Friday, 27 February 2015

My First Contemporary Dance Class

A dancer performing a contemporary
dance piece
Photo Wikipedia
I have enjoyed watching contemporary dance on stage for almost as long as I have enjoyed ballet but yesterday was the first time I took a full contemporary dance class. Even though I have to say that I woke up this morning as stiff as a board I enjoyed the experience tremendously and I look forward to my next class.

My teacher yesterday was Ailsa Baker who has already taught me some ballet (see So Proud of Manchester - KNT Danceworks Complete Beginners Class 29 Aug 2014). My only other experience of contemporary dance had been half an hour or so at Liverpool town hall on 8 Sept 2014 which was also with KNT (see It's not every Class that you can use Lord Canning's Eyes for Spotting 9 Sept 2014).

The class started off with pliés and balances as in ballet though we did not use the barre but then we had our first floor exercise. I had done quite a bit of that sort of work with Fiona Noonan in ballercise as well as some private lessons that she gave me a year or so ago so it was not a complete shock but I did find myself using muscles that had been left undisturbed for far too long.

After the exercises Ailsa taught us a routine which seemed to go step, step, step, arms in open fifth, a lunge to the right, step, step, step, arms up in open fifth again, a lunge to the left, step, step and then something like a rond de jambe and grand battement followed by a run back across the studio. We then rose on demi with our arms outstretched. Then something called step hop which was nothing like the temps levé that I had done in the Over 55 class in Leeds earlier in the day followed by run, run and leap on the other foot which was vaguely like a grand jeté, run, run and another step hop, run, run and a turn in the air, then run, run along the side of the studio with step hops and leaps back and finally a run to the centre. So far so good but then this poor old lady ran out of steam. The next move was a jump from a lunge to the floor followed by a roll to the knees, arms up a couple of times, then getting up, a couple of turns rather like chaînés, then another roll and up, a turn and yet another roll and run. It was those rolls which defeated me. Getting down was easy enough but springing up again was the killer.

We marked the routine a couple of times as a class first without and then with music.  Then we divided into groups. My group had lots of good dancers plus me and although I started off OK I am sorry to say that I let my group down by losing my balance after the third roll.  But nobody seemed to mind too much and I wasn't hurt.

I may be wrong but I think that these rolls are something that would improve with practice and the more times I take this class the better I shall become. It is definitely harder than ballet but I have never been one to duck a challenge. There was a time when I found ballet impossible whereas now it is only very, very, very, very difficult.

I really enjoyed that class. As I have said several times before, Ailsa is a great teacher who clearly loves to dance and extracts the last ounce of effort from her students by communicating to us her love of dance. I enjoy her ballet classes too for that same reason. I would love to do more with her but it is not easy for me to get to her classes as I usually take a class in Leeds on Thursday mornings.  "Nobody pays you to be a ballerina, Miss" my clerk never tires of reminding me (right now nobody is paying me much to be a barrister though I seem to be working every hour God sends) but after a gruelling day in court on Tuesday and after the disappointment of missing Fiona's Wednesday class after driving all the way to Huddersfield I felt justified in taking a second class yesterday. But, as I say, I woke up this morning stiff as the proverbial. Nemesis for Terpsichore perhaps?

Post Script

Just want to say that after the class my friend and I repaired to Panchos Burritos which is literally just round the corner from the Danchouse and Northern Ballet School. There we had two enormous burritos - one in the bowl and the other in a wrap plus a Fentimans mandarin and Seville orange jigger and a half litre of mineral water for £11.82. I had acquired a taste for Mexican food when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s which was more or less the first time I saw contemporary dance. For many years Mexican food was almost impossible to find in this country and hardly worth eating when it was found. I am happy to say that Pancho cooks a mean burrito - as good as any I have consumed in Southern California. So - as jumping up and down and rolling about on the floor is bound to work up an appetite - Pancho's is the place to satisfy it.  That was another reason why yesterday was a very special evening.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Onegin: the most enjoyable performance that I have seen at the House since Sibley and Dowell

When I was young I practically lived at Covent Garden. I was a Young Friend which meant that I got lots of ticket vouchers. I saw all the greats - Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Merle Park, David Wall, Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn - and on two occasions Robert Helpmann and Fred Ashton. I loved the House with its all pervading smell of mouldering vegetation. The flunkies who presented enormous bouquets to the ballerinas. The littering of the floor with cut flowers thrown by zealous members of the audience. And above all the ballets. Particularly those that are not performed so much nowadays such as Monotones, Jazz Calendar and, above all, Enigma Variations with Sibley as the adorable Dorabella.

