Saturday, 23 May 2015

The King Dances

Between the 17 and 20 June 2015 Birmingham Royal Ballet will dance David Bintley's latest ballet, The King Dances at the Birmingham Hippodrome. It will be part of a double bill to celebrate Bintley's 20 tears as the company's artistic director. The other ballet will be Carmina Burana which Bintley created in 1995.

According to the company's website:
"In 1653 the 14-year-old Louis XIV of France danced the role of Apollo the sun god in Le Ballet de la nuit, and earned himself forever the soubriquet the Sun King. In The King Dances, David Bintley re-imagines the very beginnings of ballet, when men were quite literally, the kings of dance."
The dance is also imagined in Gérard Corbiau's film Le Roi danse an extract of which appears above.

Le Ballet de la nuit was the subject of the 6th Annual Oxford Dance Symposium which took place at New College on 21 April 2004.  Papers of that symposium have been compiled and edited by Michael Burden and Jennifer Thorp and published under the title Ballet De La Nuit by Pendragon Press (see  The book appears to be out of print but the following abstracts can be viewed on New College's website:
Although Jennifer Thorp says in her abstract that no choreography from the actual Ballet de la Nuit survives we do know that its purpose was to impress. 

The image of the young Louis dressed in gold as Apollo rising through the stage was intended to be an allegory of the political and religious doctrine of the divine right of kings. To understand why it was asserted in 1653 it should be remembered that France's neighbour to the North was a republic or Commonwealth having executed its own king in 1649 and France was just emerging from its own civil wars known as the Frondes in which royal authority had been challenged by the commons (le fronde parlementaire) and nobility (le fronde des nobles). Because of its concentration of music, colour, drama and movement ballet has long been seen as an instrument of state power which perhaps explains why France acquired a royal ballet in 1689 - the year of the glorious revolution in England and Wales - while England had to wait under 1956 for the equivalent institution.

There was however another style of ballet in France known as the comédie-ballet which appears in several Molière plays. In Le Malade Imaginaire the hypochondriac Argan is admitted as a medical man in a song and dance routine to the following chorus of bad Latin and worse French:
"Vivat, vivat, vivat, vivat, cent fois vivat,
Novus doctor, qui tam bene parlat!
Mille, mille annis, et manget et bibat,
Et seignet et tuat!"*
Now that is something I would really like to see on stage. I wonder whether any choreographer will rise to the challenge.

* Long live, long live, long live, long live, 100 times long live the new doctor who speaks so well. May he eat and drink for a thousand, thousand years. May he prescribe and kill."

Friday, 22 May 2015

Nixon's Masterpiece

Northern Ballet, Madame Butterfly with Perpetuum Mobile, CAST Doncaster, 21 May 2015

Yesterday Northern Ballet began a nationwide tour of venues that it has not visited before or not visited for some time. In the programme David Nixon, the company's artistic director, wrote:
"I am excited that you are joining us for a new tour, an initiative inspired to make quality dance available to more people an to expand the creativity and diversity of Northern Ballet's programming,"
The tour opened at CAST in Doncaster, a £22 million municipal theatre that opened in 2013 (Ian Youngs £22m Cast theatre opens in Doncaster 6 Sept 2013 BBC website). It will go on to Blackpool, Liverpool Playhouse, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Richmond, Bromley, Stoke, Aylesbury and Hull.

The choice of Doncaster as the starting point for the tour is interesting. Planning for the tour must have begun well before the general election. It may or may not be relevant that the town is represented in Parliament by Mesdames Rosie Winterton and Caroline Flint and by Mr Ed Miliband. Had the election gone the way that the opinion polls and many Labour Party strategists predicted Northern Ballet would have been performing in the town of the Prime Minister and two Cabinet Ministers. Some very influential people would have been in the audience. Some kind of event appears to have taken place yesterday because I met Lauren Godfrey, the company's communications manager, in the foyer clutching a bunch of programmes that were not for sale and I spotted Mark Skipper, the company's chief executive, near her.

