English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

Posted: January 22nd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s Manon at London Coliseum

English National Ballet, Manon, London Coliseum, January 19

ENB Manon
The Second Act of ENB’s Manon in Mia Stensgaard’s design (photo: Laurent Liotardo)

In 2013, the first full year of Tamara Rojo’s artistic direction, I saw English National Ballet’s Alison McWhinney and Ken Saruhashi in the Emerging Dancer Award. Almost six years later to see McWhinney take on the title role of Manon in ENB’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s work with Saruhashi as her brother Lescaut is one of the many privileges of seeing and writing about dance over a number of years. Although it was Nancy Osbaldeston who won the award that year, I wrote at the time that ‘My heart went out to Alison McWhinney, whose ethereal tenderness in Giselle — she will save many a young man from an early death and will make them all eternally repentant — and her lovely line and poise in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique are a joy to watch.’ The arc of McWhinney’s artistic sensitivity arguably extends to the final act of Manon where having played all her demi-monde cards Manon finds herself in a redemptive endgame with the ever-faithful Des Grieux (Francesco Gabriele Frola). McWhinney casts aside all risks in this demanding duet and receives from Frola the unbridled passion and devotion of an equally liberated partner. It is utterly thrilling and deservedly brings the house down.

For Frola this final act of Manon follows a fine thread of characterization — and its technical counterpart — throughout the ballet. He takes the elegance of MacMillan’s choreography and makes his character and reasoning grow naturally out of it; the coherence of his interpretation remains as lucid as the line of his arabesque. It is McWhinney who in those first two acts does not entirely enter into the complexities of Manon’s character, which in turn hampers the freedom with which she approaches her interpretation of the choreography. The final act shows what she can do when the emotional line is clear, but she has not yet embodied the mercurial changes in circumstance Manon faces — and their inherent contradictions — between the prospect of a nunnery, Des Grieux’s love and Monsieur GM’s cloying wealth. 

At the same Emerging Dancer Award in 2013, I noted that ‘Saruhashi has prodigious technical ability but wears his emotions close to the skin, giving an impeccable if somewhat inscrutable rendering of Don Quixote and unwinding only slightly in the all-too-brief Patrice Bart solo, Verdiana.’ It is interesting to see these qualities persist in his interpretation of Lescaut. Dressed in black he stands out as someone already deeply inured in the demi-monde and cynical enough to pimp his own sister. He is sharp and calculating, drawing in his power like a sword but when it comes to his drunken cavorting solo he can’t unwind enough to blur the edges of his technique; he approaches it with too much…calculation. It may be invidious to suggest a comparison but Irek Mukhamedov’s interpretation of this solo — seen online in rehearsal — illustrates just how a prodigious technique with fine comic and musical timing can be married to drunken intent.

Among some fine character roles like Michael Coleman as the Old Man and Fabien Reimair as the Gaoler, there is another interpretation that illustrates Stanislavsky’s maxim that there are no small parts. Francesca Velicu (a finalist in the 2018 Emerging Dancer Award) is one of the courtesans at Madame’s house of ill repute in the second act. It is a stage awhirl in pastel colour and racy activity, but Velicu’s inspired antics among her peers attract attention throughout the melée like light on a filigree pattern, drawing us away momentarily from the main characters before we focus once again on their primary narrative. This is exactly how anyone in the room at the time (and we are all there) would experience the breadth of the moment.

While the choreography in this revival of Manon is all MacMillan (rehearsed by some of the luminaries with whom he worked), the sets and costumes belong to the Royal Danish Ballet’s production designed by Mia Stensgaard. While one had the sense that Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets were performing alongside the cast, Stensgaard has a more subtle approach, abstracting the scenes with gently moving panels that furnish just the right amount of period suggestion to go with her elegant wigs and finely tailored, colourful costumes. It’s a stylishly minimal production that frames the dancing beautifully while Mikki Kunttu’s cinematic lighting makes the space of each successive scene almost palpable.

The English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Orlando Jopling make listening to Martin Yates’ arrangements of Jules Massenet’s music as much a pleasure as watching the ballet.


