hits the spot. She is a sweet Giselle with a beautiful expressive upper body, a powerful jump and the sound technique to deliver Spessivtseva‘s famous diagonal without a glitch. In the mad scene Glurdjidze’s Giselle is haunting and heart-wrenching, as a Wili she stays rooted in the Romantic style (think rounded arms, ethereal steps, tilted torsos). Arionel Vargas, her Albrecht, is a dancer of elegant lines but ultimately not entirely convincing as the repentant Count, never fully projecting transcendence through Giselle’s love.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

In addition to Glurdjidze, the evening’s highlight was the corps de ballet. English National Ballet boasts a strong and disciplined set of dancers; few times have I seen such stunning Wili scenes, sweeping lines of Wilis in shades of white and green moved across the stage in menacing waves, creating images of dark beauty. They were led by Chantel Roulston, solid in technique but somewhat lacking in the icy, commanding manners of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

The evening’s programme began with Men Y Men, a short “all male” ballet set to Rachmaninoff. Choreographed by ENB’s Artistic Director Wayne Eagling, the piece showcases the male contingent’s technical gifts, giving them extra stage time in an evening dominated by the women. Despite some interesting sections of choreography in canon (i.e. in succession, with the next dancer overlapping the movement of the previous dancer) and flashy solos to dazzle the audience, I thought the piece lacked substance and that the dark tights worn by the dancers against a dark setting led to a strange effect of torsos floating on air. It did not leave a lasting impression, unlike Giselle and its eternal supernatural powers.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

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It’s been over 2 years since Alina Cojocaru danced a MacMillan ballet at Covent Garden. While the public in Washington DC and Havana were able to see her Manon last summer, Londoners who had been dreaming of seeing her in Mayerling at the start of the autumn season had to hold their breaths a little longer and await her return to MacMillan in the role of Juliet, the very same role she had danced in the autumn of 2007.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The wait was most definitely worth it. If before her Juliet was moving, now she is heartwrenching. She has matured the role, refined it, added nuance and experience, less the innocent teenager more the tragic outcast, headstrong-yet-vulnerable girl transformed by love. These qualities are evident, for instance, in the scene where Juliet, already secretly married to Romeo, tries to challenge her parents as they impose the nobleman Paris on her.  As she tries to fight back, throwing her fists at the father, pleading to the mother, the realisation sinks in that she is alone in this, her whole body expressing the humiliation Juliet has suffered.

Whereas 2 years ago she might have played the scene where Juliet hides under the covers with a slight hint of comic relief now it looks like desperation, the will to disintegrate and not have to deal with an impossible situation, grief written in her face.  This time few in the audience were chuckling.

Alina Cojocaru as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The other pivotal moment in Alina’s interpretation comes when she discovers the lifeless Romeo in the Capulet tomb, her desperate howl of pain – albeit silent – is louder than Prokofiev’s sublime score. Her last gesture slowly motioning at the faint light above the tomb suggests the hope at a reunion with Romeo in heaven, almost as if she can already see their souls transcending.

While Johan Kobborg might not be my dream cast Romeo he is unquestionably a perfect partner for Alina’s Juliet. If technically her Juliet was arguably on better form than his Romeo, when they dance their bodies move lyrically as one, in full sync. Together they delivered a balcony scene full of passion and romantic abandonment, as if they had no other care in the world. They are well matched in temper too, Johan’s headlong Romeo seeming like the kind of guy who would really drop everything in his life once he fell head over heels in love. The extent of his impassioned nature is also very convincingly portrayed after Mercutio’s death, guilt reaching boiling point as he rushes towards Tybalt to retaliate.

Johan Kobborg as Romeo and Alina Cojocaru as Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

With a strong supporting cast full of wonderful performances, from Brian Maloney’s limber, handsomely cast Mercutio, Bennet Gartside’s chilling Tybalt (his death scene one of the most poignant I have ever seen) to Laura Morera’s unparalleled Harlot and Sergei Polunin’s stylish lead Mandolin this is really a performance not to be missed. This same cast is performing again next Wednesday and I would urge those still thinking about it to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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The battle to become a professional ballerina is tough enough for a middle-class European girl. For [Isabella] Coracy, it often feels like an insurmountable challenge. “These are not one-night wonders,” Finzi says. “This is not The X Factor.”  Dom Philips and Sarah Maslin Nir reporting on “Only When I Dance” for The Times

While we wait for biopic Mao’s Last Dancer to hit UK screens and for Carlos Acosta’s own No Way Home to be filmed, documentary Only When I Dance (Vida Ballet), screened at the Barbican’s Brazilian Film Festival last October, provides a  present-day look at the challenges faced by impoverished aspiring young dancers, this time in the context of escaping the harsh environment of the Brazilian favelas.

