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Posts Tagged ‘Begoña Cao’

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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Audience at "Kenneth MacMillan's Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight" Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Earlier this month we attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium at Imperial College London. Celebrating the choreographer who would have been 80 this year, this full day event was held in association with The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Institute of Psychoanalysis and drew on psychoanalysts, scholars and dancers sharing insights into MacMillan’s ballets, along with rare archival footage and live masterclasses. A full register will soon be available through the new Kenneth MacMillan official website (which goes live December 11) but here are some of our own notes and thoughts.

To backtrack a little, my first exposure to MacMillan was a televised performance of his Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie. I remember being quite taken with the lifts where Juliet expresses her delight as Romeo tries to take her to the stars. So much could be said about young love and the feeling of one’s heart brimming with happiness with such economy of movement and no mime. I didn’t know much about MacMillan then but his work struck a chord with me. Later I had the opportunity to move to London and discover, via The Royal Ballet, the extent of his choreographic vocabulary, from full-length to short works, realising that MacMillan’s ballets were all about human emotions conveyed via eloquent steps.

At the time when MacMillan quit dancing and ventured into choreography, ballet was a decorative art form which provided an escape from reality. He set out to do exactly the opposite, turning reality and human suffering into compelling dance works. Putting this into context MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry introduced the session speaking of how he eventually became the “outsider”,  the most common leitmotif found in his works, first seen in female characters (Laiderette, Anastasia) but later appearing as males (Mayerling, Different Drummer). Kenneth had not been bullied or lonely as a child, but the death of his mother when he was 12 and the difficult relationship with his father and brother set him on a constant search for a surrogate family and for his own identity. Parry also remarked that these events led MacMillan to search for psychoanalysts to help him understand his fears and anxieties and to deal with depression. Whilst he was fascinated with Freud, MacMillan also worried about what would happen to his creative spirit if he dug too deep into his sources.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

We saw the practical extent to which MacMillan’s work and his creative sources provide rich psychoanalytical material. A panel headed by Dr. Luis Rodriguez de la Sierra (known to us from the “Connecting Conversations” series) offered links between MacMillan’s life experiences and his creative output. This panel juxtaposed the troubled relationship between brothers with the sibling relationship in Manon, where the older brother Lescaut “corrupts” and breaks her innocence by throwing her in Monsieur G.M.’s way; the fact that MacMillan’s father had been gassed in WWI (during the Battle of Somme) with the war aftermath from Gloria and his mother’s recurrent debilitating fits with Mayerling and Empress Elizabeth’s rejection of her attention-seeking son Crown Prince Rudolf. Another interesting discussion centered around  the fantasy of “dying together as an act of love”, an allegory present in Romeo and Juliet and in Mayerling and which the panel connected to Ernest Jones’s theory of a subconscious wish to return to the mother’s womb.

National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the last person to work with MacMillan (in Carousel), demonstrated via video that MacMillan could convey in 5 minutes of dance “what would take a playwright 3 hours with words”. In a short pas de deux from Carousel we saw  how movement marks the evolution of the main female character, from tomboy to woman in love. Actress Nichola McAuliffe also talked about her experience with MacMillan as a stage director. She explained that British Theatre traditionally had actors “dead” from the neck below and that working with MacMillan made her think about the physicality of her characters.

Former Stuttgart Ballet dancers Vladimir Klos and Birgit Keil at the Kenneth MacMillan Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

To illustrate MacMillan’s creative methods Birgit Keil and Vladimir Klos, former Stuttgart Ballet dancers who created roles in MacMillan ballets, described how he nurtured his dancers and sought a collaborative process. A fragment of the documentary A Lot of Happiness showed the choreographer rehearsing both dancers for a Pas de Deux based on Orpheus and Eurydice, giving them pointers of the type of movement he wanted and encouraging them to try different things. Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Dame Monica Mason also spoke of her experience. Tracing a parallel between Ashton and MacMillan, she said that the first one always expressed a preference for beauty and the second for reality, no matter how ugly that could be.

Speaking about “MacMillan’s subject matter” the eminent Financial Times critic Clement Crisp recalled audience reactions to the choreographer’s work, their discomfort with seeing “appaling grief represented by agonizing, ugly shapes”. A keen supporter who has seen every single MacMillan work (but for two short pieces made for ABT), Mr. Crisp eloquently spoke of the choreographer as a man of the theatre who knew about human suffering and found a way to show those terrible moments of life via fascinating and true choreography “which is ultimately what ballet is all about”, as well as in characters which “kept living after the curtain fell”.

Begoña Cao as Manon, Fabian Reimair as Lescaut and Antony Dowson as Monsieur G.M. in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

The final section focused on MacMillan’s “Creativity In Spite of Adversity”, his courage to stand firm and travel to where he could realise his vision. Mr. Crisp recalled masterpieces Song of the Earth and Requiem which were created for Stuttgart Ballet after Covent Garden’s administration worried about the use of Gustav Mahler’s music for choreography and, in Requiem’s case, that sacred music could offend religious sensibilities. These points were illustrated with excerpts from the documentary “Out of Line” where Sir Peter Wright, Clement Crisp and Deborah MacMillan shared their personal views on the challenges faced by MacMillan at home and abroad and his special link with Stuttgart Ballet.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

In addition to the masterclasses featuring two Mayerling pas de deux (Rudolf/Empress Elisabeth and Rudolf/Princess Stephanie) with Edward Watson, Cindy Jourdain and Iohna Loots from The Royal Ballet, and the Manon pas de trois (Manon/Lescaut/Monsieur GM) with Begoña Cao, Fabian Reimair and Antony Dowson from English National Ballet, the audience also had the opportunity to watch a full screening of MacMillan’s last work for The Royal Ballet, The Judas Tree*, with Irek Mukhamedov, Michael Nunn and Leanne Benjamin. This gruesome ballet (featuring a gang rape) touches upon the theme of betrayal in various ways. Original cast members Michael Nunn and Viviana Durante emphasised to the audience how MacMillan would let dancers discover the character during the creative process which, as Nunn said, “kept you on your toes”.

