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Posts Tagged ‘Wayne McGregor’

Things have changed a lot in the last century in terms of technological advances and ways to exchange information. This means people have changed as well, with new generations becoming harder to impress and more likely to spend time in front of the TV or computer where everything can be found at the click of a button,  their attention spans increasingly shorter. This also means that the arts have had to adapt to this new era, juggling the interests of established audiences with a desire to attract new ones.

Ballet in particular has been faced with various dilemmas. In addition to arts budgets which stifle creativity in favour of bankable productions, preconceptions about the art form have been passed on from one generation to the next, resulting in core audiences largely formed by the wealthy and/or the senior. However, ballet companies continue to seek new and younger ballet audiences, making increased use of social media channels. This week, for instance, the Royal Opera House announced the launch of a new iTunes channel where ballet and opera masterclasses and other educational videos can be downloaded into one’s iPod within seconds (and free of charge).

These new avenues will not necessarily change the mindsets of those who are used to associating ballet with snobbery and inaccesibility but at least they make it easier for all of us to try. And try we must. In this post we take a stab at tackling some of the biggest misconceptions about ballet. We challenge those of you who have never been to a performance to try it (and do tell us about it ). It is never too late and you might be – positively – surprised.

Myth #1

Ballet is all about old fashioned tales of Nutcrackers, Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes. It revolves around princes and fairies, tutus and men in tights.

First things first: Princesses in tutus are 19th century ballet symbols. While it’s true that ballet companies still go back to the bankability of old classics, especially in our credit crunched times, ballet did manage to evolve beyond that garment over the years. A revolution took place when Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes steamrolled their own artistic movement out of Russia, spreading their view of dance as art and as a way of life in the early 20th century, nurturing revolutionary minds that had a long-lasting impact on the art. If tutus are not your thing, don’t despair, there are plenty of alternatives.

Your Prescription: Go see a full length MacMillan ballet. Try a Balanchine Black and White (ie. pared down) ballet such as Agon or The Four Temperaments.

Watch the documentary “The Story of Ballets Russes” this Friday on BBC4.

Myth #2

All ballets are the same, if you don’t enjoy one then ballet is definitely not for you

As one of our Twitter buddies, Robbintheoffice, puts it: if you go see a movie and don’t enjoy it, you don’t stop going to the cinema altogether, right? But for some people, one ballet they don’t like will be enough to put them off for life. Before you decide that ballet is definitely not for you try at least a few different styles and schools. If you don’t like a 19th century classic or a Romantic ballet maybe you will like a MacMillan ballet. If you are not keen on narrative ballet perhaps abstract plotless works might win you over? Mix and match.

Your Prescription: A mixed bill containing at least one contemporary or new work to give you a flavor for which style may suit you best.

Edward Watson in Glen Tetley's Sphinx, part of a Mixed Bill. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #3

Ballet is too expensive

Ballet can be expensive but so can theatre and musicals. If you can afford tickets for U2 or Madonna, Hairspray or Legally Blonde The Musical, then ballet prices should not come as a shock. The key is to book as early as possible (first day of public booking) or as late as possible (day tickets and returns). Depending on the ballet, you should be able to find a midrange seat for less than £50. For as little as £20 you can grab a seat in the amphiteatre sides or – if you are not keen on heights – stalls circle benches with restricted views are generally good value for money. For the price of a cinema ticket you can bag a supervalue day standing place or perhaps even a ticket for the ballet at your local cinema screen.

Your Prescription: Experiment with different amphiteatre seats or stalls circle bench seats to see which suit you best. Buy very early or very late. Read this post.

Myth #4

Ballet is formal, snobbish, elitist & not for young people

Fair enough, classical ballet does draw formal, older crowds especially in the area around the Stalls and Grand circles. But this should not intimidate you, there will be representatives of every kind of demographics in the house, from Bermuda guys to Oscar de la Renta ladies. And if you attend a Wayne McGregor premiere at the Royal Opera House you could gather enough material for an anthropological study about diversity in ballet audiences, quite the opposite of your preconception.

Your Prescription: any work by Wayne McGregor, David Bintley’s Cyrano, or Wheeldon’s company Morphoses. Read this post about dress codes, etc. at Intermezzo blog.

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

Myth #5

Ballet is boring, sickly sweet, definitely not cool

As we said before: different ballets for different people. Are there sickly sweet ballets? Yes. Boring ballets? Most definitely. But what I might find sickly or boring is completely different to what the person next to me will. If you want your ballets loaded with substance you might want to start with something dramatic like Manon or Mayerling, the anthitesis of sweet. Or if you want to explore something that looks sweet but which can still punch you in the gut you can try Bournonville’s La Sylphide. If you are looking for purely cool, then try modern ballets by edgy choreographers.

Your Prescription: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s E=mc2 (one of the coolest things we saw this year) Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark Company, the Ballet Boyz.

