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Posts Tagged ‘Laura Morera’

It’s been over 2 years since Alina Cojocaru danced a MacMillan ballet at Covent Garden. While the public in Washington DC and Havana were able to see her Manon last summer, Londoners who had been dreaming of seeing her in Mayerling at the start of the autumn season had to hold their breaths a little longer and await her return to MacMillan in the role of Juliet, the very same role she had danced in the autumn of 2007.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The wait was most definitely worth it. If before her Juliet was moving, now she is heartwrenching. She has matured the role, refined it, added nuance and experience, less the innocent teenager more the tragic outcast, headstrong-yet-vulnerable girl transformed by love. These qualities are evident, for instance, in the scene where Juliet, already secretly married to Romeo, tries to challenge her parents as they impose the nobleman Paris on her.  As she tries to fight back, throwing her fists at the father, pleading to the mother, the realisation sinks in that she is alone in this, her whole body expressing the humiliation Juliet has suffered.

Whereas 2 years ago she might have played the scene where Juliet hides under the covers with a slight hint of comic relief now it looks like desperation, the will to disintegrate and not have to deal with an impossible situation, grief written in her face.  This time few in the audience were chuckling.

Alina Cojocaru as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The other pivotal moment in Alina’s interpretation comes when she discovers the lifeless Romeo in the Capulet tomb, her desperate howl of pain – albeit silent – is louder than Prokofiev’s sublime score. Her last gesture slowly motioning at the faint light above the tomb suggests the hope at a reunion with Romeo in heaven, almost as if she can already see their souls transcending.

While Johan Kobborg might not be my dream cast Romeo he is unquestionably a perfect partner for Alina’s Juliet. If technically her Juliet was arguably on better form than his Romeo, when they dance their bodies move lyrically as one, in full sync. Together they delivered a balcony scene full of passion and romantic abandonment, as if they had no other care in the world. They are well matched in temper too, Johan’s headlong Romeo seeming like the kind of guy who would really drop everything in his life once he fell head over heels in love. The extent of his impassioned nature is also very convincingly portrayed after Mercutio’s death, guilt reaching boiling point as he rushes towards Tybalt to retaliate.

Johan Kobborg as Romeo and Alina Cojocaru as Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

With a strong supporting cast full of wonderful performances, from Brian Maloney’s limber, handsomely cast Mercutio, Bennet Gartside’s chilling Tybalt (his death scene one of the most poignant I have ever seen) to Laura Morera’s unparalleled Harlot and Sergei Polunin’s stylish lead Mandolin this is really a performance not to be missed. This same cast is performing again next Wednesday and I would urge those still thinking about it to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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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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Mayerling may not  be for everyone, but it is an undeniable example of how ballet can go beyond technical prowess or fairy-tale narrative, geometrical patterns or musical convention. Kenneth MacMillan’s work reaches for the core of human emotions, both the good and the bad, digging deep into the grittiest, the most horrific and perverse of human psyche to turn it into ballet, an art form usually associated with qualities of beauty and harmony. Unsuspecting audiences may be distraught by his choreography, by such an explicit portrayal of the perverse and sinister within men against the various forms of love.

Beyond its lavish designs and opulent costumes which aid in framing a decadent society and its excesses, the ballet largely depends on a strong lead, as its focus is the character of Crown Prince Rudolf. The fact that no one knows what really happened in the event known as the Mayerling incident is not very important for the purpose of MacMillan’s ballet. I now see that the incident only served as a canvas on which he could draw his characters and frame their specific interrelations. Rudolf, a character so shrouded in mystery, presents to the  male dancer an opportunity to create a very individual reading. For this reason it demands mature dancers at the height of their dramatic and dancing powers, dancers who can generate a realistic impression, which is something Johan Kobborg excels at.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Presenting us with an innermost portrayal of Rudolf that heavily contrasted with all other readings of the character I’ve seen before, Kobborg emphasises the darkness his character carries inside, the willingness to carry through unimaginable deeds. Right from the start we see how he is afftected by the particular demands and pressures of his position as Crown Prince and by his incestuous relationship with a domineering mother. We also note Rudolf’s violent behaviour when in contact with Countess Larisch (a well cast Laura Morera) and his wife Princess Stephanie (Emma Maguire), but the way he quickly regains self-control hints at something inherent to Rudolf’s character which he tries to keep “in check”. The pas de deux with Empress Elizabeth (Deirdre Chapman) clearly establishes the twisted relationship between mother and son and shows how Rudolf could be both abusing and abused. The weight of this encounter still looms over the following pas de deux as a twisted and psychopathic Rudolf threatens his wife Princess Stephanie with a pistol on their Wedding night.