Spending £20 million on a theatre at a time of austerity when local authorities have been cutting back on all sorts of services might seem extravagant to some. I have to say that my heart sank when I first saw the theatre from the street leading from the Civic Quarter car park. It looked as though it belonged in a different era and perhaps even a different country. I don't like the architecture one little bit. Its style is monumental and bombastic. It would not have looked out of place in 1960s Harlow or indeed the German Democratic Republic. However, I do like the theatre. The seats in the main auditorium are comfortable with plenty of leg room. Everyone has a good view of the stage. Provision is made for late comers. I paid £16 for my ticket in row I of the stalls not counting my donation to the theatre and a 50p booking fee. I was served a soft drink in the interval without queuing at the price I would expect to pay in a pub or café by a very pleasant barman and found a choice of unoccupied tables. It is a few hundred yards from the car park where I paid £2 for an evening's parking. I could have come by train from more or less anywhere on the British mainland as the mainline railway station is nearby. I could even have arrived by air because Doncaster has an international airport.

The Council justifies its £20 million expenditure as part of a regeneration package for the town that has lost much of its heavy industry.  I am no fan of public funding for the arts but the performing arts are one of the things that make life worth living. If such expenditure retains the brightest and best of Doncaster's inhabitants and perhaps even attracts wealth creators from elsewhere to the town I am all for it. Certainly there were signs that that might be happening for the theatre was packed. Even allowing for the possibility that some of the seats were occupied by those attending a shindig that was impressive. It was an appreciative crowd that knew when and where to clap. They clearly liked the show for several rose to their feet at the curtain call.

The company deserved a standing ovation because I don't think I have ever seen it dance better and I have seen some pretty good shows in the past (for example, see Realizing Another Dream 15 Sept 2013, Angelic - Northern Ballet's Mixed Bill 9 June 2013 and Sapphire 15 March 2015). The evening began with Christopher Hampson's Perpetuum Mobile which would have been enough for me had there been nothing else to see. I am a great admirer of Hampson's work and can't see enough of it. That ballet had delighted me when I saw it as part of the Mixed Programme on the 9 May 2015 and it was, if anything, even better this time round. I loved the leaps and elegant turns but most of all I enjoyed Martha Leebolt and Tobias Batley's pas de deux. However, the main offering of the evening was David Nixon's Madame Butterfly. I had not seen it before and it took my breath away. I have seen a fair selection of Nixon's work and in my humble opinion Madame Butterfly is his masterpiece.

The ballet follows the story of Puccini's opera fairly closely. Like the opera it addresses some big issues like racism, clash of cultures, the oppression of women etc. When you think about it, Madame Butterfly has quite a lot in common with Giselle though unlike that ballet there is no happy ending in Madame Butterfly even beyond the grave. It is a powerful, brutal story in which no punches are pulled. The final scene of Cio-Cio alone on stage, desolate, plunging the sword into her body is one of the most affecting I have ever seen in the theatre not just in ballet but in any of the performing arts. 

Cio-Cio San was performed by Pippa Moore, a beautiful dancer whom I already admired greatly. Yesterday she soared even higher in my esteem and affection. How she delighted us with her ecstatic jumps as she anticipated the return of her husband. How she mimicked his salutes and handshakes much to the amusement of Suzuki danced by Luisa Rocco. How she punished Goro (Matthew Koon) with nicks from her fan for his temerity in presenting another suitor. How we suffered with her at her final betrayal when she was forced to confront Kate Pinkerton (Lucia Solari) after the cowardly Lieutenant had disappeared unable to face her.

Pinkerton was danced by Kelley McKinlay, a guest artist from Canada. He performed that role well. Dashing and swaggering in the opening scenes as he wooed Cio-Cio but faltering and weak in the last as he left it to his wife to snatch their son from her. Kevin Poeung and Isaac Lee-Baker were Pinkerton's brother officers, lads on the town in a foreign port having the time of their lives. Ashley Dixon danced Sharpless, the consul with a conscience. Hironeo Takahashi danced the menacing Shinto priest Bonze and the hapless suitor Yamadori.

