Raymonda, Bolshoi Ballet, QFT Belfast, 24th June



Let me first start by praising this event and how the birth of the digital age has been fantastic, not just for ballet companies and audiences but independent, arts-based cinemas such as the QFT.  In the last number of years, we have seen more and more of these types of events, firstly with theatre but ballet is perfect as there is a vast audience who do not have the opportunity to see world-class ballet, we either have to travel or do without but now that cinemas have the technology for satellite link-ups, it brings us company that is undeniably the finest in the World.  What I also really enjoy about live satellite link-ups, is that audiences around the globe are watching it at the same time and you can connect via social media and discuss what we have seen in each act, during intervals.  The audiences have also been very strong for these performances with many sold out which is encouraging, although, I would comment that the majority of the audience was in the older age bracket so it would be nice to see some younger members in the audience, especially some children as this is such a great opportunity to see some of the finest dancing in the world and be inspired by the spectacle.

This was my first look at the newly renovated home of the Bolshoi and the spiritual home of ballet.  The theatre is imperial green and gold with balconies in a light cream, it reminded of the design of a Faberge egg.  The ballet was introduced by former dancer, Katya Novikova as we see the dancers warm up behind her.  The ballet was a collaboration between the elder choreographer and one of the greatest in ballet, Petipa and the young composer, Glazunov. Glazunov was pupil to the old master, Petipa whom we are informed, gave him every step.  This was not a ballet I had seen or heard of but the choreography was sensational, scene after scene, dance after dance, we are left breathless and gob-smacked by the choreography and how it is beautifully executed.  The first act is a pure classical affair with young lovers in all their purity, wooing each other, enjoying a birthday party but also the young Nobelwoman, Raymonda, seeing her fiancé off to war for the Hungarian King.  The costumes follow blocks of colour which creates an interesting back-drop but we all know that the real are stars are in the costumes and we don’t need anything to add to this.  Blue is the stand-our colour of the first act, golds and oranges in the second and black and white in the third with leading dancers bucking the colour trend to stand out from the crowd.  The leads establish themselves as the romantic characters that they are going to be throughout the ballet.  As her fiancé leaves, he gives her a veil which is a pledge of his troth and he heads off to war leaving Raymonda to wander alone in the enchanted garden.  The Bolshoi have around two hundred dancers in their company which is a phenomenal resource and a lot of dancers are put to good use.  As Raymonda falls asleep, the garden, at its most enchanting best, sees the corps arranged as a magnificent flower with its petals closed and then blooming open to reveal Raymonda’s love.  We are treated to another romantic pas de deaux and although the two main characters are a dreamy romantic couple, I did not tire of them and there is enough going on with the corps, solo dancers and character artists to keep attention riveted.  The Principles, this evening danced by Maria Alexandrova and Ruslan Skvortsov as Jean de Brienne, the heroic knight. At the end of this enchanting pas de deux, we are introduced to the last of our leading characters but a character role, rather than a pure classical role, Abderakhman, danced by Pavel Dimitrichenko.  Abderakhman is the antithesis of Jean de Brienne, he is pure character with large, accentuated eyes that take Raymonda in and he shows off his prowess by leaping high into the air in a challenge against the romantic character.  He basically says look at me in a show of virility and the leaps are magnificent and the audience gasp as we realise the power that must go into springing him up and turning over in the air.  We were mesmerised by this character but like Raymonda, a little scared.  She suddenly wakes from the dream as she foresees her capture as her heart still lies with her knight.

The second act began with the continuation of her birthday party with Raymonda dancing with her two friends again and all the members of the court.  The menacing Abderakhman arrives with his entourage of Turk dancers to wow his possible conquest and although Raymonda shows moments of being impressed, she is also repelled and ultimately, despite his strength and strength of feeling for Raymonda, after a long scene of showing off his court, she rejects him but we are treated to a large variety as the character roles befits.  There are some gorgeous solo spots as well.  One half of the corps is dressed in Turkish costumes and do a lot of leaping and stamping of feet, the other half are classical with tutus and surround Raymonda and just as her dream which turns into a nightmare is to be fulfilled, her hero returns from fighting for the Hungarian King, to rescue his maiden from the arms of the brigand or in this case, the combined power of a corps of ballerinas.  The King is the one that this can only be settled by some one on one sword fighting.  Sparks literally fly off their swords and Abderakhman looks as if he has the strength and power over de Brienne but his downfall is that he doesn’t just want to cart Raymonda off to have his wicked way with her and hold her captive but what is driving him is her love and as he looks at her, this is when de Brienne strikes him on the head and he falls dead, looking at his love, Raymonda.  The two betrotheds are reunited and blessed by the King.  Act two closes with such a tender pas de deux.  I wish that all love and love stories can be represented like this and given this strength of feeling.  I was swept away by the beauty and tenderness of the love and that love can be demonstrated so powerfully whilst maintaining its’ purity and that it can also be a happy ever after. 