I went to graduate school in America and while I was away the fruit and veg market moved to Nine Elms. When I came back the smell of vegetables that had lingered for a while began to disperse.  Fewer and fewer people threw flowers onto the stage. Then at the end of the 1990s the House closed for renovation. When it re-opened everything had changed. Though I admired Bull, Bussell and Guillem I never took to them in the way I did to Sibley, Seymour and Fonteyn. Though the Royal Ballet's performances were as polished as ever they somehow lacked charm. I fell out of love with the Royal Ballet and Covent Garden and transferred my affection to other companies like Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and most recently the Dutch National Ballet.

Until last Monday night. That night I saw something wonderful. Cranko's Onegin danced by Matthew Goulding in the title role, Natalia Osipova as Tatiana, Matthew Ball as Lensky and Bennet Gartside as Prince Gremin. It was quite simply the most enjoyable performance by the Royal Ballet that I had seen since the days of  Sibley and Dowell. It was like meeting an old friend after an absence of years. I also found for the first time something to like in the renovated House. I discovered the terrace next to the amphitheatre bar where I sipped my coffee while reflecting on what I had witnessed in the first act. That terrace did not exist before the renovation. Even though it was wet and chilly last Monday night it was great to step out above the street lamps and pedestrians.

But the main reason I enjoyed the evening so much was that the choreography was by Cranko - my favourite choreographer of all time. Much more than Macmillan.  Even more than van Manen and Ashton. Cranko understood and interpreted music in a way that produces a fluency that is instantly recognizable but hard to describe. I see similar fluency in the work of two young choreographers of the present, Ernst Meisner in the Netherlands and our own Christopher Marney. He was also a great story teller with a sense of humour. All of those qualities are visible in my favourite Cranko work, The Taming of the Shrew. There will be more Cranko next month when the Chelmsford Ballet dance Pineapple Poll (see Chelmsford Ballet Company's Cast 31 Jan 2015).

Another reason why I enjoyed the evening was Osipova. I had admired her virtuosity when I saw her in Giselle last year and she displayed it again on Monday night, But she also showed her dramatic power. The ripping of Onegin's letter was thrilling. How the theatre erupted as the curtain fell around her as she stood proud in the centre of the stage at the end of the last act. Though this is the first season that Osipova has danced in Ctanko's ballet she understood her character well. As she explains in the video above she had read Pushkin many times and learned a little more about the characters each time she read the story. Also, as a Russian, Pushkin is special to her.

Osipova was matched by Goulding. Steely, amoral and ultimately foolish but somehow sexy - a bit like Austen's Darcy but without his good points. He breaks a young girl's heart on the day she should be happy. Then he shoots the inoffensive Lensky in a duel somehow getting away scot free.  Simply to be sent on his way by a married woman in the last act for such a first class blighter seems like getting off lightly to me.

For those who do not know the ballet there is a short synopsis on the Royal Opera House's website. Go to the Wikipedia entry on the book and the Ballet Bag's feature for more.  There are important roles for Onegin's friend Lensky and her eventual husband, Gremin. There is also some exciting dancing for the corps - particularly for the women who exited the garden in the first act with exuberant jetés on the arms of their partners. There is so much to absorb in this ballet - Rose's rich designs, Stolze's setting of Tchaikovsky's music - it is a work of which one can never tire.  Although pricey the programme with its notes on the choreography, music, Onegin's character and Cranko is invaluable in helping me absorb, digest and comprehend this multi-layered ballet.

