Company Chordelia, Nijinsky’s Last Jump

Posted: May 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Company Chordelia, Nijinsky’s Last Jump

Company Chordelia Dance Theatre, Nijinsky’s Last Jump, The North Wall, Oxford, May 4

Darren Brownlie, Petrushka and James Bryce in Nijinsky's Last Jump (photo: Maria Falconer)

Darren Brownlie, Petrushka and James Bryce in Nijinsky’s Last Jump (photo: Maria Falconer)

Vaslav Nijinsky’s jump was legendary. Asked to describe how he managed to jump so high he is reported to have said, ‘It’s easy. You go up and then pause a little up there.’ The only known visual evidence of Nijinsky’s dancing is contained in some extraordinary photographs taken at the height of his dancing career between 1909 and 1913 which dance critic Edwin Denby wrote, ‘in their stillness…have more vitality than the dances they remind us of…’ They also speak of a quality the artist Alexandre Benois evinces in his memoirs: having described Nijinsky as ‘of uninteresting appearance, rather short of stature with a thick neck and a large head’, he went on to write that ‘having put on the costume, he gradually began to change into another being, the one he saw in the mirror. He became reincarnated and actually entered into his new existence, as an exceptionally attractive and poetical personality.’ Evidently these photographs, and the personality portrayed in them, hold a powerful fascination for Company Chordelia’s artistic director, Kally Lloyd-Jones; Nijinsky’s Last Jump is her response.

Much has been written about and much edited out of Nijinsky’s stage life and his relations with others — notably with Serge Diaghilev and with his wife Romola — but Lloyd-Jones has set out to reveal Nijinsky in his own right. In 1919, at the age of 29, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and in the same year he wrote a diary over a six-week period that has become the only window into his inner life at the time. It was first published in 1936 in his wife’s carefully edited version, but in 1999 the original unexpurgated text was translated by Kyril FitzLyon. It is this version that informs Michael Daviot’s text for Nijinsky’s Last Jump which Lloyd-Jones has directed and choreographed. Following his diagnosis, Nijinsky lived another 30 years in the shadow of his fame, never again dancing in public and at the mercy of early 20th-century understanding and treatment of his disorder. Lloyd-Jones can’t resist the temptation to wonder what might have happened if schizophrenia had been better understood in 1919. Nijinsky’s Last Jump imagines a lucid dialogue between Old Nijinsky (James Bryce) and Young Nijinsky (Darren Brownlie) in which the two halves of a life divided by illness are reunited.

The only occasion in the south of England to see this work is at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford. Given that Judith Mackrell ranked it fifth in her top ten dance works of 2015, it’s a mystery why Nijinsky’s Last Jump has not been invited to London (8 of her 10 choices were seen there). Kudos to North Wall. It’s a lovely theatre, too, with a seating capacity of 200 and its stage tonight has, thanks to set designer Janis Hart and lighting designer Laura Hawkins, become Nijinsky’s dressing room with a table loaded with bouquets of flowers and a mirror that together suggest a shrine. A screen in one corner is the changing area (rather improbably with Nijinsky’s name stencilled on it) and in the opposite corner is another screen reminiscent of a hospital bay. A Petrushka puppet (courtesy of Janis Hart) is draped on a chair. Seated next to the puppet Bryce, in a convincingly Slavic accent, introduces an anecdote about the origins of his famous jump while we hear the latter part of a performance of Le Spectre de la Rose taking place beyond the wings. All we see of the famous final jump is Brownlie landing in a heap on his dressing room floor, breathing heavily. Bryce becomes the regisseur, getting the younger dancer wiped down with a towel and returning him to the stage to acknowledge the rapturous applause (recorded as part of the sound design by Jesse Godolphin). Seated once again, Bryce talks dispassionately of his early preoccupation with masturbation. This is one of the details Romola had excised from the original diary, but its inclusion here not only allows Nijinsky to unashamedly confess his former sexual proclivities but alludes directly to the suggestive final pose of his first choreography, L’Après-midi d’un Faune (‘The Faun,’ he wrote, ‘is me.’). This clever cross-referencing in text and details is key to the richness of Nijinsky’s Last Jump and while Lloyd-Jones mines the roles of Nijinsky to find the person, she wisely avoids any attempt to find the dancer: Brownlie warms up in the dressing room but Nijinsky’s stage performances remain beyond the wings in our imagination.