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

Rudolf  has given into a life of “alcohol and whores at the tavern” but when it comes to his mother’s own love affair, he takes issue and reacts as an offended lover. As he dances a solo which speaks of the guilt for those feelings towards his mother, he struggles to keep his inner demons at bay, his steps conveying despair and even horror at his own feelings as Countess Larisch tries to comfort him. It is at this point that Mary Vetsera enters the picture and raises the stakes.  Few can project all of Mary’s complexities like Leanne Benjamin. Her Vetsera is a joyous girl destroyed by the romantic obsession she builds once fuelled by Larisch’s stories about Rudolf. From their first meeting we see someone who is capable of loving him, albeit in a twisted, sick way. Kobborg’s Rudolf sees Mary as just another woman at first, but once she rushes for his gun and points it towards him, his dark side resurfaces  and obsessive feelings surge towards her. Needless to say, both Kobborg and Benjamin delivered a pas de deux full of passion playing with the concept of control and role reversal between these two twisted minds.

By the final act, following an accidental killing at his hunting lodge, Kobborg’s Rudolf is a shattered, broken man who is a shadow of himself and now allows the darkness inside to flow, his body ravaged by mental and physical disease. Since the script simply indicates that Mary and Rudolf made a pact to end their lives, what really happens between them greatly varies with each interpretation. In this reading it seemed to me that as Mary arrives at the hunting lodge she realises that the only way to heal Rudolf is to die with him, while for Rudolf killing her is both an act of selfishness and of salvation from his inner feelings towards her. As they dance a deeply upsetting final pas de deux our minds question whether this disturbed and horrible person could really have had any capacity to love.

With great performances, despite a few start of season glitches, from a  strong supporting cast including Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian officer much added to the evening’s drama, but all in all, Mayerling will always be about the lead and here Kobborg more than delivered.

See also: our take on the Edward Watson/Mara Galeazzi cast

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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Arriving at Covent Garden last night and glancing at my Mayerling cast sheet I wondered if the audience – mostly non-ballet-regulars thanks to a promotion ran by The Sun newspaper – had any idea of their lucky draw with this particular cast: principals Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar and Steven McRae as Bratfisch, soloists Sergei Polunin and Thomas Whitehead as 2 of the Hungarian separatists, Cindy Jourdain as Rudolf’s mother Empress Elisabeth (aka Sissi), a very talented field team to support a luxury leading cast: Edward “born to play Crown prince Rudolf” Watson, Mara Galeazzi as his Mary Vetsera and the much missed Sarah Lamb, back after one year absence, as his older lover Countess Larisch.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Whether this hot cast was already known to few or many, I think we all soon understood how special this performance was going to be. All that has been said in the press, rather more eloquently, of Watson’s Rudolf a couple of years ago is true: his “unfurling line” is better than ever. So is the “ability to turn his distinctive appearance to dramatic advantage. But what particularly impresses me is how he is able to remain so naturalistic, so effortlessly at home in a role which is said to be so demanding, the Mount Everest of male dancing. Watson turns MacMillan’s choreography inside out, he inhabits it so completely that by the time he loses his head and his lover in Act 3 he does not seem to be executing steps anymore, he is entirely possessed by dance, and thus by obsession and madness. His approach to the role is a crescendo of faster turns and high extensions combined with signs of agitation, of symptom, in every gesture.  Every step links into a continuous whirlwind of emotion.

Although Crown Prince Rudolf is frequently onstage and frequently dancing it is interesting to observe how MacMillan envisaged a character who does not “dance with the music”. This is blatant when you compare Rudolf against the dancers in the Tavern or his private entertainer Bratfisch. The latter are stereotypes, the “ballet within the ballet”, whereas Rudolf, except for the scenes where he joins in the group dances, is always a dissonant voice, an unconventional mover. Mayerling is not about the sequence of bravura steps which are characteristic of male classical roles, but more about how the protagonist, through scattered solos and a series of pas de deux with his many women, conveys his diseased view of the world, another of MacMillan’s ground breaking choreographic visions.

