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The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

Concepts such as coding, decoding, generative systems, algorithms, computer programming, neuroscience and cognitive mapping seem more akin to geek lingo than ballet choreography and yet all these notions inform Wayne McGregor’s dance making.

Having trained in modern dance, McGregor is the first resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet to come from outside the company. Literally and figuratively breaking the line of succession, he said at the time of his appointment that he would not try to be like Ashton or MacMillan. Indeed, while his predecessor MacMillan  looked for inspiration in the human soul, McGregor seems intent on examining the human body and the sensorial experiences and responses derived from it.

Wayne McGregor in a Nutshell

Born in Stockport in 1970, McGregor studied dance at University College, Bretton Hall (Leeds University) and at the José Limon School in New York. In 1992 he started his own company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and in the same year was appointed choreographer-in-residence at The Place, London.

He was appointed the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006 following successful productions such as Qualia, Engram and the much lauded Chroma. In addition to regularly creating works for Random Dance, he has also choreographed for several ballet and opera companies around the world, including San Francisco Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Opera and La Scala.

His interests outside dance have resulted in several other associations which include curating a festival for the Royal Opera House (Deloitte Ignite, 2008) and choreographing movement for movies, plays (“Fram” at The National Theatre and the recent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), musicals and art galleries (the Hayward Gallery, Canary Wharf and the Pompidou Centre).

McGregor was involved earlier this year in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies – directing and choreographing the Baroque double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas, which have been recorded for DVD release. His new production for The Royal Ballet, Limen, premieres this week.

McGregor’s dance vocabulary is full of contrasts. It combines speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet and the majority of his pieces for the Royal Ballet have featured female dancers en pointe. Although he says he has not completely discarded the possibility of narrative works, this vocabulary is generally used to create and structure abstract pieces with a contemporary relevance inspired mainly by visual arts, architecture and, last but not least, by science.

Using science to understand art and creative processes is a topic that fascinates McGregor. Since 2002 he has been involved in a research project with a group of neuroscientists (from the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego) and psychologists to explore questions around how choreographic ideas are transmitted to dancers. Via this project he also hopes to learn more about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do. His appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer extends beyond creating ballets for the company and  involves nurturing, inspiring and transmitting all this creativity and knowledge to future generations of choreographers.

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the spaces in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. Wayne McGregor

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Works for the Royal Ballet

Symbiont(s) – The Clore Studio (2000)

Definition: An organism in a symbiotic relationship

Conceived for the intimate space of the Clore Studio (ROH) in close collaboration with the dancers, Symbiont(s) was McGregor’s first piece for The Royal Ballet at a time when Anthony Dowell was still the company’s Artistic Director. It also marked the first time McGregor choreographed a role for dancer Edward Watson, now a leading presence in most of McGregor’s works. It featured seven dancers in a series of duets, solos or trios en pointe and off pointe. Its central duet danced by Watson and Deborah Bull was later used on tour. Symbiont(s) won a Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in dance.

Brainstate – Linbury Studio (2001)

Brainstate was a collaboration between dancers from The Royal Ballet and from Wayne Mcgregor’s own company Random Dance (18 male and female dancers in total). It was done as a closing piece for an “all McGregor” evening alongside other work by Random Dance and a re-staging of Symbiont(s).

Qualia – The Royal Opera House main stage (2004)

Definition: A raw & sensory experience

Qualia marked Wayne McGregor’s debut on the big ROH stage, following an invitation from Monica Mason, who had just been appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director. It featured four lead dancers (Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov, Jaimie Tapper and Leanne Benjamin). Its highlight was a “sensorial” pas de deux for Watson and Benjamin which would later be used in various galas.

Engram – Linbury Studio (June 2005)

Definition: Patterns of neuro-physiological change thought to relate to storage of memories in the brain.

Part of the “Inspired by Ashton” programme, Wayne McGregor cast two of the Royal Ballet’s most classical dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, for a pas de deux set to art rock music (By Canadian group “Godspeed You Black Emperor” or GSBE). Engram showed these dancers under a different light, combining McGregor’s notions of angularity and rhythm with classical steps. 

