Sunday, 21 December 2014

Clara grows up- Grigorovitch's Nutcracker transmitted directly from Moscow

The audience at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1858
Photo Wikipedia

I saw The Nutcracker in a whole new light this afternoon. Most of the productions of The Nutcracker that I have seen focus on the divertiseements in the land of the sweets culminating in the dance of the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier - Wayne Eagling's version for English National Ballet being the big exception (Cracking! 14 Dec 2013). Yuri Grigorovich version, which was transmitted this afternoon live from the Bolshoi Theatre to cinemas around the world, focused on a young girl's transitioning into womanhood and her falling in love with her nutcracker.

Accordingly, Clara (who is called Marie in the Bolshoi's version) has a much bigger role than in most productions. Today she was danced by Anna Nikulina a leading soloist with the company. Her partner was Denis Rodkin. In the interval Rodkin explained that his ambition to dance was fired by seeing a production of The Nutcracker on television in which Ekaterina Maximova danced. He asked his parents where he could learn to dance. They told him about the ballet school warning him that it would be no easy life. Undeterred he started ballet lessons and has not looked back since. As in the Eagling version, Clara dances the sugar plum role though in a white tutu rather than a plum coloured one. Similarly, the nutcracker dances the part of the fairy's cavalier. The ballet ends with Clara wearing a wedding veil.  But although Clara imagines herself as a young woman it is only a dream. She wakes up in her parents' living room  in her nightie with her nutcracker in her arms.

There were some other interesting touches. The mouse king, danced today by Vitaly Biktimirov, is a major character. He appears in the first act in a puff of smoke in the Stahlbaums' living room and disappears down a hole with the nutcracker in another puff of smoke in the second.  Eventually the nutcracker emerges triumphant bearing the mouse king's skin and crown. The second act takes place not in a land of sweets but in a forest dominated by an enormous Christmas tree. The divertissements are very slick each following in quick succession even before the previous dancers have left the stage.

The character who holds the ballet together in this version as in all others is, of course, Drosselmeyer. He is in every scene from the Stahlbaums' party to the apotheosis. Today Andrei Merkuriev danced Drosselmeyer.  Pensive, alert, inspired by brain waves, he was very well cast for the role.

As in all Bolshoi transmissions the ballet was introduced by Katherina Novikova. She is an excellent presenter. Fluent in English and French she is an incisive and perceptive interviewer. I had her in mind when I conducted my interviews with Gavin McCaig and Ernst Meisner and his talented young dancers.

Every time I see an HDTV transmission I notice something new. Today I noticed the floor of the stage give a little whenever a dancer jumped. Something I have never noticed even when I have been in the front row of the theatre.

Not too sure about Fairies but I certainly believe in Rachael Gillespie

Northern Ballet, Peter Pan, The Grand, Leeds 20 Dec 2014

Rachael Gillespie is one of the dancers who lift my spirits after a hard week. She seems to love to dance and her joy is infectious. Watching her perform is almost like participating in the dance. Tonight she was Tinkerbell and she was lovely.  Having seen J M Barrie's play as a child I remember being exhorted to believe in fairies to save brave Tinkerbell. I wondered how David Bixon would translate that moment into ballet. The answer was a voice off stage: "I believe in fairies". It was followed by another and then another. Jeremy Curnier asked "Do you believe in fairies?" adding "Tinkerbell will live if you do".  "Yes" roared the crowd followed by thunderous applause that shook the auditorium. Up sprang dear Rachael with her winnung smile. Corny, I know, but great theatre.

Rachael Gillespie was not the only star last night. There was of course Peter danced magnificently by Curnier. Antoinette Brooks-Daw was a natural Wendy. Javier Torres made a splendid Captain Hook. Wicked and devious but also gallant and flamboyant to the end. Did he really have to walk the plank into the jaws of Sean Bates, the ticking crocodile? Also delightful was Lucia Solari as the Neverbird. I admired Torres and Solari in Cinderella when I saw them in Sheffield last month (Cinderella - even better 30 Nov 2014) and at The Grand last boxing day (Northern Ballet's Cinderella - a Triumph! 27 Dec 2013). They are developing into a really strong partnership of which we enjoyed glimpses when they doubled as Mr and Mrs Darling. All danced well - the Lost Boys, Mermaids, Pirates, everybody - and it would be unfair to single any of them out for special praise.