Gaylene Cummerfield, Tom Rogers & Matthew Lawrence in Bintley's E=mc2. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Myth #6

Ballet is not for men, it’s a girly thing

Actually most of the 20th century was dominated by superstar male dancers: Baryshnikov anyone (if you don’t know much about ballet you will at least have heard of him in Sex and The City)? Dancers like him were instrumental in inspiring future generations of male ballet dancers. Don’t believe us? Then follow the various male dancers and male ballet enthusiasts on Twitter, there are quite a few of them sharing their experiences from both sides of the curtain.

Your Prescription: Read this post written by a guy about going to the ballet for the first time. Go see a Carlos Acosta & Friends show or watch Acosta dancing Spartacus, the balletic equivalent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator (it’s available on DVD).

Male Power: Carlos Acosta as Des Grieux in MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #7

One needs to understand ballet in depth in order to enjoy it

Another cool thing about ballet (by the way, have we mentioned that we think ballet is cool?) is that it can be understood in many ways, there are no rules, nothing prescribed about what you should be taking away from a performance. Of course preparation pays off, especially when it comes to narrative or semi-narrative ballets. Reading the story and knowing a bit of the background will help, though it is by no means mandatory. An eye for detail helps too but, most of all, you will need an open and contemplative mind.

Your Prescription: A bit of googling before a performance goes a long way. Try to read the reviews (but try not to be too influenced by them), see what people are saying about the ballet you are planning to see on different social media channels and forums or – shameless promotion – over here at The Ballet Bag.

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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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Our Mayerling crusade continues with new casts, some debuts and thus interesting new takes on MacMillan’s iconic characters. There are very few lead roles that challenge a danseur’s technique, stamina and dramatic skills as does Crown Prince Rudolf and for Rupert Pennefather to have been offered the opportunity to dance it at such young age is a testament to the company’s trust in his abilities. It takes time to develop a character such as Rudolf. Interpretations such as the ones given by Edward Watson and Johan Kobborg earlier on were mature and full of subtleties, each of these dancers presenting the choreography under a new light: Watson emphazising his extensions to dramatic advantage, Kobborg fleshing out his innate musicality (our take on these previous performances [here] and [here]). Up until now Rupert has been cast in roles that fit his danseur noble physique, so with only one scheduled performance of his second full-length MacMillan role (the first having been Romeo) this was a much needed chance to extend his range as a Principal dancer.

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton in the Royal Ballet's Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

We were again reminded of MacMillan’s amazing ability to show us characters and feelings that are real, each dancer having to find his own motives in portraying the lead role. Pennefather’s Rudolf is initially presented as a stressed heir. Product of an environment where decisions are made for him, the adult Rudolf has remained a spoiled child who longs to be behind his mother’s skirt. This juvenile angle works well for Rupert, not least because of his own young age. Rudolf seems particularly vulnerable in the Act I scene with his mother Empress Elizabeth, whom he sees as a model against which to measure all other women. He relishes being around the strong types (Larisch and Mary), despising those he perceives as weak (case in point, Princess Stephanie).  Technically Rupert was poised and clean, despite some early struggles with the phrasing in Rudolf’s particularly demanding ballroom solo. His various pas de deux were outstanding, his partners fueling his characterization, the dancing more relaxed and fluid. The remarkable last pas de deux in Act 3 looked as good as any other in the run, in no small part due to Rupert’s chemistry with an amazing Mary Vetsera (Melissa Hamilton).

Even though Mayerling is all about the male lead, Rupert’s debuting leading ladies must also have their share of praise. First Artist Melissa Hamilton was a highly anticipated Mary Vetsera. Her beautiful extensions and her supple body have made her a highlight in modern one-act ballets such as McGregor‘s Infra (where she created a role), Wheeldon‘s DGV and Marriott‘s Sensorium. Regulars were curious to see her bridge the gap between this modern niche and the classical repertory. Cast as Mary ahead of several more experienced dancers, Hamilton’s interpretation was very secure. She sparked Pennefather’s Rudolf in such a way  as to make their scenes together not just the evening’s highlight, but a memorable event at Covent Garden. We hope to see more great things from her soon (on that note, next week we get to see her in Limen opposite Edward Watson).

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather as Crown Prince Rudolf and Melissa Hamilton as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

The always sharp Marianela Nuñez as the sultry Countess Larisch proves how broad her range is, shifting gears from the sunny Lilac Fairy of last Friday into manipulative vixen here.  It is redundant to praise Marianela for her flawless technique, therefore we can focus on the strength of her characterization as the passionate mistress who has a boy to keep her entertained while scheming and plotting to amuse herself in the Austro-Hungarian court. She was particulary insidious when feeding Mary’s fantasies about Crown Prince Rudolf.

Among the youngsters, the graceful Elizabeth Harrod was an effective Princess Stephanie and Brian Maloney looked poised and charming as Bratfisch. As  for the Hungarian Officers, it was good to see Ludovic Ondiviela as one, while Sergei Polunin has become pure sharpness punctuated by technical wizardry (e.g. an impressive series of three double tours en l’air) as their lead. This was a Mayerling in which to admire the company’s deep pool of talent in fresh new opportunities. Hopefully it won’t be long till we get to see Pennefather’s Rudolf and Hamilton’s Mary Vetsera again.