Chroma –  The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2006)

Definition: The purity of a color or its absence from white or grey

For Chroma, McGregor worked with a small group of ten dancers. Some were already familiar with his work, others less so. It was the first time McGregor’s male muses Steven McRae, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson appeared together in one of his works (this trio re-appeared in Acis & Galatea and will be seen again in Limen) alongside ballerinas Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb. Chroma is McGregor’s only piece for the Royal Ballet which is performed completely off pointe.

Featuring a minimalist set designed by architect John Pawson to make the audience focus on the dancers’ very detailed articulations and in the “colour” provided by their own movements, Chroma was made in three weeks. The work is set to music by modern composer Joby Talbot, including several orchestrated tracks from The White Stripes (Aluminun, Blue Orchid and The Hardest Button to Button).  A hit with audiences and critics alike, Chroma won a number of prestigious dance awards, including the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award (Best Dance Production).

Nimbus – The Royal Opera House main stage, as part of “The World Stage Gala” (Nov 2007)

Definition 1: a cloud or atmosphere about a person or thing; 
2: an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign; 
3: a rain cloud

Nimbus was created one year after Chroma, specifically for the “World Stage Gala”. It was McGregor’s first official piece as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat A, it is a 10-minute short work performed by Marianela Nuñez, Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.

Infra – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2008)

Definition: Below

Alongside his productions for operas Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea, Infra is perhaps the closest Wayne McGregor has come to narrative work.  Juxtaposing his choreography with Julian Opie‘s LED backdrop of pedestrians, a haunting score by Max Richter and lighting by his longtime collaborator Lucy Carter, it infers relationships, ruptures, actions and reactions against the backdrop of our chaotic modern lives.

Dido & Aeneas – Acis & Galatea – The Royal Opera House main stage (March 2009)

McGregor directed and choreographed the Baroque operas Dido and Aeneas (a production he had originally done for La Scala) and Acis and Galatea bringing a rare collaboration between The Royal Opera and dancers from The Royal Ballet. Both productions have been recorded for DVD release.

Limen – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2009)

Definition: 3. Psychology, Physiology. The threshold of consciousness.

Limen, McGregor’s new 26-minute piece for 15 dancers (eight men and seven women) premieres this Wednesday. According to the choreographer it will be a meditation on ‘thresholds of life and death, darkness and light, reality and fantasy’. As he has done before with Chroma (John Pawson) and Infra (Julian Opie), Limen will feature an artistic collaboration with Japanese contemporary conceptual artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

Miyajima has designed a giant wall of blue LED lights flashing on and off which will reflect the individuality of each dancer and their unique personal movements. Limen will be set to a cello concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose distinct sounds combine orchestral music and electronics.

A list of McGregor’s choreographies for Random Dance, including current piece Entity as well as past productions Erazor, Amu and AtaXia can be found here

Videos

  • A short feature on Chroma [link]
  • A short feature on Infra [link]
  • Trailer for Infra [link]
  • A short feature on Limen [link]

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Eric Underwood in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of Qualia

At moments the choreography is in danger of seeming like a box of McGregor’s cleverest tricks – shapeshifting moves that flash through the dancers’ bodies, kaleidoscopic patterns of shape and line. But there is a genuine seam of strangeness in the work and, with the help of an eerily atmospheric score by Scanner, McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Engram

Cojocaru can make almost anything look good, but both McGregor and Brandstrup clearly understand how Ashton’s ballerina-worship can serve a dancer of today. McGregor turned her into a vision of fluidity in Engram, morphing between classical purity and eerie abandon. Dancer Federico Bonelli was her shape-maker, manipulating her to pulsating music by Montreal art-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A video montage of Ashton and his muses was a reminder of how he delighted in showing off a dancer’s virtuosity. Jann Parry at The Guardian [link]

