The Royal Ballet, Wheeldon’s Triple Bill

Posted: February 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, Wheeldon’s Triple Bill

The Royal Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon triple bill, February 16

Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless (photo: Bill Cooper)

Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless (photo: Bill Cooper)

When the UK Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards recently voted Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works the best classical choreography for 2015 I felt ballet had died and been relegated to purgatory. Fortunately Christopher Wheeldon has come along to rescue it with a triple bill for The Royal Ballet that includes the première of Strapless and two earlier works; over the course of the evening Wheeldon builds a salutary image of what the classical language can still say in both traditional steps and contemporary invention, in its musical phrasing as well as in something that has been in danger of extinction in recent years: danced characters, those that emerge convincingly through their dancing.

Strapless is the one commission of the evening but this is the first time After The Rain, created for New York City Ballet in 2005 and Within The Golden Hour for San Francisco Ballet in 2008 enter the Royal Ballet repertoire.

After The Rain is in two movements, both of which are set to music by Arvo Pärt. The first is an interwoven trio of duets and the second, to Pärt’s exquisite Spiegel im Spiegel, is a duet by one of the couples from the first movement. It’s a bit like an A-side which takes on a life of its own — it is often performed by itself — as if there were two distinct choreographic processes in Wheeldon’s mind at the time of creation. The opening movement of After The Rain finds a later echo in Within The Golden Hour; the musical play, the choreographic idiom and the spatial groupings are of the same family. The duet, however, is more ethereal, requiring a flow of two harmonious bodies in a series of seamless shapes that allow an audience to imagine their own dialogue; in this it is reminiscent of Norbert Vezak’s Belong. But in this performance Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares seem to add their own commentary to what should be free and dreamlike; it comes across instead as tense and curiously earthbound.

Strapless continues a worrying scenic trend in recent one-act narrative ballets for being opulently overweight. Since dancers are still the same size, the result is a miscalibration of scale, the scenic elements (five changes in 45 minutes) vying with the dancers for attention. Strapless is all about frames — in both society and art — in front of which we see the beau monde of Paris milling around in a state of heightened excitement until one beauty, Amélie Gautreau (Natalia Osipova), is finally enticed on to canvas by painter John Singer Sargent (Edward Watson) — his Portrait of Madame X — with unexpected, tragic consequences for the sitter.

While the drama depends for its climax on the slipping of a strap on an evening dress (the anticipation is intense), the core of the choreography is the tangle of intrigue in the lives of a quartet of principal characters: Singer Sargent is keen to paint society beauty Gautreau but needs the help of her lover (and his sitter) Dr. Samuel Pozzi to convince her to sit for him. Once she accepts, however, Sargent depends on the image of his lover, Albert de Belleroche, to inspire the pose. Sex is clearly the preoccupation from beginning to end but its depiction in the scene between Gautreau and Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) shocks in its clichéd artificiality. By contrast, Wheeldon treats Sargent’s lover (Matthew Ball) with an understated charm and elegance that exudes sensuality without giving him very much to do. The real sex is in the way Gautreau relates to her own image that she hopes will be framed in immortality. This is where Osipova’s characterization, through Wheeldon’s use of her formidable technique and artistry, brings to light Gautreau’s overweening ambition and irrepressible sensuality. The problem is that the role is too circumscribed; Osipova has the capacity to embody a much larger palette in a story that extends far beyond the picture frame.

I saw Within the Golden Hour when San Francisco Ballet performed it in their program C at Sadler’s Wells in 2012 and it didn’t appeal, perhaps due to a last-minute cast substitution. But this evening the performance is qualitatively different; the galvanizing effect on the audience of each successive movement is palpable. Wheeldon’s choice of short compositions by Ezio Bosso for each section (except for the sixth, to the andante from a Vivaldi violin concerto) allows him to weave a complex but playful choreographic line with only the subtlest musical support. Revisiting the opening motifs of After the Rain, three principal couples weave their patterns and shapes with four supporting ones over the seven sections, building up a vocabulary through the accumulation, reproduction and development of basic motifs. There is from the beginning a sense of mastery in the use of space; the large stage of the opera house comes alive with the asymmetric groups and interactions and with lighting and backdrop projections (by 59 Productions) linking to the autumnal colours of the costumes (to the designs of the late Martin Pakledinaz), Within the Golden Hour ensures the unity of its elements. The dancers look good because they are comfortable in the technique both they and Wheeldon understand. The Royal Ballet, as its title suggests, is devoted to the preservation and development of the highest level of classical technique, which is what Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan upheld. Wheeldon looks remarkably like their natural heir.