The third and final act is the wedding with it’s festivities and dancing.  The style of dance is Hungarian, more foot stamping and clapping of hands.  In contrast to the normal wedding costumes and the black and white, Raymonda is in blue.  Again the leads dazzle as their chance to show off their prowess comes round.  There are soloists, male and female in an Eastern-style dance and costume and her friends who encouraged her pure relationship with de Brienne who bless this union.  The ballet ends with the Knight and his beautiful bride walking up the steps and we all wish them well and the corps of the Bolshoi turn to their leads and they are eventually left on their own to take their applause.

The cast certainly deserved this applause.  This was a traditional ballet with all romance, dastardly baddie trying to pull the young lovers apart, a breathtaking corps and some of the most superb dancing that I have seen as befits the world’s leading ballet company, leading in the size of their company as well as their technique and schooling.  This ended the season on a high and in perfect classical style.  The last ballet that I saw was the Royal’s Prince of the Pagoda’s, I couldn’t fail to make comparisons and unfavourable ones, at that.  Pagoda’s was a classical, romantic ballet but the choreography did not capture my attention and astonishment the way this did.  The choreography was a masterclass, there were many different styles and characters.  The music was another massive part of the success of this ballet and Glazunov’s score matched the choreography and the orchestra were superb.  The Russian dancers are so confident in their technique and well-schooled that they seem to have so much time and their arm movement and placement is gorgeous and so expressive where there faces may be a little bit two dimensional, happy/ sad but who cares about this.  I love the way their feet on retire is higher than any other dancers, about half-way up their thigh.  The male dancers were well served with the choreography and did not just provide an arm or two for the Prima Ballerina but were strong, characterful, although the part of Abderackhman is very memorable as it is so full of character and we all love to boo and hiss at a good baddie but the dancer who danced Jean de Brienne, you couldn’t help but fall in love with.    

The only slight downside and one that we should agree on and that is an etiquette for watching live theatre, should we clap or not or maybe the beauty is that it is spontaneous and that fact that the performers are not affected by the applause, although, it does show our appreciation to the film theatre staff who may be moved by the palpable demonstration of our enthusiasm.  This is a very brilliant time for us and the digital age has allowed us to enjoy ballet that is global and world-leading whilst sitting in comfy seats and getting closer to the action than the audience themselves and actually get to see behind the red curtain which is fascinating and real.  The clapping and bowing during the performance is a particularly Russian thing which makes me laugh but at times slightly frustrated as I would like to see the work all the way through with the dancers maintaining their characters but as long as are aware of this, doesn’t get in the way of what a delight this was.

This was a superb afternoon’s entertainment and only wish that I could have gone to more and is a slight shame that they are only offered on one day but I will be looking forward with great relish to the new programme and there are some really interesting ballets below although maybe not all will be screened, so keep checking cinema listings at: http://www.queensfilmtheatre.com/home/

Sunday 30th September, La Sylphide
Sunday 21st October, Swan Lake
Sunday 25th November, Pharaoh’s Daughter
Sunday 16th December, The Nutcracker
Sudany 27th January, La Bayadere
Sunday 10th February, Don Quixote
Sunday 31st March, The Rite of Spring
Sunday 12th May, Romeo and Juliet


Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet, Grand Opera House, Belfast

I was looking forward to this ballet with much anticipation with the Scottish Ballet breaking many frontiers, bringing together a story which is so iconic with a tense sexual chemistry between the leads with minimal action.  Ashley Page has been greatly praised for his pairing of Theatre Director, Nancy Meckler and Choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, acting of the ballet was to be to the fore.  Where regional companies can compete with larger companies and offer something breath-taking is in their ability to bring theatre to the ballet stage, Artistic Directors and Choreographers are putting together creative teams that are so scintillating and exciting, producing full-on narrative works on extremely tight budgets and with small, compact companies that produce works of sheer joy.