John Logstaff's orchestration  of Puccini's music was very successful. All the well known and well loved tunes were there. The score was opened and closed with what I assume to be traditional Japanese music. The voice that accompanied Cio-Cio's preparation for her ritual suicide was haunting and chilling but also strangely beautiful. The set designs - particularly the massive orb and the icons - were impressive as was Alistair West's lighting.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Birmingham Royal Ballet in York

Grand Opera House, York, 20 May 2015

This month the Birmingham Royal Ballet split in two. One part is touring York, Nottingham, Durham and Shrewsbury ("the Northern tour"). The other Truro, Poole, Cheltenham and High Wycombe ("the Southern tour"). The Northern tour is dancing Les Rendezvous, Kin and Elite Syncopations which I believe the Southern tour danced last year. I caught the Northern tour at the Grand Opera House in York yesterday.

I had been to the Grand Opera House once before. My late spouse and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary by watching the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School gala there on the 29 July 2007. I remember that evening for all sorts of reasons. I had already started a course of endocrinology that was already changing my appearance. I was about to change my name and dress under clinical supervision which was likely to add all sorts of complexities to our marriage. My late spouse was already tiring and faltering for no apparent reason. Symptoms of an illness that was eventually diagnosed as motor neurone disease. It was a lovely evening which we knew would be our last as a conventional couple. We had intended to continue celebrating the anniversary come even after I had changed my name and status. What we did not know was that it would be our last anniversary celebration ever.

I did not keep this blog in 2007 but I have located a review of the gala by Charles Hutchinson which appeared in The Press on 31 July 2007. It was the first time I saw Xander and Demelza Parish and they stick in my memory because their performance in Christopher Hampson's Echoes was outstanding. I expected them both to go far but I did not expect that the next time I would see Xander would be in the title role of Romeo and Juliet with the Mariinsky at Covent Garden (see Reet Gradely: Romeo and Juliet, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House 29 July 2014 31 July 2014). There were many other stars that night such as Warne Sleep, Lauren Cuthbertson, Marianella Núñez, Samara Downs and of course Marguerite Porter.  It was altogether a wonderful evening.

I saw the delightful Downs again last night dancing the Calliope rag sexily and sultrily in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. We had also expected to see her in Alexander Whitley's Kin but sadly that was not to be. Towards the end of the first and as it happened only interval Marion Tait squeezed through the curtains and welcomed us to the show. "If only that was all I had to say", she continued, but alas we learned that Delia Mathews had sustained an injury in Les Rendezvous and had to be rushed to hospital. As she was to be the lead female dancer in Kin it could not be performed without her. So the stage had to be set for Elite Syncopations which Tait said that she knew we would enjoy.

Had such an announcement been made at a rock concert, football match or some other entertainment the audience would have taken it badly but ballet is different. We know that every performance is subject to the artist's availability, that injury is a constant worry for dancers and that sometimes there have to be cast changes or even cancellations. Throughout the auditorium there was a surge of sympathy for Mathews. Ballet is like a family even for the audience and everyone was concerned for her as we would be concerned for a family member. We couldn't help noticing the incident which came towards the end of the ballet but it was over in a trice. Brave lady and pro that she is, she picked herself up in a trice and continued to dance gracefully off stage even though she must have been in considerable pain. Although Tait said the injury was serious I was relieved to learn from a manager that it was muscular and there was no damage to a tendon. There is every hope that she will make a full recovery. Like everyone who was in the theatre I send her my love and wish her well.

While the evening was shorter than I had expected it was every bit as good as I had hoped for. Ahston's Les Rendezvous to Auber's music as arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert was delightful. Sadly no programmes were on sale last night because someone had sent the wrong ones to York but I had seen the ballet before and knew that it was one of Ashton's first works. According to Wikipedia it was first performed by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1933. The costumes and the backdrop had a period feel and I thought they must have been the original designs until I read that they had been created by Anthony Ward. I loved the women's dresses with large polka dots and the men's blazers in different colours. Quite like the Stewards enclosure at Henley. Mathews danced beautifully in Les Rendezvous as indeed did everyone. But if I have to single out anyone it has to be Brandon Lawrence, a Bradford lad who clearly relished his return to God's own county. He danced proudly and magisterially. There was no doubt that he was glad to be back on home turf.

