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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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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

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

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

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

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

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

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

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

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

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

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The Balanchine method is not a syllabus for training per se, but the term is generally applied to describe the method of teaching dancers at the School of American Ballet (the school associated to New York City Ballet), preparing them  for the specific requirements of the Balanchine repertoire with its focus on very quick movements coupled with a more open and freer use of the upper body.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

George Balanchine. Copyright of its respective owner. Source: Wikipedia.

In order to describe this training method, we need to talk about the man behind it, George Balanchine, Russian dancer and choreographer who settled in New York in the 1930’s to establish and pioneer ballet in North America, and mastermind of a new stylistic movement within classical dance. Balanchine trained at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg and started his career as a choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where he created  successes such as   Apollo and The Prodigal Son.

During his term at Ballets Russes he started to develop his own neoclassical ideas in dance. Unlike many of the other dance movements in vogue at the time which sought a  breakup from classical ballet structures, Balanchine borrowed from advanced classical ballet technique and heavy pointe work. In fact, Balanchine often cited pointe work as one of his main career motivations. He also believed that dancers should be able to be communicate without the need of mime or any other narrative aids, so he set about creating abstract, or rather, plotless pieces in which dancing was the focus. In other words, his ballets are not usually based on a narrative (a characteristic of the 19th century ballets, think Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), although he was still concerned with the integration of dance and music.

When invited by impresario Lincoln Kirstein to settle in America, Balanchine was given full creative freedom for his balletic enterprise, so he was able to create and train a company of dancers “purpose built” to meet the demands of his unique style. In 1934 he founded the School of American Ballet and in 1948 he established (together with Kirstein) New York City Ballet. He was also involved in the design of NYCB’s headquarters – the  Lincoln’s Center New York State Theatre – designed by Phillip Johnson.

Balanchine was a classicist at heart and his fondness for clarity of movement and physical stature goes back to his roots in the Russian Imperial ballet schooling. He looked at ballet as an art for elegant, tall and articulate individuals. Therefore, his concept of an ideal stage was bringing the dancer to the forefront, like a “2D” canvas in which his ballerinas could move, rather than the standard deep opera house stages in which the dancers became miniaturised.

For Balanchine, movement had to be open (arms wider, everything stretching) as to maximise the space and he was fond of deep lines, sharp positions and strong technique in the petit allegro (combinations of small jumps and quick steps). This is why he favoured dancers with long limbs, slim bodies, great flexibility, turnout and (hyper)-extended legs, all this at a time when these aesthetical/physical values had not yet reached the mainstream in classical dance.

At the level of basic technique, the arm positions tend to be more open, less curved and dramatic, often “broken” at the wrist (e.g.”Balanchine arms”), there are deep pliés to accentuate the jumps and preparation and arabesque positions tend to be uneven. For example in other systems, pirouettes are done starting from a fourth position in a deep plié, with weight distributed in both legs. Here, all the weight goes into the supporting leg, with the working leg stretched out as in a lunge. In the arabesque, an open hip towards the audience is preferred, with very dramatic arms:

Pacific Northwest Ballets Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jordan Pacitti in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling ©. Source: The Seattle Times.

The position of the body and arms is then used to give the illusion of having a longer arabesque line. It is said that Balanchine took all this ideas from Jazz and that this kind of movements naturally suited those with long limbs. He also had specific ideas as to partnering, favouring a more dynamical role to the male dancer in pas de deux.

In short, Balanchine taught his dancers to make use of more space on stage through length and speed, and this tradition has continued not only in NYCB but in other companies with direct links to Balanchine such as Miami City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

To better understand his stylistic approach, let’s compare the following photographs of NYCB and the Royal Ballet in Jerome RobbinsDances at a Gathering.

First we have NYCB (from left, Yvonne Borree, Rachel Rutherford, and Abi Stafford). Notice how the arms and the torsos are held.

NYCB in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Paul Kolnik/NYCB ©. Source: ArtsJournal via Bloomberg News.

And a photo of three Royal Ballet principals in the same pose (from left, Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb). See how Tamara’s and Sarah’s torsos are inclined to soften the position, and of course, the arms.

The Royal Ballet in Dances at a Gathering. Photo: Bill Cooper ©. Source: Danceviewtimes.

There is clear difference in how the dancers hold their arms and their upper bodies. The look feels more contemporary in the first picture, while it is much softer in the second. The overall effect can be better understood when looking at live performances, but we think these examples give the general idea.

Inversely, there is an ongoing debate amongst critics as to how Balanchine dancers fare when performing the classical repertoire given that the natural lines of their bodies are dramatically different as demonstrated in the above pictures. What is undeniable is that Balanchine was a dance revolutionary and innovator, with a heightened sense of aesthetics and that he brought a bag of new ideas into ballet.

Famous Balanchine Ballets we Love:

Serenade, Symphony in C, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, The Four Temperaments, Apollo, The Prodigal Son, Theme and Variations.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. International Dictionary of Ballet. St. James Press, 1993.
  2. Wikipedia entry on Balanchine Method.
  3. The George Balanchine Foundation [link]
  4. George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb (2004). Harper Collins. ISBN 0060750707.
  5. Keeping the Balanchine Legacy. Interview with Edward Villella by Elinor Rogosin for Dance Universe. [link]
  6. On Balanchine Technique by Suki Schorer (1999). Knop. ISBN 0679450602.

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