Rick Guest, What Lies Beneath

Posted: January 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Photography | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Rick Guest, What Lies Beneath

Rick Guest, What Lies Beneath & The Language of the Soul

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Still and moving images are the only ways of getting close to representing a memory of dance and it is only with the relatively recent development of recording techniques that the moving image has reliably captured artists in performance. The still image has been around for a lot longer, long enough, for example, to admire the series of photographs of Vaslav Nijinsky by Baron Adolphe de Meyer begun in 1911. In his sumptuous book of these photographs, Nijinsky Dancing, Lincoln Kerstein claims ‘Nijinsky is in fact the first dancer in history who seems to have collaborated consciously with a photographer on the level of art.’ Until the arrival of the 35mm camera and more sensitive film, the studio was where dancers and photographers would collaborate on a shared aesthetic but as soon as the technology was available dance photography turned its attention to the performance shot. Photographs of Royal Ballet dancers over the years show both kinds of images by such notable photographers as Gordon Anthony, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Crickmay, Michael Peto, Zoë Dominic, Keith Money, Lord Snowdon and Leslie Spatt while today you are likely to see glossy performance shots in the program by Johan Persson or Bill Cooper while in the contemporary sphere Hugo Glendinning and Chris Nash have developed a distinct style of expressive dance portrait that borrows from both performance and the studio. But at the end of last year fashion photographer Rick Guest released two self-published books of dance photography that eschews the performance for a more personal approach. Guest was introduced to dance by his wife some 15 years ago — he remembers Irek Mukhamedov in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet — and found his way back to The Royal Ballet with a commission to photograph principal dancer Edward Watson. From this grew the first book, What Lies Beneath, for which Watson is the muse and in which Guest’s fascination with and admiration for the dancer’s ethos finds expression in large-format portraits of an extended cast from The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, the Danish National Ballet, Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett, Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance and Richard Alston Dance Company.

To concentrate his (and our) attention on the person Guest removes the locus of these photographs. All that outwardly signifies the dancer is the clothing, which is a study in itself: tattered, worn-out warmers that hang, it has to be said, with remarkable effect on these honed bodies or lovingly stitched repairs on a favourite unitard — as in the portrait of Melissa Hamilton that reveals the unequivocally trained body beneath its delicately scarred covering. In stripping the dancers of their performative role Guest reveals the enigmatic presence within. They are suspended not spatially (there are some fine examples of those, notably of Sergei Polunin suspended on an invisible cross) but psychologically; some have the confidence to be themselves in front of the lens, others feel the need to pose, giving the photographer their ‘best angle’ or baring their extraordinary physique for all time. But many are revealing of a quality that transcends description, of a neutral mien that is like the clay before it becomes a sculpted form (notably Svetlana Gileva and Julia Weiss of Semperoper Ballett). In other portraits there is an earthy quality that contrasts with the stage presence. Marianela Nuñez has a weightless, ethereal quality on stage but here she is quintessentially a woman with gravity in images whose locus is somewhere between the living room and the studio.

The dancers return our gaze — the gaze of the photographer — in response to a dialogue we cannot hear. Watson, like Hamilton, allows the gaze in, without any sense of defense. Eric Underwood looks into it as in a mirror; Yenaida Zenowsky and Yuhui Choe match it enigmatically, Alison McWhinney wistfully; Sergei Polunin meets it head on and Olivia Cowley gently deflects it. In Tamara Rojo’s reflective pose her eyes look away and down, preoccupied with her own world that is encapsulated within her superbly honed lines.

It is interesting to compare the physicality of dancers across the different companies — the effect of respective repertoires, physical conditioning and company culture. At Semperoper, for example, the dancers’ bodies appear more at ease and their clothing neatly utilitarian yet the traces of their profession are still apparent. What Guest has captured, essentially, is the way embodied classical training and the experience of performing express themselves in the eyes, in the posture and gesture of the dancer’s body. At the current exhibition of Guest’s photographs at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden, where the portraits are almost life-size, it is the eyes that engage directly with the lens and the spectator so they seem to follow you around the gallery.

In 2010 Guest saw Jane Pritchard’s Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A where his interest in fashion overlapped with his fascination for dance. The second compilation of photographs, The Language of the Soul, includes the same dancers as in What Lies Beneath but in more active poses partnered with his familiar world of fashion. ‘Some of the images are pure dance, some more fashion and some more photographic in nature,’ he writes. In both the dance and fashion portraits there emerges, unlike in What Lies Beneath, a performative quality which in certain cases is transformative.

There is a lovely anecdote in Sarah Crompton’s afterword to What Lies Beneath about Antoinette Sibley’s first glimpse of Galina Ulanova in rehearsal in 1956 that sums up the kind of place these dancers take up in Guest’s book:

“This old lady got up from the stalls. We thought she was the ballet mistress. She was saying something to the dancers and then she went and stood on the stage up on the balcony and she still had these awful leg-warmers on and, well, she looked 100. And then she suddenly started dreaming. And in front of our very eyes — no make-up, no costume — she became 14. I have never seen anything, in any sphere, as theatrical as Ulanova getting up in her scrubby old practice clothes…with her grey curly hair and becoming Juliet….From then on…I knew you could be…an amazing ballerina…and not perfect. Perfection was not part of Ulanova’s scene at all. She was human. It was to do with transformation.”

There are no ‘old ladies’ of either gender in the book, but some of the portraits reveal this transformative ability, notably in Sergei Polunin. He is singing in his portraits; he has something to sing about and so does his body. He becomes someone else. It is also good to see the performance photograph of Johannes Stepanek in an image I have seen in a Royal Opera House program without finding a credit.

The more I look at the photographs in these two fine compilations the more I am drawn into them. It is too easy to take the performance image for granted: to acknowledge the dancer without seeing the person. What Guest does is to first decontextualize the dancer and then to show each one in a refreshingly unfamiliar light with the immediacy of bringing the viewer into the same room to share his sense of admiration and awe.

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