Having missed it on the big screen due to the Mayerling madness which hit The Ballet Bag for several weeks in the autumn I was glad for the opportunity to catch this gripping, poignant tale on UK TV (Channel 4) during the Christmas holidays. Only When I Dance follows two Brazilian ballet students, Irlan dos Santos Silva and Isabella Coracy. Both hail from favelas in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, definitely not your usual ballet dancer breeding ground. Thanks to scholarships and the foresight of headteacher Mariza Estrella (who won the “OUTSTANDING TEACHER AWARD” at Youth America Grand Prix in 2008) they are students in the same school where Royal Ballet Principal dancer Thiago Soares trained.

For the perfectly proportioned Irlan, one of the school’s most remarkable students, dreams of a professional career in ballet do not seem unattainable: as long as he passes school exams and continues to work hard, the chips might fall in the right places, especially if he manages to win a Prix de Lausanne scholarship. Of course nothing ever comes easy in the world of ballet but Irlan’s road seems much less bumpy than hard-working Isabella’s. Black, curvy and extremely graceful yet-no-virtuoso, her odds of securing a contract with a major ballet company are less favourable and she is well aware of this. While Irlan appears more confident about future options, she timidly says to the camera that her dream is “to perhaps dance in a classical ballet company”.

Director Beadie Finzi’s initial idea was to follow Irlan’s story exclusively but she was persuaded by Ms. Estrella that Isabella’s tale would make for an interesting contrast. This clever headteacher probably saw a chance to raise awareness to Isabella’s plight, a cause which seems very dear to her heart. During discussions and counselling with the Coracy family we see a realistic and yet encouraging Ms. Estrella as she hopes to see Isabella fight back and overcome professional obstacles. We also see Isabella’s supportive family struggle to arrange funds so that she can travel to YAGP where she hopes to win an award. From tears and the threat of injury to hope and back to tears, her story is what really makes the movie such an honest, riveting tale of holding on to your dreams. As her father Toti says “victory comes easy for those born rich, but the rest of us have to fight”.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It is heartwarming to see Irlan achieve his dream of trading the dangerous grounds of the favela for a “better and calmer place” but a pity that the movie focuses so much of its final moments on his success (he is hired by ABT2) while neglecting to dwell on what might become of Isabella. Thanks to this article from The Times we discover she has secured a contract with a well known local ballet company and that she too is about to make her dreams come true.

Only When I Dance elsewhere on the web:

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As we prepare to send off 2009 and embrace a new decade, we look back into what was hot, fun & fab around the ballet blogosphere to pick our favorite things this year. Feel free to share yours too.

Favorite Blog Posts

Haglund Heel’s “ABT needs a Mayerling” campaign

The coolest ballet campaign of the year. We keep on crossing our fingers & sending positive vibes for Mayerling to be part of ABT’s repertory someday. We’d definitely cross the Atlantic to see Marcelo Gomes as Crown Prince Rudolf.

You Dance Funny on the mess with “Swan Lake’s third act Pas de Deux”

We love uncovering mysteries à la Sherlock Holmes / Dr. Gregory House.  Divalicious prima ballerina decides she doesn’t like the score for her Swan Lake 3rd Act solo and asks Ludwig Minkus to write another one. This in turn bothers the original composer, a certain Mr. Tchaikovsky, who then writes a second version which never makes it to the final cut after all. Complicated? This could very well yield material for a soap opera.

Bloggerina meets Mr. Clement Crisp

Once upon a time our favorite ballet critic, Mr. Clement Crisp, went on a trip to Canada to see a triple bill composed entirely of new ballets, something sadly unthinkable in our neck of the woods. He met the Toronto ballet audience & spoke about what can be done to ensure the future of ballet. We were left very jealous…

Bella Figura’s Make your own Ballet Xmas in Paris

While Eurostar #FAIL would have surely prevented us from celebrating a balletic Xmas in Paris this year, this post provided us a much needed insight into the pick and mix of POB‘s casting. We are very curious about the darkest of all Nutcrackers and we might be more than tempted next December when the Mariinsky will also be in town. The post also offers a witty description of a certain Bolshoi star who has a habit of hanging on to theatre curtains.

