Monday, June 26, 2017


Yes I know... more dance!  But this was an evening I would not have missed for anything.  As the Royal Ballet came to the end of their 2016-17 season it was time to salute again the peerless legacy of the company's founding choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and to say goodbye to a principal ballerina.

As well as the evening serving as a double tribute, it was also an evening that featured two adaptations from literature as well as featuring two ballets that were originally danced by Ashton's muse, Dame Margot Fonteyn.  The Royal Ballet's triple bills usually deliver the goods - this one ranks as one of the best.

The first of the evening's ballets was THE DREAM, Ashton's 1964 version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.  Rather than do a full adaptation of Shakespeare's play, Sir Fred chose to focus on the main middle section where the arguing rulers of fairyland, Oberon and Titania, find their dispute disrupted by the fleeing human lovers Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander as well as the clod-hopping Bottom.  I think he might have spoiled Shakespeare's play for me now as, without the distractions of the bookending Athens sequences, his version was by far the most entertaining I have seen in years!

Ashton set his choreography to Mendelssohn's scores for two productions of the original play in the late 19th Century but John Lanchbery's arrangement of the scores is so smooth that it plays as a single piece.  The late David Walker's design takes us back to full-on romantic versions of the play and I particularly liked the fairy frocks which were in varying shades of green, blue, pink and purple.

The always-remarkable Steven McRae was a fantastic Oberon, charismatic, mercurial and defying gravity, and was well partnered by Akane Takada as a spirited Titania, their final duet was simply dazzling as the couple become once more the loving king and queen of the forest.  The role of Puck was played by Valentino Zucchetti who could give vivacity a bad name.

Bennet Gartside was a delight as Bottom, galumphing away when not delighting in his temporary status as Titania's donkey-headed lover.  The mixed-up lovers danced by Thomas Mock, Matthew Ball, Claire Calvert and, in particular, Itziar Mendizabal as the lovelorn Helena were a delight.  It must be a tough call to get laughs through just dance when you know it's a famous comedic role but Itziar got them.  All in all, as I said, it was one of the most captivating DREAMs that I have seen.

In 1946 the Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to be the permanent company at the Opera House, Covent Garden and one of their first productions was SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS, danced to music by César Franck.  During WWII ballet had relied on safe, narrative productions but Ashton wanted this to be totally abstract.  It was an immediate success and the original cast included Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer and Michael Somes.  Three male and three female dancers are alone on stage with nothing to distract from their simple lines and classic moves.  It is hard to judge it's originality now as it is the abstract norm but it was still beautifully danced by all the ensemble and the leads, Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov.

Just as the lights were lowering for the last ballet I whispered to Owen that Zenaida Yanowsky - who we were about to see in MARGUERITE AND ARMAND - couldn't have too many performances left as her retirement from the Royal Ballet had been announced months ago.  I was right, she didn't.  It was that night!

We had just seen Zenaida in full imperious diva mode in Liam Scarlett's SYMPHONIC DANCES but as Dumas' tragic Lady of The Camilias she was all too human but still never less than hypnotic.  There was a slight sense of deja vu as we had seen the same story at Covent Garden last year in LA TRAVIATA but Ashton's MARGUERITE AND ARMAND - like his DREAM - distilled the essence of the story without making you feel much was left out.

Ashton devised the ballet in 1963 as a star vehicle for his partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and they created such an indelible stamp on it that the Royal Ballet felt they could not revive it until 2000, well after their deaths in the 1990s.  But the piece cries out for charismatic star performers and while Yanowsky certainly is, it's a shame that Roberto Bolle was a bit stolid.

Danced to a piano sonata by Liszt the ballet starts with Marguerite on her deathbed, deserted by the hangers-on who once thronged her home and she drifts back to the love of her life Armand.  We flash back to the night they met, when Marguerite was the courtesan of the Parisian rich and famous.  Their initial flirtation hints at a deeper longing and they quickly become inseparable despite Marguerite's failing health.

They move to the country for Marguerite's health but her past catches up with her when Armand's disapproving father arrives and pressures Marguerite to reject Armand so he can have a blameless future.  Despite her love for him, Marguerite flees their home while Armand sleeps.  Well partnered by Christopher Saunders as Armand's father, Yanowsky played the scene beautifully, her final moments with Armand were achingly poignant - who needs words?

