Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Posted: September 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Peter Wright, Wrights and Wrongs, Oberon Press         

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

There is not, nor can there ever be, a definitive history of ballet. Made up of so many personalities with their diffuse interactions and influences such a history will always grow richer but will never reach maturity. Sir Peter Wright’s memoirs, Wrights and Wrongs, subtitled My Life in Dance, is a case in point. In Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, subtitled A History of Ballet, published in 2010, there is no mention of Wright, yet for the last 70 years he has been involved in so many ways in the key stages of the development of classical ballet in this country. Perhaps Wright by his own admission has blended so tenaciously into the fabric of those years that it is difficult to see the man for the material; he wistfully recalls being described as the best director The Royal Ballet never had. At the same time these memoirs do not set out to shine a spotlight on Wright himself; even with his own proviso that ‘this is primarily an account of my working life…I do not detail much about my family or personal life’, he reveals little about the man whose working life he describes. Nor was he ever especially in the spotlight, preferring to support in his long career key figures like Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko in a range of roles as dancer, teacher, ballet master, administrator, director and, most significantly, as producer of the classical narrative ballets of which his versions continue to serve the repertoires of ballet companies around the world.

What is fascinating is how Wright knew early on that he wanted to dance without having any connection to ballet. His early years were consumed in an effort to discover the door to the world he had sensed; he read about ballet in the school library and improvised movements to music on a gramophone in the gym. He was closer than he at first realised: the wife of his biology teacher had been in Pavlova’s company and offered classes to some of the girls and his music teacher had been a rehearsal pianist for Kurt Joos at Dartington. But it was at the age of 16, after seeing a performance of Les Sylphides by Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet, that he ran away from school to protest his father’s lack of understanding about his chosen calling. Impressed at his determination, his father acquiesced but refused to pay for his training. As Wright states, ‘…the more I am prevented from doing something the more determined I am to achieve it.’ Having failed to win a scholarship to the Sadler’s Wells ballet school, he apprenticed to Joos’s company, learning from him his sense of theatre and that ‘choreography is just as much about ideas as it is about steps.’ Realising two years later he needed more classical training, Wright left Joos to devote himself to classes with Vera Volkova in London before a spell in Victor Gsovsky’s Metropolitan Ballet, musicals, revues and the short-lived St James’s Ballet. It was here he met John Cranko who organized an introduction to Ninette de Valois that led to his entry into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet which has remained, through its many manifestations and names, his home ever since. ‘Looking back over the training that I mustered for myself during my early years…I do not think I did too badly for a late starter with no money and certain major setbacks — injuries, parental disapproval and military service.’ He must indeed be very fulfilled to have set out with only the light of intuition on a path with so many obstacles that led finally to his goal. It is perhaps not surprising that he is drawn to fairy tales.

What is frustrating is how difficult these memoirs are to read. Co-authored with Paul Arrowsmith, the book’s contents are more easily grasped through its extensive index than through its chapter organization. The editing alternates uneasily between discursive conversations and Wright’s own considered texts while the timeline winds forwards, backwards and sideways with a persistent sense of déjà vu. Sentence structure is sometimes awkward and poor proofreading — ‘Marot Fonteyn’ is unforgivable — adds to the level of frustration. Nevertheless, the value of Wright’s memoirs is to substantiate and add to the complex history of ballet and his comments on the classics, garnered over the last 50 years, form a vital and perceptive account of how to stage them. These in themselves have the makings of a separate book. Wright is humble enough to admit his own failures and his caveats about designers and technical staff are salutary.

Despite his close association with The Royal Ballet, Wright’s relationship with Sir Frederick Ashton seems surprisingly bleak and he has little to say about Rudolph Nureyev as a dancer; I sense a lot of the memoirs exist in between the lines but he is harsh on Sylvie Guillem and disagrees on many counts with the treatment of MacMillan’s legacy by his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan. Given his experience with the classics and his narrative sensibility, his lack of enthusiasm for the work of Wayne McGregor comes as no surprise, neither is his strong support for David Bintley and Christopher Wheeldon as choreographers with the ability to carry forward the tradition of the classics and of classical dance that is at the heart of the Royal Ballet’s two companies.

So what are the wrongs? One of Wright’s admitted weaknesses is in forgetting, while making a speech, to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of a key player. He preempts a recurrence of this by devoting an entire chapter to a roll call of appreciation for those past and present whose devotion to their own art has helped and inspired him throughout his career. If the memoirs read as program notes to his life work, this is the cast list.


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.