Demicontretemps’s “If Ballet Stars were comic book heroes”

We love graphic novels, comic books and movie adaptations of both. We also often imagine deathmatches between our favorite ballet stars… if only we could pitch this idea to MTV. In this very funny post Eric Taub imagines Ballet dancers as drawn by famous comic book artists.

Veronika Part on Wolcott and Swan Lake Samba Girl

She is one of the most glamorous things to have happened to ballet. Just as gossip started to circulate that she would leave ABT she turned the tables on the rumour mill and bagged a promotion for Principal and a spot on David Letterman. May she long continue to fascinate us.

Favorite Tweets/Social Media Stuff

Sanjoy Roy on How dance companies must embrace the internet. The Guardian dance writer Sanjoy Roy picks up on the Ketinoa debate.

Hedi Slimane’s short film featuring Royal Danish Ballet’s Oscar Nielssen rocking and phrasing beaten steps to the music of Supershine drummer Matthias Sarsgaard. We said it before and will say it again: Ballet Rocks! (as tweeted by @hedislimanetwit)

Crankocast – Who would you be cast as in a Cranko ballet? Over here we got the two Taming of the Shrew sisters, one for each Bag Lady. Spooky! How did they know? (as tweeted by Stuttgart Ballet Principal dancer @EvanMcKie)

Charlotte MacMillan’s Mayerling photos at The Arts Desk – breathtakingly sinister studio shots of one of our favorite dark ballets with one of our favorite casts (as tweeted by @Macmillanballet)

Mariinsky in Japan Little Humpbacked Horse photos – mouthwatering candy store-like pictures of the Ratmansky ballet we are dying to see (as tweeted by the lovely @naomip86 – our Japanese ballet guru)

Favorite Ballet Bag Stuff

Interviews – Three fabulous leading dancers with each of the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and ABT. Three very distinct personalities which resulted in very different interviews. We hope you enjoyed them as much as we did. We are crossing our fingers for more.

Bridge Over Troubled Water & other Social media posts – We are big believers in the power of social media. All of these posts were great fun to write & some even managed to stir some controversy (see Sanjoy Roy article above).

Supermassive Black Hole – Our resident physicist analysed BRB’s new ballet based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Perfect for the job.

Grace – This was a tough cookie. Someone asked in our Facebook group if we could write something about the ballerina’s grace. It was hard to put a subjective concept into words but we really liked the final product, not least because it gave us a chance to quote from Pride and Prejudice.

Last but not least

Our favorite Dances of the Decade

Our favorite Dance articles of 2009 (Conventional Media)

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The Royal Ballet in Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

In their final programme of the year The Royal Ballet celebrates Sir Frederick Ashton, the founder choreographer who gave this company a wonderful classical repertory and British ballet a defining style. Initially I thought of this double bill as a case of odd pairing since, on one corner, appealing to the Ashton addicts and older crowds, there’s the very chic Les Patineurs, and on the other, practically screaming “kids only”, the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Why match them?

Mr. Clement Crisp, the eminent Financial Times dance critic, has a strong opinion on Potter: “My reaction is to remind myself that the right place for a piglet is a roasting-dish, that squirrels are vermin and that mouse-traps are cheap”. But we must try to practice what we preach and approach ballets with an open mind. Having seen neither piece before, off I  went looking forward to a feast of Ashtonian body bends and patterns.

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Featuring a créme de la créme opening night cast I thought Les Patineurs was a ballet of sheer beauty. Ashton conjures a vintage ice rink and through the way the dancers move and the various divertissements we get glimpses of couples, groups and individuals, all having a jolly good time skating. To replicate the feel of dancing on ice the chassé is heavily used, as are fouettés and various forms of spinning and walking on pointe. Soloists emerge from the group dances, developing their own signature moves on ice, with blue girl Laura Morera giving a masterclass on the suppleness of the Ashtonian back and fellow blue skater Yuhui Choe combining quick footsteps with the most graceful upper body and showing off some amazing fouettés en tournant.

The central white couple was handsomely danced by Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. This pas de deux is such an elegant portrait of a couple in love, beautiful dance emanating from the simplest of stories, so truly and deeply Ashton. But the evening’s scene stealer is Steven McRae as the Blue Boy, a role that seemed created on him as it demands a combination of panache and precision, both of which he is able to deliver by the bucketload. Delighted, poised and completely in character as the ice-rink show-off he dazzled the house in series of sparkling beaten brisés and a jaw-dropping combination of turns on fourth gear.