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Danser en France

But even though MacMillan crafted steps that speak more than actions, he also stayed rooted in theatrical tradition, demanding from his lead strong dramatic skills. When Watson is not dancing we see Rudolf’s neurotic mind constantly questioning his surroundings, observant, clearly setting his own agenda. In Act 2 for instance, the family gathers to hear a lieder sung by the Emperor’s lover, the actress Katherina Schratt, a song (“Ich Leide”, by Liszt) which speaks of farewells, of someone who is leaving. As Rudolf stands at a safe distance from everyone else, we see he is listening carefully, that he is soaking up those words to fuel his dark intentions.

With Watson’s line becoming progressively more extreme – I have never seen him using his extensions in a classical piece so liberally – we see the edges this Crown Prince is willing to go over to rid himself of this world. He carries the weight of the distant relationship with his mother, unleashes his Oedipean frustrations on his wife and on his old lover Countess Larisch, but in the encounters with young lover Mary Vetsera we see the dance become more weightless, almost like a brief release from pressure. Here Watson throws all caution to the wind, so full of complicity in his last “crazy-love” pas de deux with Mara Galeazzi’s fluid Vetsera that you think for just one moment this Rudolf might not go ahead with the initial suicide plan. But we know how it all ends: not happily.

It was a fantastic, intense start for the ballet season. Although there are always first night jitters and some fine tuning as performances progress, the company seemed on great form back from their break and probably pleased with the big cheer they got from a very appreciative crowd. With this amazing cast and such a compelling piece we hope the new audience left enthused and ready to come back for more. It certainly sounded like it.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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Kim Brandstrup. Copyright belongs to its owners. Source: GBCM

While at the main stage the Royal Ballet season kicks off in October with Mayerling, downstairs at the Linbury Studio the ROH2, Royal Opera House’s contemporary arm, makes a headstart next week with an exciting new collaboration between dancers Tamara Rojo, Thomas Whitehead, Steven McRae and choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Then, later in the season, Brandstrup goes back to the main stage for a repeat of his acclaimed one act ballet, Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story. Based on  one of the preliminary outlines for Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and influenced by socialist realist movie aesthetic, the ballet furthered his range as a leading narrative choreographer.

With Brandstrup’s film school background it was natural that a ballet called Rushes (the name refers to raw, unedited film scenes) should contain all forms of reference and reverence to cinema, with its non linear narrative and action that takes place behind beaded curtains, just like a grainy movie from the 30’s. Movie-like structures are something of a leitmotif in his works, and in the past he has spoken of his rejection of classical ballet’s literal or linear plot development as compared to “film cuts” (see “in his own words” below). However, Brandstrup’s forthcoming Goldberg project with Tamara Rojo seems an altogether different proposition, an experiment with  “other ways of moving”, using Bach’s Goldberg Variations and drawing subtleties and “things  that go unnoticed in big stages” to the intimacy of the Linbury Studio. More information on this project can be found in a recent interview Brandstrup gave to dance writer Jane Simpson now posted to Ballet.co.uk.

Kim Brandstrup in a Nutshell

Born in Arhus, Denmark in 1956, the son of a contemporary artist, Kim attended a progressive school which encouraged creativity. He initially studied film at the University of Copenhagen, but switched to modern dance studies at age 19.

He moved to London in 1980 to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance where Nina Fonaroff was his teacher.

Kim founded his own company, Arc, in 1985 (Arc is currently in the backburner but he plans to bring it back, not as a full time company but on a project by project basis).

In 1989 he won the Olivier award for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” with Orfeo, a piece he choreographed for the now extinct London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

The cinema never ceased to be an influence in his work, along with literature. Kim worked with Irek Mukhamedov on a commission of Othello (winner of the London Evening Standard Award for Most Outstanding Production) and created for his own company pieces such as Elegy which drew on characters from The Idiot and later Elegy’s enlarged version (Brothers) inspired by two other Dostoevskian tales.

