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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: you want to treat your kids, godchildren, nieces and nephews or even perhaps the kid in you.

Skip if: Bah humbug!

Dream Cast

Sugar Plum Fairy: any ballerina who can do proper gargouillades

Alina Cojocaru as The Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Background

The Nutcracker is a major example of a balletic twist of fate. The very thing critics and audiences objected to at the time of its premiere 117 years ago – its appeal to children – is what turned it into such a bankable classic. From your local end of the year ballet school presentation to the most lavish productions for the big companies and every kind of thing in-between (even Nutcracker on Ice), Christmas season has now become saturated with Nutcrackers everywhere.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the same Imperial Theatre Director who had brought together Tchaikovsky and Petipa for his ambitious project The Sleeping Beauty had imagined a new ballet to be based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette by Alexandre Dumas père. This was a story he knew from his time in Paris as a diplomat and which Dumas himself had adapted from Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) from 1816.

Vsevolozhsky managed to secure Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s collaboration again but Tchaikovsky only agreed to write for The Nutcracker on the basis that he would also be able to work on his opera Iolanta. Because Petipa had fallen ill he ended up working mostly with the choreographer’s assistant Lev Ivanov. Although Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated (but again thought too symphonic for a ballet) the production was criticized, mainly for the lack of logic relationship between its two acts. The Nutcracker received only 14 performances initially. Some critics thought there was not enough complexity in the story and “no subject whatever”. To critics and audiences alike, the Nutcracker was a luxurious piece but one that was “made for children”.

The Nutcracker in the West

Although it was not considered much of a hit in Russia The Nutcracker kept being performed throughout the theatre year (at that time it was not yet heavily associated with the Christmas season). In the West, however, it boomed. First seen in scattered pieces, with the Arabian dance transplanted into the Ballets Russes’s Sleeping Princess and with Anna Pavlova‘s take on The Waltz of the Snowflakes, London audiences soon got the first full version.

Most versions have some links back to the original but by the time they were staged much of the choreography had been lost and/or changed. This meant that Ivanov’s original Waltz of the Snowflakes had to be reconstructed from notations (presumably incomplete) made in St. Petersburg before WWI.  Likewise, Ivanov’s Grand Pas De Deux in which Prince Coqueluche (Koklush) spread out a veil gently gliding the Sugar Plum Fairy as if she were on ice (or icing sugar) has been revised or scrapped in most versions although Balanchine’s Nutcracker still pays homage to it.

Elizabeth Harrod as Clara and Alastair Marriott as Drosselmeyer, in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson/ ROH ©

Perhaps the biggest downside to so many different Nutcracker versions over the years has been the progressive watering down of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original story and its aura of mystery, rooted in the German Romantic movement. Hoffmann’s tales often include fantastic elements coexisting with folklore (another example being Coppélia) which are sometimes ignored in favour of the ballet’s child friendly aspects. However, some versions of the ballet seek to preserve the Romantic layers and its mystery, notably Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) as well as Sir Peter Wright‘s for The Royal Ballet and for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Versions

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright’s versions

Sir Peter’s 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The  Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Jamie Bond as The Prince in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Odd Ones

Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

More recently the ballet has seen a flurry of ironic takes. In Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (1991) the Stahlbaums are a suburban family with a fake Christmas tree, bad hairdos and too much to drink, the second act Arabian divertissement being a trio for oil sheiks. In Matthew Bourne‘s Nutcracker! (1992) Clara lives in an orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Dross and tries to win the heart of the hunky Nutcracker prince.