Of Chroma

Chroma is exceptionally well judged. The 30-minute piece for 10 dancers is sombre and playful in turn, with the flesh-coloured costumes evoking an intense humanity, and the stunning “infinity” set by architect John Pawson both revealing the dancers and immersing the audience. Lucy Carter’s votive candle-like lighting intensifies the effect. Sarah Frater at The Evening Standard [link]

It is osteopathy as choreography, bones and musculature pulled and twisted, the dance fighting to escape from the sinuosities, the flexings and contractions of the body. It is movement introverted, self-obsessed, self-regarding, brilliantly done by its cast (who were deservedly cheered to the echo) and unable to escape from its formulaic, almost dogmatic manner. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Of Infra

Beneath the ordered surface of our daily routine, McGregor tells us, complicated forces are at work. We must connect, because all else is terror and the void. Edward Watson, clearly McGregor’s male muse, seems to pulse with angst – all torque, sinew and pale intensity. Eric Underwood burns with almost as cool a flame, and 20-year-old Melissa Hamilton, plucked from the corps de ballet, slashes the choreography to the bone with glittering, scalpel precision. Luke Jennings at The Guardian [link]

It’s a perfect abstract representation of the lines, quoted in the program, from T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn./A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.” The dancers, who slowly accrue onstage as Max Richter’s haunting melodies for strings begin over random noises (machines, voices), are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the digital crowd above, and Mr. McGregor imbues them with a touching humanity, even as they move in unimaginable ways. Roslyn Sulcas at The New York Times [link]

Upcoming Performances at the ROH

Agon/Sphinx/Limen – 4-18 Nov 2009, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Autumn Triple Bill.

New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19 Feb – 4 March 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Winter Triple Bill.

Chroma/Tryst/Symphony in C – 22 May – 11 June 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Triple Bill.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wayne McGregor’s Complete List of Works from Random Dance’s website. [link]
  2. Wayne McGregor Official Website [link]
  3. Wayne McGregor, a biography by Judith Mackrell. From the Chroma programme
  4. Wayne McGregor interviewed by David Bain. Ballet Association Report, June 2007. [link]
  5. Discover Limen on the ROH Website [link]
  6. Wayne’s World: When Ballet met Science. Euan Ferguson, The Observer, October 2009. [link]
  7. Wayne McGregor: Zen and the Art of Dance. Interview with Wayne McGregor by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, October 2009. [link]
  8. Step by Step guide to dance: Wayne McGregor. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian [link]
  9. Dido & Aeneas DVD [link]

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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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Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

As we stare at the Royal Ballet’s new season, what better way to start than with the company’s veteran, Leanne Benjamin, who has danced for 17 years now and is still going strong. One of their most accomplished Principals, Leanne is ready to impress the crowds with her portrayal of the minxy Mary Vetsera in the opening night of Mayerling.

With all the physical wear of tear caused by the profession, few ballerinas can be on the rise well into their forties, but this is exactly the case with Leanne Benjamin. Her technique is still solid and having been blessed with a cooperative physique, she has managed to keep growing thanks to old-fashioned hard work and discipline (she is known for rarely having missed class) and to a well-thought out choice of repertoire.

These attributes and the fact she carries on excelling at full-length roles such as Juliet, Manon and Giselle have won her the admiration, not only of younger colleagues but also of bright modern choreographers such as Kim Brandstrup, Alastair Marriott, Wayne McGregor and last but not least Christopher Wheeldon (Leanne guests in his company Morphoses) for whom she is always on demand.

