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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Dowell’

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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Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

From the moment Marie Taglioni put on her ballet shoes and stood on pointe the cult of the ballerina took flight. The ballerina, the female expert in the art of ballet who lives and suffers for her art, is forever associated with intrinsic qualities of lightness and grace. But just like Mr. Darcy’s remarks on truly accomplished women (“no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with… she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved”), should we not also comprehend a great deal in our idea of a graceful dancer?

A while ago we were asked by one of our Facebook group members to write a comment on what makes a dancer graceful. This post attempts to approach this delicate topic (since not every ballerina is a synonym for gracefulness) from an audience perspective. Technique, which forms the basis, the backbone of a dancer’s art, is an objective measure. But grace, like artistry, is subjective and largely depends on the eye of the beholder. For evidence of that one only needs to take a tour of ballet on YouTube.

Pick a male or female dancer you like, watch a selection of videos featuring that dancer and try to form your own views. Then read the various comments in reaction to his or her performance: for every person who finds your chosen dancer graceful there will always be a dissenting voice. The FT critic Peter Aspden made interesting remarks on this when he wrote a very interesting article about the Mariinsky’s Alina Somova, a controversial dancer who continues to spark inflamed debate on YouTube and on ballet related web boards because of her use of extreme extensions in classical ballet. Some, like Aspden, perceive her as extremely graceful, while others see exactly the opposite.

Ballet is a contemplative art and to use another visual art parallel, there is no way to convince someone who prefers Impressionism to Cubism that Picasso is artistically superior to Monet. There are ways, however, to draw an observer’s attention to details they might have previously overlooked in a painting, to steer his or her eyes towards features which might lead to a reassessment of that work of art. So whilst we cannot define grace, here are some elements which we think would naturally emanate from a graceful dancer:

  • Good Line – as Robert Greskovic notes: “true ballet line has little to do with the dancer’s limbs and everything to do with the harmonious coordination of each part seen as a totality.” A good line emanates from the dancer’s centre to reach out to all compass points of his or her body, think a beacon irradiating from the lighthouse. For an example of a good line see Anthony Dowell executing Des Grieux‘s first act solo [link]

  • Port de Bras (carriage of the arms) – of course a good dancer must display perfect coordination between legs, feet, torso, arms, hands, neck and head, but soft, pliant arms help accentuate the gracefulness of the whole movement, to emphasize its poetry. Here one can draw an interesting comparison between male and female dancers: male port de bras is simpler and sharper to make them look more virile, stronger, their line more visible, while the female arms are more laboured, making them look more delicate (see this post for more Port de Bras comparisons). For an example of graceful arms, see Ulyana Lopatkina in Swan Lake [link]

  • Musicality – the most obvious way to define a musical dancer is to think of the music box ballerina cliché. A highly musical dancer will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music, so well they are matched. It goes beyond being technically precise. Of course, it should be noted that choreographers will treat music differently and the dance can either be on top of the melody or purposefully dissociated from the music, as is the case in certain modern choreography (ie. Merce Cunningham). A dancer that is often acknowledged as having been extremely musical was Balanchine‘s muse, Suzanne Farrell.

  • Physical qualities – one cannot underestimate the importance of well proportioned limbs and a beautiful face in ballet. On the other hand there are dancers who have broken the mold, redefining the concept of perfect proportions. These can be some of the most exciting dancers to watch because they transform what might have been perceived as a drawback into strength and create a form of unconventional grace. For examples of dancers who break the mold, see Alina Somova and Edward Watson making the most of their elastic and slender physiques in, respectively, Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse [link] and Wayne McGregor’s production of Händel’s Acis & Galatea [link].

And here we feature some of our favorite graceful dancers who combine all the elements above. Feel free to post yours if you have one!

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

Sarah seems to be floating on a cloud of dance, her movements so light and fluid, every step a music note.

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

This is probably one of the most enchanting ballet videos on YouTube, Alina is simply radiant, never exposing to the audience the pitfalls of Ashton’s choreograpy (which demands from the dancer coordination between a soft upper body and fast feet)

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

This is a beautiful rendition of the famous Spessivtseva solo (Giselle’s first act variation) in which every single movement is linked into a whole. Notice how softly she gets down from arabesque into penché, her arms lingering with the music.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

While the dancers above represent the “ethereal and petite ballerina” we have a contrasting example in Tereshkina, a tall dancer who looks poised, elegant yet delicate in one of the most graceful choreographies in classical ballet.

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

Around 3:39 you can see Odette’s variation. Makarova was the quintessential ballerina, a perfect match between technique and artistry: every step is used as a means for conveying emotion. A really graceful and touching performance.

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The Mariinsky visit to London a few weeks ago and in particular the fact that they brought mime-less Soviet adaptations of ballet classics with them, generated much discussion among Covent Garden audiences about the importance of mime in ballet. When Konstantin Sergeyev revisited works such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire in the 50’s, balletic mime was largely scrapped in Russia as it was considered that new audiences did not need to be exposed to something as old fashioned and reminiscent from Tsarist times. The West would follow suit later on when it considered that dancing should be a complete means of storytelling with no additional form of narration.  Mime became moot.