Marguerite returns to Paris and to her old rich lover but Armand appears at one of her parties and denounces her as a whore, showering her with money as payment for their love.  Again Yanowsky played the scene wonderfully - and I say played rather than danced as she gave as great an acting performance as any RADA-trained thesp.  Publicly humiliated, Marguerite's rich friends desert her and she succumbs to her illness alone.  However Armand's father tells his son the real reason for her desertion and he rushes to her bedside to have final moments with her before she dies.  This could feel mawkish but - just like Garbo in the 1936 film of CAMILLE - Yanowsky played the truth and not the sentimentality

If I thought the emotional highpoint had just taken place onstage I was wrong, as the curtain slowly descended there was a thunderous ovation which only grew and grew as Zenaida and the company took their bows.  Wave after wave of flowers rained down from the stage boxes to say farewell and thank you to her from her London fans; her last-ever Royal Ballet performance will be during the company's forthcoming tour of Australia.  It was like being in a Hollywood film!

Then came the real surprise,a parade of her leading men including Carlos Acosta and Steven McRae lined up to present her with a rose each then the choreographers who had worked with her ending with Sir Anthony Dowell almost hidden behind a huge bouquet.  Then it was the turn of Kevin O'Hare as Director of the Royal Ballet to give a speech thanking her for 23 years of artistry with the company and hinting that he would be trying in the future to hopefully pursuade her to return as a guest artist.  Then it was time for more curtain calls - and still more showers of flowers - before Zenaida left the stage for the last time.

It was a wonderful night showcasing the taste, mastery and effortless storytelling of Sir Fred but also it was an honour to be in the night when the Royal Ballet said a fond goodbye to one of their own.

Brava Zenaida!

Monday, June 12, 2017

DESH at Sadler's Wells - a Khan do attitude...

What!  Yet another dance production...!

Choreographer and dancer Akram Khan is now one of the UK's leading dance stars but we had never seen him onstage until last week when he saw his semi-autobiographical solo piece DESH at Sadler's Wells - and believe me he deshed about all over the place...

I can appreciate Khan's quality as a performer and it's a rare dancer who can perform a one-man show for 80 minutes, but by the end of the piece I was feeling claustrophobic by his taut, contained dance vocabulary.

DESH is based on Khan's memories of the stories of his Bangladeshi father.  The more Khan delved into the stories, the more a scenario grew in his mind...  he imagines a man whose father dies and the son travels back to his father's homeland and his culture shock of assumption meeting reality.

The exploration soon spirals off into imaginary spaces and here Khan is helped immeasurably by set designer Tim Yip and lighting designer Michael Hulls who conjure up imaginary worlds for him to dance through.

Indeed it's the visuals that have stayed with me... Khan exploring a jungle setting while telling a story to his niece where he climbed trees, met an elephant, snakes and a crocodile but the fairy tale ends with a sting in it's tale as he is confronted by an armoured tank in the jungle too, Kahn painting the father's face on his bald head and making this character dance, and the central image of him futilely trying to crack open a large slab of concrete. 

The evening climaxed with an atmospheric rainstorm conjured up by a silk curtain and strips of black material which rose to reveal row after row of white strips, eventually Khan ended up suspended among them.

I enjoyed the bravura visual theatricality, I just wish I had not found Khan's choreography to be so hemmed-in and internal.  I would definitely see another production of his however, especially if it involved more than one dancer!

Friday, June 02, 2017


It is here.

The sky darkened, a loud crashing was heard and there it is, flapping it's mighty wings and pointing the way to the future.... yes, the National Theatre's much-awaited revival of Tony Kushner's mighty two-part play ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES has landed at the Lyttelton Theatre.  Could it live up to all the hype generated?

Hell yes.

ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES - the first part of Tony Kushner's reaction to both the onset of the AIDS pandemic as well as President Reagan's refusal to even acknowledge the crisis for four years after it's first appearance - was first seen in a 1990 workshop in Los Angeles and had it's world premiere the following year in San Francisco. At the same time, a copy of the text found it's way to Richard Eyre, then Artistic Director of the National Theatre, who rushed it to director Declan Donnellan.