For all of Leanne’s consistency and longevity as a performer it is surprising that her name is not as recognizable for the occasional ballet goer as that of some younger Principals. Her recent Giselle was full of depth and the MacMillan heroines suit her immensely: few can match the intensity of her Mary Vetsera (Mayerling), the complexity of her Manon, her metamorphosing Juliet. Leanne can leap from mighty Firebird to more contemporary works, where she displays luscious extensions and a pliant body, and yet she remains very much a connoisseur’s ballerina.

leanne

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. Photo: ROH © Source: Danser-en-france

Leanne Benjamin in a Nutshell

Leanne was born in 1964 in Rockhampton, a small city in Queensland, Australia. To keep her busy, her parents signed her up for ballet at age 3, where she trained under the guidance of Valerie Hansen. During her childhood years she never put too much work into becoming a ballerina and it wasn’t until her sister Madonna entered the Royal Ballet School (RBS) that she felt she was up for the challenge. Two years later, aged 16, she followed her sister’s path and joined the class of 1980, at the same time as Royal Ballet’s Répétiteur (and former Principal dancer) Jonathan Cope.

Training with Nancy Kilgore and Julia Farron, Leanne won the Adeline Genée Gold Medal in the same year she joined and the Prix de Lausanne one year later (1981). She caused such an impression dancing Giselle in her graduation workshop that both Ninette de Valois and Peter Wright offered her a contract to join their companies (respectively, The Royal Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – nowadays the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Thinking she would have more opportunity to dance soloist roles at the SWRB, Leanne accepted Peter Wright’s offer. She joined them in 1983 and bolted through the ranks to become a Principal in 1987. A  hard worker who admits she needs the right conditions to perform at her best, Leanne thought at that point she needed a change, with more time to focus on individual performances and  decided to go work for Peter Schaufuss who at the time directed the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).

The Festival Ballet’s focus on high technique was the perfect environment for Leanne to flourish and take on new roles such as Juliet in Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet and in Tetley‘s Sphinx. In 1988 Schaufuss left LFB for Deustche Oper Berlin, taking Leanne with him. But she would not linger in Berlin for too long, accepting in 1992 an invitation from Kenneth MacMillan to join the Royal Ballet as a first soloist.

Leanne’s light jumps and long extensions (even though she is 1.57 m = 5 ft 2), along with solid interpretations of MacMillan’s female leads and other complex roles in general were a perfect match for the Royal Ballet’s theatrical style. She says she is a perfectionist and that she creates these roles by letting herself go with the music and reading the other dancers’s reactions to her own interpretation.

As she matures she has become more motivated by one-act ballets and new roles created on her by some of today’s most renowned choreographers. She  singles out her role in The Firebird as one of her greatest physical challenges but motherhood, she says, has been the biggest challenge of all and she considers herself very lucky to have been able to go back to her career and continue to bloom.

Leanne has been partnered by many great dancers, but her more recent partnership with Edward Watson holds a special place in her heart. Watson has acknowledged Leanne is helping him become a better partner and it is clear they have a great deal of admiration and respect for one another. Their chemistry is evident, especially when they are dancing in MacMillan or modern pieces.

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne has said in various occasions that she would have loved to dance Tatiana in Cranko‘s Onegin and perform more of the Neumeier repertoire or, like many dancers, Mats Ek pieces were it not for the fact that a toe joint problem prevents her from dancing off-pointe (and soft shoes are a given in Mats Ek’s choreography).

As for the future, she has mentioned that she is not interested in choreographing and is more likely to pursue various interests outside dance.

Videos

Browsing through the YouTube maze, we found a number of videos which display Leanne’s wonderful musicality and versatility

Extract of Reviews and Praise

Of her role as the second soloist in Balanchine’s Emeralds

Leanne Benjamin found her own poetry in the dreamy cross-currents of Balanchine’s choreography; the slight hesitancy that dragged at her quick, bright jumps, the way her body yielded to gravity against the vertical lift of her leg both creating a paradoxical illusion of light and float. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link].