Story

These myriad versions make it impossible for us to list all the differences and twists in the various Nutcrackers around the world but the storyline is more or less always the same:

Characters

  • Herr Drosselmeyer
  • Clara (or Marie, or Masha)
  • Nutcracker Prince (or Hans Peter)
  • Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Her Prince Cavalier (Prince Koklush)

Act 1

A Christmas party is taking place at the Stahlbaums’, parents to Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer brings his goddaughter Clara a gift of a nutcracker doll.  Children being children, Fritz eventually grabs and breaks the Nutcracker doll much to Clara’s dismay. Drosselmeyer fixes it restoring peace amongst the youngsters. Guests depart and Clara suddently sees herself surrounded by a fantasy world, where the Christmas tree grows giant and dolls and soldiers come to life to battle with the mice who have also grown to Clara’s own size. She sees her Nutcracker doll leading the battle and being attacked by the Mouse King. She throws her slipper at the Mouse, liberating the Nutcracker who turns into a Prince. They embark on a magical journey, their first stop being the Land of Snow where snow flakes waltz around them in patterns, as if blown by the wind.

Act 2

Clara and her Nutcraker Prince arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier. They are invited to watch a series of divertissements representing exotic travels and various different sweets: Chocolate (Spanish dance) Coffee (Arabian dance) Tea (Chinese dance), the Russian Trépak (Cossacks), Mother Ginger & the polichinelles (in certain versions), along with the dance of the little pipes/Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The celebrations close with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dancing a grand pas de deux. The curtain usually falls on Clara waking up back at home wondering whether it was all just a dream.

Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Music

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 not knowing what a big success his work would achieve. He had been burned twice before writing for ballet (with Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty) so he was less than enthusiastic to do so again but Vsevolozhsky convinced him on the basis that he would also be able to write the opera Iolanta which interested him more and which premiered on the same day as the ballet. Paradoxically, his Nutcracker score became, over the years, the more celebrated of the two works.

Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker writing to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that “the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule”. As he embarked on a trip to Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour that same year he heard of the death of his sister Sasha.  Perhaps for this reason a hint of sadness  and nostalgia permeates The Nutcracker‘s haunting score.

He finished composing the ballet on 6 July 1891 having added to it a novelty instrument which he had bought during his tour in Paris, the celesta, which he used to give The Sugar Plum Fairy her characteristic sound of heavenly bells.

An essential Nutcracker Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:

Op.71 – Overture
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 1 The Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 2 March
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 7 The Nutcracker Battles the Army of the Mouse King
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 8 In the Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 9 Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 10 The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12a Character Dances: Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12b Character Dances: Coffee (Arabian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12c Character Dances: Tea (Chinese Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12d Character Dances: Trépak (Russian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12e Character Dances: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12f Character Dances: Polchinelle
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 13 Waltz of the Flowers
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14a Pas de deux: Intrada
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14b Pas de deux: Variation I (Tarantella)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14c Pas de deux: Variation II (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14d Pas de deux: Coda
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Designs: M.I. Botcharov with K. Ivanov wit costumes by I.A. Vsevolozhsky
Original Cast: Antoinetta dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerd as Prince “Koklush” (also known as Prince Coqueluche or Orgeat), Nikolay Legat as The Nutcraker Prince and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
Premiere: 6 December 1892 Mariinsky (also credited as 17 December 1892)

Where to see it in the UK

The Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House from November 26 to January 1st. For booking details visit the ROH website.

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

English National BalletThe Nutcracker, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, is in repertoire at the London Coliseum from December 16 to January 3. For booking details visit the ENO website.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Royal Opera House Nutcracker podcast
  2. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker Programme Notes.
  3. The Nutcracker History by Gerald Charles. Ballet Met Notes for The Nutcracker, November 1998 [link]
  4. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker/Swan Lake/The Sleeping Beauty Highlights. Naxos Recording with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. [link]
  5. The Refined Product of a Great Artist: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by Hugo Shirley. Opera Holland Park. [link]
  6. Nuts, Sluts, Rats and Bats by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, December 2001. [link]
  7. How to Design the Nutcracker by Ismene Brown. The Arts Desk [link]
  8. Breaking Pointe: The Nutcracker is a Gift that Takes More than it Gives by Sarah Kaufman. The Washington Post [link]
  9. Wikipedia entry on The Nutcracker [link]
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Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

As we stare at the Royal Ballet’s new season, what better way to start than with the company’s veteran, Leanne Benjamin, who has danced for 17 years now and is still going strong. One of their most accomplished Principals, Leanne is ready to impress the crowds with her portrayal of the minxy Mary Vetsera in the opening night of Mayerling.