It opened at the Cottesloe in 1992 and I was dazzled by the sweep of Kushner's imagination and innate grasp of what makes theatre magic: characters who slowly draw you into their lives, great dialogue and stage imagery that haunts you.  It later won the Critic's Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play.  In 1993, Donnellan directed PERESTROIKA, again at the Cottesloe, in repertory with MILLENNIUM.  It was sold out for it's entire run and I never got to experience the second play onstage.

Ten years later both plays were filmed for HBO by Mike Nichols with a starry cast of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker, and while enjoying it as well as finally seeing PERESTROIKA, I felt it was something that needed to be experienced in a theatre again - I still have an unwatched dvd!  So when it was announced that Marianne Elliott was to direct a National Theatre revival with the starry line-up of Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough, I knew that tickets HAD to be bought.

The National went into a HAMILTON-style booking period, no doubt wishing to control any third-party re-selling, and coming up with five monthly ticket ballots to those unable to get them through the mailing list and general on-sale.  But that is all in the past now... the plays are on and again one reels from the National at the end of both plays - or both on the same day for real die-hards - with one's theatrical blood racing at the breadth of both Kushner's vision and Elliott's productions.

MILLENNIUM APPROACHES is the better-constructed of the plays; Kushner introduces his seven main characters and then sets them spinning away from their carefully-constructed lives as they confront both the AIDS virus and their place in 1980's America.  Interestingly both plays start with monologues from minor characters which, in retrospect, set the agenda for each play: in PERESTROIKA the oldest Bolshevik alive harangues his comrades for straying from the path of Communist Theory, while in MILLENNIUM APPROACHES an elderly rabbi prepares to bury a Jewish woman who journeyed from a shtetl to Brooklyn.  Spoilers ahead...

Prior and Louis are lovers in New York where Louis is an over-intellectualizing clerk in a law firm.  Sitting together after Louis' grandmother's funeral, Prior tells Louis he has just been diagnosed with the HIV virus.  Louis attempts to be supportive as his lover's symptoms worsen but eventually he walks out, leaving Prior devastated and increasingly paranoid from hearing a disembodied voice warning him he will be visited soon.  Prior's only support comes from his oldest friend Belize, a black nurse in an AIDS unit who also has a jaundiced eye and withering put-downs.

Pious Mormon Joe is a lawyer in the same legal office as Louis but is being fast-tracked for advancement to the State Department in Washington DC by New York's most-feared lawyer Roy Cohn, secure of his place in history through his involvement with the anti-communist trials in the 1950s.  Joe however cannot obey his father-figure as his wife Harper is wrestling with irrational fears and Valium abuse that have led to agoraphobia and delusions.

Harper however realizes that it is the creeping knowledge that Joe is actually homosexual that has driven her to despair and when she finally confronts him, he admits that he is struggling with his sexuality.  Meanwhile Roy Cohn is told by his doctor that he has been diagnosed with HIV which sends Roy into a vicious rage, threatening the doctor with legal action if he says it is anything but liver cancer.

Co-workers Louis and Joe realize they are attracted to each other, leading the conflicted Joe to call his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City and tell her he is gay which makes her so angry she quickly sells her home to finance her to fly to New York to get Joe and Harper reunited...  but Harper is lost in a delusional state, wandering the streets of Brooklyn thinking she is in Antarctica.

Roy Cohn's health takes a turn for the worse and he is admitted to hospital where Belize is his night nurse and proves to be the one person unafraid of him.  Roy is also haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the 1950s woman accused of spying who Cohn made sure was found guilty and executed.  The devastating climax occurs when Prior's paranoia is made flesh when an Angel crashes into his apartment and tells him to prepare as "The Great Work begins".

By the end of MILLENNIUM I was almost breathless with the pure theatrical magic conjured by Marianne Elliott's sweeping production and the bravura performances; the appearance of the bedraggled Angel - looking more like a scrutty pigeon than an ambassador of God - is such a coup de theatre that you leave the theatre buzzing with excitement and aching for the second part... we had a whole fortnight to wait!

PERESTROIKA does not have the narrative drive of MILLENNIUM and sometimes I was aware that it was treading water and crying out for an editor but as soon as those thoughts settle Kushner pulls you back into the lives of his characters and you are hooked again. 