Of her Giselle

Benjamin, that gently brilliant dancer, that true mistress of her art, offers us a Giselle of illuminating physical and emotional grace. We see a delightful peasant girl whose madness is delineated with rare sympathy: deliciously clear dancing, an anguished pose, a heart-tearing moment with Albrecht’s sword, tell all about her. An exquisite pas de bourrée and the gentlest shaping of her torso, summon up the wili. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

She has been dancing the role for years but I can’t imagine she’s danced it better. Her peasant girl is bashful but eager, her dancing warm and graceful, impulsive too. The shock of her lover’s betrayal sparks a mad scene that’s effectively theatrical without being overwrought…A dreamy Benjamin, with the quietest pointe shoes and the slowest adage I’ve seen in Giselle, captures the “here-not here” allure that so confounds Watson’s passionately grieving Albrecht. Most important, there’s a real dramatic connection between the two of them that makes their story come alive so vividly, and there’s never a moment when their emotional intentions aren’t absolutely clear. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of her Firebird

Leanne Benjamin was superlative, never allowing the drama of the long, exhausting opening pas de deux to relax for an instant. Now in her mid-40s, Ms. Benjamin is a completely compelling artist dancing with the technique to be expected of someone half her age. Alastair Macaulay at the NYTimes [link]

Of her role in Alastair Marriott‘s recent Sensorium (read our review here)

The pas de deux are more inventive — Leanne Benjamin, such a compelling artist, can make any material she tackles look significant, even when it isn’t very. David Dougill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Manon

Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg are among the finest in these parts: technically in complete command, so that every nuance, peak and twist of emotion is clear and eloquent, without impediment. Together, they take one’s breath away. David Dungill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling

Benjamin is sensational, metamorphosing from innocent child into reckless lover. With her astonishing physical spirit and wild, unfettered emotions, she embodies everything MacMillan’s choreography stands for, a Mary so dangerous that no reason can contain her. It’s all there in Benjamin’s gorgeously fraught dancing. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of Ashton’s Rhapsody

On Monday, Rhapsody was gloriously danced by Leanne Benjamin (unfailing musicality, brilliancy of step, a cascading pas de bourrée like beautifully matched pearls). Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Leanne Benjamin’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • Mayerling (Mary Vetsera) 8/14 Oct 2009
  • Romeo and Juliet (Juliet) 15 Jan/6 Feb 2010
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010

Booking for Mayerling, part of the ROH Autumn Season, already open. Winter Season public booking opens 20 October (Friends of Covent Garden priority booking opens 22 September).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Leanne Benjamin interviewed at the Ballet Association. By David Bain with report written by Graham Watts. Ballet.co magazine, December 2007. [link]
  2. Late Bloom is Simply Child’s Play. Leanne Benjamin feature by Peter Wilson for The Australian, November 2008. [link]
  3. Leanne Benjamin Feature in Dance Europe July 2009.
  4. Leanne Benjamin: Royal Ballet’s fearless young ballerina by Marilyn Hunt. Dance Magazine, April 1995. [link]
  5. Wikipedia Entry for Leanne Benjamin [link]
  6. Leanne Benjamin at the ROH website [link]
  7. Pas de Deux: Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin on The Firebird. By Chris Wiegand. The Guardian, May 2009 [link]

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The Royal Ballet Autumn Season is getting closer and if you are addicted like us then you are probably busy filling your bags with tickets to start it full-throttle. Look away if you belong in this category. This post is for those of you that feel intrigued about going to the ballet, having watched some videos or discussed with friends and heard about their experiences. You feel curious but don’t know what to expect from a ballet performance, how best to prepare (body and mind) or what to do when you get to the theatre. Help is at hand and although we will be focusing on “an evening with the Royal Ballet, our home company, you can easily apply these guidelines to any other ballet company/theatre.

Royal Opera House. Photo: Russ London © Source: Wikipedia

Royal Opera House. Photo: Russ London © Source: Wikipedia

Before the Performance

Of course the first thing you need is a ticket! The Royal Opera House box office sells tickets to all performances on a season basis (autumn/winter/spring/summer) and those can be purchased in person, by phone or web, the latter being the easiest, most secure and pain free option (unless you are booking on the first day of ticket sales!). If you go in person, the box office assistants will show you a seating chart whereas online you can select your seats from a virtual one. Note that the box office will, by default, always offer you those tickets located in the centre and with 100% unrestricted view, regardless that these may be in row Z. However, there are many “restricted view” seats with better views than those which are central-yet-far (particularly in the  amphitheatre area).

