BalletBoyz: the Talent 2013

Posted: February 21st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on BalletBoyz: the Talent 2013

BalletBoyz, the Talent 2013, Arts Depot, February 18, 2013

theTALENT13

When I was living in Montreal there was I restaurant I enjoyed every now and then whose attraction was its single menu. If you wanted a lettuce and walnut salad to start, steak and chips as a main course and profiteroles for dessert, this was the place to go. The food was always good, the surroundings elegant, and you always had to book a table. It was called L’entrecôte Saint-Jean, it was centrally located on Peel Street and it’s probably still there and thriving.

Co-founders and artistic directors William Trevitt and Michael Nunn have adopted the same strategy for BalletBoyz: you know what is on the menu, the meat is fresh, the service is good, and it’s best to book in advance. I saw the company in 2011 when it was just The Talent and Russell Maliphant had reworked Torsion for the company with lighting by Michael Hulls. What has changed this year is the commissioning of a piece by Liam Scarlett, recently appointed Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet and arguably ‘a hot ticket’. BalletBoyz has an unequivocal finger on the zeitgeist.

The short film projected before the show is at once an introduction to the brand and an ad for the product. The filming (by Nunn and Trevitt) is excellent at capturing a lively, smiling camaraderie among the dancers; youth, strength and beauty are the message. Also innovative is a filmed interview with each of the choreographers that screens before their respective works. Scarlett says that in his choreography for the Royal Ballet it is the women who drive the work. What will he make of the men? Can he teach them to drive? He seems unsure. As Serpent proceeds from languid, swan-like arm work and rippling backs through a series of duets, quartets and solos, male sinuousness and strength have by default taken the wheel, but the snake seems satiated and ends up going to sleep in the position in which it started. Scarlett seems satiated, too, seduced perhaps by the hypnotic sameness of the BalletBoyz physique into creating a homo-erotic conflation of the myths of Icarus and Narcissus that raises the display of male bodies to a level of advertising but never stays far off the ground. Neither does the pastiche of Max Richter’s saccharine tracks from Memoryhouse and neither, surprisingly, does the lighting of Michael Hulls, which seems a little uninspired here (there was a delay of 30 minutes in the start of the show due to ‘technical problems’, so perhaps he was not able to deliver what he had intended). Choreographically, it is not so much what Scarlett has been able to do with BalletBoyz, but what they have been able to do with him.

Maliphant has worked with Nunn and Trevitt and BalletBoyz for 11 years, so he knows what’s expected. His choice of music by Armand Amar makes sure Fallen starts on a stronger beat than Serpent, and the boyz are put through their paces on the floor (where it is always difficult to see them) and in the air as they climb and spring up on each other but there is still a sense of not letting too much hang out, keeping the body beautiful in its sculpture form (more of Rodin’s influence, perhaps) with a circular, inward-focused choreographic development. No single dancer stands out; the ten men are unsurprisingly uniform in appeal, dressed in t-shirts and combat pants in battle green, echoing the palpable element of chic violence. Michael Hulls’ lighting design has more punch here than in Serpent, and has reminders, if not enough evidence, of how effective his lighting can be.

The printed program handed out to the public contains good publicity images, headshots of the 10 boyz on a first name basis, a list of tour dates and some wicked hyperbole like ‘This is dance at its most riveting and fearless. Talent? I should say so” from the Independent on Sunday. It is more like a flyer than a program. Perhaps it is the flyer. If you want to know what works are being danced, however, you have to buy a glossy program but surprisingly there is nothing in it about the works — apart from the credits for choreography, music and lighting — but lots about the company and the dancers: BalletBoyz seems to be all about image over content. The glossy program is prefaced by a high-pitched message to ‘Dear Audience’ signed, ‘love Michael and Billy’. So what is the message? ‘Welcome to our latest show…which sees us carry on from where we left off last season…’ The menu hasn’t changed, but looking at the 29-date tour, BalletBoyz, like L’entrecôte, have clearly got a winning formula.


Royal Ballet: Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Royal Ballet in Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, broadcast live in Trafalgar Square, July 16

Minna More Ede, curator of the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery, had a clear idea of what she wanted – if not what to expect – when she suggested a collaborative project with the Royal Ballet, but I am not sure the Royal Ballet did: there are three paintings, three artists, three composers, three dances and seven choreographers.

The idea for contemporary artists together with a group of choreographers and composers to collaborate on three dances in response to three paintings by Titian was, as the French say, géniale. The three paintings – on display for the first time since the 18th century – are Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and the Death of Actaeon. The voluptuous, vengeful Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, is common to all three.