The ballet is nearing the end of its run but there are still two more shows on the 27 Feb 2015 for which tickets are still available. If you can get to one of those performances then go

Other Reviews

Zoe Anderson Onegin, Royal Opera House, review: Vadim Muntagirov lifts this revival of John Cranko’s overwrought ballet 26 Jan 2015 The Independent
Debra Craine  Onegin at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 27 Jan 2015 The Times
Judith Mackrell Onegin review – riveting Osipova takes Royal Ballet to the brink of ragged hysteria 2 Feb 2015 The Guardian
Laura Thompson Onegin, Royal Ballet, review: 'an assured crowd-pleaser' 25 Jan 2015 The Telegraph

Friday, 20 February 2015

My Learned Friend at The Bolshoi

Peter Groves

Peter Groves is one of my instructing solicitors. He is also my friend. Like me he specializes in intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trade marks, registered and unregistered designs and the like). Like me he has a life outside the law. Whereas I exercise with pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe he runs. His practice takes him to Russia from time to time. Last Friday he was at the Bolshoi where he saw Spartacus. At my request he reviewed the performance. He tells me that it is his first ballet review. I do hope that it is not his last because I find it very interesting.
"I have to admit to being only an occasional ballet-goer, but a full-time music lover: so when my old friend Victor suggested that on my next flying visit (Friday evening to Sunday evening) to Moscow we might attend a performance of Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theatre it was the venue rather than the spectacle or the music that attracted me. Surely Khatchaturian was the worst sort of Soviet composer, kowtowing to party diktat, a pygmy beside Shostakovich: I had somehow inadvertently forgotten The Onedin Line (though I deliberately, for Shostakovich’s sake, put the theme music to Midsomer Murders out of mind).
Actually I find I did Khatchaturian a great disservice. Although as secretary of the Composers’ Union he was an establishment figure, he had more than his fair share of criticism, being denounced along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others as ‘formalist’. The more I visit Moscow, and the more I learn about Russian history, the more I realise that under whatever political system they lived most people just tried to get on with their lives, doing the best job they could under the circumstances. Put like that, was life here ever much different?
Reasoning that Mr Putin’s Ukrainian adventures meant that there would probably be no more affordable opportunity to go to the Bolshoi I agreed to the suggestion. The rouble has recently dipped below one penny, about half the rate I am accustomed to paying, so the estimated 12,000 roubles that a ticket agency would charge, though certainly substantial, was not prohibitive, and in the end it came out at a bit more than half that anyway. I could have put up with the worst excesses of officially approved Soviet music and ballet for the pleasure of a few hours in such an iconic building.
I have enjoyed several evenings out in Moscow with Victor in the past, and there was a precedent for his announcement that our tickets were not actually for adjacent seats. He gave me the ticket for the box in the dress circle, or “beletage”, a few doors along from the former Imperial (now, I was told, Putin’s) box, keeping for himself the seat in the highest balcony. Then we repaired to the buffet - Russian being a language of borrowed words - and there, naturally, we drank shampanskoye (Russian champagne) which is more than just a borrowed word. To be precise, it was Abrau-Durso, a protected geographical indication,  Victor told me, adding as he often does when we discuss intellectual property, that he had registered it himself. And very pleasant it was, though perhaps not the best form of refreshment to take after a long day travelling with an evening’s ballet to come.
Only one of the eight seats in the box was occupied when I took mine. That by a gentleman with suspiciously dark glasses who insisted I join him in the front row of three chairs. My assigned back-row chair was of a height more usually associated with bars, permitting a clear view over the other people in the box. His English being on a par with my Russian («Я профессор Российской академии правосудия»), it was with some difficulty that I ascertained that he was from Moldova. He was in town for a conference, and his delegate badge told me that it was a gathering of paediatricians. (Only as I write several days later do I realise that the Russian word for ‘doctor’, врач , is part of my limited vocabulary). Inevitably a party of three with tickets entitling them to the front seats then arrived: my new Moldovan friend had no better right to sit in one of them than I did. But the newcomers were very nice about it, and one of them spoke pretty good English, which was a bonus: I had apprehended an evening like one I spent at a concert at the Moscow Conservatory a few years ago, where a couple of ladies in the next seats valiantly tried to engage me in conversation.
The neo-classical Bolshoi theatre was restored to its former Imperial glory (with the addition of lifts, another loan-word) in 2011. It displays such opulence as to make the events of 1917 seem not just understandable but rather inevitable. The enormous curtains, for example, could have been woven from gold thread. And when they opened they revealed the most enormous stage, which seemed to go back for a hundred yards, in front of which a huge orchestra pit offered plenty of room for the 70-piece orchestra (two harps) and eventually, after Spartacus had met his gory end, even a choir.
Which makes me think: if Khatchaturian’s purpose in choosing the story was to satisfy Soviet artistic policy requirements, why this one? Oh, revolting slaves casting off their chains, that much makes sense. Spartacus has the Roman imperialists on the back foot, but his magnanimity towards Crassus backfires. Ending with the proletarian hero impaled on the imperialists’ spears struck me as off-message.