Sarah Lamb in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Next item on the bill, the parade of cute furry animals in Tales of Beatrix Potter, with their nostalgic, just-fresh-off-the-books manner, might have won over quite a few cynics in the audience. As a dance piece it might not be very complex, but consider this: every character onstage is dressed in a bulky costume weighing between 4 and 5 kilos, with the animals heads an extra 2 kilos (our thanks to Bennet Gartside – aka Bennet76 – for this interesting bit of Potter trivia). The fact that they can dance any steps at all baffles us, with the quick and imaginative footwork for Squirrel Nutkin (Paul Kay) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Kenta Kura), the underlying elegance of the pas de deux between Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) and Pig-Wig (Laura Morera), the quirky pantomime between Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Jonathan Howells) and the Fox (Gary Avis) seeming like a miracle.

There were, of course, plenty of kids amongst us but I could just as well see several adults gasping and smiling while Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb smashed the plates from the doll house. And so, by unleashing our inner kid and opening a window to a simpler past where the biggest problem was finishing homework before a good bedtime story, Potter weaves its Christmas magic. It worked on us.

Kenta Kura as Mr. Jeremy Fisher in Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter will be at the Royal Opera House until December 31. For booking details visit the ROH website.

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19th century ballet had no qualms about favoring the ballerina over the danseur. The bulk of the classical repertoire seemed intent on relegating male dancers into partnering or brief virtuoso solos tailor-made for a particular dancer (think Cecchetti‘s Bluebird). But the 20th century saw balance  restablished with a generation of danseurs like Nureyev and Baryshnikov following in Nijinsky’s example and reclaiming back the spotlight. Royal Ballet Guest Principal Carlos Acosta, one of the most popular classical dancers around today, has carried the male dancer manifesto into the next century. His blend of jaw-dropping technique, sparkling bravura, with added Latin charm seems to captivate audiences beyond the ballet regulars, drawing crowds into sold out performances.

Carlos Acosta and Begoña Cao. Photo: Johan Persson / Sadler's Wells ©

In his latest show Acosta sets to explore the role of the male muse in ballet, focusing on such strong danseur roles as evening opener Afternoon of a Faun. Clear of nods to Nijinsky’s original scandalous, sexually powered version, choreographer Jerome Robbins’s version uses Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to frame an encounter between two dancers in a ballet studio. They observe themselves and each other in the mirror as they go about their daily exercises. Although this mirror effect will be lost to anyone not sitting at stage level, this is a great opportunity to see a subtler side to Acosta, without the outrageous leaps and turns that so define him. Instead we get charm, exhuberance, a true sense of intimacy (which is sometimes lost in larger stages) and chemistry with his partner Begoña Cao (ENB).

Young Apollo, created by Adam Hougland for the Manchester International Festival precedes and opposes Balanchine‘s Apollo. It showcases young, up-and-coming Junor de Oliveira Souza (ENB), a talented Brazilian with legs that stretch on forever. Junor alternates bursts of solo dancing to match Britten‘s soaring music with an athletic pas de deux with Erina Takahashi. Their ever changing bodies and the piece’s contemporary vocabulary at points reminded me of McGregor sans tech paraphernalia.

A Suite of Dances, originally created by Jerome Robbins for male superstar Baryshnikov, sets itself the almost impossible task of matching ballet to music by Bach. In one corner renowned cellist Natalie Clein plays selected movements from Bach’s cello suites. In another, a blasé Acosta, dressed in a strange combo of red tee and bright orange trousers, responds to the music, feigning improvisation. As he tries, in vain, to impress the cellist with his moves he dishes out dazzling grand pirouettes and tricky beaten steps (let us not forget who this piece was originally created for). In a final desperate attempt he cartwheels towards Natalie who remains resolutely indifferent, unlike the audience who reacts with thunderous applause.

Carlos Acosta. Photo: Johan Persson / Sadler's Wells ©

Evening closer Apollo sees Acosta alongside the similarly proportioned ENB trio of Daria Klimentová, Begoña Cao and Erina Takahashi, respectively, muses Terpsichore, Polyhymnia and Calliope. Acosta might look more Herculian than Apollonian but his moves are godlike and virile, with elegant lines that stretch and linger on Stravinsky‘s score. If the purpose of the evening was to explore the male muse, no other work would have been more fitting. Acosta owns it, he knows it and so does his adoring audience.


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Christmas season is definitely upon London, with decorative lights on the streets, people rushing to buy presents, chilly mornings and, ballet-wise, the possibility of finishing off the day with The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker now in its 25th season.