Harper is rescued by mother-in-law Hannah from her delusional wanderings and camps out at the Mormon Visitor Centre where Hannah is volunteering, Joe and Louis are in a tentative relationship, Roy Cohn is growing sicker despite having a private stash of the wonder-drug AZT which disgusts Belize who knows of patients who have been deprived of it by Cohn's heavy-handed string-pulling, and Prior is a changed man after his visit from The Angel.

Prior recounts to the incredulous Belize what happened; The Angel told Joe that God has turned his back on both Heaven and the world as mankind has kept evolving, exploring and moving ever-forward and refusing to stay fixed and afraid.  God's actions have left the Angels as mere lookers-on but they have selected Prior to be a Prophet to deliver the message to mankind to stop moving and then maybe God will return.

Prior stalks the streets of New York dressed in black struggling with his Prophet status and finds a kindred lost soul in Harper when he visits the Mormon centre.  Prior has neglected his health and collapses, establishing an unexpected friendship with Hannah who advises him that one should fight against Angels' bad advice as well as welcome their good advice.

Belize delights in telling Louis that his new boyfriend's father-figure is the hated Roy Cohn, the lovers fight and Joe leaves after physically attacking Louis.  Joe visits Roy in hospital and attempts to explain why he has left his wife only for his mentor to hypocritically abuse him for being gay, finally waking Joe up to Roy's callousness.  After learning that the Law Society have finally disbarred him for his many years of corruption, Roy dies alone. Belize summons Louis to the deathbed as he is the only Jew he knows and makes him say the Kaddish over the body, movingly prompted in his ignorance of the words by the ghost of Ethel.

The Angel appears to a recovered Prior and Hannah in his hospital room and he wrestles it into submission, The Angel finally relents and lets Prior ascend the neon ladder to Heaven which looks like a run-down operations room, staffed by the other ineffectual Angels.  Prior relinquishes his Prophet status, acknowledging the implications of becoming a mere mortal again but telling them that mankind must be allowed to keep moving ahead and discovering new possibilities.

Joe attempts a reconciliation with Harper but she refuses, she is leaving NY to discover a new life in San Francisco, alone.  Louis and Belize are by Prior's bedside when he wakes from his dream of Heaven - Kushner slyly gives Prior Dorothy's dialogue from the epilogue of THE WIZARD OF OZ - and reveal that they have Cohn's secret supply of AZT to aid Prior's health.  Four years later Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Angel of Bethesda fountain in Central Park and Prior addresses the audience, telling of his belief in the angels who walk among the living every day and that we must prepare for the future...The Great Work continues.

The two play's combined length of 7 hours 30 minutes slide past unnoticed and this is primarily down to Marianne Elliott's astounding direction - at all times you are engrossed in her sleek, filmic production and although there are the occasional longueurs (in PERESTROIKA in particular) you never lose your fascination with the main characters and the world they inhabit.  Elliott's ability to move from the Manhattan scenes to the fantasy worlds just within an arm's length of the characters is consistent throughout and never feels jarring or contrived, it's a very humane vision of the play's plains of existence.

Ian MacNeil's huge set might be a bit tricksy at times with it's neon-edged little boxes that turn and re-form themselves for interiors but again the scope of imagination is to be applauded.  Paule Constable's wonderful lighting designs effortlessly convey Kushner's worlds within and without with elegance and style.  A word too for the excellent sound design of Ian Dickinson.

Elliott has also an astonishing cast to bring her production to expansive life, a real ensemble but all delivering on-the-money performances; Nathan Lane is the glittering dark malevolent heart of the production as the venal Roy Cohn and as with all well-written villains, you cannot help but be drawn to his unforgiving personality.  He perfectly captures the larger-than-life personality that would be the magnet for the idealistic Joe but also takes no prisoners in his titanic rages that kills the soul of anyone in it's path.  As his sphere of influence shrinks from all of Manhattan to a tiny bed in an AIDS ward you cannot help but feel pity for a man who was in such denial of himself and his deeds.

The biggest surprise was Andrew Garfield who made Prior, for all his self-pity, a constantly evolving character, making his fear and bafflement at his physical and celestial destinies all too real while also finding room for the character's humour to shine out.  Russell Tovey was a surprise too as the closeted, hesitant Joe and was unafraid to play up the character's dangerously ambivalent and passively cruel undertow.  Seeing the shows a fortnight apart meant we had two Louises - James McArdle for MILLENNIUM and his understudy John Hastings for PERESTROIKA.  McArdle's banked-down performance took time to warm to but by the time of the excruciatingly funny scene where Louis ties himself in ever-tighter politically correct knots with an increasingly furious Belize he had me onside.  Hastings gave a more vulnerable reading of the character and while maybe not having the level of ability as the others, still was effective as the contrite Louis aware of his failings.