Grigorovich’s choreography dates from 1968, and this was the 307th performance of that production:. Other reviews I have read (such as this one of the same production, and most of the same soloists, from the New York Times, or this from the New York Observer, describing the production as “ghastly”) suggest that it shows. I might best describe a lot of it as clunky, although the principals - Denis Rodkin as Spartacus, Vladislav Lantratov as Crassus, Anna Nikulina as Phrygia and Maria Alexandrova as Aegina - seemed excellent and performed some extraordinary moves."
Rodkin, Lantratov, Nikulina and Alexandrova - Peter saw some of the Bolshoi's best artists. I am very jealous of him. I have yet to visit Russia but I have seen Spartacus on HDTV (see Spartacus - streamed live to Wakefield 21 Oct 2013). Nikulina danced Phrygia in that performance and to the best of my recollection she danced it very well.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Ballet Black's Best Performance Yet

There are nights in the theatre when  magic happens. Several things come together. A receptive audience, The last night of a successful run.  An intimate auditorium. Whether consciously or not the dancers pull out all the stops and give the performances of their lives. That happened last Saturday in The Linbury when Ballet Black danced brilliantly. I have never seen them perform better. Though they always dance well, it is possible that I will never again see them dance as well as they did on Saturday night. As I tweeted after the show:
The performance opened with Jacob Wye and Kanika Carr as Jack and Jill in Kit Holder's "To Fetch a Pail of Water". Except there was no pail and no water.  As the choreographer wrote in the programme:
"I am intrigued by why Jack and Jill are said to have gone up the hill - surely not to look for water?"
They fell perhaps but not physically. Coyly dressed as 1950s teenagers - Carr in a tartan skirt like an American co-ed - this was a sweet story (well I thought so though Holder refers to a dark coded meaning in his notes) - of lost innocence. It was an interesting choice of music: Mother McKnight, Nostalgic Oblong and Skyward Bruise Descent by Clark.

The next piece was Depouillement by Will Tuckett. It was a YouTube video of an earlier version of  that work which had attracted me to Ballet Black long before I saw them on the stage (see Ballet Black's Appeal 13 March 2013). The piece I saw on Saturday seemed to be different from the one that I knew from YouTube but no less beautiful. Damien Johnson and Cira Robinson who had danced Depouillement in 2009 are thanked by Tuckett for teaching the work to Jose Alves and Isabella Coracy and Christopher Renfurm and Marie-Astrid Mence. Alves, Coracy and Renfurm were already high in my pantheon of dancers and they have risen even higher in my esteem after Saturday's performance but the it was the performance of Mence that most surprised and delighted me. I suppose I had continued to think of her as Anna in Dogs don't do Ballet but she is a strong and expressive classical dancer. I should not have been so surprised as I had seen her on YouTube but I have every right to be delighted.

After Despouillement there was an interval. "Aren't they wonderful" I said to Joshua Royal whom I had seen with MurleyDance. He agreed. The audience was happy and chattering. David Nixon had taught me to recognize what he called "the best sound in the world" (see the last paragraph of Like meeting an old friend after so many years 4 Jan 2015).