Though they must have been concerned for their colleague the dancers and orchestra gave Elite Syncopations their all. For those who have not seen it,this ballet was created by Kenneth MacMillan a few years after he had succeeded Ashton as principal choreographer at Covent Garden. The music is by Scott Joplin and it is delivered by the musicians on stage. Each of the dancers does a turn. I have already mentioned Downs's Calliope which everyone loved but there were more delights: Reiina Fuchigami and Oliver Till in The Golden Hours, Yvette Knight's Stoptime Rag, James Barton and Yijing Zhang in The Alaskan Rag, Chi Cao's exuberant Friday Night and the whole cast's joyful entry and exit.

Like the 2007 gala I shall remember yesterday as an evening of great ballet. The company had a good audience. There was thunderous applause at the end including some serious amphitheatre style whooping from a gent in one of the rows behind me. York has an opera house that is grand in more than name only.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015


Yesterday ArtStreaming TV transmitted English National Ballet School's annual choreographic competition over the internet to computers, tablets, mobile devices and TVs around the world. I was able to see glimpses of the transmission but not nearly as much as I should have liked as I had other commitments last night.

Gavin McCaig. who trained at English National Ballet School and now dances with Northern Ballet tweeted
" will you get to tune in Jane? fantastic pioneers with this incredible live streaming idea!"
And he's right. It is an impressive technology and an inspired way of disseminating dance to the world. English National Ballet School is to be congratulated for its part in this transmission.

The founder and executive producer of ArtStreamingTV is Andre Portasio who also trained at English National Ballet School and danced with the English National Ballet.  As you can see from his web page, he has an impressive set of credentials and has enjoyed a distinguished career on the stage and off it. 

English National Ballet School's website refers to A day in the life of English National Ballet School. It was watched live by over 6,000 people across 23 countries and afterwards by another 15,000 on demand. The video shows various classes starting with barre, pas de deux, body conditioning, jumps and choreography and includes interviews with Tamarra Rojo, George Williamson who created Dawn Dances for the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company and of course Samira Saidi, Director of Dance at the School.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

It takes Three to Tango

The most fascinating country I have ever visited is Argentina. I have made two visits there and travelled from Iguazu Falls in the North to Tierra del Fuego in the South, the Tigre delta to Mount Aconcagua and from the simple Welsh settlement in Dolavon to Alpine Bariloche. On each of my visits I have learned to love the tango and, in particular, the music of Astor Piazzolla.

In the last few weeks I have seen two ballets that have been set to Piazzolla's music.  Scottish Ballet performed van Manen's 5 Tangos and Northern Ballet Daniel de Andrade's Fatal Kiss.  Here's what I wrote about 5 Tangos:
"I have been a van Manen fan for as long as I have been following ballet and I love his work but I enjoyed 5 Tangos more than any of his works that I had seen before. I have been to Buenos Aires on two occasions twice and have been fascinated by the tango which is far more than a social dance style. It is a genre of music and indeed poetry as well as dance as I mentioned in my review of Scottish Ballet's Streetcar earlier this month. Van Manen paid faithful homage to that art form using music by the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla. The dancers - the women clad in red and black and the men in black - executed his choreography with flair. They were led by Luciana Ravizzi who had danced Blanche at Sadlier's Wells. She is a Porteña, proud and elegant and yesterday she was magnificent. Clearly, the Glaswegians treasure her. She received three enormous bouquets at the end of the show."
See  No Mean City - Accessible Dance and Ballet 26 April 2015. I reviewed Fatal Kiss in Between Friends - Northern Ballet's Mixed Programme 10 May 2015 and Sapphire 15 March 2015.

Now there is a chance to see another ballet set to Piazzolla's music. Kit Holder has choreographed Quatrain for Birmingham Royal Ballet to Piazzolla's The Four Season's of Buenos Aires. Holder is an impressive talent. I first noticed him in Ballet Black's To Fetch a Pail of Water (see Ballet Black's Best Performance Yet 17 Feb 2015) and I was bowled over by Hopper which he created for Ballet Central (see Dazzled 3 May 2015).

