Carlos Acosta – Premieres Plus, Grand Opera House, Belfast, 29th November 2011

Since the first momentous news arrived in my inbox from the Belfast Festival at Queen’s that Carlos Acosta was going to be gracing the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, I have been very, very excited and telling everyone that I could think of, that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, male dancers of our time, was going to be performing here.  I have set up this blog largely, I feel, we have, in the last number of years, lost a lot of our ballet tradition.  I hope that this visit will re-ignite our love of ballet and we will continue to attract big names and big companies.  We are all painfully aware of the squeeze and cuts to Arts funding but hopefully through innovative programming and use of social media and blogging, we will again see an influx of stars from the world of ballet like we did at the close of Belfast Festival 2011.

Lazy journalism often tags Carlos Acosta with the term, “Cuban Billy Elliott”, but those who saw Carlos Acosta at the Grand Opera House can definitely attest to the fact that this was no fictional character but a ballet megastar with a career at the highest level sustained over many years at one of the World’s top companies, who only accept technical and bodily perfection from its’ dancers.  For this tour, Carlos Acosta is partnered by another Royal Ballet Principal, Zenaida Yanowsky, whose performance as the Red Queen in the company’s first full-length narrative ballet in twenty years, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, was one of the highlights of the performance.  Zenaida is one of those dancers who is long of limb and can often find it difficult to find a suitable partner who can match her en pointe height but that is obviously not going to be a problem this evening and the contrast between the two dancers is stunning but very complementary and effective, especially as they come out at the start, Carlos dressed all in black and Zenaida dressed all in white.  The relationship in the dance begins with him looking in longing at her prone figure on the ground and then the scene appeared to rewind to show us the beginning of the relationship in turmoil and to me, it seemed to represent a very turbulent relationship but when the other partner is gone, the realisation comes that he can’t live without her.  The partnering in this dance was to set the pattern for the rest of the night and the contrast of light and dark, strength and femininity, between the male and female was most clearly marked and effective here.  The second piece saw Carlos dancing solely to a paired-back drum and bass track, the beat marking the tempo which at times was fast and furious and again, evoked strength and power and showed the amazing physical presence that Carlos Acosta has, more so than when he is hiding behind, somewhat, a character role.  The third piece saw the floor handed over for a solo performance by Zenaida in a piece choreographed by her brother, or I assume this is her brother as they share the same surname, born in the same place and both cite training at their parents’ Yanowsky School.  The change-over was choreographed by a small moment where they danced together with Zenaida dressed in a slightly Halloween-looking, full white leotard and started with the movements of a bird or I thought looked like a breath of air and this is how she danced, so light and smooth that she looked ethereal and sylph-like, just a wisp and the movement was so fluid that it looked at times that she was not made of muscle and bone but sinew only.  The final act of a short-ish first half, saw Carlos in a solo piece that he danced largely in a square of light to the front of the stage.  This piece was choreographed by one of the leading choreographers of modern ballet, Russell Maliphant, originally for Sylvie Guillem which it must have gone through a metamorphosis as it brought out again the strengths of Carlos Acosta and that is his physical presence and strength, ending with the arms and legs whirling around so quickly in the square of light towards the edges of the circle that it looked like one continuous movement going round in a circle of light.  In this dance, the light became the partner.  The audience were so rapt, we didn’t really want the atmosphere that had built up, to end.

One of the most poignant of tonight’s offerings started the second half with the stage edged with rows of lit candles and the piece was entitled, Footnote to Ashton in tribute to the founding choreographer of the Royal Ballet who was probably the founder of ballet as we know it, in the UK.  This piece took the more basic, elemental movements of ballet and was incredibly moving with the Belfast’s own, Cappella Caeciliana singing the music of Handel.  The next piece was probably one of the most interesting and featured the dancers naked forms, on video, using water as the setting and focusing on the musculature and power of the dancers’ bodies, that at times were seen to slap their own and each others’ faces and then their bodies fused and merged whilst the under a waterfall of heavily falling water.  This was a real stand-out piece, especially as it involved not a lot of dancing or the dancers performing live on stage. 