Another genuine surprise was Denise Gough's deliciously spiky Harper, a potentially irritating character who in Gough's hands was anything but, her painful life with the glacial Joe all to realistically played.  She found the mordant humour in her character too and in her final scene she touched universal truths with Harper's reflections on looking down at the world from a plane.  The real scene-stealing performance though was from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, a FIERCE queen and the one character who can tell the truth to whoever he meets.  He really was quite, quite glorious.

Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence between them created a rich collection of characters: Brown travelled a continent-wide arc as Hannah Pitt, Joe's conformist Mormon mother, who slowly softens to become an understanding woman but she also delivered telling performances as Rabbi Chemelwitz, Ethel Rosenberg and Roy's exasperated doctor.  Lawrence made a memorable Angel as well as the friendly HIV unit nurse Emily and Hannah's Mormon friend Sister Ella.  It was a delight too to see the main cast chip in telling cameos: Garfield was also Louis' butch leather pick-up in Central Park who still lived with his parents, Gough was Roy's State Department ally Martin Heller while Lane and Tovey were a hoot as Prior's ancestors sent by The Angel to prepare it's way.

Time and again, the plays proved that there never was a better time to revive them: all Joe's breathless enthusiasm for Reagan making America feel good about itself again, the politics of greed over empathy, Harper's paranoia of a world not caring about the environment and most frighting of all, that the abrasive, vengeful Roy Cohn really was Donald Trump's legal advisor during the 1970s and 1980s.

The run is sold out but there are still two ballots to go which will give you access to book specially reserved seats - - and the plays will be screened as part of the NT Live theatre-to-cinema project

Try and see them however you can - see them for the amazing production, the remarkable cast and for Kushner's dazzling, angry, funny and ultimately profound masterpiece.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

SALOMÉ at the Olivier Theatre - Cooch Dancers of the World Unite...

... you have nothing to lose but your veils... or the Baptist's head!

So here we are, another co-production between the National Theatre and Oy Gevalt Productions.  They really do make it too easy sometimes...

Here's a little-known fact for you Constant Reader... did you know that the National Theatre seats are light purple because it was Sir Laurence's favourite colour?  Well, he would have had a jolly old time last Monday as the Olivier had rows and rows of empty seats so he could have had his fill of it.  Of course that is never a sign that the play is at fault, there are countless examples of great plays that were flops on their first time out.  SALOMÉ ain't one of them.

The play is written and directed by Yael Farber who is a hot name to drop these days.  She's a South African female version of Ivo van Hove; a director who concentrates more on mood and visual effect above all else.  She scored big with her Old Vic production of THE CRUCIBLE in 2014 and LES BLANCS at the Olivier last year and I have a vision of Rufus Norris saying "We'd love to give you the Olivier stage again if you can think of anything suitable?" and Farber opening her bag and pulling out her Best Play and Best Director Helen Hayes awards for the Washington DC production of SALOMÉ and saying "Well..."   It must have been a thin year for plays in Washington DC last year. 

There is no escaping it once you are in... Middle Eastern wailing women erupt every few minutes, the set slowly revolving, a large cast from various ethnicities bellowing out their lines... although twice there was an arresting stage image which was remarkable - the heavy showers of sand that falls from the flies quite early on and Salomé going all Les Misérables and waving huge curtains about to spark a revolution.  However the striving to achieve memorable stage images above all else also led to some crashing clangers...

John The Baptist - here called Iokanaan - was tortured by having his head plunged continuously into a large bowl of water but after the nth time I thought "you are only doing that so when his head is yanked up it makes a huge spray of water across the stage" - use the sinks backstage if you want to play with water eh?.  Farber also came up with the whizzer idea to having The Baptist speak in Hebrew with his words translated in English on a screen at the back of the stage.  Again all well and good, but in a key moment, a light is shone from the top of the backdrop as Salomé climbs down a ladder to Iokanaan's prison cell where he recites passages from the Song Of Songs (allegedly - it could have been the Hebraic translation of WE ARE THE CHEEKY GIRLS for all I know) - either way the light shining in the audience's eyes and the obstruction of the ladder and Salomé made the translation unviewable.

