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The Royal Ballet’s newest Principal dancer, aussie Steven McRae, charmed the hearts of these Bag Ladies since his first appearances in Covent Garden. At just 23, he has climbed through the ranks and made an impact on every single role he has been cast on. From his debut as one of the side soloists in Ashton’s demanding Symphonic Variations, his first big role and his outstanding Spirit of Fire, in Christopher Wheeldon’s re-reading of Homage to the Queen (Fire) to his unforgettably boyish Romeo opposite Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet, this strawberry blonde dancer has more than justified his fast rise.

His undeniable technical abilities to spin multiple, fast and very centered turns, soar high and “freeze frame” in the air, as well as his inherent musicality and charm are guaranteed to dazzle audiences and it seemed clear from the candid (some would say downright bold, see first video link below) way he spoke about his ambitions that he was never going to be a happy camper in the corps de ballet where he first started. As we look forward to Steven’s first season as a Principal dancer, here are some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Steven McRae in a Nutshell

Born in Sydney (Plumpton, in the Western Suburbs). Like many men in the dance world, he started ballet at 7 years old because of his sister. He also did gymnastics, jazz and tap dancing.

He won the gold medal of the Genée Competition in Sydney (performing Danses Concertantes) and scooped the first prize in 2003’s Prix de Lausanne, despite not having started full time ballet much long before the competition.

He joined the Royal Ballet School, where he studied for three years, before finally being offered a contract with the company. His first role was in the triple bill “The Wedding Bouquet/Requiem/Les Noces”.

His first big break was in Symphonic Variations, sharing the stage with Johan Kobborg and Federico Bonelli.

He has had work created on him by Wheeldon, McGregor and Marriott, among others.

Steven works closely with long time principals Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru, having danced important roles in Johan’s productions of La Sylphide (as Gurn) and in Napoli Divertissements and more recently creating a role alongside Sergei Polunin and Cojocaru in Kobborg’s short virtuoso piece Les Lutins. At the time of his debut in Romeo & Juliet the press reported that it was Alina who had asked for him to partner her when Kobborg became injured.

Steven partnered Alina in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes at the ROH’s World Stage gala in Nov 2007, having also travelled to Tokyo with her that autumn to stand in for Kobborg in Ashton‘s The Dream (debuting as Oberon). They are due to reprise their partnership in Japan later this year dancing in The Nutcracker.

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper © Source: Dansomanie

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper - Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Steven is ambitious, competitive and a perfectionist, placing major importance on developing his roles. His most embarrassing moment occurred when his trousers split open during his first Fille Mal Gardée. He is also a grateful student, taking  time to visit his old ballet school whenever he visits Australia (usually once a year) where he teaches and mentors new generations of dancers.

His dream role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon.

Videos

A quick spin through YouTube & a glimpse at McRae’s superb technique and musicality:

  • In the Swan Lake pas de trois, together with Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe [link].
  • Squirrel Nutkin from The Tales of Beatrix Potter [link]
  • A Tap performance for The Prix de Lausanne 2003 [link]

Extracts of Reviews & Praise

Of his debut in Symphonic Variations

What the future holds for Steven McRae I dare not guess, but if he is not spoiled by too much – or too little – attention, he must surely have a splendid career. His dancing was exceptional in grace and security. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Of his debut as Romeo (where he proved he was more than a technical whiz-kid)

Instead, and how sensitive this proved, his Romeo is younger, quieter than most in the early scenes, and then, when the fuse of his passion for Juliet is lit, burning with an inner fire that lights every step. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

McRae’s dancing is already polished by enthusiasm and an impressive classical technique and it holds nothing back. Debra Craine at The Times

Although only 21, McRae is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in the Royal Ballet and he brought an elegance and lightness of touch to sequences that have undone much more experienced performers. Luke Jennings at The Observer [link].

