To Laura Hecquet, who substituted for Ludmila Pagliero in tonight’s POB Swan Lake, and has been promoted to étoile by Director of Dance Benjamin Millepied.
Nods to early 20th century Japan look instead like twee japonisme. (There’s a fine line between accuracy and stereotype). Seen in light of Opera Australia‘s more modern-day production, which I could not help recalling, this production seems in all ways a little stiff. Taking place as it does in this austere space, with the backwall made up of a huge shoji screen and a bare floor, it is up to Kristine Opolais to light up the evening.
Of all the Swan Lake performances I have seen this season, this was the best. A strong statement but one borne from fact, consideration and some portion of emotion.
I have just come across a delightful blog post.
The author attempts to find out just how and why some dancing of a known piece varies in quality and interpretation. This is achieved by using the science of biomechanics.
This was again a white swan which in some ways failed to take full, tragic flight. Natalia Osipova’s Odette did not fully convince me that she was in distress of despair at finding herself imprisoned, doomed by curse. Instead, there was as with last time, some kind of detachment in the performance. This was dancing (not acting, mind) which lost the emotional thread, even though the performer herself may have been lost (or rather, fully invested) in the role.
Murmur/Inked (or rather, Inked/Murmur, the pieces performed in that order) is Aakash Odedra’s solo show (which prompted a question from a friend: is he a company of one?). Murmur is choreographed by Odedra and Lewis Major, Inked by Damien Jalet.
With a running time of five hours forty minutes, some would have judged this evening of The Mastersingers something of an endurance test. Far from it. The evening zipped past, Act III achieving something close to actually sublime and the evening as a whole bestowing enduring rewards. One felt greatly rewarded by the return on whichever “investment” one cared to use to analyse. In sum edification, entertainment (if one wishes to think of it that way) value for money (again, if one judges reward by value for money) and more simply and infinitely more rewarding: I was left with a surfeit of joy. This was opera which had done the job well.
Here was another great evening from Chris Vervain Mask Theatre. As with their Trojan Women from last year this was Greek theatre pure in intention and well delivered, its inducements, its piety, and exhortations in full flow and the more compelling for it.
Once more, masks and once more, uncanny to look at. As a dramatic device they distance and yet fascinate. An audience member complained about not being able to understand the actors because of the masks, but I would only suggest that perhaps his hearing is defective. Vervain (and mask acting) demands enunciation from the cast, and they fulfil.
One realises, on seeing the cast unmasked, just how hard it must be to act en masque, under theatre lights and too, in Attic heat! Projection is required, clarity and force of voice. Tone of voice becomes crucial. There needs must be a physicality overwrought in appearance without mask, but necessary when wearing one. An expansive, almost stereotyped gestural code, close to mime, become critical. Too, en masse, nothing can match the picture of a stage full of masked players. The effect is spooky.
Vervain’s masks themselves are excellent, and a lot of hard work must have gone into their construction. Fully rewarded. The large eyes implore and appeal to us, one imputes reactions onto the dull intimation of flesh which forms the masked face, as if willing emotion onto the blank form, animating movement upon their suggestive armature.
I am unable to comment on the achievements of the Vellacott translation, nor as to whether it was apposite here to use it as the source text for staging or whether Mr Vellacott intended for it to be staged (if I chance upon a copy, maybe it says in there). As a dramatic text it certainly works, and credit must go to the young actors for their feats of memorising a text full of odd words, classical references and names. No wonder a prompt sat close at hand, lest there be any mistake.
Happy to report, she was not needed.
All the actors did a good job. Alyssa Burnett‘s Messenger in particular excelled. Her narration of Pentheus’ sparagmos on Mount Kithaeron was wonderfully delivered, never lapsing into oratory or straight factual relation. Burnett was sensitive to tone and nuance, the whole event given feelingly, as Hamlet may have said (and here sawing of air definitely needed!) Had it been an opera (and Partch wrote one for it, and I was briefly by these proceedings inspired to, too) applause for her. I just about restrained myself.