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

For more on Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium will be held on November 8, 2009 at Imperial College London, as part of Kenneth MacMillan’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations. For more information visit www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Diaghilev was a man ahead of his time, a visionary capable of bringing together the most talented artists of his generation and nurturing them into creating new collaborative works of art. Had it not been for his vision, the West might never have known of Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Balanchine. The face of dance would have been very different today without his Ballets Russes.

As ballet companies and theatres around the world pay well deserved homage, in various different shapes and forms, to one hundred years of Ballet Russes, Sadler’s Wells decided to focus theirs on Diaghilev’s spirit of collaborative work. Thus, Artistic Director Alistair Spalding commissioned four brand new pieces inspired by or connected in some way to the Ballets Russes at their most influential. Spalding chose four associated artists of Sadler’s Wells – Wayne McGregor (who is also the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer) Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier De Frutos – to respond in a variety of ways, collaborating with various designers, dancers and musicians while staying true to their own dance language.

The evening’s opener was McGregor’s Dyad 1909, a ballet for seven dancers to an original score by Ólafur Arnalds. Inspired by the scientific, social and technological developments of Diaghilev’s time, most notably Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole, McGregor developed his choreography with the aid of multi-screen video installations depicting machines (by Jane & Louise Wilson), brilliant lighting which suggested the Antartic (by Lucy Carter) and an almost-classical score which fused strings and piano with industrial and electronic sounds, all of these elements nodding to his  backstory.

Dance-wise this was standard McGregor fare. Hyperextended bodies, mobile arms (which at times seemed to mime the operation of machines) and supple contorting backs. More than once I was reminded of last year’s Infra, particularly as the dancers entered and exited to similar stage cues, wearing similar costumes. There were some beautiful, memorable sequences including a pas de deux to the sound of Arnalds’ gorgeous string quartet where McGregor applied classical lines (a cabriolé here, a pirouette there and some rounded soft arms among the lifts) and an ensemble of five dancers moving in unison through a diagonal in a faster-than-light pace. It is not his best piece but it is still one that reminds us how McGregor is a master of controlling the visual impressions he leaves on the audience. His talent is evident but one wishes he would drop his signature off-centered hip and brought in new elements into the mix more often.

Nijinskys Dancer circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Nijinsky's 'Dancer' circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Next was Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight, as inspired by a Nijinsky drawing of a dancer (see left). Set to Erik Satie‘s Gnossiennes, the choreography builds  on the interplay between light and dancer Daniel Proietto. He moves in circles creating  forms that fuse with the patterns of light and shadow reflected on the floor. Lighting designer Michael Hull’s  brilliant work emphasizes the flowing movement which starts from the dancers’ extremities and propagates to swirls of light surrounding him, in a sea of clouds. This visually stunning live realisation of Nijinsky’s sketch was the most applauded and (at least in my opinion) the most memorable choreography of the evening.

Cherkaoui’s Faun was probably the piece most directly connected to the Ballets Russes and to Nijinsky’s own scandalous version. James O’Hara’s Faun  looked  as if he had been teleported from an Animal Planet documentary: platinum blonde hair, thin limbs, an almost animal quality to his persona. The faun emerges from the shadows morphing from shape to shape, at times lingering in yoga-like poses, at times swiftly moving from one into the next. The stage finally illuminates to reveal the Nymph (Daisy Phillips) in an ethereal forest, the two beings meet and through Cherkaoui’s choreography we see them evolve from two separate bodies into a single one. For all its sensuality and exuberance, there were also moments of sheer athleticism (no doubt inspired by Nijinsky’s legendary skills) and with Nitin Sawhney’s additional music complementing Debussy‘s original score, we see beautiful intimate scenes between those two mythical creatures.

The evening closer  – Javier De Frutos’ Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez – was described in the programme as a “satirical ballet inspired by scenarios of Jean Cocteau“. It involved a deformed Pope, three pregnant muses, an Apollo/priest figure and plenty of explicit sexual images to a litany of the Holy Mary’s last verse (in Spanish). Provocation and controversy were no doubt De Frutos’ biggest drivers (read Ismene Brown’s recent interview with him), but to me his choice of topic seemed too obvious, too easy. No prizes for guessing that graphic images of a Pope having sexual relations with at least three characters under a neon caption which reads “Amuse me!” will provoke the audience. It was a dumbed down way to create an anticlimactic finale and I left wishing that De Frutos would have really amused me instead. Even though Diaghilev had a thing for “le succès de scandale”, he always knew the value of a good ending, and as de Frutos recently noted to Ismene Brown (see above link), one would have the “scandalous” Rite of Spring but this was followed by Balanchine’s beautiful Apollo and the evening would end on a high. Perhaps this piece of Diaghilev wisdom should have been taken into account when planning the order of the programme.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev runs at Sadler’s Wells until the 17th of October. For information and bookings, visit Sadler’s Wells website.

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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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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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