Bryce and Brownlie form an affecting partnership. Bryce is like a saint who has suffered much, who has arrived at a level of philosophical resignation 30 years ahead of Brownlie; he is thus in a position to comfort him, to encourage him on the journey he is about to take: that long, lonely final jump from worldly fame to enduring myth. The historical and psychological details in Nijinsky’s Last Jump are extensive and interlinked, but while forming an intelligent matrix of meaning, they rely perhaps too much on prior knowledge of the subject to be fully appreciated. A little more in the way of program notes may help to identify the context and some aspects of Nijinsky for those who don’t know a lot about him; without them the detailed cross-references may lose their significance, seem abstruse or simply mystifying. Without a knowledge of the respective ballets, what to make of Brownlie’s landing from the wings, or of Bryce placing Brownlie’s body in the sideways, two-dimensional forms of Faune that were so revolutionary at the time? Or of the re-enactment of Nijinsky’s role as the hapless doll in Petrushka by dancing the puppet in front of a hospital screen? And if the story of the opening night of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring is unknown, how would Brownlie’s screaming of the musical counts from the wings relate to Bryce’s reading of the reviews afterwards? I am not sure. Nijinsky has been an inspiration for many years and I have read enough to enjoy the density of Nijinsky’s Last Jump, but I was not aware of the extent of Nijinsky’s shock therapy. When Lloyd-Jones has Bryce list the concoction of medications Nijinsky was administered for his schizophrenia — it is long and ends with 228 insulin-induced comas — with the horrendous effects, she takes on the additional role of advocate. At the same time old Nijinsky is in a position to gently guide his younger self to a calm acceptance of his fate in the conviction that their inner life remains intact. So for me it is poignant to see a play about Nijinsky that makes his own voice its subject and, as Lloyd-Jones writes, ‘honours a human being who clearly continues to touch the hearts of many.’


Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon

Posted: August 12th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon

Martin del Amo, Paul White, Anatomy of an Afternoon, Purcell Room, July 11

Paul White in Martin del Amo's Anatomy of an Afternoon (photo: www.okeedokee.co)

Paul White in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon (photo: www.okeedokee.co)

While other dancers have portrayed Vaslav Nijinsky or danced his roles, Paul White is perhaps the only one whose expressive palette can approach that androgynous, feral quality that haunts the extraordinary images of ‘the god of the dance.’ Last year White appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, a work inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which Nijinsky had first choreographed one hundred years before. Tankard’s treatment and White’s performance were as much an exploration of the music as they were of the ‘conflicting forces of nature and man, masculinity and femininity, violence and nurturing, strength and vulnerability’ in Nijinsky himself.

This year White returned to the Southbank with Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon, loosely based on Nijinsky’s first choreographic work, the 1912 L’Après-midi d’un Faune in which he himself danced the faun. By divorcing his work from Claude Debussy’s original music Del Amo focuses on the nature of Nijinsky’s role, leading White that much closer to a portrayal of the man himself. In this sense, for those who were fortunate enough to see it, Tankard’s treatment of Nijinsky in the person of White prepares us for Del Amo’s treatment of White as Nijinsky and it is the interpretive qualities of White make both works not only rich but deeply moving.

In Nijinsky’s original work, an indolent faun is aroused by the sight of nymphs; one in particular becomes the object of his desire. In Anatomy of an Afternoon Del Amo takes away the object of the faun’s desire and directs it inward; the object of desire becomes White himself, who, while acknowledging the presence of the audience, maintains a cat-like aloofness from our attention (an attention heightened perhaps by an update email from the customer relations officer at Southbank Centre advising that the performance ‘contains some nudity’). Del Amo and White thus lead us on our own reverie, and it is not the performer that is unclothed in the process but the audience.

The score for Anatomy of an Afternoon is composed by Mark Bradshaw for a trio of musicians: Ivan Cheng on clarinet, Nic de Jong on laptop (for the field recordings and sound collage) and Adam Dickson on celeste. It makes for a rather other-worldly soundscape that fits the subject, ’that mysterious in-between-time, that lengthy period during the day which continues what the morning has set in motion and the evening hasn’t yet concluded – a time full of possibility and promise’ in which Nijinsky/White has ample room to reveal his enigmatic nature.