From his first minute on stage, you know his is going to hit the spot…his fizzing solo work cut the fastest, most deliriously buoyant turns I’ve seen in 15 years of balcony scenes. He also offered some uniquely nuanced character observation. Jenny Gilbert at The Independent [link]

If Covent Garden abided by entrenched Russian typecasting rules McRae would never have got beyond jester roles, which is essentially what happened when he played the Spirit of Fire (…). He’s fleet, slight, taut, acrobatically agile, extrovert, red haired and Australian. But McRae had already stretched beyond stereotype via Symphonic Variations and then partnering Tamara Rojo in Wayne McGregor’s monumentally successful Chroma. Yet none of these performances had really prepared audiences for his powerfully assured debut as Romeo. Allen Robertson for Dance Now (vol 16, n.4 Winter 07)

Of his role as the Spirit of Fire, in Wheeldon‘s Homage to the Queen (Fire)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire is filled with furious allegro and nervy shifts of emphasis, driven by Steven McRae’s bursting performance as the Spirit of Fire. Debra Craine at the Times [link]

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire has a demonic flavour, with a superbly athletic, explosive role as the spirit of Fire for the young and hugely talented Steven McRae. David Dougill at the Times [link]

and of his Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy Prince Cavalier

McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Steven McRae’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • New work by Kim Brandstrup 21-26 Sep 2009
  • Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor 5/13/17 Nov 2009
  • Nutcracker (The Prince) 30 Nov/12 Dec

Public Booking opens July 14th. Friends of Covent Garden priority booking period currently open.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Steven McRae interviewed by David Bain. The Ballet Association. From the 2007 reports.  [link]
  2. The 7:30 Report. Ballet’s Star Spectacular Rise by Rebecca Baillie. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. January 2009. [link]
  3. Dance: Steven McRae. An editorial by Clement Crisp. The Financial Times, January 2007. [link]
  4. Rising Star by Emma Love. The Observer, January 2007 [link]

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Since mixed reviews (including our previous opening night write up) have plagued the Royal Ballet’s celebratory “Ballets Russes Triple Bill”, I approached last Friday’s penultimate performance with a mixture of curiosity and excitement. By now, I thought, with most of the “nerves” gone and all the quirks fixed, it is not unreasonable to expect the dancers to be at their best.  I had also brought with me the ultimate tester for impact, a friend who had never been to a ballet performance. I was interested to see how she would gauge these ballets, given the stylistical differences between them.

The Royal Ballet in Les Sylphides. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: The Independent.

 

Les Sylphides started with Chopin’s Prelude in A (op 28) sounding wonderful, even if  a tad too slow in tempo. The curtains opened to show beautiful sylphs in pristine white Romantic tutus, standing in perfect poses. The cast was full of replacements: Johan Kobborg instead of Federico Bonelli as the Poet, Yuhui Choe instead of Alina Cojocaru and Helen Crawford replacing an indisposed Lauren Cuthbertson, as announced just before curtain up, so only one (Laura Morera) out of three sylphs had been originally cast. But all these cast changes did not detract and if Les Sylphides is supposed to evoke mood and display the beauty of dancing, I can happily report it did, thanks to Yuhui Choe and her sheer virtuosity: she was ethereal, vaporous and light. Her bourrées barely skimming the floor and her arms full of delicacy; her balances lasting for all eternity and her jumps with landings so soft that one could think she was floating. Yuhui’s artistry was so distinctive that when Laura Morera came in to dance the waltz, the jumps felt a bit heavy, the arms not delicate enough (although Laura’s innate musicality was evident in the phrasing of the steps. I still think of her as more of an allegro dancer). Helen Crawford was a slightly better fit for the Mazurka, but she still looked more like a maiden dressed as a fairy rather than a real spirit of the woods.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right. Johan Kobborg, Yuhui Choe, Laura Morera and Helen Crawford. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The corps de ballet were in great shape and although one would wish for a bigger display of ethereal qualities, which sometimes depend not that much on the dancing but on the dancer, every gesture and movement was precisely timed and positioned into the succession of dances. As the poet, Johan Kobborg gave a decent performance, his cabriolés a delight (pure Bournonville goodness), but I felt this was not a role he relishes and in all honesty it does not play to his strengths.