The next three works were to end the programme and saw the dancers on the stage.  The contrast between the two dancers was again transparent but also tremendously effective, with Carlos in black and Zenaida in a little white dress and they are an amazing pairing.  They were so in tune and the lifts were mesmerising and so secure and, at times, Carlos carried Zenaida on his shoulder without being held and in fact, with arms aloft, it showed the strength and power of the dancers but also the balance and security that they have.  The programme ended with the choir, that until now, had sung back stage but at times, wandered on to walk through the stage lights or to peer into black holes, created by the lighting, came onto stage.  Carlos and Zenaida danced, mostly to the side of the stage, in a kind of coda or reprise of the first work and was choreographed by the dancers themselves.  However, as much as I loved this dance, I was very disappointed by not seeing the dancers enough and it ended with the choir taking most of the stage and covering Carlos at one stage to take Zenaida away with them to the back.  The choir were magnificent and the piece was so evocative that it was deeply moving but was a quiet ending, rather than a big bang which was in contrast to the fireworks going off around the city.  The performances were effecting, wistful and sometimes romantic rather than wham bam although there were moments of high drama and combativeness between the dancers.

I cannot understate the contribution that Carlos Acosta has made to the evolution of ballet.  There have been dancers that before have come from extreme poverty and broken out of a totalitarian regime but the physicality of Carlos Acosta combined with the highest level of technique, makes him one of the best male dancers, in the league of Nureyev and Baryshnikov.  Since the Royal Ballet stopped touring the UK in the late 90s, the Belfast audiences have been thrilled by the smaller, regional companies that can be fabulously innovative but I hope that the success of this performance and the reaction from the audience that saw sustained standing ovations on each evening, will see Belfast back on the map for the top ballet performers, if not by the Royal Ballet itself and what I would really love to see is Northern Ireland’s own Melissa Hamilton, welcomed back to Northern Ireland for the heroic welcome that she deserves.  My lasting memory though of this performance will be Carlos Acosta’s smile, as he took his bow to a rapturous applause which is about a mile wide and lit up the Belfast skyline better than a thousand fire-works.

Wayne McGregor’s FAR – Waterfront Hall, Belfast, 15th October 2011

Let me first say that I favour the classical style of dance and love to see a story enfold from start to finish and probably most like the romantic tragedies. So, I anticipated a night of quality dance from one of the top modern dance choreographers, Wayne McGregor. I have not yet had the opportunity to see his most celebrated works, Chroma and Infra with the Royal Ballet but I have heard the mixed reviews that he receives from his work from the rave to the not so great for, depending on what side of the modern V classical side you come down on. So, it was a mix of knowledge that what I was about to see was dancing and choreography from the top drawer but I may not be fully involved with everything that was happening on stage.
The venue was probably not entirely appropriate, not being on a raised stage but you could obviously see the full commitment of the dancers as their toned bodies dripped sweat onto the front row, but at times, there was too much going on at the edges of the stage that it was difficult to see and you had to strain round the people in the front row.
As befits modern dance, the staging was stark which included the costumes which were a mix of flesh-coloured and black, from briefs to leotards which again showed off the commitment and strain that the dancers were putting their bodies under. In contrast to classical ballet where costumes largely hide the strain that the dancers go through to give it an ethereal look and feel, this was like lifting away the pretty clock-face to let you see the inner workings and complexities. It really became part of the evening, as I’m sure it was meant to.
The dancing was mainly jarring and continuous movement and shaping raced along and made it very exciting to behold. Themes appeared to compete with each other and couples appeared to be largely at conflict and very tempestuous and sensual and at the end, romantic. The parts I liked most were when the entire company were on stage and dancing largely in harmony but still with that competitive edge, especially between men and women. It wasn’t until the last dance that we got a more harmonised piece between men and women with a more romantic fusion of their bodies.
It was a great spectacle and danced at full commitment with dancers not backing out of any moves that, for instance, see them slamming themselves to the floor or bouncing off their partners. The choreography is frenetic and didn’t give you much opportunity to catch your breath but this is the thrill of modern dance and can make it so appealing to watch. It challenged the minds as it often had two pieces of choreography going on at the same time and it was a lot to take in but very much worth it.
For me, modern dance is usually more about the spectacle and usually doesn’t linger in the mind as much as a story-telling ballet where you can visualise a start and an end but this definitely challenged me and was of such quality that I will seek out further works but you don’t get to be one of the top choreographers and Resident with the Royal Ballet, if you are not talented. It will be very interesting to see what Christopher Wheeldon and he do in their time under Creative Director, Kevin O’Hare’s tenure, it should be very interesting and hopefully a new dawn of creativity for the Royal Ballet that harks back to its’ inception.