The choreography has already begun by the time we enter the auditorium. White in a pale green t-shirt and beige jeans is dreamily looking up into a spotlight like the Little Prince looking at a star. The three musicians are also at rest, grouped around the celeste just to his side. White’s movement is minimal, more studied animal than human, with time to concentrate or simply gaze. Part of the research for the work involved two visits to the zoo and White is clearly the focus of our attention like the prize leopard that fails at first to move in the way we expect. White’s head and eyes change focus but his body remains still as the audience fidgets and shuffles to their seats. As stillness and silence finally descend, the door opens to let a latecomer in despite the warnings that latecomers will not be admitted. Who would want to miss this performance?

The celeste player seems poised to begin but White waits a little longer for the audience to resettle. He looks away over his left shoulder, to the front, frowning, peering forward, head back, impassive, his left hand feeling the space to his side, his eyes and head following. The arms rest, the head returns to neutral and his feet still haven’t moved. As he sees White’s hand coming through his field of vision Dickson plays the first notes on the celeste. As White begins to move we see his animal posture and gestures but can’t help interpret them as human. Del Amo and White play this parallel ambiguity beautifully and it is enhanced by White’s prodigious strength and control. His feline quality is broken only once when he pounces on an invisible foe with an uncharacteristically heavy landing; he licks his thumb then balances on his haunches transmitting weight from one foot to the other without the least apparent effort. There are quotes from the Nijinsky faun, turned in and sideways both upside down and on his feet, in a lazy yawn and in his unselfconscious sexual arousal that leads from his undressing (to his underwear) to lying down on his own t-shirt in a consummation of desire. It is soon after this, towards the end of the work, that White  sheds the duality of his role unequivocally; we have been watching him behind imaginary bars but the animal now becomes all too human as the sweat glistens on his back and the exertion of the performance begins to tell. He returns to his initial movements, a weary but still clearly articulated, introspective act in a public space. As the lights go down he stands frowning at the audience as if he is waking from a dream and is uncomfortable at being observed.


Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Rambert Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells, Mixed Bill, May 17.

There are two perspectives from which to view Rambert’s recent program at Sadler’s Wells: the historical and the spatial. The range of styles of the four works spans 100 years, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune of 1912 (in its 1967 staging by Ann Whitley) to artistic director Mark Baldwin’s response to it, What Wild Ecstasy. Itzik Galili’s SUB, created on his own company in 2009, and Siobhan Davies’ 1995 gem, The Art of Touch, are more recent but almost diametrically opposed in approach. Is it possible for a company to do justice to four such diverse works in a single evening? The answer to this could well depend on the spatial perspective, which is the view the spectator has of the stage. No choreographer creates a work with dancers in a studio two floors below across the road, so viewing a work from the perspective of the Second Circle at Sadler’s Wells is to see it in a way that was never intended. Seated in the stalls, you only have to be concerned by the historical perspective; sitting in the Second Circle, it could be the historical or the spatial, or a mixture of the two.

One thing that can be seen from above is pattern. Fortunately there is plenty of that in Itzik Galili’s SUB and the lighting by Yaron Abulafia is particularly sculptural. SUB starts with an explosion of thunder in the dark. A lone figure dances in a circle of light, naked but for what seems to be a long tutu that adds to the all-male cast’s androgynous look as the lighting blasts the dancers’ skin. (I gather later from a critic who sat in the stalls, that the costume is in fact an army greatcoat worn as a kilt). Adding the relentless pulse of Michael Gordon’s string quartet, Weather One, to the white light and military imagery, the scene is set for a work that is in turn hard-edged, nervy and menacing. These qualities are laid down on each layer of music, choreography and lighting. Indeed, the time coding of the lighting is so intimately linked to a commercial recording of the score that the quartet cannot be played live, giving a sense that SUB has been choreographed in light as much as in movement. Abulafia has created shadows on the stage in which a line of dancers will lurk while a duet or trio takes place in the light and the dancers never seem to exit; they glide instead into dark light, giving the work a feeling of constant intense activity. He also forms lines of light in front of the wings, like a lintel (this you wouldn’t see from the stalls, because the lighting designer has the added advantage of working like an architect with a plan). The choreographic structure is closely based on the rhythmic episodes in the music. There are constant juxtapositions of chaos and order, storm and calm, with complex spacing and interweaving that will suddenly transform into a line. The seven men dance for all they are worth, taking risks with their own force and in last-minute catches. The frenetic movement slows into a duet or trio accentuating the lines of the dancers slowly stretching into their shapes while others watch in their line of light at the side of the stage. The quiet is shattered by another explosion of energy, a frenetic movement that resolves in a line of dancers across the front of the stage watching a solo that has the feel of an interrogation under blinding light. Now we see the posse of men break out into seven wild solos that build in intensity until it re-forms with all seven jumping in unison to the rhythm of the music, reducing the evocative strings to a pounding, ominous pulse. Six men line up on the front of the stage, now facing the audience like a line of security guards, while the movements of a single dancer behind them fade in the dying of the light and the music.