For me the best part of the show was Mark Bruce's Second Coming. This is a complex, mysterious and beautiful work with many layers on meaning that I have not a hope of understanding upon a first viewing. I am sure I will understand it better after I have seen it a few times on tout. My initial impression was that of an initiation ritual of some magical right perhaps from Brazil, or maybe New Orleans or even Haiti. Carr brandished a hoop through which each of the dancers passed - some, apparently. not altogether willingly. There was a powerful and slightly disturbing dance of a man in a lion's mask In a Q&A in the programme notes Mark Bruce writes:
"I read the Second Coming by William Butler Yeats (1855-1939) and it speaks of a creature with a man's head and a lion's body coming out of the desert."
There was a lovely bit where Damien Johnson bearing a mandolin seemed to be dancing just for me. I was sitting in the first seat in the front row and our eyes seemed to meet though I didn't think that was possible as I couldn't make out faces in the audience on the one occasion I was on the stage (sse The Time of my Life 28 June 2014). Strangely it was for he told me so when the audience met the cast in the bar of the Linbury after the show.

There was a pas de deux to Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor which had me reaching or a tissue. Partly it was the memory of Jacqueline du Pré but mainly it was the fluidity and delicacy of Cira Robinson's dancing. She is a wonderful dancer. A true ballerina in the strict sense of the word. I exchanged a few words with her too after the show and she is as gracious off the stage as she is when dancing. There were some spectacular turns and jumps which must have been fun to dance, I suggested.  "Yes, so dramatic and different from everything else we have dome before" came the reply.

The company is taking a break for a few days. The American dancers are going home and I believe that at least some of the English dancers are visiting America. They will be back in Leeds on the 18 and 19 April with Dogs don'r do Ballet where they are now part of our ballet family (see Ballet Black at Home in Leeds 7 Nov 2014). Though they have not yet announced details of their tour on their website they will doubtless take this mixed bill on tour. When they do, be sure to see it.

Further Reading
10 Feb 2015    John Ross, Ballet Black Triple Bill, London, Feb 2015 BalletcoForum
27 Feb 2014  Extra Special - Ballet Black at the Linbury 26 Feb 201

Friday, 13 February 2015

"We are the Junior Company"

In The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's best Performance yet 8 Feb 2014 I wrote:
"[The Junior Company] are a very attractive group of young people. Their performances begin with a group photo projected onto a screen that suddenly springs to life. "We are young"says one. "We are international" says another. ""We are fun"says a third. "We are the Junior Company"they say in unison to tinkles of laughter. How can anyone not be charmed by such beautiful and vivacious young people?"
Well here's that clip. I ask again: How can anybody not be charmed by them.

Ed Watson: more than just an outstanding dancer - a really good bloke

Ed Watson signing a calendar after his talk
Photo Jane Lambert
(c) 2015 Jane Elizabeth Lambert, all rights reserved

On Tuesday evening I listened to Edward Watson in conversation at Danceworks. He is a principal of the Royal Ballet and ipso facto an outstanding dancer but he across across as a very likeable young man. He showed a sense of humour. He answered questions directly and thoroughly. He rewarded his fans (of which I am one) by signing their autograph books and calendars, posing for photos or (as in my case) shaking hands.

Watson explained that he started dancing to keep his sister company. Their studio was what his interviewer called a "rinky dink school in Bromley". From there he progressed to the Royal Ballet Associates though not without setbacks for he failed his RAD Grade 1. However, that did not prevent his progressing to White Lodge. His talent was recognized and anyway the school wanted more boys.

White Lodge is a boarding school and he was not particularly happy there for his first two years. His teachers included Pauline Wadsworth, Linda Goss and the late Anatoly Grigoriev who taught him "the heavy stuff". Watson said that nothing came easy to him and that it took some time to "grow into his body". Ballet wasn't a vocation in the early years - just something that he liked to do. From White Lodge he progressed to the Upper School and from there to the Royal Ballet. On being asked what his parents thought about his training he replied that he did not believe that they gave any thought to it at all. He was one of 4 and his parents encouraged all their children to pursue whatever career they wanted.

Watson's first solo role was in Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree just before the Royal Opera House closed for refurbishment. That was a strange time for the Royal Ballet as it performed at different venues throughout London. It was around that time that he was given his first principal role in My Brother My Sisters, another MacMillan ballet.  It was also approximately when he started to work with Wayne McGregor who had been introduced to the Royal Ballet through Deborah Bull's Artists Development Initiative. Shortly afterwards Watson was promoted to soloist.