With all the physical wear of tear caused by the profession, few ballerinas can be on the rise well into their forties, but this is exactly the case with Leanne Benjamin. Her technique is still solid and having been blessed with a cooperative physique, she has managed to keep growing thanks to old-fashioned hard work and discipline (she is known for rarely having missed class) and to a well-thought out choice of repertoire.

These attributes and the fact she carries on excelling at full-length roles such as Juliet, Manon and Giselle have won her the admiration, not only of younger colleagues but also of bright modern choreographers such as Kim Brandstrup, Alastair Marriott, Wayne McGregor and last but not least Christopher Wheeldon (Leanne guests in his company Morphoses) for whom she is always on demand.

For all of Leanne’s consistency and longevity as a performer it is surprising that her name is not as recognizable for the occasional ballet goer as that of some younger Principals. Her recent Giselle was full of depth and the MacMillan heroines suit her immensely: few can match the intensity of her Mary Vetsera (Mayerling), the complexity of her Manon, her metamorphosing Juliet. Leanne can leap from mighty Firebird to more contemporary works, where she displays luscious extensions and a pliant body, and yet she remains very much a connoisseur’s ballerina.

leanne

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. Photo: ROH © Source: Danser-en-france

Leanne Benjamin in a Nutshell

Leanne was born in 1964 in Rockhampton, a small city in Queensland, Australia. To keep her busy, her parents signed her up for ballet at age 3, where she trained under the guidance of Valerie Hansen. During her childhood years she never put too much work into becoming a ballerina and it wasn’t until her sister Madonna entered the Royal Ballet School (RBS) that she felt she was up for the challenge. Two years later, aged 16, she followed her sister’s path and joined the class of 1980, at the same time as Royal Ballet’s Répétiteur (and former Principal dancer) Jonathan Cope.

Training with Nancy Kilgore and Julia Farron, Leanne won the Adeline Genée Gold Medal in the same year she joined and the Prix de Lausanne one year later (1981). She caused such an impression dancing Giselle in her graduation workshop that both Ninette de Valois and Peter Wright offered her a contract to join their companies (respectively, The Royal Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – nowadays the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Thinking she would have more opportunity to dance soloist roles at the SWRB, Leanne accepted Peter Wright’s offer. She joined them in 1983 and bolted through the ranks to become a Principal in 1987. A  hard worker who admits she needs the right conditions to perform at her best, Leanne thought at that point she needed a change, with more time to focus on individual performances and  decided to go work for Peter Schaufuss who at the time directed the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).

The Festival Ballet’s focus on high technique was the perfect environment for Leanne to flourish and take on new roles such as Juliet in Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet and in Tetley‘s Sphinx. In 1988 Schaufuss left LFB for Deustche Oper Berlin, taking Leanne with him. But she would not linger in Berlin for too long, accepting in 1992 an invitation from Kenneth MacMillan to join the Royal Ballet as a first soloist.

Leanne’s light jumps and long extensions (even though she is 1.57 m = 5 ft 2), along with solid interpretations of MacMillan’s female leads and other complex roles in general were a perfect match for the Royal Ballet’s theatrical style. She says she is a perfectionist and that she creates these roles by letting herself go with the music and reading the other dancers’s reactions to her own interpretation.

As she matures she has become more motivated by one-act ballets and new roles created on her by some of today’s most renowned choreographers. She  singles out her role in The Firebird as one of her greatest physical challenges but motherhood, she says, has been the biggest challenge of all and she considers herself very lucky to have been able to go back to her career and continue to bloom.

Leanne has been partnered by many great dancers, but her more recent partnership with Edward Watson holds a special place in her heart. Watson has acknowledged Leanne is helping him become a better partner and it is clear they have a great deal of admiration and respect for one another. Their chemistry is evident, especially when they are dancing in MacMillan or modern pieces.