But the ultimate "Oh Do Fuck Off" moment came just after that moment... so Farber wants to reclaim Salomé from the sexual being that patriarchal history has made her... so guess who is the only actor on the stage to strip off for a lengthy 'ritual' bathing?  Yep you guessed.. Isabella Nefar as Salomé.  Not Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan who gets to keep his funky loincloth on, but the young Nefar.  Now if the actor can keep his loincloth on why can't the actress be covered as well?  It's still tits and ass Yael, you obviously need to re-read the lyrics to DANCE 10, LOOKS 3 from A CHORUS LINE.

So yes, there is the crux of the interval-less 90 minutes running time... patriarchal history has passed down that a young girl possibly called Salomé danced for her lascivious step-father Herod Antipas and when he told her she could have whatever her heart desired, she asked for the head of John The Baptist.  So Farber rewrites history and has Salomé won over by Iokanaan's revolutionary doctrine - and thank you Owen for explaining this to me - demands his head to provoke his followers into finally rising up against the Roman occupiers of Judea.  I bet Iokanaan was a bit pissed off when this was sprung on him.  Like, cheers bitch.

But here is what made me do a biblical facepalm...  the story handed down to us is that Herodias, Herod's domineering second wife, told her daughter Salomé to make her fateful choice as she knew that her husband did not want to kill The Baptist.  So where is this larger-than-life figure in the play?  Simple... she is written out, she doesn't exist.  Which flies right in the face of Farber's thinking that whoever Salomé was in actuality, once she demands the head of The Baptist she vanishes from the story.

She even goes to great - and dull - lengths to have the young Salomé represented as 'Salomé So-called" and the narrator to be called 'Nameless' but who is in fact the spirit of Salomé, returned from the sandy grave where she was buried alive after her tongue was cut out for becoming a revolutionary (are you still with me?)  Her belaboured point being that women have vanished from history and story-telling... yes Yael, like you have ditched Herodias because she does not fit into your Milly Tant cookie cutter as woman as victim.  Not wishing to come on all Camille Paglia, but conniving women like Queen Herodias or young women who could drive older men to promise them anything they desired like Salomé are to be championed too.

So there you go, 90 minutes where the occasional memorable stage image made you pound the sand that the script was as clunky and anachronistic as the titles for a poe-faced biblical silent screen epic.

Apart from Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan, no other performances made any impression - indeed Paul Chahidi as Herod and Lloyd Hutchinson as Pilate both deserved Iokanaan's biblical water-boarding.  Olwen Fouéré as the older Salomé seemed to think she was speaking Beckett's lines.  If only.

Susan Hilferty's set -  but not the naff costumes - and Tim Lutkin's lighting gave the production what few moments of interest there were.  What annoys me most is that such arse-achingly and obvious woolly liberal revisionism like this is taking up space on the main National Theatre stage when major works of the theatrical canon are crying out to be seen.

And yes Owen you are right... Farber's contention that a young girl had a tiny moment in history but has vanished nameless into the sands of time is defeated by what's written on the front on the programme... SALOMÉ. If you have tickets for it I suggest you bring your bucket and spade to make your own entertainment.

Monday, May 29, 2017


It's just over 2 years since we discovered through Wayne McGregor's wonderful WOOLF WORKS how the Royal Ballet are adept at contemporary as well as classical ballet and this has been demonstrated a few times by their scheduling of memorable triple bills based on choreographers or themes.  So, Constant Reader, what can be better than a triple bill?  A quadruple bill of course!

Last Saturday we took our amphitheatre seats for an evening of four one-act ballets, only one of which we had seen before.  The first of the four was choreographer William Forsythe's THE VERTIGINOUS THRILL OF EXACTITUDE - the title is almost as long as the ballet itself being only 15 minutes!

Forsythe's choreography uses the majestic finale of Shubert's 9th Symphony and it's constant flurry of movement - using classic moves but with wonky angles and straggly arms and legs - must be a trial for the three female and two male dancers, all vividly colourful against a black background, the men in bright purple and the women in bright lime-green.