At this point the interviewer observed that "people don't realize how technical you have to be to Romeo, Manon etcetera." Watson replied that it was not that he was not classical it was just that he did not do classical. He could not, for example, imagine himself dancing in Swan Lake.  The interviewer noted that some of the music to which Watson dances is difficult. Watson explained that he recognized sound adding "something settles to sound" and though it might sound weird it was an "atmospheric thing". He gave The Rite of Spring as an example where things look as they sound.   Watson's big moment came when he was cast as Romeo. As it is a physically demanding role he hired Hugh Craig as a personal trainer to increase his strength and stamina.

In 2011 Watson danced in Arthur Pita's "The Metamorphosis" which is based on a work by Kafka. Pita spend a week reading Kafka in order to discover the characters.

Watson was asked about the choreographers he has worked or will be working with. He mentioned Wayne McGreogor, Wendy Whelan, Arlene Philips, Arthur Pita and Christopher Wheeldon. He has engagements at The Linbury and in New York City.

At that point questions were invited from the floor.

A gentleman asked Watson to describe his daily routine. He replied that a typical day might consist of class for 10:30 to 12:00, rehearsals from 12:00 to 17:30 and then perhaps a show. However, his routine did vary. Sometimes he would do pilates, for example.

I asked him how he felt when manipulating his face and body in all the shapes depicting jealousy in Act I of The Winters Tale. "Not easy at first" was the reply but he eventually got used to them.

Another gentleman said that he had been told by Watson's teacher that he was the most outstanding choreographer of his year. "Not true" was the reply. Everybody had to study choreography at the Royal Ballet School but he had no ambitions in choreography.

He was asked how he prepared for a role. He replied that he did a lot of work when he was asked to dance Mayerling.  He travelled to Vienna and visited the graves. He read voraciously and watched every performance he could.

He had been described as a "dance actor". He disavowed the description. "Straight acting is difficult" he said. "I'm a dancer and not an actor." Someone suggested he might train for the stage. He agreed that was a possibility.

Someone asked whether there was a role he still wanted to dance. "Not really" he replied. He had danced just about every role he had wanted to perform.

Another asked about personal setbacks. He mentioned injuring himself in The Song of the Earth and falling flat on his face in Giselle.

He was asked whether there were any dancers who had inspired him when he was young. He replied that he had never seen a ballet before he joined the Royal Ballet School.  He was impressed by Anthony Dowell and Wayne Eagling. The interviewer interjected that the role of male dancers had evolved tremendously over the years. Watson agreed adding that they can now be anything.  Young dancers nowadays are much less patient than his generation had been. They had a lot of enthusiasm and energy which was on balance a good thing.

The interviewer asked what he hopes to do when he retires from full time dancing. He had no plans beyond staying in the profession. Coaching was one possibility. Being a ballet master was another.

He was asked whether he got on well with the other principals and to the surprise of at least some of the audience he said he did. He shared a dressing room with Thiago Soares but it was rare for them to use it at the same time.

On being asked whether he wanted to say anything at the end of the interview he simply thanked everybody for coming,

Lesley Osman proposed a vote of thanks and we all clapped enthusiastically.

Almost everyone in the audience formed a queue to shake his hand. He had a kind word for each of us. Some of his fans asked him to sign autograph albums. Others asked him to pose for photos. He accepted the adulation with enormous grace. I thought to myself as I started my long drive back to Yorkshire: "what a really good bloke,"

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's best Performance yet

Thomas van Damme and Nancy Burer in Embers
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

On 24 Nov 2013 I attended the first night of the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's tour of the Netherlands (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 (25 Nov 2013)). I had come to Amsterdam to see Michaela DePrince as I had heard of her appearance in the documentary First Position and her performance as Gulnare  in the South African Mzansi Ballet's production of Le Corsaire. 

Through coming to watch her I discovered the Junior Company and was charmed by them. They are a very attractive group of young people. Their performances begin with a group photo projected onto a screen that suddenly springs to life. "We are young"says one. "We are international" says another. ""We are fun"says a third. "We are the Junior Company"they say in unison to tinkles of laughter. How can anyone not be charmed by such beautiful and vivacious young people?