Since it is your first time at the ballet, casting will probably not be very important but if you are adamant about seeing the starrier performers, you can ask the box office which casts are more popular.

Do Your Homework

The next step is: “do your research” that’s right research. We cannot recommend it enough, as it will greatly enhance your experience. There is nothing more frustrating than leaving a performance without having understood anything, especially in the case of story-based ballets. Synopses tend to be available in the ballet company’s website, but since they may elude some people, best practice in this information rich era is to go with Google or Wikipedia. You might also like to try our own website – over the next few months we will be boosting the ballet fact cards we have in our Bag of Ballets to feature those to be staged by the Royal Ballet this season. With more time, and if you are a music fan, you can also listen to the ballet score (try Spotify, Imeem, Last.fm, Pandora, etc.). This is particularly important in plotless ballets which are more focused on the music, for instance as in most ballets by Balanchine. Finally, you can try YouTube for a preview of what you will be seeing.

Arriving at the Performance

It is advisable to arrive at the theatre at least half an hour before the performance (one hour if your tickets are held at the box office). Due to heavy London traffic and lack of parking spots near Covent Garden, going by car is a no-no.  If you are a Londoner you probably know the Tube is not reliable and that you should check live updates via Transport for London. On arrival you may want to browse the Royal Opera House Shop, accessible via the Covent Garden market entrance. Here, as well as inside the theatre, you will find ballet programmes (£5) containing the full synopsis, gorgeous pictures, historical notes for the choreographer/composer and full dancer biographies.

There is no dress code at the Royal Opera House, but we are partial to dressing smart, after all this is a night out in town (Ladies, see our “fashion at the ballet” post here. Gents, you can never go wrong with a suit or dressy trousers and a jacket). The rule of thumb is: the more expensive your ticket, the dressier you should look, although there is no need to dust off the old Tux/Evening Gown! The Royal Opera House has a Cloak Room at no extra charge, so you can leave your coat there (if you are coming directly from school/office as we usually are, big bulky bags can also be held there).

After you present your ticket at the entrance your bags will be checked. If you arrived early, you can now have a drink at the Floral Hall (upstairs, in front the Cloak Room) or the Amphitheatre Bar. Announcements are made when it’s time to take your seats. Before you go, pick a free cast sheet from the ushers at the Floral Hall or Amphitheatre end corners where ice cream is sold, to check the latest cast information (since dancers can get ill/injured), as well as performance structure/intervals, duration and credits. Many people don’t usually bother picking one up, but if you decide not to buy a programme (as you feel very confident after all that research!) then glancing over the cast sheet and finding out the performer’s names is the least you can do –  just like in a social event, it’s nice to put “a name to a dancer’s face”.

Contingencies

If you arrive late, the ushers will lead you to a room where the live performance is relayed onto a screen. You will be admitted in the auditorium after a suitable pause (usually after the 1st act in a full-length ballet or after the 1st ballet in a mixed bill). If you are early but forgot your ticket, go to the box office and give them your name and credit/debit card, they will be able to get a reprint for you.

Main Auditorium at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Yakinodi © Source: Flickr

Main Auditorium at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Yakinodi © Source: Flickr

During the Performance

The moment you’ve been waiting for! The conductor enters and bows to the audience, a surge of applause, the music starts and the red velvet curtains open to reveal….

… well, this is where your personal experience really starts. The eminent FT critic, Mr. Clement Crisp says that you will know if you like a ballet after 2 minutes of seeing it. Here are just a few of so many things one can look out for during the performance:

  • In story based ballets one can focus on how the various characters are interpreted and how the dancers convey their persona through movement. In abstract, plotless pieces, one can focus on how the dancer interprets the music and how this makes you feel.