Northern Ballet Dancers’ Under Threat

I work in a Higher Education establishment so am well aware of how tight budgets are and how little money there is about and what there is you feel should be directed to essentials such as the NHS but when we see other Public officials awarding themselves pay rises and so-called celebrities with little talent to recommend them, dripping in contracts and money and gracing our media on a daily basis, I feel compelled to write about this subject but probably won’t do it justice. The Northen Ballet have graced the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast and is one of the few companies that tour the whole of UK putting on some of the most mesmerising full-length narrative ballets that are so full of passion and technical dancing that the memories remain for years to come.

This is already a small company that I am amazed they can put on such works with such a small company with dancers interchanging between roles. I recently saw the company in Cleopatra on two separate occasions with the dancers sharing the lead roles. I personally feel that the likes of Martha Leebolt, Tobias Batley and Kenneth Tindall are some of the most exciting dancers of their generation and dance dramatically and very much men dancing like men and women are women. Much kudos goes to the creative team led by Creative Director, David Nixon, who form such works and bring the best out of these talented dancers.

I can only assume that other companies and a range of Arts organisations are going through such trials as was highlighted in the recent Agony and Ecstasy programme that followed the fortunes of the English National Ballet but I would call upon the public to open their minds to ballet and the super-human talent that they possess but are so willing to direct towards this art-form. You would never find a ballet dancer paid £230k a week, never mind refuse to actually dance, so much is their love. There are not many in this World who are in it for the money. I would also love to see the media embrace smaller, struggling companies, outside of London and share the love around a bit more and give us more ballet too.

‘No Way Home’ – autobiography by Carlos Acosta

In anticipation of Carlos Acosta’s first visit to Belfast (yes, you don’t have to pinch yourself, Carlos Acosta is coming to Belfast), I thought I should find out more about the man himself, as he has already found his way into the history books as one of the worlds’ best male dancers alongside the likes of Nureyev who also graced the stages of Covent Garden.  I picked up his autobiography, “A dancer’s journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World”, and have found it hard to put down.  His story is one of abject poverty and triumph over adversity, a story that wouldn’t be out of place as a ballet in its’ own right.  The closest cultural marker we have in this country is Billy Elliott, although there is so much more jaw-dropping stories in this book and, of course, Carlos’ life is not fictional but was very much a reality.  What strikes me most about this biography is the fact we nearly did not have, ‘Carlos Acosta the World-famous ballet dancer’, as with most boys, street dancing and football were a far bigger draw.

Thankfully, though, Cuba, like other oppressive regimes, value their prowess in the Arts and especially ballet with such high technical values and can suppress artistic freedom.  It is a life well worth learning about.  As with life’s real stars of the stage, it has been these triumphs over adversity that makes them so much more interesting and depth of interpretation due to their challening circumstances.

Next book: Helen Lewis, ‘A Time to Speak’, Auschwitz survivor and founder of the Belfast Modern Dance Group.

Who are Friends of Ballet NI

We are a group of enthusiasts of what we consider to be on of the greatest art-forms in the World. We share the common the bond of trying to be Darcy Bussell’s or Carlos Acosta’s every Friday night at the Crescent Arts Centre, taking part in their Second Chance Ballet class but we have extended our interest of ballet, past trying to perfect our pirouettes and arabesques to supporting and promoting ballet by talking about it, tweeting and blogging and attending as many events as we can. Our following of ballet has become insatiable and we voraciously seek out more information by following other ballet blogs and linking these to our Twitter sites which will take your knowledge from basic to, possible, A Level standard.

Recently, we made the decision, as a group, to actively promote ballet in Northern Ireland through social media as social media is making Arts accessible to so many more people and hopefully providing a forum for all the existing ballet supporters in Northern Ireland to chat and discuss and come together as a more cohesive group and hopefully see this glorious art-form growing strong in this province again.

We would like to see our stars such as Melissa Hamilton, leading lady at the Royal Ballet, dominating our media for the purity of her talent than someone who is celebrated for not very much.

If you feel the same sort of passion for ballet as we do, please join us and share your experiences.

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