Special mention too to Briony Rawle. In Vervain’s Trojan Women she had the lion’s share (pun excused?) of the business, and on strength of that memory I booked to see this. Happy to report she is back, as Agave. As with her Hecabe from Trojan Women she found both power and pathos in the role, an investment of self well rewarded by developing a strong performance for us.
Praise too for Alexander Pett, his human Dionysus was by turns a coy, imperious, impish trickster, fey in his supernatural powers and a being given to flashes of caprce and anger. Will Bryant‘s Pentheus, falling in and out of that same thrall was finely done, whether offering a register of pique, or regal affront, or plain appeal, all was finely delineated (and again to reiterate, tone, voice and gesture are all we can judge on here).
Joanna Howden‘s Tiresias was convincing from wizened head to curled toe, her fingers gnarled and her shuffling frame bent. I wondered though if she might have benefitted from more age in the voice, but this is small matter. Cadmus, the poor put-upon king was well given by Emily Salmon and the revelation scene of Pentheus’ corpse with Rawle was well done. Rowan Winter‘s herdsman was wittily rustic and expansively acted, in a Scottish accent no less!
It must be difficult to speak to a mask, through a mask. It must be hard too, to take a fake head (Rawle as Agave) (or skull, pace Hamlet again) and direct to it, and by extension to us, a great weight of grief and sadness. It must be hard to make the words live, and the themes of this most distant and different world live as relevant to our own, and yet the cast succeeded in doing so.
Costumes were fittingly “Greek” (I am not expert to determine authenticity, or how close to historical reality, though Pentheus benefitted from some very finely made sandals!) and again, looked purpose made, by Chris Vervain, Linda Kerr and Frieda Bier. Pentheus’ head-covering was memorably nice, as was his purple robe and crown. The Bacchants carried thyrsus and were garlanded in ivy, just as I had hoped.
The Chorus too, delivered their lines with authority, splitting the speeches and narration between themselves in with assurance. Their choreography by Jemma Gould brought to mind black-figure vase work and proto-slyphides. (Are the Maenads kin and sisters to those same fey beings?) Lighting from Luis Alvarez was nuanced and unobtrusive, exactly what this piece demanded.
Finally (and the foregoing implies praise for Ms Vervain herself) praise to the trio of Penelope Anne Shipley, Anita Creed and Katie Arnstein for their performance of original music for this theatre experience. Singing with no actual instrumental backup, save the occasional tambourine or flute, their lines are naked, close to “elemental” and certainly suggestive of Dionysus’ exotic appeal. I have good memories of the same with Trojan Women, but recall there perhaps less singing under/over the action, and more of music used to link and set scenes. In this memory I may be wrong, but praise to these young ladies for their music-making. Praise indeed to all for an arresting evening of theatre, an evening which sets up all kind of thoughts whirling: about history, religion, Fate, family and the arc of theatre from Euripedes to our present day. Lucky us to have these texts, and my gratitude to Vervain for having the wherewithal and drive to present them to us. I hope the actors and Vervain return next year. I will definitely see them again if so.
Tutus, tours en l’air, pointe shoes and poise, fouettés and footwork galore: the 10th Anniversary gala was an evening close to heaven for many ballet fans (or at least this was how it was advertised to us.) The real program was slightly less than promised, but still a wonderful event. For those in the stalls I gather, glitz galore, glamour and guards outside with waiting motors ready to whisk them away to their demesnes. For me in the balcony, less of that. Instead, a man screaming BRAVO! at everyone, and a video projection to the strains of Khatachurian which due to the angle of viewing and a deep set projection screen, showed only feet. (Still, I’ll take feet over nothing, I guess.)
Before the projection and to proceed more of less chronologically: Ekaterina Osmolkina and Giuseppe Picone in Petipa’s Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty opened the proceedings. It was a nice amuse bouche, let’s put it that way, but rather inauspiciously danced.