But well performed balletic mime can be as artistic and as beautiful to watch as the dance itself. It carries forth the story, putting it into context. For instance audiences watching the Mariinsky’s Sleeping Beauty will be given no clues that the Lilac Fairy reverts Carabosse’s curse to princess Aurora by reassuring the whole court that if she pricks her finger she will fall into deep sleep but not die. Of course there is an argument that many of us will be  familiar with this fairy tale and that we do not need such level of detail in performance. On the other hand, omitting the Lilac Fairy mime means depriving audiences of one of ballet’s most moving sequences as this passage assists in developing her character, conveying a full sense of the Lilac Fairys warmth, kindness and wisdom as well as the contrast between good and evil, her calming gestures opposing Carabosse’s jerky, angry movements. All this is achieved by working the upper body, with face, arms and hand gestures that are completely integrated to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. Balletic mime is a stylish work of art.

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Deirdre Chapman as Carabosse Photo: Johan Person/Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Although we hardly ever see mime in modern pieces, classic works that have been preserved or reconstructed by ballet companies such as ABT, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet (the latter boasting a pure mime tradition that goes back to the Bournonville schooling) tend to contain substantial mime sequences. As we just wrote a post on going to the ballet for the first time we thought the mime basics would also help prepare you for the performance ahead. Chances are you will come across lengthy declamatory, narrative or conversational mime passages if you are going to see a 19th century ballet classic and if you know the basics you won’t be left scratching your head:

Most commonly seen mime gestures:

  • Dance

Hands circle one another above the head, the arms moving from first to third position.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, just before Aurora’s solo, when King Florestan asks his daughter “will you dance for us?”

  • Forget/Think

Character touches the forehead with the index finger.

Ex1: in The Sleeping Beauty, when the evil fairy Carabosse asks the King and the Queen “did you forget to invite me?”

Ex2: in Giselle, before Hilarion calls Albrechts bluff he asks a bewildered Giselledo you really think he loves you?”

  • Die

Crosses arms in front of body in a low position.

Ex: when Giselle‘s mom (Berthe) says to the villagers “the Wilis will make wandering men dance till they die.”

  • Beautiful

Character makes a circle around the face with the palm of the hand.

Ex: in The Sleeping Beauty, before showing Prince Florimund (or Desiré) a vision of Aurora, the Lilac Fairy asks him “do you want to see something beautiful?”

  • Promise

Point two fingers, held together (like a peace sign) upwards in the audience’s direction.

Ex: in Swan Lake, when Prince Siegfried promises to Odette that he will marry her and thus break the swan curse.

And also:

  • Why – both arms open outwards towards the other character
  • King/Queen – taps forehead with hand three times
  • Princess – taps forehead with hand two times
  • I/Me – point to own chest
  • You – point to the other person
  • Love – crosses hands over heart
  • Listen/Listening – cups hand over ear leaning towards the sound or taps the face close to the ears
  • Anger/Angry – bend elbows with fists pointed towards the sky, shaking them
  • Stop – Palm out
  • Engaged or Married – Point to the ring finger

A brief mime dictionary can be downloaded from the Pennsylvania Ballet website from this link

See balletic mime in action:

  • Giselle: Berthe narrates the legend of the Wilis

Move forward to 2:30 to see the full mime sequence where Berthe (Genesia Rosato) tries to warn Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) about the dangers of  too much dancing. She will tell all villagers of the presence of Wilis in the forest who come out late at night to prey on wandering men. Note the miming of: cemetery/burial grounds (the crosses), wilis (the wings, the hand on her chin) dance and die.

  • The Sleeping Beauty: Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy

In the prologue of the Royal Ballet’s current production of  The Sleeping Beauty you can see the complete sequence where Carabosse crashes Aurora’s christening and curses her, miming the gestures: forgot, listen, say, grow up, beautiful, die. The Lilac Fairy interrupts (“now you listen to what I have to say“) miming that if Aurora pricks her finger she will sleep until awakened by a kiss from a faraway land Prince.

  • Swan Lake: Odette and Siegfried
  • Move to 1:40 to see the full mime sequence in this video of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake production for ABT. The promise sign is mimed twice, first by Odette (Gillian Murphy) when she is telling her story to Prince Siegfried (Ángel Corella) and then by the Prince. Odette also uses mime to explain she is the Queen of the swans.

    • La Sylphide: Madge, Effie & her friends

    Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg characterised as Madge tells James’s fiance Effie and her friends their fortunes in this Bolshoi staging of La Sylphide (Move forward to 0:35). Notice how Madge predicts that Effie shall marry Gurn instead of James.

    See Mime Rehearsals:

    Sources and Further information:

    1. The NYCB website contains useful learning materials for the same Nutcracker mime sequence shown above [link]
    2. Pennsylvania Ballet [link]
    3. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic. [link]
    4. Ballet Mime for Little Ones via Neo Blog [link]

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