Ballet V Ballroom (in Harry Hill stylee!)

I have been an avid fan of Strictly Come Dancing since its’ return nearly 10 years ago, in the wake of the fabulously quirky but wonderful, Baz Luhrmann’s film, Strictly Ballroom.  This particularly niggley series of Strictly between the judges and the professionals and even judge to judge, has prompted me into making comparisons between ballet and ballroom.  Lovers of dance will generally watch any dance programme and support the dance phenomenon.  Ballet is possibly lagging behind ballroom programmes in terms of popular television.  Programmes about ballet can be few and far between as ballet is maybe perceived as inaccessible to mainstream entertainment and perhaps ballet is seen aloof.  One of my greatest regrets was only discovering ballet later in life but at least due to the Crescent Arts Centres’ Second Chance Ballet, I have at least enjoyed participating, to a certain extent, in ballet and shattering some of the myths I had such as, that it was just for the higher echelons of society and have met a great group of interesting people who are also contributors to this site.  What originally inspired me to the awesome beauty of ballet was Omnibus arts programme focusing on Darcy Bussell and I know that her engagement with the media was to many in the ballet world, controversial and unfortunately her appearance as a Guest Judge on Strictly was not very successful as she was squeezed in as a fifth judge alongside Alesha Dixon rather than as a replacement but couldn’t get two people from more diverse backgrounds which sometimes works as a contrast but on this occasion, was probably not the correct format for a World-leading dancers’  talents.  The Judge that gave her the most respect was Craig Revel-Horwood who enjoys ballet himself and was trained in it and frequently uses ballet terms.  From my very limited experience as a highly unprofessional ballet dancer, the more you do this as an amateur, the more awareness you get of the difficulty of this art-form and that unless it is drilled into your feet and legs from a young age, turn-out will be largely alien to them.  Although, it has opened this world up to me and accessibility is not an issue but sometimes I feel my limited knowledge is but then I remember to enjoy it for its’ beauty.  I have broken down the social barriers but not the barriers of difficulty and technique, however, I think that ballroom dancing, is more accessible to amateurs and grew out of dance-halls where anyone could partake and only later grew into a competitive dance form where most ballroom dancing was found, until its’ rebirth on television.  As good as some celebrities become, compared to the professionals, there is a vast gulf usually in terms of the speed of their movements, the steps the professionals execute will be a lot quicker and sharper but then it is in their brains from childhood.  The ballroom dancers also learn to choreograph their own dances from an allowed set of steps and rules, I’ll never forget the “no new steps” repeated to comic effect throughout Strictly Ballroom but some of the professionals are fabulous choreographers, I think Artem is one of those and is very theatrical and Karen Hardy from previous series and I think the addition of So You Think You Can Dance’s winner, Matt Flint has been a great addition.

 

Ballet encompasses most of the branches of the arts – theatre, music, movement and visual arts.  It wouldn’t be the same without the live orchestra which adds to the drama and its’ immensity.   Part of what makes ballet great and something that countless ballet films and television programmes have highlighted, is its’ discipline.  Discipline is one thing that sums up ballet for the uninitiated but when you get to love it, you realise that if a dancer was purely disciplined, they would not be much of a joy to watch and the greatest dancers are also the highest of performers and add theatricality on top of this but discipline is at the core of ballet.  To hold turn-out and literally wedge your feet onto blocks or spring off from standing to fly though the air and mostly to put the body into positions it was never meant to go.  Of course, to do ballroom at a professional level takes a high level of discipline and, like ballet, if a dancer was just technically brilliant, they would not be much fun to watch and ballroom dancers also start at a very young age and commit themselves to hours and hours of training.  Strictly Come Dancing has given ballroom a new lease of life and dancers are performing for larger audiences with packed auditorium tours and spin-off tours that would not have been possible a number of years ago. Ballet has also recently tried its’ hand at playing to auditoriums with the English National and Royal Ballets playing the O2. The Royal made its’ appearance in the Summer to largely positive reviews, using its’ most dramatic dancers, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta and camerawork for close-ups that was widely praised from the Ballet Boyz that have also put together a number of documentaries with unprecedented back-stage access afforded to them due to being former dancers themselves.  The main motivation behind this was to make ballet more accessible and whether this will increase numbers of patrons in theatres from a non-ballet background remains to be seen but I certainly hope so.