This is rather uncomfortable viewing from the start as we watch a life of hopeful love hopes cruelly shattered on the very day that should be the most in love, her wedding day.  The main character, Blanche de Bois, is set early on, on a course of self-destruction.  Blanche Du Bois is the belle of Belle Reve, a large plantation house and from a rich, well-to-do family.  Her marriage is a sham as her husband hides his true love, for another man.  Blanche his lover but her husband is more drawn to him but she fights for him, only to reject his touch and at that point he rushes away from both of his lovers only for a gun-shot to ring out.  He has shot himself through the heart in a symbolic act of heart-break, he sees it as the only way out of this doom-laden situation.  Blanche starts on a downward spiral, especially as family is taken away from her, her sister Stella heads of for the lights of the city and parents become old and die.  Cleverly a family wedding portrait scene is set but dancers fall to the ground, one by one, until she is left and finally the grandeur of her former life crumbles and she is left with most of her glory stripped away and her beauty, at this point, is the only thing she has.  With the props of her old life gone, she ends up in a seedy hotel, where she uses men to fund a party lifestyle but in reality, life is lived mostly at the bottom of a bottle.  The young love of her life walks through at the most poignant moments.  We see a string of men and finally, to remind of her of that young love and its’ original purity, she starts an affair with the youthful waiter who brings her yet another drink.  This relationship proves the most toxic and leads to her final banishment and lowest ebb. 

The corps de ballet provide whispering voices that fill the stage and represent a small group of chattering classes that expose her affair with the youth and cast her from society that started with the death of her young lover and the fall of Belle Reve.  Destitution leads her to the solace of a beloved sister and the lights of New Orleans however, she did not count on her sweet-natured sister having married a brute, Stella’s seduced by this dangerous but handsome outsider and thrilled with the city.  Most of the staging is made up of crates, used to build up/ pull down and create movement, most effectively, the back-drop of the grand house Belle Reve, gaudy neon hotel sign and streetcar of the title that transports her from what she thinks is her lowest ebb to the goodness and welcome of her only remaining relative. 

The reunion of sisters takes place at a bowling alley where Stanley is playing competitively.  Blanche quickly changes the dynamic between her sister and husband and Stanley is quickly seen fighting and flinging Stella around like his possession and for now, Stella seems to find this thrilling whilst envying her sister’s fine clothes, a tiny little hat and white silk gloves!.  Blanche dances with fragility but is also a temptress, she disturbs the equilibrium, creating havoc and chaos without necessarily realising it with her varying grip on reality.  The bowlers provide a light moment of comedy, they dance their bowling balls down the alley and perform macho lifts, whooping to denote success and turning to their entourage of women, dancing in a kind of ballet/ lindy-hop.  Stanley displays his thuggishness early, fighting with opponents, in a rumble of bodies flying all over the place.  In contrast to her delicate and refined sister Blanche, Stella does not wear pointe shoes pointing to her reduced or more earthy circumstances, literally, down-at heel.  In contrast, Blanche’s fairly-tale dream-like state sets her off immediately against Stanley, he rightly interprets her snobbish dislike of him.  Casting a baleful eye over their meagre and shabby living conditions.  Whilst Blanche indulges in a bath (which becomes part of the drama transporting characters around), Stanley aggressively pulls apart her possessions where he finds the papers for the fallen Belle Reve showing that it has been lost, further angering Stanley whom we can only interpret is using Stella and her sister Blanche as he has his eye on the possible inheritance of a classical house to elevate above his downtrodden status.

One of the first things he does is remove his sweat-dripping shirt as he and Blanche do a little pas de deux round each other, flirtation on Blanche’s part, she wants to be loved by men to bolster her fragile ego and admire her fading beauty.  Stanley’s intention is to unsettle and control and also antagonism as she has tumbled to the bottom but she still manages to look down on him as not quite human and sometimes we wonder if Blanche is correct.  The sisters are soon out on the town and we’re transported to a somewhat seedy club with lots of dancers with many different styles.  There are three female dancers in pointe shoes and rather risqué costumes as befits the atmosphere of New Orleans.  I completely admire the dancers for the range and breadth of their performance, from classical (the early wedding scenes), through to a balletic Charleston and modern ballet.  The modern style was not in the abstract, any dance we see is to advance the plot or tell the story and is used most effectively when Blanche’s past follows her into her future.  Her dead husband, especially, haunts her and also provides her conscience as he appears when she is entertaining many men or seducing a youth, or when she is trying to fall in love again. 