He has choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, the Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies in the UK and abroad.  He has been working with the Royal Ballet since 2003, having created dances for principals such as Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Zenaida Yanowsky, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Kim also works regularly with opera directors. One of his best known collaborations in this field was with director Phyllida Lloyd for Debussy’s one act opera “The Fall of the House of Usher”, where he choreographed the opening sequence featuring four dancing doubles of the opera characters, as performed by Steven McRae, Gary Avis, Leanne Benjamin and Johannes Stepanek. (This 2006 production is available on DVD).

He says his creations are triggered by the dancers he works with even if the music, theme or narrative have been chosen well in advance. For him, being in the studio with a particular dancer transforms a piece from concept to reality, tailoring the movement to their particular strengths and characteristics.

For Rushes he chose a rare, unpublished Prokofiev movie score (composed for a shelved film adaptation of The Queen of Spades) which he tracked from a tiny footnote in an article mentioning the score’s existence, liasing with a Princeton scholar and finally finding a copy in the Prokofiev archives at Goldsmiths College. What attracted Brandstrup was the structural freedom it gave him, the music was meant to be played underneath a dialogue so it was done in short, concise numbers.

In his own words:

Everyone says I have done narrative ballets but I have never tried to use narrative in a traditional way

My preparation is not steps, not even a story. I listen and listen until the music has become second nature, it has to be in the bloodstream.

The dancers are the second ‘given’ when you work with an established, full-time company. First there is the music, the theme, the place in the programme, which is stipulated when you are first asked, then comes – and this is the most important – the dancers. If they don’t inspire you, then you can’t do it, no matter how prestigious or exciting the project might be.

In a ballet you have a location and people acting in it in real time – 45 minutes in a castle, 45 minutes in a forest, 45 minutes at a wedding.” Whereas in film one event cuts to another and time is not literal.

When I studied film, everything that I loved about it was not verbal, it was the silent films. And when you look at a director like Hitchcock you’ll find that 60 or 70 per cent is purely visual and it’s through the images that the story is told.

She’s a remarkable artist she has such focus and power on stage which gives her a real dramatic hold over an audience. (on Tamara Rojo)

Extract of Reviews and Selected Praise:

Of his Two Footnotes to Ashton, Linbury Studio

Brandstrup’s bucolic Two Footnotes to Ashton is particularly captivating, a frolicsome and erotic footnote to La Fille mal gardée, with Johan Kobborg as a bare-chested, very surprised yokel on whom Alina Cojocaru insistently pounces like a tiny little cat on heat. Everything about this duet is seductive – the recording of Cecilia Bartoli at her most irresistibly honeyed in Gluck’s “Di questa centra in seno”; the way Cojocaru sexily nudges dopey Kobborg with her head and then unleashes lethal vertical arabesques; and the final sweetness of his succumbing, holding her hovering body over his in a delicious anticipation. A total charmer, truly Ashtonian, and surely likely to reappear for the pair on gala occasions. Ismene Brown at the Telegraph [link]

It was Kim Brandstrup who lived up to the evening’s title. His Footnotes was set to ravishing arias (Gluck, Handel), ravishingly sung by Bartoli and Kozena, ravishingly realised (Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg pouring out feeling as a whirlwind of turns and poses; Zenaida Yanowsky grieving wonderfully), and ravishingly made. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

Of Pulcinella, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Cleverly, Brandstrup depicts Pulcinella as a puppet who has somehow slipped his strings, a giddy, quivering creature who alternates between blithe enthusiasm and doleful despair, and who can only just hold on to his spiky, streetwise girlfriend Pimpinella (Ambra Vallo). Some of his best writing is for these comically ill-assorted lovers, especially their wrangling duets in which tiny Vallo seems to batten on to [Robert] Parker’s body, her railing fists and flick-knifing limbs wheeling vociferously around him. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Rushes

Acosta is caught in furious, impassioned dialogue with Morera (both artists grandly expressive) while there are appearances by Cojocaru as a compassionate “other” woman. Brandstrup’s writing is fluent, dark in tone for the Acosta/Morera partnership, the couple repeating with each new “rush” aspects of emotional turmoil that we have seen before. Cojocaru seems at first an observer (like the corps de ballet who inhabit the penumbra at the back of the stage). But Brandstrup has shown himself in past works to be an emotional optimist, and the final “rush” is an ecstatic duet for Cojocaru and Acosta which suggests an assertion of possible happiness. Here is a fascinating (and visually very stylish) ballet that will repay further viewings. I hope to return to it, and the rest of this triple bill, after a later performance. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