Sir Peter Wright’s staging sticks to the original Hoffmann story where Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter has been cursed and turned into a Nutcracker doll by the revengeful Mouse King. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the royal rodent while also capturing a young girl’s heart. Drosselmeyer sees in the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara the potential to be just that girl. Given the heartwarming plot this Nutcracker could easily slip up into kid-friendly Disney territory but, thanks to the dark German Romantic undertones, it also scores with grown ups.

Clara and Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act I takes place at the Stahlbaum home where guests and family are gathered for a Christmas party. Drosselmeyer (a spot-on Will Tuckett) arrives with his deep turquoise cape, gadgets and plenty of magic tricks including giant dancing dolls and the gift of a Nutcracker doll for Clara. Blink and you will miss lovely details such as Gary Avis‘s very funny rheumatic Captain trying to prove “he’s still got it” in the elders dance and the Marzipan cake which will become the sugar-coated stage for the Act II divertissements. The only letdown here is Drosselmeyer’s mending of the Nutcracker doll after it is broken by Clara’s brother as he seems to repair it manually instead of magically as one would expect.

In her debut as Clara, Leanne Cope captures all the freshness of a teenager and her wonder at the supernatural events which unfold before her eyes. Her dancing too was charming despite a couple of early mishaps, presumably due to a slippery floor at the Stahlbaum home. Paul Kay showed beautiful lines and crisp dancing as Hans-Peter, with plenty of energy in the battle with the Mouse King.

In Act II the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow give way to the Land of Sweets (Comfiturembourg). Here the often disconnected sequence of divertissements is cleverly linked to the story with the full participation of Clara and Hans-Peter and a mime scene where they explain their battle with the Mouse King to their hosts Prince Coqueluche and The Sugar Plum Fairy (Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez).

Steven McRae as The Prince in The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Steven has been filled with praise on opening night and deservedly so. Not only does he ace his variation, he also shows regal poise and gentlemanlike manners, taking a step back to let his ballerina shine. Roberta Marquez only keeps getting better (the McRae effect?). Her Sugar Plum Fairy is lovely and even if the tricky gargouillades do not yet fully come through she compensates with phrasing, accentuating gestures such as her delight at meeting her partner, full of rapport with McRae in the pas de deux. Here, both Roberta and Steven give us more than is arguably needed from a short role that calls for no more than solid technique and a beautiful display of line, where all the emotional punch is already contained in Tchaikovsky’s score. Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe was the most beautiful Rose Fairy and her escorts, led by Brian Maloney and Johannes Stepanek were flawless, the Russian dance with Ludovic Ondiviela and Kevin Emerton another highlight.

The closing sequence has Clara back in the real world wondering whether it was all just a dream. Soon a chance meeting with Hans-Peter on the street where she lives suggests quite the contrary. And while the final reunion between Drosselmeyer and Hans-Peter might bring a tear to one’s eye, once the curtain is down over wintry Nuremberg the audience is all smiles. Let Herr Drosselmeyer keep fulfilling his purpose for many years to come.

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King Rat in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

With its year in, year out clockwork precision, The Nutcracker is a balletic dish to be sampled sparingly. Too many Spanish chocolates, Sugar Plums and Candy Canes and up go your cholesterol levels. Too few and you might be the only one missing out on the best of the season’s treats. For that reason you’d better choose productions wisely. Preferably – and your arteries will thank you for this – you’d try something that delivers the goods while leaving aside the “OTT” sickly sweeties, such as Sir Peter Wright’s staging for The Birmingham Royal Ballet.

If we’ve all seen The Nut so many times why do we keep returning in the first place? Throughout the years the ballet has left its personal imprint on us, just like an old friend. We might think of the days when we would put on our prettiest dresses, like so many little girls still do, and look up to brave Clara. Her courage to turn her nightmare into dreams, defeating the mouse king (or, in this version, King Rat) to save her Nutcracker prince with bonus reward of a journey to a magical sugary land has given us much to consider about girl power.

Jenna Roberts as The Snow Fairy in The Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB ©

With a firm focus on our Clara and her coming-of-age tale, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s  production had the children around us enthralled, gasping, applauding and rooting for our heroine and her Nutcracker prince. In this staging Clara is a ballet student and her mother an elegant former ballerina whose exquisite red dress is a dead giveaway for designer John Macfarlane’s source of inspiration: très chic Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Before her godfather Drosselmeyer shows up with the Nutcracker, Clara’s first Christmas gift is a ballerina doll which will later become the Sugar Plum Fairy and dance the Grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. In this way the Sugar Plum is a sort of dreamlike projection of what the grown-up Clara might one day become.