The dancers mix and merge, coming and going, dancing in groups, trios, duets and solos all at a frenetic pace - a bit too frenetic for Itziar Mendizabel who came racing from the wings into the middle of a group and went down on her tutu to an intake of breath from the audience.  But she recovered well and found her way back into the music after a beat or two... well done Itziar.

After a pause we had Balanchine's cheeky TARANTELLA, a duet of great charm and character which allows it's male and female to really stamp personalities on the roles.  Capering around the stage and around each other, Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Alexander Campbell were delightful.

Next was the first revival of Christopher Wheeldon's narrative ballet STRAPLESS which we first saw last year as part of a Wheeldon triple bill; in my blog for that production I hoped that it would be revived sometime but I didn't expect it to be so soon!  Oddly enough, the jitters which might have explained Itziar's stumble in VERTIGINOUS THRILL... also affected STRAPLESS when, during the scenery change for the second act, one of the ballerinas positioning a panelled column for the Café L'Avenue set, pushed too hard and the column went BANG across the stage only for it to be dragged off ignominiously!  The ballerina I hasten to add just wandered off and left it!

It has been slightly reworked to focus more on the main characters of Amélie Gautreau and John Singer Sergeant - the model and artist of the notorious MADAME X painting which scandalized Paris in 1884 - but again I felt that the story proves too elusive when reduced down to just ballet.  But Lauren Cuthbertson captured the skittish society beauty Amélie very well and her haunting of her now-famous portrait remains a powerful moment; the modern-day gallery visitors blind to the real woman whose image they admire.

The last ballet was Liam Scarlett's new production SYMPHONIC DANCES based on Rachmaninoff's last composition.  Written in 1940, the composer had asked Mikhail Fokine if he would be interested in using the music for a three-part ballet but Fokine's death in 1942 ended the possibility of it happening in Rachmaninoff's lifetime.  Since then ballet productions have been mounted but Liam Scarlett's is the first in the UK.

STRAPLESS sits well with SYMPHONIC DANCES as it too is centred around the central figure of a statuesque diva, and for good reason... This season will be the last danced by Principal Ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky and Liam Scarlett in SYMPHONIC DANCES has choreographed a production in which she remains the centre of attention at all times.

Yanowsky looked every inch the diva in her opening costume, a strapless black bodice and huge, multi-layered skirt which became almost a character in itself as it whipped and swirled around her.  Red and black also ruled in Jon Morrell's stage design, a stark and empty Opera House stage glowed with red lighting amidst the onstage mist while a large metal lighting grid hanging above the stage cast ominous black shadows beneath it.

The second part of the first movement featured Yanowsky seemingly unmoved by the sinuous capering of James Hay; in the second scene she reappeared in a black and red tuxedo while it was the turn of the men in the ensemble to wear the full skirts - indeed there was a noticeable wobble from one of the men proving that the Devil works in threes after the Itziar and column incidents.

The final movement saw the metal grid horizontal to the stage with Yanowsky losing the tuxedo to appear in just a bodysuit, this time duetting with Reece Clarke, before Rachmaninoff's dramatic, oppressive score built to a devastating climax.  As Wayne McGregor says, an abstract ballet cannot help but have some sort of narrative because of the human element and Yanowsky and the ensemble made me think of an imperious Empress slowly thawing and allowing emotion into her life through her adoring acolytes.

Zenaida Yanowsky was cheered to the Opera House's Fabergé egg-like roof and rightly so; she was astonishingly powerful and totally in command of her stage; Laura Morera is playing the role too so it would be interesting to see it with another energy, another persona doing those moves.

All together, it was an evening of passionate performance and thrilling choreography.  I am still wondering about those three errors however, could it be that this company - who were different from the opening night apart from Yanowsky - had been under-rehearsed?  Ah well, I suppose it goes to show that they are human underneath all that well-drilled skill.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

MAYERLING at Covent Garden: Kenneth MacMillan's Obsessional Classic...

Mystery still hangs over the deaths in 1889 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in the Imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling.  He was 30 and she was 17, and as soon as their bodies were found a cover-up started to protect both the Hapsburg Empire and the image of the happily-married Prince.  The story has been told several times on film but Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet MAYERLING for the Royal Ballet casts a gripping spell.