In keeping with the theme of Brandstrup’s ballet, all that existed of the music was a couple of dozen fragments, which Michael Berkeley has worked up into an immediately appealing and very danceable whole. Brandstrup picks his collaborators with an unerring eye and ear, and his ballets have a sense of completeness which is quite rare. Jane Simpson review for Dance Now (Vol. 17 No. 2 Summer 2008)

Where to see Kim Brandstrup’s Work:

  • Goldberg – The Brandstrup-Rojo Project – 21 to 26 September at the Linbury Studio
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010 – ROH main stage
  • MK Ballerina – 20 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre
  • MK Danseur Noble – 21 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre

Videos

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Brandstrup’s Official Website [link]
  2. Biography from Birmingham Royal Ballet website [link]
  3. Biography from GBCM website [link]
  4. New Rojo/Brandstrup work feature by Amanda Holloway. ROH About the House magazine – April 2009
  5. Kim Brandstrup feature by Allen Robertson. ROH About the House magazine – Sept 2007
  6. Performance Notes and Programme for Rushes (2008) including article “Kim Brandstrup” by Judith Mackrell
  7. Kim Brandstrup: Arcing back from the abyss by Nadine Meisner for The Independent [link]
  8. Kim Brandstrup’s Brothers reviewed by Ismene Brown for The Telegraph [link]
  9. Kim Brandstrup’s work listings at Loesje Sanders’ Website [link]
  10. Theorising Brandstrup at Work, a conversation with Susan Melrose and Steffi Sachsenmaier [link]
  11. Claude Debussy – The Fall of the House of Usher · Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune · Jeux (Bregenzer Festspiele 2006) DVD [link]

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Balanchine‘s first full-length abstract ballet is a celebration of styles and his tribute to the tradition that had shaped ballet during the 19th and 20th centuries. One can only marvel at his achievement while admiring the complexity of the choreography, the richness of the steps and the inclusion of novelty movement and geometry between the dancers. Jewels is a crowd pleasing ballet that will always touch us in a particular way, even more if it is danced with complete command of both technique and artistry.

The programme notes alert us to the natural associations one may draw between the ballet’s name and “a formal kaleidoscope”. When first approaching Jewels, it might seem that this is the case: the designs, costumes and music are all beautiful in every sense of the word, one can only stare in disbelief when the curtain opens to reveal the dancers in Emeralds. Never having seen it live before, I came to the opening performance with two missions: first to see how would I react to  each different ballet and second to try to understand how Rubies became more popular  on its own than Diamonds or Emeralds.

On the first account, it surprised me to discover that although Balanchine is a master of the abstract, with a firm purpose to make us “see the music”, the possibilities of adding personal layers of interpretation to this ballet are endless. I found myself building a story for every single piece, creating characters out of the dancers’ portrayals (I wished I could query the dancers as to their particular ideas and stories when learning the choreography). I also realised, after a second view, that these “stories” changed with every cast, and depended on how they personally approached their roles, who they were partnering, the chemistry, how they presented themselves, physical proportions, etc. In some ways, an abstract ballet gives more interpretive freedom to the dancers while the audience has an  opportunity to draw their own impressions from the proverbial “put a man and a woman together and you get a story”.

Emeralds

The first night Emeralds brought us Tamara Rojo in the role that Violette Verdy made famous. She was partnered by Valeri Hristov replacing the “irreplaceable” (and sadly injured) Edward Watson, whom we missed deeply, since Tamara did not seem to have the same level of complicity with Valeri as she has with Edward. Tamara made use of her expressive arms and amazing acting ability to show us a young girl in love: smiley, flirty and sometimes shy, evading the looks of her suitor, running between the other Emerald ladies. Valeri was the man in love trying to conquer the object of his affection while Tamara tip-toed and twirled through her variation like a maiden who daydreams of her knight in a meadow full of flowers with a stream nearby, with added touches of butterflies and songbirds for good measure. All innocence and young love. Pure joy. Hristov’s variation was ably performed, though less eloquent in Romantic imagery: up to that point, it was all about Tamara.