Siobhan Davies’ The Art of Touch is a work that should definitely be seen close up. Her inspiration was ‘how a musician’s hand touches the keyboard and how the plectrum makes contact with the strings.’ How intimate and intricate is that? There are so many subtleties of gesture that get lost in seeing it from an upper balcony seat. Later, when I see the film of the original cast on the Siobhan Davies digital archive (see links), it is a revelation.

Harpsichord is not the easiest of instruments to listen to (Sir Thomas Beecham once likened its sound to two skeletons copulating on a tin roof), but there is a sumptuous quality to the playing by Carole Cerasi of five keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the specially commissioned Sette Canzoni of Matteo Fargion. Mathematics apart, the work is set in seven movements for seven dancers. Seeing the work close up on screen, the choreography is so rich and ripe it just bursts on to the stage from the first moment. Thrilling. It is difficult to know if the Rambert dancers are underplaying the subtleties of gesture, or if my own spatial perspective is the reason why what I see on stage is not what I see later on the screen. Not all is lost, however: in the second sonata duet you can feel the gentleness of his touch on her stomach, and in the solo in the third sonata (originally danced by the late Gill Clarke) there are beautiful arm movements, swaying behind the back and the head thrown back in abandon. When the buoyant Scarlatti ends and the reflective, introspective Fargion begins, there is a clear break, psychologically and choreographically. It doesn’t last long. In the following section there is a relentless volley of notes to which a line of dancers one behind the other bourré like a caterpillar on speed. There are spirited games, an element of madness and chaos, patterns flowing from one group to another, solos and duets, and a line wheeling around to a final diagonal, in which the movement seems caught in suspended animation.

The stage is beautifully set by David Buckland, reminiscent of a Paul Klee painting, the colour of reddish cork, and as soft. Now that I have seen the original cast, I notice the costumes have changed since those first performances; a turquoise waistcoat stands out as a vestige of Scarlatti himself. Even if the experience of seeing The Art of Touch from the Second Circle is frustratingly incomplete, it has led to an appreciation of the work through other means. This is the advantage of a digital archive.

When L’après midi d’un faune was first performed at Covent Garden, Diaghilev had made Les Ballets Russes the centre of artistic endeavour: he was determined to make the ballet a catalyst for all that was modern and exciting in the arts. Nijinsky was in his prime as a dancer and Faune was his first choreographic exploration. Crucially, he choreographed the faun on himself, with a cast of seven maidens to frame his erotic episode. Nijinsky’s reputation is always going to be an enigma to audiences today, but one person who saw him dance the faun, Cyril Beaumont, wrote in his memoirs: “Nijinksy’s Faun was a curious conception, a strange being, half human, half animal. There was little of the sprightliness, lasciviousness, and gaiety which legend has ascribed to such beings. There was something cat-like about his propensity for indolence and the elasticity of his slow, deliberate, remorseless movements. His features were set and expressionless, and did not change throughout the ballet. By this means he suggested the brute, the creature actuated by instinct rather than by intelligence. Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of Nijinsky’s portrait was this lack of emotion, all feeling being subjected to the exigencies of pure form.” If I hadn’t seen this quality for the first time in a dancer just last week, I would not have known what Beaumont meant. Dane Hurst has beautiful line and poise, but he has not that brutish quality. Faune is only superficially about turned-in lines and shapes; at its heart is the animal nature in pure form, something primeval. There is no notation that can capture that.

Mark Baldwin’s What Wild Ecstasy is his celebration of the centenary of L’après midi d’un faune and at the same time his response to it in terms of its outdoor nature, its ‘primal instincts and urges, fascinations and attractions.’ The score by Gavin Higgins suggests ‘Acid House music with its hedonistic home in the underground rave scene’ and the design by Michael Howells, dominated by a giant insect hanging above the stage, enhances both approaches: we see a wildly ecstatic dance in wildly colourful costumes from beginning to end. In the program notes, Baldwin writes about his fascination for the ritualized dance gatherings in his native Fiji and their ability to help ‘bond a community, bolster its individuals and act as a way of releasing tension.’ This is perhaps more true for the participants than for the onlooker, especially one seated so far away from the action.