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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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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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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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