The exhibition is a delight, full of colour, humour and poetry. Chris Ofili’s paintings on a theme of Ovid are stunning, and his stage setting for Diana and Actaeon is a forest of bright colour and luscious forms. Mark Wallinger’s voyeuristic meeting with the bathing Diana makes us all Actaeons peeking into forbidden territory, though this Diana cannot see us and is sufficiently constricted within her locked bathroom not to do us any harm; we survive the confrontation though not, perhaps, the stigma of peeping. Conrad Shawcross has refurbished an industrial robot once used in the manufacture of cars to be his Diana, with lightning rod eye carving out a pair of antlers. It takes a little adjustment to associate this with the Titian paintings, but that is the beauty of such an experiment: one never knows where it will lead. There is an excellent film of the dancers in rehearsal but apart from the piano excerpts in the film, we do not hear sufficiently from the composers – Nico Muhly, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Dove (with librettist Alasdair Middleton) – to bring their contribution into equal focus.

So how does all this response to Titian, so enticingly displayed and suggested in the exhibition, translate into the choreographic works? Dance is an ephemeral medium, so the effect of choreography has to fuse all the elements together immediately. Whatever program notes there may be, or however volubly a choreographer may talk about his creative process, it is ultimately the completeness of what we see on stage that counts.

All three works focus on the story of Diana and Actaeon. Titian’s painting of the banishment by Diana of the pregnant Callisto was ignored, which has something to do, perhaps, with the all-male creative team. It’s a bit of a mystery how these fourteen artists were matched into three teams, and how they developed their collaborative ideas within those teams. The principal metamorphosis seems to have come from the visual artists, who ran with the idea and came up with four distinct ideas (Wallinger’s Diana locked in her bathroom was for the exhibition only). The composers provided a vital, expressive link between the artists and the choreographers, though it is not clear who was negotiating these interactions and at what point in the process they started. Since this is a choreographic project, however, it falls to the choreographers to bring together the various inputs and ideas in the final collaborative metamorphosis to be presented on the Royal Opera House stage. The seven choreographers are Will Tuckett, Jonathan Watkins, Liam Scarlett, Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Alastair Marriott, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Only the Shawcross/Muhly/McGregor/Brandstrup collaboration on Machina offers a work that has a cohesion of elements from beginning to end. Muhly’s lovely score situates itself in Titian’s sixteenth century Venice, Shawcross’s robot is programmed to the movement of the dancers through data transmission – right up McGregor’s street – and in using Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo, the two choreographers have an appropriately contrasting and expressive quartet of principals. Costa and Watson appear to represent two qualities of Actaeon, and Benjamin and Rojo two qualities of the goddess Diana. Costa’s opening duet with Benjamin is a sinuous and powerful coupling, with his bull-like body dominating her, his arms wrapping around her vulnerable form, sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, but never forced. Their qualities contrast with the Shawcross Diana, though Rojo’s steely-black presence hints at that implacable, don’t-mess-with-me side. Watson’s Actaeon is more innocent that Costa’s, more inquisitive, and more likely to get into trouble. He wants to melt on Rojo’s Diana, but she won’t melt. Costa’s solo and his duet with Watson are other conspicuous moments, but there is a lot of movement from the ensemble that seems to escape both the music and the scope of the work.

Wallinger’s idea of surprising Diana in her bath was an idea worth pursuing, but for whatever reason, its challenge was not taken up. His analogy of the moon landing works well for the set, but the team of Wheeldon and Marriott don’t seem to have followed it through; they have rather superimposed their own interpretation of Titian’s paintings on the moon landing idea, as if trying to pull Wallinger into their own orbit. Trespass is thus a muddle of ideas and inputs with an interesting mirrored set, a jazzy score by Mark-Anthony Turnage and an all-too familiar vocabulary of contemporary classical ballet in body tights, pointe shoes and swept back hair. Nehemiah Kish and Stephen McRae are the two Actaeons, though they could be two squeaky-clean brothers, and the two Dianas – Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton – look like twins. This narrowing of the dramatic possibilities inherent in Titian’s light and shade, his nuanced poses, the passion of the flesh and the destructive force of Diana’s fury are rather lost in this etiolated space drama.