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne has said in various occasions that she would have loved to dance Tatiana in Cranko‘s Onegin and perform more of the Neumeier repertoire or, like many dancers, Mats Ek pieces were it not for the fact that a toe joint problem prevents her from dancing off-pointe (and soft shoes are a given in Mats Ek’s choreography).

As for the future, she has mentioned that she is not interested in choreographing and is more likely to pursue various interests outside dance.

Videos

Browsing through the YouTube maze, we found a number of videos which display Leanne’s wonderful musicality and versatility

Extract of Reviews and Praise

Of her role as the second soloist in Balanchine’s Emeralds

Leanne Benjamin found her own poetry in the dreamy cross-currents of Balanchine’s choreography; the slight hesitancy that dragged at her quick, bright jumps, the way her body yielded to gravity against the vertical lift of her leg both creating a paradoxical illusion of light and float. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link].

Of her Giselle

Benjamin, that gently brilliant dancer, that true mistress of her art, offers us a Giselle of illuminating physical and emotional grace. We see a delightful peasant girl whose madness is delineated with rare sympathy: deliciously clear dancing, an anguished pose, a heart-tearing moment with Albrecht’s sword, tell all about her. An exquisite pas de bourrée and the gentlest shaping of her torso, summon up the wili. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

She has been dancing the role for years but I can’t imagine she’s danced it better. Her peasant girl is bashful but eager, her dancing warm and graceful, impulsive too. The shock of her lover’s betrayal sparks a mad scene that’s effectively theatrical without being overwrought…A dreamy Benjamin, with the quietest pointe shoes and the slowest adage I’ve seen in Giselle, captures the “here-not here” allure that so confounds Watson’s passionately grieving Albrecht. Most important, there’s a real dramatic connection between the two of them that makes their story come alive so vividly, and there’s never a moment when their emotional intentions aren’t absolutely clear. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of her Firebird

Leanne Benjamin was superlative, never allowing the drama of the long, exhausting opening pas de deux to relax for an instant. Now in her mid-40s, Ms. Benjamin is a completely compelling artist dancing with the technique to be expected of someone half her age. Alastair Macaulay at the NYTimes [link]

Of her role in Alastair Marriott‘s recent Sensorium (read our review here)

The pas de deux are more inventive — Leanne Benjamin, such a compelling artist, can make any material she tackles look significant, even when it isn’t very. David Dougill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Manon

Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg are among the finest in these parts: technically in complete command, so that every nuance, peak and twist of emotion is clear and eloquent, without impediment. Together, they take one’s breath away. David Dungill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling

Benjamin is sensational, metamorphosing from innocent child into reckless lover. With her astonishing physical spirit and wild, unfettered emotions, she embodies everything MacMillan’s choreography stands for, a Mary so dangerous that no reason can contain her. It’s all there in Benjamin’s gorgeously fraught dancing. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of Ashton’s Rhapsody

On Monday, Rhapsody was gloriously danced by Leanne Benjamin (unfailing musicality, brilliancy of step, a cascading pas de bourrée like beautifully matched pearls). Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Leanne Benjamin’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • Mayerling (Mary Vetsera) 8/14 Oct 2009
  • Romeo and Juliet (Juliet) 15 Jan/6 Feb 2010
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010

Booking for Mayerling, part of the ROH Autumn Season, already open. Winter Season public booking opens 20 October (Friends of Covent Garden priority booking opens 22 September).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Leanne Benjamin interviewed at the Ballet Association. By David Bain with report written by Graham Watts. Ballet.co magazine, December 2007. [link]
  2. Late Bloom is Simply Child’s Play. Leanne Benjamin feature by Peter Wilson for The Australian, November 2008. [link]
  3. Leanne Benjamin Feature in Dance Europe July 2009.
  4. Leanne Benjamin: Royal Ballet’s fearless young ballerina by Marilyn Hunt. Dance Magazine, April 1995. [link]
  5. Wikipedia Entry for Leanne Benjamin [link]
  6. Leanne Benjamin at the ROH website [link]
  7. Pas de Deux: Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin on The Firebird. By Chris Wiegand. The Guardian, May 2009 [link]

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