With so much background and valuable insights into Kenneth MacMillan’s universe, this was an event that will certainly enrich our experience and understanding of his compelling works. We now look forward to what the new official website may bring.


*The Judas Tree will be revived by The Royal Ballet in a Triple bill dedicated to MacMillan’s 80th birthday, together with Concerto and Elite Syncopations. These three pieces represent milestones in the choreographer’s career and different sides to his work. Concerto was the first piece he created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet as Artistic Director. Elite Syncopations, his ragtime jazz ballet, was made during his tenure as The Royal Ballet’s Director while The Judas Tree, his last work for the Royal Ballet, remains one of his most challenging pieces.

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Going for thirty six days without any ballet is quite a challenge for a balletomane, therefore I could not pass up the opportunity of seeing Carlos Acosta & Guests Artists, a mixed ballet bag of short pieces featuring from modern Brandstrup to chic & classical Ashton’s Rhapsody, and ranging from the overdone (a “male” Dying Swan) to the rarely seen (Azary Plisetsky’s Canto Vital & John Neumeier’s Othello).

Carlos Acosta as Spartacus. Source: Comono. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Carlos Acosta as Spartacus. Source: Comono. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Given the variety of flavors, it’s a good show for those wishing to sample ballet before committing to full length traditional or modern works. I took my visiting 11 year old niece who had not seen much dance before, she left impressed and willing to return. Acosta makes the right call as he opts for an informal atmosphere. The show opens with the dancers arriving in their leg warmers and changing into performance gear at the deep end of the stage revealing to us what goes on behind the scenes. While “The Ballet Boyz” did the same thing more effectively by streaming a live video from the dressing rooms in their gala a few years ago, this is a budget friendly way to strike the same chord. The evening kicks off just as informally with a barre at centre stage and Stevenson’s Three Preludes segueing into Cuban choreographer Ivan Tenorio’s Ritmicas, a great way to show the contrast in dance classwork, one with soft adagio moves (danced by English National Ballet‘s Principals Begoña Cao and Arionel Vargas) and the other much  jazzier, with plenty of speedy turns and modern extensions.

Acosta steps in to show off his Spartacus best in two solos, replacing the well known pas de deux, given Bolshoi’s Nina Kaptsova‘s withdrawal a few weeks ago. The crowd roars but blink and you will miss those jetés and tours à la seconde, which are gone in 60 seconds. Although I understand Acosta’s motives for including a hint of Spartacus in the programme (a crowd-pleaser & also his favorite role) I doubt those in the audience not familiar with this ballet will care to find out more just from seeing a short extract in a vacuum, but in addition to its “wow factor”, Spartacus is certainly an effective gauge to the evening’s high testosterone levels: after Ashton’s lovely Rhapsody Pas de Deux (sadly minus the variations!) we had an Othello (Hamburg Ballet’s Amilcar Moret) wearing nothing but well defined muscles and a scarf, soon unravelled by his Desdemona so that we catch a glimpse of a dance belt (instructive for those who wonder what male dancers wear underneath tights!), followed by “Canto Vital” which I nicknamed “Spartacus x 4“. This particular piece, choreographed to show off Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s best virtuoso dancers, pretends to be about three forces of nature – beast, fish and bird – struggling to survive but in reality it’s like the Neolithic version of Les Lutins without the comedy & the clothes, with plenty of opportunity for the men (Acosta plus Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae, Amilcar Moret and Arionel Vargas) to wear very little and impress us while trying to outdo each other, McRae in particular showing off some seriously juicy double “rondes de jambe en l’air” and leaping 2 storys higher than all the other men combined (Canto Vital can be found on YouTube: here are parts 1 and 2).

The Dying Swan is never going to feature in my personal ballet gala wishlist, it is a piece I dislike in any shape or form (with possibly one exception: this version danced by Igor Kolb) and I was not converted by this particular Michel Descombey version picked by Acosta, to me it seemed more like yoga’s Swan dive than ballet’s Swan death. “Over There” choreographed by Ramon Gomes Reis over Dido’s lament (taped music) reminded me that we had recently seen it better sung and more originally choreographed a few blocks down the road. A few other breezy and fun pieces such as Derek Deane’s Summertime were served until the grand finale (and Cuba’s answer to Don Quixote) with Georges Garcia’s “Majisimo”, which I presumed from the programme note to be a staple at every Acosta & Guests. Majisimo gives the ensemble an opportunity to shine and to end on a high, especially Acosta and his leading lady for the occasion Royal Ballet principal Roberta Marquez. My niece was very impressed by Roberta’s speedy turns (lovely Italian fouettées followed by piqué turns) and I liked how she added flirty Brazilian spice to Acosta’s Cuban charm, a good match. I left the theatre wishing I could see Roberta and Acosta dancing together more often. And even if not every item on the bill was my cup of tea, seeing Acosta & Marquez & McRae in great shape definitely cured my ballet blues!

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