Next came Amoveo, or as I begun to think of it “Oddity In Blue” with Dorothée Gilbert and Audric Bezard. This offering from PNB/Benjamin Millepied was perhaps the most piece most “contemporary” in feel of the evening, or at least the most contemporary, with recognisably classical antecdents (unlike Connectome which came later, of which more later.) The vocabulary of Millepied’s designing was explorative, the partnership resembling at times something like demonstration from a modern kama sutra for the absurdly bold – or the modern ballet dancer. Nevertheless the exceedingly slight-of-build Gilbert was partnered very ably. She truly seemed weightless at times, this remarkable ballon lending levity to the piece’s overall tone of gravitas. Narratively, I was left unsure as to any “story” or “meaning” behind the piece, though it may only wish to be judged on its artistic merits alone. Here was a normal politics of male/female interaction. Absent was a lingua franca of egalitarianism in movement such as one gets with say Wheelan’s Restless Creature dances. Instead ballet archetypes again: the man making the woman look great. Regardless, she was made to look great.
For me, the next piece, Schéhérazade (Ekaterina Kondaurova and Igor Zelensky) was a little disappointing. From Zelensky I had hoped for greater things. Instead his program called him to cavort, debase himself and prostrate himself before Kondaurova’s Schéhérazade, which is all well and good, but only if Schéhérazade (or the choreography?) convinces, which she/it didn’t: her sinuous gyrations signified, but didn’t quite deliver, sensuality. She looked good in harem pants I suppose, but overall I didn’t quite get a whiff of the exotic from the dance, this despite the wonderful violin solo from the leader. Inoffensive enough, but one wished for slightly more salaciousness perhaps, to suit the music.
Being without a program until the interval (whereupon fifty of so demanding balletomanes (or here, balleto-mads) were demanding sheets of A4 from two very put-upon ushers) I did not know that Marianela Núñes and Thiago Soares were due to dance. Happy then to see them here in McMillan’s Winter Dreams. The great chemistry they so obviously enjoy came through with wonderful eloquence. This was a sort of Onegin II for them, I imagine, and it perhaps benefited from the pair’s excursions in that same piece. At the curtain call for them, great affection (between them, and for them, from us) and in performance, realistic passion, ardour and genuine feeling. Yet again, one heard them (from the balcony no less!) these unbidden noises adding legitimate pain and weight to the gravity of dance. Bravi, to them.
Romeo and Juliet came up next and in a moment of madness I thought I spotted Mathieu Ganio, but it was Frederico Bonelli and Roberta Marquez (my excuse: no program, high up/far away) in McMillan’s choreography. There was beautiful cape swishing and the couple did a good job. As I had seen a recording of the Yuri Grigorovich’s Bolshoi version that same afternoon, the inclusion here was fitting and lluminating as to how different minds can read and make a piece move. From them, as from their Royal Ballet comrades before them, fluency, a pairing of joy, but from Daria Makhateli and Kenneth Greve‘s The Swan of Tuonela I haven’t much to say except that Daria Makhateli is perhaps the thinnest person I have ever seen. Oh, and also, Greve lowered Makhateli to the floor by her leg, which was an impressive stunt.
Was the Grand pas Classique (Gsovsky) a parody of the Ivanov and Petipa? If so, no matter, the pairing of Iana Salenko and Marian Walter and their dancing was here perhaps the strongest of the night. Great applause for Salenko’s difficult solo and for them both, the pair finding a real effortless grace together. A great end to the first half of the night. Thence, an interval of 20 minutes, in which to discuss who was bad, who was good, who was coming up (once we had acquired our as-precious-as-gold-dust A4 program sheets.)
The second half of the night began with the suicide scene from Mayerling, the narrative sweeping by in melodramatic grandeur, the real life couple of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg adding believable intimacy to the spectacle of violently perverted passion. Technically it felt a little under-rehearsed in places, a few moments rushed or a little looser than one would otherwise have enjoyed, but for acrobatics, throws and such it was a real crowd pleaser. (Pity poor Cojocaru for being thrown about so much!) She looked suitably winsome in a diaphanous nightie, a contrast from where I last saw her in Swan Lake. Here she was all human, and ardent for it. When their bows came, big cheers. (The home crowd has their favourites.)