  • The ballet mime: in classical ballets notice how certain actions are represented by mime, which gestures tend to be repeated throughout the performance and how the dancers respond to these gestures. (we will feature more on this topic soon)
  • The technical aspects: jumps, spins, lifts, etc. How do these fit within that particular ballet’s context and how they are performed: height, soft landing, precision, quickness, floating (or ballon), grace & elegance of the movements, etc. If there is a large ensemble of dancers (corps de ballet) notice how they move together and whether they dance “as one” in perfect unison.

  • The choreography. Which shapes are drawn through dance, how the various dancers come together and what is the overall “look” and “feel”.

  • If you are attending a mixed bill, there might be a common theme linking them all (in many occasions the pieces are by the same choreographer, etc). Try to analyse the connections between the different pieces in the programme.

Sometimes dancers will stop after a solo packed with jaw dropping technical feats and the audience will burst into applause. In ballet, unlike classical music concerts or opera, you don’t have to wait for the performance to end to show your appreciation and it is  normal to cheer and clap after a particularly well executed variation. However, you should take note of the key applause moments in ballet: at the beginning, when the conductor takes his stand and when the performance restarts after an interval; and at the end, when the company take their bows and during the curtain calls, when the principals and soloists come to thank the public individually.

Intervals

During the intervals (typically 20-25 mins each) you can leave the auditorium and treat yourself to drinks and nibbles at the Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall Bar), the Amphi Bar or one of the other smaller restaurants and bars in the theatre. Food can be pre-ordered to be eaten during intervals. Many people choose to gather around the outside the Orchestra Stalls entrance area (the Pit Lobby) to chat and read the programmes.

ROHs Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall). Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

ROH's Floral Hall (Paul Hamlyn Hall). Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

After the performance

When the ballet ends and after the company takes their bows (reverence), there might be a series of curtain calls, where the principal dancers come to receive further applause, the length of which will depend on how the public gauged that performance, more calls indicating a particularly excellent one. You will see that at this point some people start to rush to the exits, usually those who need to rush back to a train station. Whether you should rush or not is a topic for another post, but it is fun to stay for the calls. Once they are over, you leave the auditorium, pick your coat up and leave.

It is very hard to hail a taxi at the nearby stop in Russell Street, since you will have to compete with many other West End theatre goers just out from their plays and musicals. It is advisable to either pre-book a cab or walk to Holborn to find one. Otherwise, it is best to take the bus or the tube.

We hope that these notes assist in making your evening a very enjoyable experience. We would love to hear from any first timers how your experience was, if you will be going back and why. Best advice is to plunge into it. On your way out, you’ll know exactly what did it for you.

Further Information

  1. Royal Opera House Attendance Guidelines [link]
  2. Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Guide to Attending a Ballet Performance for the First Time [link]

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As UK audiences flocked to catch free ballet & opera performances via the BP/ROH summer screenings, The Times, invited by Royal Opera House (ROH) Chief Executive Tony Hall for a chat during the broadcast of Ondine at Trafalgar Square, ran an article which accentuated one of the biggest opera world dividers in the following line:

…the ROH does not just cater for the arts snobs who can afford the £380 ticket in the Grand tier

While the article focused largely on the ROH’s accessibility campaign via UK-wide free screenings and cinema distribution across Europe, it was hard to ignore the hint of inaccessibility suggested in the above quote. Most newspaper articles covering this initiative tend to adopt the same tone of “it’s either opera in cinema or top seats in the house”, intentionally or not leaving out the seating layers in between and perpetuating the notion that only the rich can afford an evening at the ballet or opera. By pushing these two extremes at the general public, the media is preserving the snobbish/elitist perception of these art forms. The point about cinema is simply that it can reach a wider, global audience for an extended period (ie. months vs. weeks in the case of live performances), not necessarily that it is so much cheaper than attending a performance at the opera house.

The article made me think back on a brief conversation I had on the tube a while ago. I was slightly dressed up so a man next to me asked if I was going to Covent Garden. I responded I was on my way to a performance at the ROH. Upon probing further he finally asked how could students afford the cost of a ticket. My  reply that the ticket in question had only cost me £12, and that there were times in which I could get into the theatre for even less via the Student Standby scheme, seemed to surprise him greatly.