The Ofili/Scarlett/Tuckett/Watkins/Dove/Middleton team’s Diana and Actaeon presents Marianella Nuñez as Diana and Federico Bonelli as Actaeon, though the mythological story of Titian’s couple has been reinterpreted here as an on-again-off-again love duet with a mordant ending. The Chris Ofili backdrop is beautiful, sensual and colourful: not a world of arabesques, extensions and classical mime – a point lost on the choreographers and, needless to say, an opportunity missed. As the curtain rises, Nuñez stands with her back to us in a long robe and red bonnet, almost unidentifiable, a cross between Carabosse and the Firebird. One painted root rises, Nuñez leaves, and Bonelli walks out in purple with a quintet of dancers as his pack of hounds, their puppet heads a little too small to be effective (but wonderful in filmed close-up). He commands them like servants, in classical mime: Go! And there in the giant, Freudian-symboled forest he performs a solo straight out of Royal Ballet’s book of princes. Where is the princess? Nuñez is in red, so we can see her in discreet abandon, bathing in blue light. Four lines of nymphs protect her (no such lines in Titian). Bonelli arrives, and Nuñez is not happy: she screams, then jumps into Bonelli’s arms. Titian is scratching his head. A pas de deux follows with a square of nymphs close by. Nuñez puts her hand to Bonelli’s eyes, then pushes him away and mimes No, then ends up in his arms being lifted: more partnering, a love duet. She bourrés, he runs off like a distraught prince. Nuñez has a brief respite with her nymphs, cogitating in the undergrowth with wrapped arms, looking sexy and disdainful. Arguably she is aroused by Actaeon’s uninvited gaze, but has to balance that with her role as keeper of the virgin nymphs. No double standards here, but inner confusion nevertheless. Her water nymphs are rippling in her defence. Bonelli returns. Who knows what he’s been doing amongst the steamy plants. Move aside, I see her, he commands. He lifts her on his shoulders, puts her down, slides her. No no, she says (lift). They are reaching their climax and embrace. Exit Bonelli, while Nunez walks around again with her nymphs, deliberating, arms crossed, hands either side of head, feet expressing a no no no bourrée (but so beautifully). No wonder Bonelli keeps coming back – as he does now – but that’s the danger. She backs up; she’s made up her mind: no no (hold me). More lifts; she is sitting on his shoulder. She is mad, there is one more lift and then she throws water in his eyes. The nymphs run in diagonals then a circle; he lifts her again, and pirouettes to the floor. His dogs come in. Bonelli looks worried. His dogs mistake him for a stag (though they have to have imagination because he has no antlers) and are at him. The pack jumps, kicks, swings. Bonelli jumps with them; part of his costume comes undone (flesh ripped and hanging off) and he falls. He gets up: arabesque! Turning his back, crumpling to the floor, he dies a dramatic death. Nuñez is triumphant, gesticulating and undulating over him, which momentarily wakes him up before he slumps to the ground for good. She turns in a perfect arabesque, and walks forward as in a funeral march, asking in a final gesture, what have I done?

It is a question the choreographers of the last two works should ask of themselves, for whatever metamorphosis had previously taken place has in their hands metamorphosed back into standard ballet vocabulary and gestures taken from the Giselles, Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties, Balanchines, from the princes and princesses, from the court and its attendants. It is as if the Royal Ballet has drawn Titian into their mould and squeezed him dry.

I saw the performance not at the Opera House but at the live broadcast in Trafalgar Square. The camera can get close up to the dancers, which is like having the best (if not the most comfortable) seat in the house, but you are subject to the eye of the cameraman, and if he wants to follow the women, then the men simply vanish from the stage. The broadcast is also susceptible to technological hiccups, of which there were one or two, but otherwise the performance transmitted really well.

At the end of the screening, the girl sitting next to me on a BP poncho offered me a glass of red wine (thank you), something that could never have happened in the Opera House. Cheers.


Royal Ballet: Triple Bill of works by Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor

Posted: April 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet: Triple Bill of works by Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor

The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Wheeldon, Scarlett & McGregor)

 

I wrote part of this review before I had seen the performance. It is an interesting exercise. We all have our preconceptions, however hard we try to hide them. Leo Stein, the keenly perceptive art critic who was eclipsed by his younger sister, Gertrude, said ‘Criticism makes, explains and justifies discriminations.’ But I am relieved to say that the Royal Ballet Triple Bill produced reactions that I had not contemplated and forced me to ditch most of what I had written and start again.