Nonetheless, I must say a word for Dominique Larose who danced Nana. Having seen Ballet Black's Dogs Don't Do Ballet (Woof 12 Oct 2014) I doubted that any dancer could dance a dog as well as that company. But Larose's Nana was as canine as Cira Robinson's Bif. I only wish that Vlad the Lad could have been in Leeds last night. I loved all the animals. As I said in my review of Cinderella, if Northern Ballet can do bears not to mention birds, dogs and crocodiles - so well surely one solitary bear was not beyond the Royal Ballet.

To my great delight Nixon followed the Barrie play very closely (see the scenario). Stephen Warbeck's score fitted the story perfectly and afforded ample scope for Nixon's ingenious choreography. You can hear some of the music if you have or can download Spotify. Peter Mumford's sets and lighting and Kim Brassley's costumers were magnificent as you can see from the photos.

Yesterday was a splendid evening and just what I needed after a trying fee days.

Post Script

The splendid performance of Peter Pan by Northern Ballet at The Grand on Saturday reminded me that the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 contains a provision that creates a special intellectual property right akin to copyright for the benefit of Great Ormond Street Hospital ("GOSH") for sick children. In have explored the legislative history of the special IP right and its features in GOSH - a special IPR that never grows old 22 Dec 2014 IP Yorkshire.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Chantry Dance and MurleyDance all in the same day. How good is that!

Assassination of Riccardo
Illustration August Pollak, Wikipedia 

On Friday afternoon I received the following email from Rae Piper, one of the artistic directors of Chantry Dance:
"Apologies for the late notice, but we have just been given 2 tickets for the general dress rehearsal of 'Un Ballo In Maschera' to be held at the Royal Opera House on Monday 15th at 11am-2:30pm. If you would like these tickets, you are very welcome to them - it would be our pleasure to give them to you. Please let me know if you would like them, and I will arrange to get them to you."
I did not need to be asked twice. Opportunities like this don't grow on trees and I know a good thing when I see one.  I accepted with alacrity and then rang one of my friends to see whether she was free to come to London with me.

My friend and I had seen an HDTV transmission of the Met's production from New York at the National Media Museum which we both enjoyed. She also knew Chantry Dance having also seen Paul Chantry and Rae Piper in Halifax a few weeks ago (see "The Happy Prince in Halifax" 21 Nov 2014). We knew they were assisting Lucy Burge with the choreography and that they would also be in the show.

We got up very early yesterday morning and set off for Luton Parkway just after 06:00. Although I live in Yorkshire I do most of my work in London and have tried every way of getting there. Unless you book well in  advance trains are expensive and you have to allow at least 90 minutes to drive from Holmfirth, park and pick up the ticket from one of those irritating ticket machines with a perpetual queue. The number of trains I have missed waiting in the queue at Sheffield station does not bear thinking about. It also costs an arm and a leg to park by the station. I have found the best way is to drive to Luton Parkway (which usually takes no more than 2 and a half hours) where one can park all day for £3 and then take the Thameslink into St Pancras. Had the day gone according to plan we would have reached Luton no later than 09:30 and Covent Garden well before 11:00.

Alas, the day did not go according to plan. We found ourselves in a horrendous snarl-up outside Nottingham which delayed us by 2 hours. The result was that we rolled up at the Opera House late and had to watch the first part of the opera on a monitor. However, we were able to take our seats after the interval and were treated to a brilliant show. There were excellent performances by Joseph Callleja as Riccardo, Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, Ludmyla Monastryska as Amelia and indeed the whole cast. Although their's was a non-singing role it was good to see Paul and Rae on stage. We were particularly pleased to see them because they had not been well the day before and feared that they might miss the rehearsal.  Happily they had recovered enough yesterday morning to soldier on and, like the rest of the cast, they did very well. The music conducted by Daniel Oren was magnificent. Our tickets were in the stalls circle so we were very close to the orchestra.  The sets and costumes were beautiful. It was every bit as good as the Met's production. We congratulate those who have been fortunate enough to get tickets. You are in for a treat, folks.