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Turning this debate into  figures: irrespective of ticket prices, ballet and opera companies are non-profit organisations which are supported by citizens, in North America via donations and in Europe via taxes. For instance, the ROH has an annual grant equivalent to (approx) £27.5M in public money to fund both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera. In return for the subsidy the company must seek to broaden its audience. The ROH receives a further £15.3M from donations and legacies, and box office takings of around  £35.6M (based on last year’s figures, a healthy number for recession times). When added, the previous numbers indicate that the ROH generates more than £2 for every £1 given by the government grant, thus avoiding deficit and justifying public spending on it. To keep its side of the bargain, recent changes have increased the costs for a top tier ticket whilst creating cheaper seats in certain areas of the house. In 2008, a quarter of the tickets were cheaper than £30 for full-length ballet productions (costing less in the case of shorter works), with the least expensive tickets costing a mere £6.

In 2008, The Guardian published the following “top tickets” price comparison:

  • The Royal Opera £210
  • British Grand Prix (formula 1) £169 / per day
  • Glastonbury (music festival) £155 / per weekend
  • Men’s Final Wimbledon (tennis) £91
  • Hairspray (musical), London’s West End £60
  • The God of Carnage (play), London’s West End £47.50
  • Odeon (cinema) Leicester Square £17.50

A more up to date web search returns the following price estimates:

  • Chicago,(musical) West End: £25 – £59 + £4.50 service charge
  • The Royal OperaCarmen: Grand tier £210 – £880, Stalls £14- £219, Balcony £14-240, Amphitheatre £9-£97.90
  • The Royal BalletThe Sleeping Beauty: Grand tier £110 – £480, Stalls £10-£120, Balcony £10-£170, Amphitheatre £6 – £70
  • Hamlet starring Jude Law, West End: £32.95 – £42.75
  • Coldplay (music) at Wembley Stadium: £44 – £63 + £4.50 service charge
  • U2 (music) at Wembley Stadium: £61 – £93.50 + £4.50 service charge
  • Odeon cinema (non central) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: £9.00 – £11.00
  • Odeon cinema Leicester Square The Proposal £13.50 – £19.00
  • Chelsea FC (football) Premier League Ticket: £39 – £64

The comparisons above tell us that whilst top tickets for ballet and opera are indeed very expensive (notably those eye-poppingly exclusive grand tier seats), there are plenty other alternatives in every tier of the house, ranging from the equivalent of a movie ticket to the price of a football match (it brings to mind the quote – football is “poor man’s ballet” – a 180 degree shift in paradigm if you look at Premier league ticket prices).

If one considers the production costs associated with a full-length ballet, the expensive designs and costumes, the orchestra, etc. £15 for a ticket seems better value for money than all the other options above. Add to the equation the fact that certain ballet and opera companies run schemes with bulk discounts or membership deals (such as the Friends of Covent Garden scheme or The Sadler’s Wells multi buy discount) and costs dip even further.

(NB: For the sake of this comparison exercise I’ve taken into account the costs for full-length productions which are more expensive than a programme of mixed bills: £6 – £260 for the Royal Ballet’s Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor Triple Bill next season).

Of course, there will always be cheaper entertainment options out there and why not, plenty of stay-at-home ways to watch ballet and opera (TV, DVDs, Iplayer). However, live stagings give audiences a proper opportunity to fully connect and engage with the performers, the scale of which cannot be reproduced in cinema screenings or on DVD. And once you have experienced a live ballet or opera, chances are you will want to return as often as possible. Hopefully the above will serve to demonstrate that opera and ballet do not have to be a once in a lifetime experience or a special occasion treat.

Sources and Further Information

  1. From the Ten O’Clock News to a night at the opera, Tony Hall is taking it to the people. Interview at The Times by Dan Sabbagh [link].
  2. Royal Opera raises Top Ticket Prices by Charlotte Higgins at The Guardian [link]
  3. Ticketmaster.co.uk [link]
  4. Arts Council UK Website [link]

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