Marriot’s connectome was declared a waste by my friend before we had even seen it, and in that, I think he may have been vindicated. Starring as it did Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson, I am inclined to agree, but further viewings may be necessary. For me though it was generic writhing set to generic music by Arvo Part – boredom in P.E. gear. This is not to denigrate these two fine dancers, for fine they are, but merely to suggest that the choreography did them a disservice. Despite showing a different side of their selves which indeed they may very much wished to show, I would have preferred them in something classical. Sorry!
Next was a highlight though. Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentová in the pas de deux from The Nutcracker with choreography by Eagling, Hampson and Stevenson – a recent fairytale pairing for this fairytale piece. This version has less flashy lifts, but was eloquent enough. Muntagirov danced supreme, each gesture radiating strength and above all, grace. The man is pure class. Klimentová‘s Sugarplum was well received indeed, the audience in the Coliseum almost achieving the barely achievable feat of being totally silent throughout – until a cougher decided otherwise. Loving applause for both.
Ballet 101 (Eric Gauthier) was around 7 minutes of masochism disguised as comedy. Rather disconcertingly we laugh at suffering, yet Xander Parish ‘suffered’ well and made it look easy. One marvels at his aerobic and anaerobic capacities (and too, one suspects some may have been marvelling at rather more than this…)
The pas de deux from Cinderella choreographed by Wheeldon and starring Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov was a bit of a snore for me. I suppose it was amiable enough but maybe I was suffering from surfeit of tutus? (surely not!)* This may have been down to the thoughts Alastair Macauley expreses here.
Cinque threatened to lose my attention: as if the night was attempting to remove allegations of too many classic pas de deux, here was ballet set to Vivaldi. Here were floppy arms (belonging to Ekaterina Krysanova) here too angluar gyrations, naked thighs and more modern movement. Bigonzetti’s vocabulary more classical than say Millepied’s but the whole not achieving anything like excitement or enjoyment from me. Happy then to see two more stars, Kimin Kim and Olesya Novikova in the ending pas de deux from Don Quixote. One somehow sensed their intent to destroy all those who had come before them, an intent of “anything you can do we can do better”. From Kim, a good effort, better than when I saw him in Swan Lake in August, but still a tad sloppy in some movements. His tours were expansive, but I would have liked a bit more technical rigour overall from him. Novikova was technically excellent to my untrained eye, but regrettably she had a “dead behind the eyes” expression (one imagines jetlag might have contributed perhaps? or maybe it was just her eye-makeup?) . Granted Don Q is hardly Onegin, it is not a dance of abandon, but furtive glances, coy smiles (not fixed stage smiles) would help. Even so, great applause, which continued until the climax, applause to fade.
And thus the evening ended with a curtain call for all. Flowers for all, loud applause, but I had to leave, for the night was getting on.
As a final note, let me mention that the piano player in the English National Ballet Philharmonic excelled throughout, as indeed, under the sure footed direction of Valery Ovsyanikov, did the whole ensemble. Suffice to say: streets ahead of their fellows from Bow Street. Well done all. A friend said: https://twitter.com/attilalondon/status/574708549709860864 but overall, I enjoyed, and that’s all I ask for.
NOTES *But less so for one girl in seat 37B who decided to start messaging her friends on her phone during the gorgeous Nutcracker dancing, whatever business she was occupied in was so important that obviously it just couldn’t wait, so wait she didn’t, instead, she carried on into Xander Parish’s dance, this, despite being politely told to please stop by the lady behind and this despite her being four rows in front and three seats to my right. I will never understand this sort of behaviour. *Seriously, I found a discarded one, and a woman begged me for it, as I had begged an usher for mine. *Measured in tutus I was probably about nine tutus on the scale, where five tutus is recommended safe exposure level.
Footage of rehearsals here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1leW2ijTUk&feature=youtu.be
Sian Trenberth’s always excellent photos of rehearsals here:
Line up in brief:
The Royal Ballet
English National Ballet
Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris
Finnish National Ballet
Dutch National Ballet