After the rehearsal I returned to chambers. Tomorrow is our Christmas party which I shall miss because it clashes with the Huddersfield Choral Society's public performance of Handel's Messiah. We therefore held an impromptu party to which I invited friends from the barre as well as the bar. Paul and Rae did not pick up their Christmas card upon which I had written an invitation but Paul Kelly and David Murley of MurleyDance were able to come. Over wine and mince pies it was interesting to discover just how much my world has in common with theirs. As I discovered when I took to the stage the part of my brain which engages when I go into court kicked in to play when I found myself on stage (see "The Time of my Life" 28 June 2014).

I am a great fan of both Chantry Dance and MurleyDance. I owe Chantry Dance a great debt of gratitude for coaxing me on stage (see "Chantry Dance Company's Sandman and Dream Dance" 10 May 2014). Had I not been in Dream Dance I would not have put my name forward for the Northern Ballet Academy end of year show. That was one of the greatest moments of my life and I owe a lot of other people - notably my teachers Annemarie Donoghue, Fiona Noonan and everyone else who has taught me for advancing me to that point - and Mel, Dave Wilson and the folks in Chelmsford for encouraging me to have a go.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


Manchester's Theatre Street: The Dancehouse Theatre, Northern Ballet
School and KNT Danceworks
Photo Wikipedia

Manchester City Ballet, The Nutcracker, Dancehouse Theatre, 12 Dec 2014

For the last week Jeannette Winterson has been talking about Manchester on Radio 4. The title for her talks is Manchester: Alchemical City. She has chosen that title to celebrate our city's genius for creating riches of all kinds - intellectual, cultural, spiritual as well as material - out of base matter.

A good example of that genius is Northern Ballet School which set up in a derelict cinema on Oxford Road. If Manchester is to the United Kingdom what St Petersburg is to Russia then Oxford Road which connects out great universities to several of our theatres and concert hall is our Theatre Street (see "The New Mariinsky" 4 May 2013 for the significance of "Theatre Street").  The space has been converted into a magnificent centre for the study and performance of all kinds of dance. As well as the School, which justifiably describes itself as "an international centre of excellence in training for classical ballet and musical theatre" there is KNT Danceworks for adult classes which I attend whenever I can  (see So Proud of Manchester - KNT Danceworks Complete Beginners Class 29 Aug 2014) and the Dancehouse Theatre. Every year, members of the school dancing as Manchester City Ballet, present one of the classical ballets in that theatre.  This year they chose The Nutcracker which I saw last night.

The Nutcracker must be a challenge to stage because every member of the public thinks he or she knows the ballet and has his or her own notions as to how it is to be performed, whether a balletomane or not. It is one of the traditions of Christmas like Handel's Messiah. Most of  the major companies of the world have a version in their repertoire. The ballet is often shown on television. Tunes from the ballet like the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Waltz of the Flowers are played, whistled and even sung in all sorts of versions. There is not much of a story and thus not much for the principals to do but there is lots of character dancing and the second act is chock full of divertissements. 

Because the ballet is so well known choreographers and producers are tempted to put their own twist on the story and introduce gimmicks such as balloons. That is nearly always a mistake.  As I said when I reviewed Chelmsford Ballet's production ("The Nutcracker as it really should be danced - No Gimmicks but with Love and Joy" 20 March 2014) the ballet works best when it holds fast to Hoffmann's story and Petipa's choreography. Yesterday's performance by Manchester City Ballet was true to the original though the Stahlbaums were elevated to the Russian nobility as Count Pyotr and Countess Katrina, Drosselmeyer was renamed Kazimir and Clara's naughty little brother was called Misha rather than Hans or Fritz.