Needless to say the reality in 1889 was anything but what was reported at the time.  History has revealed Rudolf to be a morbid death-obsessed womanizer who at the time of his death was riddled with syphilis and addicted to morphine.  His politically expedient marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium left both miserable but his request that they separate was refused by his father Emperor Franz Josef - an act of gross hypocrisy as his father and mother, the Empress Elizabeth, lived fairly separate lives with their own lovers.

A former mistress of Rudolf was Empress Elizabeth's niece and lady-in-waiting Countess Marie Larisch who was a friend of Mary Vetsera's mother, and these two women who both craved advancement at court, actively promoted Rudolf's attraction to young Mary.  She was a wilful, highly-strung teenager passionately in love with her Prince Charming (as she saw him) and would do anything for The Grand Gesture.  That came on 31st January, three months after their meeting, when they were both found dead in his bedroom.

Marie left a letter full of fateful talk of them going into an uncertain beyond but they were going together.  Needless to say, this was the last thought on the Hapsburg Empire's collective mind after their bodies were found: Mary's uncles were summoned to Mayerling and, propping her up between them in a carriage, was buried immediately in a nearby monastery cemetery, while Rudolf was mourned as having died from a heart rupture. Eventually a version of the murder/suicide was released but with the emphasis that the Prince's mind was deranged so the church allowed for his body to be buried in the Hapsburg burial crypt.

Kenneth MacMillan's brooding masterpiece opens with a moonlit burial, only when it is repeated at the end do we know this is the hasty funeral of pathetic Mary Vetsera.  The ballet flashbacks to the wedding of Rudolf and Princess Stephanie but unsettling undercurrents swirl around the court as Stephanie is terrorized by the crazed Rudolf in their room.  The second act has Rudolf making his wife accompany him as he tours the taverns drinking and womanizing, Stephanie leaving in distress when he dances with his ex-lover Mitzi Caspar who eventually hides him from a police raid; meanwhile Countess Larisch visits Mary and her mother and tricks the girl into believing that her destiny is to be Rudolf's lover.  The act ends with the first tumultuous lovemaking of Rudolf and Mary.

The third act opens with a shooting party where Rudolf shoots a courtier dead who is standing near the Emperor (an incident that happened in reality) and while the Empress discerns the hand of Countess Larisch in the relationship, Mary and Rudolf decide on their fate.  At Mayerling, the Prince's servant tries to entertain the couple as he has done before but stops when he realizes the couple are totally self-absorbed, fatally leaving the couple alone...

39 years after it's debut performance MacMillan's ballet is a darkly glittering masterwork; a driven, haunting work of tortured sexuality that leads inexorably to the grave.  It's fascinating that MacMillan ends the first and second acts with Rudolf having violent sex but whereas the first act has Stephanie manhandled by Rudolf and cowering as he brandishes a revolver, in the second act Rudolf finds Mary a match for him, a match made in a dangerously out-of-control place.  MacMillan's extraordinary choreography is still a hypnotic, thrilling thing to see.

The ballet, which is based on a scenario by Gillian Freeman, has been re-staged by Christopher Saunders, Grant Coyle and Karl Burnett and uses the original designs by the late Nicholas Georgiades.  The lead roles of Rudolf and Mary were danced by Thiago Soares and Lauren Cuthbertson, and while Cuthbertson brought the wildly passionate teenager to vivid and thrilling life I found Soares to be quite uncharismatic and almost lumpen, I can only imagine the electric quality that more live-wire performers like Edward Watson and Steven McRae would bring to the role.

There was much more to be enjoyed in the supporting roles: Yuhui Choe played the distressed Stephanie well while Claire Calvert was a vibrantly sensual Mitzi Caspar, the real-life mistress of Rudolf who reported him to the authorities when he suggested a suicide pact.  I enjoyed Tristan Dyer as the Prince's servant Bratfisch who has a delightful solo in the tavern and whose faltering repeat of it at Mayerling was very touching.  However they were all outshone by the always watchable Itziar Mendizabal as the devious Countess Marie Larisch, the go-between for the lovers. 

In real life, Countess Marie was ostracized by Empress Elizabeth when her involvement in the deaths was revealed and she led a peripatetic life, marrying often and living in various countries, always trying to make money off of her involvement with the Hapsburg royalty.

MAYERLING was wonderful to see and stands as a tribute to the remarkable choreographic genius of Kenneth MacMillan, who tragically died of a heart-attack backstage at Covent Garden during a revival performance of the ballet in 1992.