Holder is not the only promising young choreographer from Birmingham Royal Ballet. Ruth Brill who enchants me with her dancing has choreographed Matryoshka to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Last year my over 55 class danced to music by the same composer and it was lovely. Matryoshka was created last year for Symphony Hall and it won a lot of compliments. I very much look forward to seeing it too.

Birmingham Royal Ballet are dancing those works as part of their southern tour which starts tomorrow in Truro and is zigzagging its way through the South West taking in Poole, Cheltenham and Wycombe. I'm traipsing down to Bucks for the show next week. I shall also see the northern tour in York tomorrow. Should be good.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Margot Fonteyn

Bronze statute of Dame Margot Fonteyn
Photograph by Ian Yarham,
Commons Attribution Share-alike licence 2.0
Source Wikipedia

Peggy Hookham was born this day in Reigate exactly 96 years ago. She is of course better known as Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias, prima ballerina assoluta and probably one pf the greatest dancers of all time. I won't attempt a biography. There are plenty around as well as her own autobiography. For those who want to research her life and career the Wikipedia article provides a good starting point.

I shall confine myself to some personal memories. Although I saw her on television many times as I was growing up I did not see her on stage until I went to university. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she was entering her fifties. One of the roles that I saw her dance was Juliet in Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet from which a remarkable film was made. You can still see on YouTube. I saw her in most of the other great classical roles as I was a Young Friend of Covent Garden and practically lived at the House in the Christmas, Easter and first part of the Summer vacations between 1969 and 1972.

My last memory of Fonteyn was not on the stage but in the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn. She had been invited to dine with the benchers on Grand Day. This is an occasion when prominent individuals in public life visit the Inn. Usually the benchers and their guests enter and leave the hall in silence. After their name is read out they are greeted with a bow which they usually reciprocate. But when Dame Margot left the Hall there was an explosion of applause as though she had danced Odette-Odile. Her smile will remain with me to my dying day.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

There's more to Harpenden than Thameslink

I've discovered that the easiest and cheapest way to London is to drive to Luton Parkway which takes just over two and a half hours from Dodworth (the "w" is not pronounced  by the locals and they glare at you if try to do so) where I join the M1. I park in the multistorey for £2.50 so long as I arrive after 17:00. Then I make my way into town by Thameslink which takes me to Farringdon that is close to the Wells and within walking distance of the House and Coli for £10 return. "Easy peasy lemon squeezy" as they say. So much more convenient than East Midlands Trains from Sheffield or Virgin from Donny.

Just past Parkway there is a station called Harpenden. For a long time I thought that was all there was to Harpenden but on Friday I learned that there is also The Harpenden Summer Dance School. Not only that but one of the teachers is Hfbrew (Helen Brewer) who tells me who is dancing in Ballet Theatre UK's performances. Without her help I could never review that company's shows because BTUK does not publish cast lists and the chap who sells the programmes never knows who is dancing.

According to its home page The Harpenden Summer Dance School "is primarily a week long dance course that takes place every August during the week prior to the Bank Holiday." Apparently it is suitable for keen dance students of all levels and its ethos is to provide top quality dance training during the summer break in a friendly and informal atmosphere. I have already said that Helen is, one of the teachers. The others are Mary Schon and Richard Reynard. All three have impressive credentials.  There are classes in ballet, jazz and musical theatre at junior, senior and advanced levels as well as coaching for the more advanced students.

Fees start at £12 for a single class with discounts for second and subsequent classes on the same day. A weekly pass costs £150 which is not bad for the Home Counties, the land of milk and honey, where everybody drives a Bentley and the average mortgage is bigger than the GDP of several UN member states.So if you are interested you can download the application form here. The school has a really pretty logo (or device marks as we sad old fossils call such things) and a t-shirt emblazoned with that design will set you back £12.

If you want to learn more about this course you can call Helen on 07818 448400 or send her an email.