There were some interesting linkages between the first and second Acts. Clara had an elder sister called Natalia who morphed into the Sugar Plum Fairy and Natalia's fiancé in Act I became the Sugar Plum Fairy's cavalier in Act II. The battle scene between the toy soldiers and the rodents was one of the best I have ever seen. That was choreographed specially by Anton Alexandrov separately from the rest of the ballet which was choreographed by David Needham.  I should add that I loved Sarah Oxley's set designs, particularly her backdrop for the kingdom of the sweets with cup cake fillings substituted for onion bowl cupolas.

Manchester City Ballet showed that Northern Ballet School has a lot of very promising young dancers. Misato Ito who danced the Sugar Plum Fairy and Natalia and Jack Brownhill who was Sugar Plum's cavalier and Natalia's fiancé displayed considerable virtuosity. Nicole Hamill was an adorable Clara. She was given much more to do than in many productions in that she danced several of the divertissements of Act II.  Her dance with the children was particularly charming. Steven Lloyd, who also danced Clara's father was a magnificent King Rat. Luca De Martino, who was also Harlequin and in the Chinese tea dance was a great Nutcracker. Bradley Parsons, who also danced in the Spanish chocolate was an excellent Kazimir (Drosselmeyer). Megan Reid danced delightful solos in the snowflake and waltz of the flowers. While all the divertissements were good I cheered particularly loundly for the Russians - Alex Burrows, Carlos Oliviera and Harry Powell - the Mirlitons - Yui Hayahsi, Yukiho Kasai and Aida Martinez Pastor - and Columbine - Sayaka Sugimoto who also accompanied Bradley Parsons in the Spanish dance.

Unlike the second city of Russia the second city of the United Kingdom does not host a major ballet company for the moment (though that may change with the massive investment in The Factory - Manchester (see "Let's bring the Royal Ballet to The Factory Manchester11 Dec 2014)), but our city does have a very good ballet school on its theatre street.

Post Script
If you want to find out more about Northern Ballet School and the studios in which KNT Danceworks operates there is a beautifully made video called "Want To Be Here - A taste of life at Northern Ballet School" which I thoroughly recommend.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Bedouin of Ballet

Ballet Theatre UK's Swan Lake. The Atkinson, Southport, 11 Dec 2014

I introduced readers to Ballet Theatre UK ("BTUK") when I reviewed their performance of The Little Mermaid in Southport (see "Pure Delight - BTUK's Little Mermaid in Southport" 27 April 2014). I wrote:
"BTUK is no ordinary company. It has a punishing schedule. Before coming to Southport it had danced a matinee and evening at Dunstable on the 22 April, an evening show at Tamworth on the 23, a matinee and evening at Keswick on the 24 and an evening at Runcorn on the 26. Today it crosses the Ribble to Blackpool and on 1 May it comes to Rotherham and then on Peterborough on the 2. I counted over 66 different venues throughout the British Isles. This show has quite elaborate scenery and props and sumptuous costumes. Bearing in mind that the dancers must find time for company classes, rehearsing their next production, eating and drinking, some kind of family and social life as well as travelling, I take my hat off to them."
 Last night BTUK returned to Southport to dance Swan Lake and I was in the audience to welcome them.

I have to start by saying that with the exception of Matthew Bourne's (see "Swan Lads - Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, Bradford Alhambra 4 March 2014" 5 March 2014) this was the most unusual Swan Lake that I have ever seen. It was very much shorter - two acts instead of the usual three or four. Different dancers danced Odette and Odile and in this version Odile turned out not to be all bad. Nobody gave Siegfried a bow. He simply got lost in the woods looking for Odette. Instead of cygnets there was a pas de quatre  - that is to say two men and two women and not just four girls with arms linked in lock step. Siegfried and Odette already knew each other at the start of the ballet. We see Rothbart turn Odette into a swan so that he could offer Odile to Siegfried as a bride. Siegfried is not deceived by Odile's appearance but is influenced by the same sort of drug that Puck used to make Titania fall in love with a donkey in Midsummer Night's Dream. This was not the only balletic allusion that the choreographer, Christopher Moore, used.  Odile wielded a sword just like Giselle in the mad scene before she plunges it into Rothbart's body. And there is a sword fight in Act II just as in Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the lovers plunging into the lake to break Rothbart's spell there is a happy ending which would have pleased Joseph Stalin.