One thing that bothered me in Les Sylphides more than the slow tempo (for at times the music did speed up) was the strong lighting which prevented us from  experiencing the eeriness of Benois’ design of ruins in a dark forest. I longed for a darker stage with only the light on the white of the tutus (a suggestion of moonlight) allowing for a glimpse of the ruins and the surrounding trees.

Next in the programme was Alastair Marriott‘s Sensorium, a strikingly contrasting work, even though the inspiration behind it somehow resembles that of Les Sylphides. Marriott wanted to give a choreographic response to Debussy’s preludes in the same way that Les Sylphides is Fokine’s response to Chopin’s orchestral suite. As I wasn’t aware of which particular preludes were going to be used in performance, I decided to just try and make the “sensory associations” that Marriott wants from his audience.

Senso

From left to right. Thomas Whitehead, Leanne Benjamin, Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In a midst of extensions, contortions and twists against a backdrop of salmons, blues and nudes, there were moments in Sensorium in which the choreography suggested images of wind, sea and sand. In particular, there were two pas de deux, the first with Rupert Pennefather and Alexandra Ansanelli (who is retiring at the end of this season) and the second with Thomas Whitehead and Leanne Benjamin. Both were well matched pairs, with Rupert faring quite well in a non-danseur noble role supported by the gorgeousness of Alexandra’s extensions. Leanne and Thomas presented more of a passionate “twisting and turning” pas de deux that was very enjoyable and contained some classical steps amidst the unusual shapes. The last prelude incorporated all the dancers and had the main couples surrounded by blue bodies moving as if they were waves in the sea (in something that resembled yoga’s downward dogs!), the peach background evoking a windy sunset. This was probably my favourite “sensation” from Marriott’s choreography. The downside is that nothing in the ballet is particularly memorable (with the exception of Colin Matthews’ Debussy’s orchestrations) so I see this ballet being probably revived a couple of times before fading away.

The Royal Ballet in The Firebird. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: The Guardian

I did not have high expectations for the last piece with Roberta Marquez cast as “The Firebird” as she does not rate very high on my personal board of favourite dancers. However, not only did she prove worthy of her principal dancer status, she was literally on fire: her jumps were athletic (quite a big jumper she is!), her turns were flashing. Her hands expressive and her gestures spot on at all times. Trapped by Ivan Tsarevich, you could see the Firebird’s surprise and despair on her wings, how she tried to free herself. In fact, Marquez and the ever awesome Gary Avis as the Immortal Kostcheï were the highlights of the performance. First Soloist Valeri Hristov danced the part of Ivan, a bland role that doesn’t require much from the male dancer, so it is hard for me to evaluate him. The corps and members of the Royal Ballet School were good as the various creatures in the final scenes and the designs and costumes are something to be admired on their own. However, it occurred to me that this piece would be better placed with other narrative ballets rather than abstract pieces, given that it’s so rich in mime and huge dramatic ensemble scenes.

Fire

From left to right, Valeri Hristov, Roberta Marquez and Gary Avis. Photo: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

All in all, in this Triple Bill the Royal Ballet came up with a good display of dancing which more than honours the memory of Diaghilev: variety of styles, great dancers and music, which makes it great for newcomers: my friend loved Les Sylphides and was mesmerized by the images it created. She also found Sensorium to be interesting and contrasting. However, she felt let down by the Firebird, in the sense that she was not expecting so much theatricality to be served up last, after the abstractions of the previous pieces. For me, that summed up what a good triple bill should be about, a treat for everyone. For me? This triple bill was certainly not perfect, but it had its moments.

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