By now you all know who presented what at the #ROHTriple, and for those who still don’t, it’s possibly too late to remember. Much has already been said about the performances, but for this tortoise of a writer, analyzing the evening kept serving up new perceptions that made me return to the printed program, to my notes, to the book I was reading at the time, and back to this page. One of the premises of quantum theory is that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. Here, then, are my final thoughts. For now.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia opens the evening. This is a revival, first performed by the Royal Ballet in 2003, and originally created for New York City Ballet. The acknowledgement to Balanchine is clear as soon as the curtain rises. Everything is stripped down, and it is a question of watching the music, which is also stripped down to solo piano works by György Ligeti. Wheeldon saw in these a ‘complex, twisted, layered world’ that he presents brilliantly in a series of dances for four couples that rely for their effect on musical and spatial timings. This particular performance is not helped, however, by a less than rigorous execution with the notable exception of Itziar Mendizabal and Dawid Trzensimiech who finish the 8th variation together with a glorious flourish. Overall, however, there is something missing. I happen to be sitting next to the former headmistress of a prestigious boarding school for girls who had seen Polyphonia in its original production for the Royal Ballet and had loved it. With that skillful eye and practiced tone of a wise pedagogue, she articulates the problem precisely. “Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges.”

Next up is Sweet Violets, the new work of soloist Liam Scarlett. For those who saw his Asphodel Meadows last year, this is a departure into narrative with a decidedly emotional palette. I don’t think it is particularly successful in itself, for the reasons outlined below, but it is an important step for a young choreographer developing the range of his art.

Sweet Violets, I learned, was the Irish song the prostitute Mary Kelly was heard singing in the early hours of the morning she was murdered. Tackling Jack the Ripper’s psychopathic killing of prostitutes in the late 19th century’s grimy London poses a particular challenge to a company with beautiful dancers who are all good looking, fit, refined, and graceful. Their costumes are bright and neatly laundered, Health and Safety have washed and starched the sheets, and the artist’s studio is beautifully lit and clean. No trace here of the grubby, stifling atmosphere of Sickert’s paintings. Most remarkably, in the aftermath of the two grizzly murders, there is not a drop of blood on the sheets (Health and Safety again, no doubt).  If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the score, Rachmaninoff’s beautifully played Trio élégaique, is just too elegantly passionate to support the story of a psychopathic killer and his coterie of low-life friends and prostitutes. What comes out at best was sweet violence.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with the work, and it concerns the plot itself. A reprinted article in the program by the eminent art critic, Martin Gayford, ridicules Patricia Cornwell’s book (which I was reading at the time) accusing Walter Sickert himself of being the Ripper, and Scarlett insists in his Performance Note that the various claims of Sickert’s involvement in the crimes have all now been ‘widely discredited’. So why is one of the most convoluted of the discredited theories – the so-called royal conspiracy involving Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy – woven into the plot of Sweet Violets even though Eddy, at the time of the murder of Emily Dimmock, had been dead some fifteen years and the aristocratic, face-slapping prime minister, Lord Salisbury, had died four years before? This is important because by adopting this conflation of a plot, and by avoiding any suggestion that Sickert was the Ripper, Scarlett is now burdened with an implausible cast of characters who do not form a cohesive narrative.

What a shame that in a company of such apparent resources as the Royal Ballet, no dramaturg, no outside eye, seems to have worked with the choreographer during the creation of Sweet Violets to flag these potential problems, for it is the plot’s flaw that undermines all other aspects of the production. John Macfarlane’s sets and David Finn‘s lighting are strikingly beautiful (even if the studio is too clean and bright), but the numerous set changes just sap the energy of the work. The real tragedy is that Scarlett’s choreography is lost in the fray, victim of too many ill-defined characters (and wonderful dancers) in search of something to do.

Who comes off best of the evening? It is without a doubt Wayne McGregor’s Carbon Life, the work that closes the evening to applause from a young (you could tell by the cheers) and enthusiastic audience. Not that I like the choreography particularly, but it delivers where the other two pieces, for different reasons, do not. It is the one work that is slick, well produced (brilliantly inventive lighting by Lucy Carter), well danced, well rehearsed and seems to achieve what it sets out to do. Whatever that is.

It will soon be in the hands of Kevin O’Hare to plot the future artistic course of the Royal Ballet. Having Wayne McGregor as resident choreographer brings to the company elements that other choreographers of a more classical stripe could use: dynamism, brilliant production values, and raw energy wrapped in a contemporary idiom. But McGregor can by no means claim the high ground in choreographic language and is evidently not interested in narrative work, in which the Royal Ballet has traditionally excelled. Seeing this program is to see three creators who offer excellent and complementary qualities. Bringing them together might be just the kind of legacy Dame Monica Mason is proud to leave, and finding a judicious path that can embrace their diverse talents and nurture their development will keep Kevin O’Hare occupied for a good while.