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

That is, until Leanne Benjamin appeared on stage. It is quite hard for anyone to steal Tamara’s thunder, but we feel that Leanne achieved this in the way she wove so much drama into the Emeralds “Walking pas de deux“. Here was a mature dancer on top of her game, giving us darkness after the sun, like an older woman saying to the world – here I am, I am still beautiful, still full of things to give, just look at me! – Piqué turns and grand battements made her vaporous tutu ethereal, and even though the movements were strong there was a sense of underlying sadness. This interpretation came full circle when a moody looking Bennet Gartside (replacing an injured Ivan Putrov) brought into the same pas de deux the feel of a mature married couple, struggling with the realisation that time is passing them by, that they are not what they used to be (suggested by the emphasis on arms and legs as clock hands). Registering every nuance of her interpretation I couldn’t stop wondering why Leanne is not as popular as some of the other Royal Ballet younger ballerinas.

The Emeralds pas de trois was danced by the fantastic trio of Steven McRae, Deirdre Chapman (back from maternity leave) and Laura Morera, in what it looked to me like the “hot young guy” surrounded by two enamoured girls. Their execution was flawless and of course, Steven made ample use of this opportunity to show off his fantastic split jetés and perfect tours en l’air.

The second cast of Emeralds had Roberta Marquez and Mara Galeazzi partnered by each of Valeri Hristov (in the same role as opening night) and David Makhateli. These interpretations were a complete constrast to Tamara and Leanne’s rich narratives, with Roberta a more straightforward Emerald who was just enjoying her dancing (and indeed, her smile was infectious). Personally I did not feel Emeralds was a good fit for Mara, since she didn’t convey the innate romanticism in the music and air. As the two leading men were not outstanding, I took the opportunity to observe here some of the girls who are starting to stand-out from the corps (and I wished the ROH included portraits of the artists and first artists in their programmes). The highlight of this performance was the pas de Trois, in which Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine shone, accompanied by an efficient José Martín.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In both performances, the finale was well executed and the members of the corps looked sharp and well-rehearsed, all the way to the final pose where the three men, in grand reverence, stare at the horizon.

Rubies

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

Next stop was sizzling, fun and jazzy Rubies, or should I rename it the A&A Show after the main duo of “Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta“. For Alexandra owned the role. I wondered whether this was due to her long history with NYCB and Balanchine choreography, combined with the fact that she has been outstanding this season or  simply that she is enjoying her very last performances before retirement from dance. She played and flirted with Carlos, swaying effortlessly, charmingly and elegantly through her steps. Carlos kept up the dialogue onstage and answered every single stroke, lest he be outshined by this leading lady. They were like the couple everyone stares at on the dance floor, nothing else seemed to matter for them. Here was an amazing newly discovered chemistry between them, which felt fresher than his  own longstanding (and famous) partnership with Tamara. If only Alexandra and Carlos could have been paired up more often, they might have really complemented each other in various ways.

Moving from pas de deux to solo, Carlos and Alexandra showcased their technical abilities while keeping up with the demanding pace, Carlos in particular relishing the opportunity to prove to the audience that he could soar through the stage at least as dazzlingly as Steven McRae from the previous section (plenty of grand jetés and ballon – daring to pause in the air -). Alexandra kept pushing the limits of the choreography, to the point of being in danger of falling. When a missing step called her bluff she just squealed and shrugged it off, which made the performance even more real and endearing.

Less secure was Laura McCulloch in both Rubies casts, covering both Zenaida Yanowsky and Lauren Cuthbertson as the “Tall Girl”.  She seemed eager to eat the stage but wobbled through a few of her arabesques and although much calmer (yet equally enthusiastic) on second performance, I ended up with the impression that she lacks some of the agility and speed to launch her ruby off the ground (though her extensions were amazing, particularly on the second night) and to keep up with the frantic pace of the corps. While I give Laura full marks for being able to pull a two-nighter on a main role at short notice & to stand her ground in a starry cast, I suspect her inner jewel is not really a ruby.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The second cast of Rubies was led by Yuhui Choe (debuting) and Ricardo Cervera. They brought something different than the previous pair, acing the technical demands whilst looking like teenagers fooling around. The casting of Yuhui  – a dancer with the softest arms, who looks in my opinion more Emeralds or Diamonds than Broadway – exemplifies the importance  of giving dancers the opportunity to explore roles not immediately associated with them, to avoid “typecasting”. Important yes, but not necessarily always a good fit. Ricardo didn’t match Acosta’s performance but showed us again that he can jump like the best of them, and he definitely “popped out” when surrounded by the corps in the finale.