On Saturday matinée the role of Clara was danced by soloist Momoko Hirata, with young whiz kid Joseph Caley as her Nutcracker Prince. Both Momoko and Joseph have the advantage of looking very young which, on top of their dramatic skills, help make their characterisations all the more convincing. Momoko’s soft arms and graceful steps shape a young girl with her ballerina  dreams who blushes when close to her young suitor.  From his first dance with Clara Joseph displays his clean technique and princely lines foreshadowing his later appearance as Cavalier to the Sugar Plum Fairy – the very charming Ambra Vallo. He is a most attentive partner with a smile that could melt many a young maiden’s heart. Mothers beware.

Anniek Soobroy with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Elsewhere in the ballet both of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous waltzes, for Snowflakes and Flowers, showcase the company’s great energy and style, making this Nutcracker come alive in a way that the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese divertissements cannot quite match up to. Besides the lovely duo of Caley and Vallo, these are my own favorite moments, but I suspect that for kids the deal clincher might be entirely different: between the giant Christmas tree, the mice that scurry from a glowing fireplace to thunderous applause and Clara’s flight on the back of a snow goose, the youngsters are spoiled with three Christmas miracles wrapped in one beautiful Victorian package.

The Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 27 to December 13. For booking details visit The Birmingham Hippodrome’s website.

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For a while we have been meaning to write something here about “ballet myth busters”, to address certain preconceptions about this art form often seen as inaccessible, stuffy and niche. David Bintley’s Cyrano might be just what we needed to illustrate how ballet can be demystified. Created two years ago for Birmingham Royal Ballet, it shows that story-based ballets can be fresh, funny and accessible and that classical dancing need not always be centered around tutu-clad ballerinas.

Taking Edmond Rostand’s well-known play and staying close to its text, Bintley’s ballet narrows down the gap between theatre and dance. For starters the costumes are not what you would expect: plenty of ruffles, French breeches and big boots for the men and Romantic, Toile-de-Jouy-chic, for the heroine Roxane. Unlike the formality of classics Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, there’s something unceremonious and inviting about the way the audience can see various characters strolling onstage and preparing to watch the “performance within the performance” as they take their seats, it’s almost like a levelling of the playing field.

Cyrano (Roxane and Cyrano)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Robert Parker as Cyrano Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Robert Parker’s Cyrano is sympathetically played, with equal measures of tragedy and comedy. As in the play, the sad story of continued stoicism in the face of unrequited love is counterbalanced with plenty of humour. In a scene at Ragueneau’s Bakery, the bakers spoof the Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio with baguettes and tartelettes in lieu of Aurora’s roses. In another moment our antihero Cyrano uses hilarious diversion tactics to cover up the secret wedding between Roxane and Christian, keeping rival De Guiche away.

Cyrano pretends to be a stranger with fantastic tales about the moon. I read afterwards that this episode of Rostand’s play is inspired by the real Cyrano de Bergerac who had written a work entitled The Other World: Society and Government of the Moon, considered one of the earliest science fiction compositions. This peculiar scene could easily fall into camp but Bintley manages to make Cyrano’s dancing while wearing a glass light globe over his head both wacky and dignified.

Bintley can get Romantic too. He fully conveys Cyrano’s gift for poetry and love letters through dance and sometimes mime, both beautifully realised by Robert Parker. The various pas de deux between Roxane (Elisha Wilis) and Christian (Iain Mackay, ex-BRB now guesting from Corella Ballet) are full of “head over heels in love” intricate lifts to represent the young lovers’ passion, with full credit here to Mackay’s excellent partnering skills.

Cyrano (Roxane and Christian)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Iain Mackay as Christian in BRB's Cyrano. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

In addition to the central characters there are great roles for BRB’s male soloists such as Ragueneau the baker (Christopher Larsen) and Cyrano’s cadet friend Le Bret, danced by the marvellous Chi Cao. Marion Tait‘s character part as Roxane’s jovial duenna is also a class act. If I had one wish, it would be for stronger female choreography as Roxane’s solos are very marked by attitude turns. But just as I start to notice this, Bintley puts Roxane into bravura mode. She bursts into battle camp cross dressed as a “soldier” in the final act and dances a sequence of typical male steps including some lovely pirouettes à la seconde. I should have seen it coming. Cyrano is most definitely a myth busting ballet.

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