The Junior Company's performance of  24 Nov 2013 was one of the most memorable I had ever experienced in the theatre. It was rewarded by a standing ovation which does not happen very often outside political party conferences. I doubted that I would ever see a performance like that one ever again.- but I was wrong, The opening night of the Junior Company's 2015 tour on 6 Feb 2015 at the same theatre won another standing ovation. In my judgment that opening night was even better than the last one.

Before the show there was a short speech by Ted Brandsen, the Dutch National Ballet's Artistic Director. As it was in Dutch which is a language that I have not yet mastered I could make out only a few words but it seemed to tell the origins of the Junior Company, its achievements to date (one of which was its successful visit to the Linbury last year) and an appeal for continued public support. At a reception after the performance I was told by several guests, including the wife of the gentleman in charge of fund raising and also by one of the retired principal dancers, that there is nothing like our Arts Council of England in the Netherlands and that ballet has to rely on box office receipts and individual and corporate donations albeit that one of the largest of those corporate donors is the local authority. If that is the case, the achievement of the Dutch National Ballet in attaining and maintaining the highest artistic standards is all the more remarkable.

The show that the Junior Company are taking on tour is called Ballet Classics and Modern Masters. It is described aptly on the Company's website as "a journey through dance history from the classics to new works created especially for the Junior Company" which
"begins with excerpts from famous classical ballets like Swan Lake and Napoli, which are followed by works by resident choreographer Hans van Manen (Visions Fugitives) and Embers by artistic coordinator Ernst Meisner. Furthermore dancer/choreographer Milena Sidorova presents her work Full Moon. The evening closes with spectacular new works by the young talented Spaniard Juanjo Arques (Surfacing) and Canadian choreographer Robert Binet (Blink)."
As in the last show each ballet is introduced by a short film of the dancers in rehearsal. That is an excellent way of presenting the work to an audience that is not used to ballet. It may not be necessary in Amsterdam and certainly not in London where audiences see a lot of ballet but this show is playing in towns and cities all over the Netherlands where audiences see much less dance. That same technique was used very effectively by Peter Brinson with Ballet for All which helped to create a new audience for dance in the United Kingdom between 1964 and 1979. Raising interest in dance seems to be part of the mission of the Dutch National Ballet too which it has advanced in a variety of ways including, most ingeniously, Boundena new dance app for mobile phones which Ernst Meisner and his dancers helped to develop.

Napoli: Riho Sakamoto, Veronika Verterich, Emilie Tassinari,
Yuanyuan Zhang
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company
The first work of the evening was the pas de six divertissement from Napoli. I had seen the principals and soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet perform some scenes from that ballet at The Peacock on 9 Jan 2015 so they are fresh in my memory. As I said last month we don't see anything like as much as we should of Bournonville in the UK and I love that ballet. Although it is set in Southern Italy the Danes have adopted it as their own just as we have done with La Fille mal gardéeIt is a colourful, exuberant work with sparkling dancing to a catchy score. The dancers on Friday were Riho SakamotoVeronika VerterichEmilie TassinariYuanyuan ZhangCristiano Principato and Martin ten Kortenaar. I don't think I have ever seen a happier performance of Napoli.

The next work was Embers by Ernst Meisner. I have not yet seen much of Meisner's choreography but everything that I have seen I have liked enormously. His Saltarello was the highlight of last year's show and this performance of Embers by Nancy Burer and Thomas van Damme to the haunting music of Max Richter was my favourite this year. Quite simply, it is one of the most beautiful ballets I have ever seen. Its beauty had me close to tears. Like that of our own Christopher Marney, Meisner's work reminds me very much of Cranko's who is my all time favourite choreographer. London audiences have been reminded of Cranko's genius by the Royal Ballet's production of Onegin which I shall see on 16 Feb - my 66th birthday present from I to me. Sadly Cranko died very young but happily we now have Meisner and I just can't get enough of his work.