 

Throughout these series of Strictly Come Dancing, there have been various appearances by ballet dancers.  It is to ballet that dancers often turn to give the celebrities that extra bit of polish and grace and I love to see the varying styles of dance supporting each other and feeding off each other’s particular strengths.  I particularly enjoyed when Strictly used to showcase other dance forms and the professional dances became somewhat predictable with a lot head-tossing and posturing.  I really commended Strictly in the past for showcasing ballet and I still remember a mesmerising performance by the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancing a ballet-ballroom fusion to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ in character shoes but with so many lifts that would give the judges a heart-attack.  Although, ballet could sometimes learn about the projection and sheer audience delight that ballroom can bring but what we see is usually in two-minute segments, it can be easier to thrill an audience and hold their thrall.  As mentioned above, there were various appearances by Darcy Bussell but I don’t believe that this was the most appropriate forum for her talents which would maybe be nurturing and working with young dancers and ballet dancers have often suffered on other dance programmes due to being trained in a very specific way.  I don’t think any other dance form requires such a strict turn-out or as many lifts and jumps.  Ballet probably spends most time off the floor of all dance forms whether it is in lifts, jumps or dancing on one leg. 

 

I think ballet can take itself to wider audiences and be as accessible as Ballroom.  Dancers such as Carlos Acosta show that you can come from a disadvantaged background and still make it.  Niche, arts-based television channels such as BBC4 and Sky Arts serve ballet well and for the first time, I caught ‘Ballet Rocks’ on Sky Arts which makes ballet look like a pop video but is mesmerising and programmes like this show that there is a wider audience for ballet and it can break out of the majestic but some people may see as stuffy, theatres and can adapt and modernise, such as with choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor.  Maybe we could see a series of Strictly Ballet, especially with Cultural Olympiad just around the corner and show that ballet can be mainstream as it shoots off in different directions, it does not have to be just in threatres.  English National Ballet’s Strictly Gershwin seems to be the ultimate collaboration of dance and maybe in the future, we will see more collaboration of styles as ballet bursts out of its’ traditional theatres and audiences.  Of course, there is no substitute for traditional, narrative ballet but they can work hand in hand to bring ballet to a larger audience and add new elements to keep breathing life into audience and celebrate ballet to a larger audience but with no compromise on technique that has made ballet survive for hundreds of years already.  Ballroom, like most dance, has only positive benefits, you only have to watch Strictly and see the delight of the celebrities involved in it and I hope that dance programmes continue to flourish but will do so only as long as they don’t compromise on the quality of the dance.

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Interview with Michael Ockwell, Chief Executive of the Grand Opera House, Belfast

On a dank, mid-week afternoon in central Belfast, two fans of dance came together to discuss their mutual mutual love of the art-form that unites and animates the parties, one being myself in the role of enthusiastic fan and audience-member, the other, Mr Michael Ockwell, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland’s premier theatre and home for the Arts, since 1859, the Grand Opera House. When I started this blog, the Grand Opera House was top of my list, you cannot think about ballet in Northern Ireland without thinking of this Belfast institution. The theatre has hosted the World’s best companies from the Kirov (now the Mariinsky Ballet), the Royal Ballet (including Darcy Bussell) to the inspirational regional companies, the Northern, Scottish and Birmingham Royal Ballets to the modern and innovative, Diversions Dance Company, now the regional company for Wales and Nederlands Dans Theater coming up in March. Basically, most companies of note, at some time or other have graced the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast and have found a very welcoming and appreciative audience. The fact that the Grand Opera House opened its’ doors wide to a fledgling blog site, shows their enthusiasm and passion for ballet and can grasp the power of social media and embracing their audiences who love the theatre as a cultural icon in Belfast and the various art-forms that they are particularly passionate about. I was immensely privileged to speak to the Chief Executive who displayed his love and passion for dance, from the first moments, telling me that he had had a meeting that day with a youth dance company about a collaboration between the theatre and the company. This theatre is immersed in dance and it looks set to continue with ballet firmly in place as the cornerstone of its’ cultural output. We are also in the wake of a visit from the one and only, ballet mega-star, Carlos Acosta, whose visit also prompted me to write this blog and there was only one theatre in Ireland that attracted this name and it was the Grand Opera House in Belfast, because of its’ rich cultural heritage and I want to capture this optimism and to expand the ballet-going public alongside institutions such as the Grand Opera House and the Chief Executive very much shares this vision and is a passionate a dance-advocate and especially ballet as the pinnacle of all dance forms, be it classical or contemporary.

We began by chatting about our preferences, mine for Classical and Michael’s for Contemporary. Although, as we established, all dance has the power to move unlike any other form of dance as it melds movement, theatricality and music. One of Michael’s favourite choreographers is Russell Maliphant, who has been creating contemporary choreography, with classical ballet training being the basis for his works but has modernised and contemporised the classical form to give something altogether new. This gives ballet a different face and voice in this modern world of impactful entertainment, ballet can mix it in this world and can open the theatre to a whole new dance audience. Audiences now receive dance from a plethora of dancing on the screen but there is the agreement that there is no substitution for dance in a live theatre, for the immediacy and intensity. Russell Maliphant’s choreography featured heavily in the mixed programme brought to us by Carlos Acosta recently, which gave us glimpses of the genius and somewhat simplicity of a dancer, minimal light but with quick and strong movement from the World-leading male dancer to create something mind-blowingly powerful. Due to his work within the theatre for many years, Michael has had the opportunity to see many of these dancers and choreographers as they train and prepare for the final product that we view as an audience and sees the blood and sweat and that dancers train for very long hours and all dancers, whether contemporary or classical, put in the technical work as much as each other. Companies such as the Scottish and Northern Ballets, although classical, have elements of contemporary in their works. One of the Opera House’s programming gambles in the last number of years has been a money-back guarantee for some of the more risky works, such is Michael’s belief in the quality and the power of these modern works and the need to change opinions and to open up ballet, dance and his theatre to a more diverse audience to keep the art-form moving forward.