Not everyone likes the reworking of this plot. Yesterday, one of the members of my ballet class warned me that BTUK "had murdered Swan Lake." When I asked her what she meant she replied that the music was still there "but precious little else." It is true that some important bits of the ballet are missing - most notably Legnani's 32 fouettés and the Venetian dance though the czardas and the Spanish dance survived - but the ballet still worked. In fact, I have to congratulate Moore on his adaptation of this ballet for the exigencies of touring.

If BTUK were a traditional company with principals, soloists, coryphées and corps it might have been possible to run the traditional version of Swan Lake but this is a touring company where all the dancers are of approximately the same age and experience and each of them is allowed a go at the leading roles. This production was engineered for a young company constantly on the move. Hence my nickname for them: "the Bedouin of Ballet".

My only criticism of the show is that BTUK never publish cast lists though they do sell a very glossy souvenir brochure for a fiver. Towards the back of the brochure there are biographies and thumbnail photos of the dancers. It is always difficult to recognize on stage faces in a programme because of the lighting and make-up but I was told by the programme seller I mentioned in my Little Mermaid review that Nathalie Cawte was Odette, Claire Corruble Odile, David Brewer Rothbart and Vincent Cabot Siegfried, They and indeed everybody in the company danced beautifully and deserve to be commended.

Tomorrow the company are performing in Cannock. They are spending the weekend in Warwick. Then on to Dorchester and Newbury before a well-earned Christmas break. This company is taking ballet to every nook and cranny of the British Isles introducung the art to new audiences just as Peter Brinson's Ballet for All did in the 1960s and 1970s. They all deserve our gratitude and there are many ways we can repay it through their support page.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Let's bring the Royal Ballet to The Factory Manchester

Palace Theatre
Photo Wikipedia

With 2.9 million inhabitants the Greater Manchester metropolitan area is the second largest conurbation in the British Isles. It is also the largest conurbation without a resident world class ballet company. London has lots of good companies - the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Rambert, Ballet Black to name just a few. Birmingham has the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Glasgow Scottish Ballet, Leeds Northern Ballet and Newport Ballet Cymru.

It has not always been so. Northern Ballet began life in Manchester but moved across the Pennines first to Halifax and then to Leeds.  It now has a magnificent home at Quarry Hill in Leeds with its own theatre in the same neighbourhood as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds College of Music, Yorkshire Dance, the BBC and the Grand.  There is no reason why it should move anywhere else. Of course, we still see Northern Ballet in Manchester from time to time just as we see the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Rambert and many other companies. We also have the Northern Ballet School which performs a classical ballet every year at the Danceworks Theatre in Oxford Road. All very good but not the same as having our own world class company.

A few years ago there were plans for the Royal Opera House to establish a Northern base at The Palace with regular seasons for the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera in Manchester. That would have been wonderful but austerity put paid to that (see Rob Sharp Royal Opera House shelves move north 28 Oct 2010 The Independent). Although the news report says that the plans have been put on hold nobody has tried to revive them in the intervening time.

But maybe we can do so now.  In his Autumn Statement 2014 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £78 million investment in a massive theatre and arts centre on the site of the Granada Studios to be known as "The Factory Manchester".  It is part of a £7 billion programme of investment in transport, science and technology and the arts to transform the cities of the North into a "Northern Powerhouse" to serve as an economic counterweight to London.  