English National Ballet’s She Said

Posted: April 19th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on English National Ballet’s She Said

English National Ballet, She Said, Sadler’s Wells, April 16

Grayson Perry's front cloth for She Said

Grayson Perry’s front cloth for She Said

“Dance in its purest form is without gender.” – Ohad Naharin

On message, English National Ballet has fashioned an evening of dance celebrating the female choreographer. She Said brings together Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Aszure Barton from North America and Yabin Wang from China to each create a work for the company. She Said does not set out to compare their works with the male-dominated canon (reflected in its many iconographic forms in Grayson Perry’s delightful mandala-like front cloth) but to respond to the current criticism that we don’t hear enough of the female choreographic voice in contemporary classical work. One can’t argue with that, and even if the qualities of that voice resist clear identification, the experience of watching the three works in She Said is decidedly refreshing. Along with news that English National Ballet has been granted permission by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch to perform Bausch’s Rite of Spring, it seems the initiatives of artistic director Tamara Rojo have an uncanny ability to fill unwarranted gaps in the repertoire while keeping an astute eye on public relations. The profile of the company keeps growing.

Given She Said invokes the gender question, it is perhaps worth noting not all the creative input is female. Lopez Ochoa and Barton both use scores by male composers (Peter Salem and Mason Bates respectively) and Wang seems to have been handed an entire Akram Khan creative toolkit that includes music by Jocelyn Pook, costume design by Kimie Nakano, lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli and video projection by Matt Deely. Given the role of Farooq Chaudhry — co-founder and producer of Akram Khan Company — as creative producer at ENB one can trace a male influence in the choice of Wang’s collaborative team. This might have gone unnoticed but for an overwhelming sense that Pook’s score drowns Wang’s version of the Greek tragedy of Medea, M-Dao. Wang’s approach to Medea is not so much by way of the western notion of fate as through a particularly Eastern sensibility of emotional detachment. Pook misses this subtlety, so M-Dao relies for its effectiveness on its visual construction. Erina Takahashi as Medea is an ideal interpreter for Wang and her articulate, fragile opening solo, one foot in a pale blue pointe shoe the other bare, suggests the enigma of Medea’s character. Because the gestural appearance of James Streeter as Jason and Lauretta Summerscales as his new wife Glauce lack this sense of detachment, their narrative separates naturally from Medea’s and leaves the focus on her. Wang’s understated choreography signifies the drama without getting involved in its outward emotion and she is helped in this by Nakane’s sensibility in set design and Piccioli’s lighting. Deely’s video tends to state rather too much, as if he is afraid Wang’s imagery is not enough, but it is Pook’s fleshy, middle-eastern mix of a score that simply overrides the quiet articulation of Wang’s choreography; we can barely see for hearing.

The opening work, Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, is based on the life and love of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Lopez Ochoa remembers Rojo giving her a list of female figures in history and literature from which to choose a subject, but she kept coming back to Kahlo. Spanish culture is a bond between choreographer and director/interpreter, and Kahlo provides Rojo with a role for which she has an affinity. She is most effective at the beginning as a young, spirited girl playing with the Day of the Dead skeletons; her sense of fun and self-confidence is palpable. Kahlo’s adolescent life was brutally interrupted by a tram accident that left her an invalid but Lopez Ochoa gives Rojo’s transformation a soft balletic treatment — a turned-in, shaking leg that she clutches but which can nevertheless reach 190 degrees behind her when called for — without the tormented, emotional dimension that gave rise to Kahlo’s creativity. Lopez Ochoa uses the visual symbolism of Dieuweke van Reij’s set design to suggest Kahlo’s flights of imagination as well as a corps of male dancers (a lovely inversion) dressed and brilliantly painted (by Dominic Skinner) as Kahlo’s feminine spirits. Broken Wings also provides a wonderful role for Irek Mukhamedov as the painter Diego Rivera. His passionate on-again-off-again relationship with Kahlo is the stuff of legend, and Mukhamedov fills those legendary shoes with weighty, captivating flair.

Mukhamedov is also the company’s principal ballet master, and some of the credit must go to him for the outstanding level of technique evident in the last work, Barton’s Fantastic Beings. Of all the voices this evening, Barton’s is the one I hear most clearly: someone who is confident of what she can coax from the dancers, skilled in putting it together with subtle and witty imagery (enhanced by Burke Brown’s lighting and Michelle Jank’s costumes), and assured in making the music an equal partner to the choreography. This latter aspect is perhaps the only weakness: the length of Fantastic Beings is dictated by Bates’ existing score, which draws out Barton’s wealth of invention beyond its choreographic endpoint. Nevertheless, the technical demands Barton brings out of the dancers are inspired and in turn the dancers — particularly Isaac Hernandez — respond with a precision, clarity and imagination that is thrilling to see. Fantastic beings indeed.