Her dead husband is played by a fresh-faced dancer and for me, apart from the Principals, his performance really stood out for me.  He inhabits the ballet and haunts Blanche at her most poignant moments, be they good or bad and marks her deteriorating mental health.  The pattern of her life flows from the betrayal of young love and leads to her second and most devastating demon, drink.  Throughout the performance she dances, literally, with the drink.  Male dancers support Blanche with bottles in each hand, their strength and her beauty produce remarkable dances that make your heart open to her, for all her faults.  The poker game is a classic scene which reveals Stanley’s anger and his love/hate relationship over Stella and Blanche.  The living quarters that the three, soon to become four live in, is also an essential part of this claustrophobic drama, the heat and the sweat add to this.  The girls are undressing in the next room, playing music whilst the men are in the rest of the rooms, separated only by a curtain.  Blanche insists on turning the radio up, the song of choice is ‘Paper Moon’, relevant to her paper-thin grip on reality as well as her attempts to better the household and at the same time, soften the stark lights that show her flaws and especially her fading beauty as she attaches a paper lamp-shade over the bare light bulb.  Blanche sets her sights on one of Stanley’s poker friends, the gentle and sensitive, Mitch, who she lights upon as he makes his way through her lair to the bathroom and she catches him for a dance.  Stanley loses his hand and his cool and quickly storms into the middle to turn the radio off and goes back to the game, only for the radio to be turned on again and as he comes into get rid of what had lost him his hand, the radio and the intimacy between Blanche and Mitch was smashed along with the music and as the pregnant Stella intervenes, he really loses his cool and smashes up the game and then as his blood is up, sets upon his possession, Stella and what we see is a rather uncomfortable scene of what really amounts to marital rape.  However, it is so dramatically choreographed as to be as powerful as the character of Stanley himself.  That said, it was an immense and outstanding pas de deux, more reminiscent of the choreography of Kenneth MacMillan.  It managed to have some beauty as well and this is mainly from Stella who clearly loves Stanley and some part of her wants to please him. 

From here, the ballet takes an ever more darker turn.  Stanley no longer has any redeeming features and prowls about his prey, waiting for his chance to pounce.  Meanwhile Blanche starts to set her sights on the sweet Mitch who is somewhat innocent and looks different form the sweaty men in vests as he’s dressed in a rather natty suit.   A fledgling innocent relationship is soon broken as Stanley imparts secrets of Blanche’s rather colourful past.  As Mitch then withdraws, this leaves Stanley with further control over Blanche who suffers another devastating blow as she falls further than even before.  The baby that is now seen rather obviously through the skimpy costumes, comes, and Stella is whisked off to hospital.  New life usually brings hope and as Stella goes off to have the baby, this leaves Stanley and Blanche in this tight space for the first time.  At first he is in quite a jovial mood and we see him clutching champagne and cigars for the imminent birth and when he sees Blanche, half-dressed and still trying to hide her addiction to the booze bottle, somehow demeans Stanley whose jovial drunkenness quickly turns to meanness and he sees possibly his last opportunity to have Blanche and takes his prize.  Everyone knows that the main theme of the work is the sexual tension between Stanley and his sister-in-law Blanche.  She meets her match when she comes up against this brute of a man and her wiles do not work on him.  For him, she should be unobtainable but Stanley is not a man that takes no easily.  For such a difficult subject, it was as tastefully done as it could be and Erik Cavelleiri plays the part with the power that it requires and inhabits the part of this brutish man and his dark looks help as well.  For this final scene, he is seen in a silk gown and shorts, the gown is open to reveal his muscular and powerful body and with Blanche in a pretty similar state, his intentions are clear and he ultimately leaves her after the violent attack in a crumpled heap with nothing for her sanity to cling to with that final prop, her sister, and that relationship taken away from her.  The evening ends with Blanche’s sanity in shreds so she retreats to the past and we see the characters of her life parade before us.  Stella returns to see her sister in such a state and removed by a Psychiatric Doctor and Nurse taking her away.  Stella takes the wise step of leaving Stanley and he is left on his own to contemplate his actions and losing the pure, sweet love of his wife, Stella and his baby.

I have got the feeling that this will not be the last we will see of this work and that it will become one of the Scottish Ballet’s defining works.  The work is demanding and requires the highest of acting ballet dancers to convey the complexities of this piece.   There was so much more to this work than the film even gave us which demonstrates the scope of the piece.  I am thrilled when a regional company, puts on a work of this magnitude as we are all aware of the funding gap that exists between the main London companies.  This is also one of the last works that will be created by Ashley Page as Artistic Director which means that he leaves the company in a great position.  I am looking forward to the Scottish Ballet’s return at the end of January 2013 when they will put on the Nutcracker which was another ballet that was much praised in the midst of a raft of Nutcrackers that were put on last Christmas, it stood out from the crowd.  The production crossed international barriers as well as an Australian tourist was seen begging the company to take the work over to her home country, who themselves have a healthy ballet tradition, come back soon, our Scottish cousins.