An economic counterweight needs culture.  As Manchester City Council recognizes in its press release "£78m for The Factory Manchester - a new large scale, ultra-flexible arts space" 3 Dec 2013 
"The Factory Manchester will play an integral part in helping Manchester and the North of England provide a genuine cultural counterbalance to London, supporting the city and region's growth."
Now Manchester already has The Hallé, The Royal Exchange and The Lowry which go a good way towards providing that cultural counterweight but it needs first class opera and ballet to be complete.

We could try to persuade an established company in another city to move to Manchester as Birmingham, Glasgow and Leeds did but that would be resented by the city such company would leave behind and we Mancunians are too big hearted for that. We could also grow our own company but that would take years. Dusting off the plans that were put on hold only five years ago now seems a viable option. If the BBC can move to Media City why not the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera for at least part of the year? The second city of the nation needs and deserves nothing less.

Post Script
The following paragraph appears in the Wikipedia article on the Royal Ballet:
"The Royal Opera House and Manchester City Council are currently in the planning stages of a new development known as Royal Opera House, Manchester. The proposal is for the Palace Theatre in Manchester to receive an £80m refurbishment, creating a first-class theatre capable of staging productions by both the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera. The Royal Opera House would take residence of the theatre for an annual 18 week season, staging 16 performances by the Royal Opera, 28 performances by the Royal Ballet and other small-scale productions. The proposals would establish the Palace Theatre as a designated base for the Royal Opera House companies in the North of England, as a producing house for new ballet and opera, and as a training centre for all aspects of theatre production. The proposals could potentially lead to the creation of 700 jobs for local people.
The proposals have been approved by Andy Burnham MP the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, and accepted by a number of public bodies. However the plans are currently being revised to address the concerns put forward by those who are opposed to the plans. Issues that have been raised include:
  • How will the refurbishment of the Palace Theatre be funded?
  • Will the proposals impact negatively on The Lowry, a theatre and arts complex in nearby Salford?
  • Will the Manchester season present the same standard of performance as the Royal Opera House in London?"
More on Ballet in Manchester

13 Dec 2014 Alchemy
9 Nov 2014  A Mancunian Nutcracker
10 Oct 2014 What Manchester does today
29 Aug 2014 So proud of Manchester

More on the "Northern Powerhouse"

10 Dec 2014 Jane Lambert "Let's take this opportunity with both hands" IP North West
8 Nov 2014 Jane Lambert "Northern Futures Summit" IP Yorkshire (see the links to other articles)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bourne's "Lord of the Flies" at Bradford: good though not quite my cup of tea

William Golding
Photo Wikipedia

New Adventures' Lord of the Flies closed in Bradford to a standing ovation  though it has to be said in an auditorium that was a good deal less than full. I was one of the few members of the audience who did not stand up on Saturday evening. Neither did I cheer. But I did clap. For although the show was not quite my cup of tea it was good.

Based closely on the novel by William Golding about a group of schoolboys on a desert island who descend into savagery when left to their own devices. it was far from comfortable to watch. The cast was of course all male and many of the dancers had been recruited from local schools. An on-line form on New Adventures ' website explains:
"Lord of the Flies is a unique project that will bring together professional dancers from our company and young male dancers from the regions in which we will present the production. Over the coming months each regional venue will be launching large-scale community outreach programmes to find the young men to be in the show. We are interested to hear from young men aged between 10 - 25 year old. No previous experience of dance is necessary. "
The main characters were Ralph, Piggy and Jack danced respectively by Sam Archer, Sam Plant and Danny Reubens of New Adventures. They all performed well and I think I would have liked to have seen more of those principals had the story and choreography permitted.

The score by Terry Davies fitted the story very well. There was a lot of percussion and rhythm. The choreography which had to be within the capability of schoolboys with no previous experience of dance while allowing the principals to shine was devised cleverly by Scott Ambler. Lez Bretherson made ingenious use of hampers and clothes rails as props.

The show was dramatic, well produced and well danced. For the children who took part it must have been a wonderful experience. Nureyev, Acosta, Polunin and indeed Bourne himself had already eroded much of the the prejudice against dance for boys. Shows like this bury it for ever and for that alone it deserves to be commended.