The Royal Ballet, Giselle

Posted: April 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, Giselle

The Royal Ballet, Giselle, Royal Opera House, March 29

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

There is something soothing about seeing a classical ballet like Giselle. You don’t have to wonder what it’s about, the characters are defined in the narrative, the music and the rhythmic structure are familiar, the sequences haven’t changed and the form is known. What is exciting is the anticipation of a great interpretation, not just of the principal character Giselle but of Albrecht, Hilarion, Berthe and Bathilde, and in the second act the Queen of the Wilis. Apart from these major roles (on whom the clarity of the story depends), there are set pieces for the corps de ballet, most notably in the second act but also in the pas de six in the first. That is not to say the lesser characters — dukes and squires, leaders of the hunt and the villagers in the first act — are less important. There are no small roles; everyone has something to do in a narrative ballet and the success or failure of a performance is made up as much of all these small gestures and actions as it is of the interpretation of the principal dancers.

This evening the role of Giselle is danced by Natalia Osipova. I bought a ticket to see her interpretation because she is one of those rare talents with technique and dramatic sensibility who can bring a classical role to a new height of definition. Margot Fonteyn insisted technique is subservient to the ability of a dancer to tell the story. Osipova has both and she does not disappoint; from the moment she steps out of her cottage she is Giselle with all her charm, vitality and naivety expressed in her steps, her posture, gestures, and mime. She is evidently in love and allows that feeling of excitement to infuse her performance. Peter Wright, whose production this is, suggests the possibility that Giselle is of royal birth but illegitimate, a result of the droit de seigneur custom of the time. It would explain why she is different from the other village girls and why her mother wants to protect her from a similar fate to her own. Albrecht is a seigneur himself, son of a noble family that is used to hunting on the lands around the village. He has caught the attention of Giselle and even though he is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of a local duke, he is drawn to her in spite of himself. This is the delicate balance facing Matthew Golding’s characterisation. Albrecht hasn’t really thought it all through so he has to dissimulate. Golding hasn’t thought it through either and doesn’t. He goes through the noble motions without letting us know what he is thinking or feeling and he fails to differentiate between his feelings for Giselle and those for Bathilde. He talks to them both with the same slow, vapid gestures. This is a major flaw in the production because Osipova has nobody to play off; she appears to fly out of the frame as she did (with the same partner) in Onegin because she is very much on her own; there is only half a conversation. Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe is the only character to use her mime to consummate effect; after Giselle’s death the way she brushes Albrecht off her daughter is chilling. Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion also expresses his intentions in mime but, as Wright points out, he is destined to be the baddie and there are few redemptive aspects of his characterisation. Knowing the story, we tend to fill in the colours we don’t see, but it would be heartening to have characters who behave with a full palette and shake us out of our familiarity.

It is not only characterisation that is lacking this evening. Though generally of a high standard — this is after all The Royal Ballet — the level of technical excellence can be unexpectedly weak. In the prelude to tragedy in Act 1, the stage is filled with a joyous harvest festival celebration. The traditional peasant pas de deux becomes in Wright’s production a pas de six, an opportunity for junior talents to shine. But the men must have had a hard day in the fields because their dancing is ragged; they can’t land their double tours cleanly which sets off an uncertainty in subsequent steps. Osipova quickly dispels any uneasiness as she takes control of the stage as Giselle becomes unhinged by the shock of Albrecht’s duplicity. Golding could have hidden behind a tree (of which there are many) for all the emotional heft he brings to his unmasking. It is like watching a cinematic version of the ballet in which the camera is focused exclusively on the inner emotions and outer distress of the leading character.

As the first act sets up the basis for the second, any emotional weakness in the former will affect the redemptive quality of the latter. Since the cathartic effect of Giselle cannot be fully expressed by one character alone, we are left to watch Osipova from the edges of our seat as she dances on the edge of hers. In such an ethereal setting, the ability to fly is essential and one of Osipova’s qualities is her ability to suspend her shapes in the air, an extension of her musicality. Marianela Nuñez as Queen of the Wilis has an ethereal elegance of line on the ground but, like her band of fellow spirits, appears less free in the air; the flying exit of Wilis is marked more by propulsion than elevation. And while the corps is exquisite in its unity of design and intent, it is a shame that such a ghostly scene — pale moonlit woods in a milky haze — should be interrupted in the moving arabesque section by the earthy reminder of clunky pointe shoes.

All these detractions don’t seem to count much. There are endless curtain calls in front of the full house, cheers, applause (for Osipova and Nunez in particular) but I wonder what is being celebrated. Yes, it is a privilege to see Osipova in the role of Giselle, but in this 575th performance by The Royal Ballet one would hope for a more complete experience. The Royal Ballet may make money with its production of Giselle but it is short-changing the audience with this kind of unfulfilled performance.


Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella

Posted: July 13th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella

Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella, London Coliseum, July 8

The cast of Dutch National Ballet in Cinderella in front of Basil Twist's tree (photo: Angela Sterling)

The cast of Dutch National Ballet in Cinderella in front of Basil Twist’s tree (photo: Angela Sterling)

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.” Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Susan Sontag, On Camp

Cinderella, whether in the version of the Brothers Grimm or of that of Perrault, is an uplifting tale of virtue overcoming adversity that lends itself perfectly to the romantic nature of classical ballet. Or at least it did; perhaps it is contemporary sensibility that militates against the creation in balletic form of fairy tales with their wide-eyed wonderment and youthful innocence. Christopher Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella that the Dutch National Ballet brought for the first time to the UK at the London Coliseum last week as part of the Sadler’s Wells season still uses Prokofiev’s uplifting score to anchor its heart (and it still does, despite the editing to fit Wheeldon’s and Craig Lucas’s libretto), but his choreography has a sense of artifice that inflates subtlety into exaggeration. Nothing illustrates this better than the entrance of Matthew Golding as the Prince into Cinderella’s lowly cottage in the third act. He has been searching for the girl with whom he has fallen in love at the Ball and who mysteriously disappeared at the stroke of midnight without a trace — except for a golden slipper. The Prince is visiting everyone on his guest list to find the foot (and the girl) that matches this slipper and he springs into the room like a bull (one can imagine him preparing along the pathway outside) in a series of jetés culminating in a double saut-de-basque and a flourish in the middle of the kitchen. The exaggeration of the step and the seriousness with which Golding performs it is pure Camp. I am not suggesting Wheeldon is making fun of the situation but it does suggest a failure to get to grips with the fairy tale on its own terms. The fault is not helped by Golding’s difficulty in finding subtle shades of princely character. The one time the Prince relaxes is when he is played as a young boy by Mingus de Swaan (a student at the National Ballet Academy Amsterdam) dashing along the palace corridors wooden sword in hand and jumping over the back of the sofas. What happened, one wonders, to that prankster charm in the older prince? It resurfaces briefly in the first act when he mocks the ancestral portraits and when in the guise of his equerry he mimics the stepsisters in front of Cinderella but later at the Ball when the music wills him to soften in the presence of the effulgent Cinderella Golding gets all serious in the partnering demands Wheeldon imposes that leave no room for (dare I mention it?) an expression of tenderness. This leaves Cinderella (Anna Tsygankova) in a fix because she doesn’t get a chance to see the Prince — let alone communicate with him — as he manipulates her almost clinically across his back and over his shoulders in what is a show of lifts and steps rather than a show of relationship through the lifts and steps (something Sir Frederick Ashton was brilliant at doing with equal artifice but more subtlety). With such a tentative chemistry between them, the fairytale loses its heart.

The one moment we get to see Tsygankova as a radiant Cinderella is when the court slowly recedes to reveal her entrance at the Ball; she doesn’t have to do anything but be herself. It is the first time I have seen her dance, but that moment is enough to suggest Wheeldon has for the rest of Cinderella obscured her in steps rather than revealed her in choreography and for much of the time she is transported by a quartet of muscular male ‘fates’ instead of being allowed to determine her own path. (If she can hide her slipper on the mantelpiece by herself, why does she need the four fates to push her atop the kitchen table to retrieve it?)

The one character to whom Wheeldon gives a sense of freedom is the Prince’s friend Benjamin (Remi Wörtmeyer) who keeps in character with his rambunctious younger self (Floris Faes) while pulling off some of the most challengingly fluid variations of the evening. But he is not allowed entirely off the hook: he falls rather improbably for stepsister Clementine (Nadia Yanowsky) who has been used by Wheeldon for comic purposes (along with sister Edwina and mother Hortensia) to the point of caricature. It is as if Wheeldon has worked with each of the characters separately in different rooms without developing a credible relationship that unites them over the three acts.

This is not the case for the scenic elements. Thanks to the team of Julian Crouch, Basil Twist, Natasha Katz and Daniel Brodie one scene flows imaginatively and seamlessly into the next through a scrupulous balance of lighting (Katz), scenic elements (Crouch) and video projection (Brodie) — even if the projected map of Europe the Prince is studying appears the wrong way round. Twist’s contribution is the magical image of the carriage that flies Cinderella out of Act 1 and a tree that we see grow from Cinderella’s tears on her mother’s grave into a glorious green arbour that embraces the entire wedding party at the end. It is this tree that reveals the true arc of the story.

Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Both companies wanted a new full-evening work from Wheeldon; the former settled for a new Cinderella and the latter didn’t have one in its repertoire. Clearly fairy tales (not to mention Shakespeare’s and Lewis Caroll’s tales too) and ballet go together and have commercial appeal, but the formula is essentially looing backwards. I can’t help feeling Wheeldon’s talents would be better used to look forward to a new kind of work on his own terms. His imagination seemed to blossom in his single-act non-narrative works for San Francisco Ballet — Ghosts and Number Nine, in particular, that the company presented at Sadler’s Wells in 2012. British ballet has been searching for a new form of full-evening classical work ever since the death of Sir Kenneth MacMillan almost 25 years ago. With his experience of the classical form, his creative team, and as both Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist and Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon is in the right place at the right time to find it.


Natalia Osipova in Royal Ballet’s Onegin

Posted: February 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Natalia Osipova in Royal Ballet’s Onegin

Royal Ballet, Onegin, Royal Opera House, January 30

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in John Cranko's Onegin (photo: Alastair Muir)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in John Cranko’s Onegin (photo: Alastair Muir)

It is the first time in recent years that I have been gripped by the dance drama on the Royal Opera House stage and it is the interpretation by Natalia Osipova of Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin that is responsible. From my seat in the upper amphitheatre, each gesture she makes is clear, however subtle, and when she throws herself at her Onegin — as she does frequently — the effect is like wearing 3D glasses: she flies into the auditorium. I am too far away to see her eyes but I know exactly where they are focused at each moment. Her performance has the naturalness of improvisation — like her plonking down on a bench as she gazes at Onegin in Act 2 to her child-like intensity of stabbing the pen in the inkwell before writing her letter — and the rigour of a beautifully crafted, flawless interpretation of the steps.

Perhaps it is Osipova’s Russian soul responding to Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, but Cranko was not a Russian choreographer and the role was created on Marcia Haydée. There is something nevertheless universal in Tatiana. In his biography of Cranko, Theatre in My Blood, John Percival observes that Haydée’s Tatiana was ‘a character who grew through the work and was in every moment entirely convincing as a portrait of an exceptional but credible person.’ He could have been writing about Osipova last Friday night but I can’t help feeling she was able to infuse the role with a spirit that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky would have recognized.

Because Osipova lives the character of Tatiana so fully, her relationship with Onegin requires a heightened sensibility from her partner. Matthew Golding acts his part with less dimensions than Osipova; he appears to remain quite tightly locked into his role — more prince than profligate. He is most at home in the beginning of the first act because he is setting up his character but in the bedroom scene where he is transformed into the dream-like persona Tatiana desires, he cannot leave his aloofness on the far side of the mirror. Osipova is superb here and Golding partners her brilliantly but he never seems to enter into the dream. In the second act Golding fails to colour Cranko’s gestures with a degree of willful petulance that will give Lensky no choice but to challenge him to a duel; we are left wondering what all the fuss is about. And while Tatiana’s stature has risen by the opening of the third act, Onegin’s hasn’t descended which creates an imbalance because the pathos of Act 3 is in the intersection of their divergent paths. At the end Golding runs off and Osipova runs after him, checking herself as she reaches the door. What I didn’t know is that Pushkin never finished his verse novel, and neither does Osipova clarify her emotional state at the end of the ballet. It is left floating in turmoil; however kind and distinguished Count Gremin may be (played with grateful devotion by Bennet Gartside), Tatiana’s heart is more her master than her mind.

There are just five principal characters in Onegin who are responsible for the development of the plot. Cranko paints Tatiana’s relationship to her sister Olga (Yasmine Naghdi) with the lightest of touches; the opening scene where the two are introduced in Jürgen Rose’s idyllic country setting reveals a tender competition, with Olga the more effusive of the two; she dances a lovely solo full of joyous bouncing steps surrounded by friends while Tatiana relaxes with feet up on a wicker bench devouring her romantic novel. Olga’s fiancée Lensky (the elegant Matthew Ball) is a finely drawn character, a romantic suitor whose attention is devoted entirely to pleasing Olga. There is no indication of any flaw in his character that will make his jealousy explode so violently in Act 2, nor is there any trait in Olga, apart from her natural ebullience, that suggests her willingness to flirt with Onegin. All this has to be whipped up at the party, and it is left to Cranko’s choreography to make this happen without the full emotional investment by these three characters. These may seem minor details but with an artist of Osipova’s calibre in the cast the standards are set very high.

I can’t imagine the ballet Onegin being created to Tchaikovsky’s opera score; what Kurt-Heinz Stolze created with his orchestral arrangements of some of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known piano compositions and orchestral poems allows the choreography to weave together the characters of Pushkin’s novel seamlessly and leaves the beauty of Cranko’s choreography to match Tchaikovsky’s arias.