With Rubies over, I finally understood its appeal and own success story. It is such an infectious audience-pleaser, filled with continuous surprises, twists and turns. The choreography is so strikingly different. While Emeralds is a thing of pure beauty, Rubies is the one people cheer for & laugh at. It is box office friendly,  and its upbeat, full of spark atmosphere immediately grabs the occasional ballet goers’ attention and takes them along for a wild ride.

Diamonds

The regal Diamonds, the last ballet of the evening, is full of Imperial Russian grandeur and nods to the classics (the hand in the hair from Raymonda, the balances on attitude from Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio, the arched back on retiré position from Act III Swan Lake, etc). The opening waltz for the corps de ballet immediately reminded me of Sleeping Beauty and Petipa in the beautiful classical lines displayed everywhere and its almost overwhelming grandeur. Still, this serves just as an aperitif to what follows next, the “grand pas de deux.” Opening night saw the beautiful Alina Cojocaru, continuing her comeback from injury, and Rupert Pennefather (who despite being quite tall has been dancing the lead role with tiny Alina since 2007, when he stood in at the premiere for an injured Federico Bonelli) looking picture perfect as prince and princess (again, think Aurora). This opening performance had quite a special “aura” that could be felt in the auditorium, as if we were all collectively gauging how Alina might have changed post her prolonged absence from the stage. She performed carefully and given the difference in height there were also slight complications and miniminal issues in Rupert’s partnering (as on the aided pirouettes). All this didn’t matter since it was more her artistry that shone through her dancing, her arms expressing every single note of the music, her face full of emotion, but with an underlying melodramatic tone that permeated the pas de deux. In some wonderful balances on attitude you could feel her full commitment to the steps, as if there was no tomorrow and this was the last time she could do this. It was not Aurora on stage, or any other of the Petipa heroines, but a more womanly princess, completely aware of her emotions and transparent to everyone to see. Suffice to say that her performance affected me in such a way that I still need some time to think about it.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Rupert was a handsome prince and his dancing was sharp and precise, showing all the dividends he has accumulated this season as a dancer. His variation was elegant and noble. I thought he complimented Alina’s performance in a subdued way, and it was very sweet of him to thank her at the end, as if it had been his privilege to dance with her. He might not be my favourite partner for Alina, but he is definitely a dancer who is getting better and better.

The second cast was led by sunny Marianela Nuñez and her real life prince Thiago Soares. Given the season Marianela has had, it would be difficult to think she wouldn’t ace this role, and indeed she did. As usual, her technique came across strongly and Thiago was more than an accommodating partner (his variation featured slightly different jumps than Rupert’s, but all cleanly executed). However, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was watching a reprisal of the Wedding festivities of Sleeping Beauty. There was not as much depth as in Alina’s and Rupert’s performance, but this might be just my personal take on it, as underneath it all, this is an abstract ballet.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

I should also add honorary mentions to the corps in the polonaise (although they offered a much better and coordinated performance on second night) and to Thomas Whitehead, Yohei Sasaki and Yuhui Choe on the first night, and Brian Maloney, Sergei Polunin, Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine (on double duty together with Emeralds), all of whom noticeably good in their soloist roles.

In short, Diamonds stands as a great closing piece, one that evokes and pays tribute to the classics, while also serving as a rich frame to the central couple and in particular the main ballerina. It is the dance equivalent of a decadent dessert, a celebration of dance which is best enjoyed and appreciated alongside first courses of Emeralds and Rubies. In any case, the Royal Ballet did well to acquire the three ballets for its repertoire. It is the ideal vehicle for showcasing the jewel-like ballerinas in its ranks. I am quite sure I will be going back to Covent Garden anytime it is revived.

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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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