Although we have been privileged with many amazing productions that audiences love and appreciate, one key ingredient that we are in agreement that is missing, is a lack of a National Dance Company and associated School for Northern Ireland. Of course, Michael acknowledged, as comes with his position, that funding on that scale is just not around at the moment but with the focus on ballet/dance at the moment and dancers such as Gillian Revie and Melissa Hamilton, somewhat by default, who have risen to the higher echelons of the Royal Ballet, maybe in the future, the Grand Opera House and Northern Ireland, will produce its own dancers. For now, this would not be possible and the theatre is a commissioning rather than a producing theatre. It would be difficult to disagree that we must support Melissa Hamilton and other dancers and make sure that their names are popularised and cherished as much as anyone else in the arts or media. I proposed that in the future we may even see Melissa Hamilton gracing the stage of the Opera House and Michael Ockwell thought that a benefit or showcase would be a good thing and maybe we could see our very own National Dance Award-winning and South Bank Award-nominated star on her home stage and hailed as such.

Talk of awards inevitably led to the recent MTV EMA Awards, hosted that week in Belfast, and what impact, if any, this may have on Belfast. I wondered whether this event may have cost the Arts, in terms of funding but Michael, as an arts-advocate, did not feel that this was the case as any cost was not likely to be money that came to arts organisations as the Arts Council is the main funder. Revenue that was generated by associated business could indirectly increase funding as there could subsequently be more money in budgets from taxes generated. Belfast was the winner by showcasing the fact that we were seen across the World for our warmth and embracing entertainment and also that Belfast was able to put on an Internationally-recognised event and to host the associated stars and their various entourages. Ironically, the offices of the newly renovated Grand Opera House, overlook the back door of the Europa, where stars were decanted from their limos to parties and hopefully some of this goodwill will feed into the Arts in general and Michael Ockwell, from another part of the UK himself, said that Northern Ireland and its’ audiences has a reputation for its’ warmth and that every single company or star that comes to Belfast, leave with a warm glow of having been appreciated. Northern Ireland audiences can be starved, at times, for high quality entertainment and are always very appreciative of star names that come to experience this warmth and give much in return. Companies do not want to compromise the quality of their work and that is why we may not get the quantity of performances but the quality is increasing as testified by the recent Carlos Acosta event that only visited three other theatres on this bijou tour. Most of the companies that we do receive are made possible by the UK-wide Cross-Border Fund which brings quality Arts across the borders of the UK, it is just made that bit more expensive in Northern Ireland by having that stretch of water between us. Also, our local Arts Council, inevitably is a major funder and promoter of ballet in this country and maybe in the future will be able to develop its’ own company in conjunction with a major theatre like the Opera House but this is not likely to be any time soon.

The message that Michael Ockwell and the Grand Opera House want to leave us is to keep supporting top quality events and programming and giving companies and artists, our feted Northern Ireland warm welcome. We also need to support Michael in his programming of dance, in all forms, and be prepared to see a diverse range and to give contemporary pieces a chance as the quality of artist will be as high but will give you another experience and also those that don’t think they would enjoy classical ballet or think it is too ‘posh’, give companies such as the Northern and Scottish Ballets a chance, who do classical but without any perceived stuffiness. Michael talked about the “life-changing effect” dance can have on a person, whether as a participant or audience member and that it was not overstating its’ power to say this. A full-scale, narrative ballet has all the elements of truly great theatre with the drama, story-telling, super-human acts of strength and poise, quite often a passionate relationship and with the not inconsiderable element of the live orchestra. Music can change a performance from a nice evening to a soaring masterpiece, thinking particularly of the Northern Ballet’s work with Claude-Michel Schonberg as a recent example. The Scottish Ballet will be the next classical company to come and will be doing an exciting new full-length ballet and the Northern Ballet will be returning in 2013 as well as a return by the all-male company, the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo) and look out for other surprises and contemporary works. Ballet is one of the Arts cornerstones and especially for this theatre and with Michael Ockwell as Chief Executive, ballet audiences will continue to be served and ballet in a lot of ways mirrors the sentiment of the theatre’s tag-line, ‘Laughter, Tears and Applause since 1895’, and that is why ballet will remain firmly entrenched within their programming.