Next up was the first pas de deux by Siegfried and Odette in Swan Lake danced beautifully by ten Kortenaar and Zhang. The version that the Dutch dance is by Rudi van Dantzig. I've seen this ballet many times and  thought I knew it well but I learned a lot from the video of the rehearsal. "If you position yourself you will naturally turn"  said Igone de Jongh to Zhang. "You don't need to make yourself turn". Then later "You don't want to leave..... but you leave." No doubt compelled by Rothbart's spell. I understood not only the mechanics of the choreography but also the emotion of the piece so much more.
Bart Engelen, Full Moon
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

Milena Siderova's Full Moon was such fun. The music to Romeo and Juliet boomed across the auditorium but there was no sword fight, crowd scene or bedroom pas de deux. Just Bart Engelen clutching a cushion. Engelen is a beautiful young man. Tall and muscular, blond and slender. He contorted himself into all kinds of shapes as Ed Watson did in the first act of Winter's Tale. "This pillow has such a force" explained Siderova in the film. "You can't let it go". I wondered why the company had placed this work immediately after Swan Lake and then it dawned on me. Siegfied saw Odette by moonlight and she was also under a force, namely Siegfried's spell that she could not let go. And why Romeo and Juliet? Well it is a good tune but perhaps the lovers were sent to their by a force that they could not let go.

The first part of the show was rounded off by Hans van Manen's Visions Fugitives. He is one of the all time greats in ballet and I have admired his work for for as long as I can remember. This was the first time this work had been danced by the National Ballet. It was classic van Manen. A gorgeous score also by Prokofiev. Stripy costumes for each pair of dancers in different shades of blue. Wonderful architectural shapes.  Flowing choreography. Beautiful dancing by Burer, Verterich, van Damme, Zhang, ten Kortenaar and Ryosuke Morimoto. Here and there a touch of humour. The crowd loved it as did I. And when he was coaxed on to stage to take a bow the applause exploded. 

I was dazzled by the part one. Most of the audience beetled off to the bars or the loos but I needed space and time to take in all that I had seen. I found my phone and tweeted: "The English language does not contain enough superlatives".

There was more good stuff in part two. Robet Binet's "Surfacing" which was also commissioned for the show. "Get closer. Closer. Closer, Smile more, That's nice" said Binet on the film to his dancers, Sakimoto, Principato, Burer and the company's very latest recruit Antonio Martinez. "Chassé as though you were skating." As Meisner reminds me of Cranko so Binet reminded me of van Manen. More interesting group shapes. The same fluidity. Similar pairing of dancers in costume as well as style. And even the same sort of touches of humour. The audience seemed to recognize the likeness and acknowledged him with the same thunderous applause as they had given van Manen when Binet came out to take his bow. This was the first time I have seen Binet's work and I can't wait to see more.

The last work Blink by Juanjo Arques was pure delight, In a way it encapsulated everything we had seen that evening. The exuberance of Napoli. The fluidity of the Meisner, van Manen and Binet. The touches of humour along the way. His music was also by Richter, His dancers were Verterich, Sakamoto, ten Kortenaar, Morimoto and Engelen. I talked to him about the ballet at the reception after the show. He explained that there was so much misery in the world right now with terrorism, war, austerity and more. We need a bit of levity. He is a charming man kissing me three times on our introduction and again when we said goodbye. "Because I am Spanish" he explained. Spanish he may be but he has danced with the English National Ballet and he knows what we Brits like. This is a work that is sure to appeal to us when we see it at The Linbury in June.

I saw the show as the guest of the company and they treated me royally. They gave me a seat in the stalls in the middle of the 12th row (more or less where I had been last time) which is probably the best place in the auditorium to see a show. That was kind of them but the invitation to attend the party after the show was even kinder. I met the dancers all of whom are beautiful. Some strikingly so. I owned up to writing their profiles in December. I met Ted Brandsen and Ernst Meisner and personally conveyed good wishes from David Nixon and Mark Skipper of Northern Ballet on the off-chance that I might see them. I met Bart Engelen's mum and told her how I admired her son's work - compliments that they both accepted graciously. 

I also got a chance to meet the press officer, Richard Heideman, who had helped me so much with my feature on the Company. Yesterday he sent me all the photos of the performance, three of which I have used today. As this is unlikely to be my last review of those works I expect to use them all. My thanks to him and everyone at the Dutch National Ballet who made my trip to Amsterdam so memorable.