“Pirouettes, Pearls and Popcorn”: ROH Cinema Season 12/13, Swan Lake

I had a golden ticket for Swan Lake with Carlos Acosta and Russian star of the ballet, Natalia Osipova but circumstances ended up with having to watch this on the big screen in not-so-sunny Belfast of a Tuesday evening.  The build-up to this event was superb by the Royal Opera House, supplying video material on social media, a #ROHswanlake hash-tag so that audience members could follow and stay in touch and producing a suitable build-up.  The Royal Opera House have obviously fully embraced their public around the globe with comments coming in from all over the World, I saw tweets from Brazil, Germany and just round the corner, venues from fellow ballet-dancer Lauren Cuthbertson (@LondonBallerina) and Canary Wharf (@DaveTriesBallet) who remarked that Swan Lake was much more exciting than the Bond premiere, although one Ms Bussell was to be seen strutting the red carpet rather than fouette-ing on the Covent Garden stage but then, if my retirement involved hanging out with Daniel Craig, I’d do it.    On this evening, the star roles were taken by Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish.  Rather than being disappointed, I was really looking forward to seeing Zenaida Yanowsky who had been tipped off by @theballetbag girls is exceptional in this role.  I had previously felt a little underwhelmed by Nehemiah Kish but was previous roles I had seen him in were limited for males.  However, there are more than enough reviews of Swan Lake by people much more experienced and competent than I so my main thoughts were about the cinema experience.  However I will say that I would love to see someone beefing up the role of Siegfried and make him an equal to Odette, however, Siegfried probably goes on a steeper trajectory, or he should do, from a preening dandy chasing after the latest thing to willingly giving up his life to for his true love.  There are flashes of brilliance as Siegfried is seduced by Odile and they both show-off to each other and their associated audiences, as they bust out their most exciting moves.  This particular section is probably the most anticipated of all ballet solos and too much of the performance hangs on how many fouettes the leading ballerina completes, as the poor leading man, leaps and jumps round the stage but little is said about his virtuoso leaps and spins.  Then, this is from a different age where the man was there largely to make the ballerina look good and be a strong base and contrast to her slight, feminine beauty.  That, of course, has all changed and ballerinas too come in all shapes and sizes and the men are allowed to be much more muscular and powerful and I, for one, would love to see their prowess more to the fore in this particular ballet.

Swan Lake could probably do with some updating, especially since Matthew Bourne’s all-male casting and not forgetting the Trocks who are bringing their, probably thankfully unique version, to the Grand Opera House in February.  Saying that, the strength of the piece is not just the dual Odette/ Odile roles but the corps also receive star billing and the pas de quatre dancers, flourishing with some of the most intricate footwork that cannot be misplaced in any way and they dance in this formation for quite some time.  Swan Lake is full of iconic moments and that is why it remains so popular, to this day.  During the performance, the cinema audience have the added treat of being able to see videos of behind-the-scenes footage and one of these was highlighting that the Corps also share top billing in this ballet.  The corps, made up of ballerinas dressed in pristine white, short tutus to show off their swan-like legs with the stark, blue-white lights, highlighting their fragility at the hands of an evil, powerful sorcerer.  The concepts are definitely of a by-gone age but we all love a good fairy-tale and Swan Lake is so evocative with young lives that were not allowed to begin, trapped in a life without love but with that tantalising hope that the precocious Odile, who does not want to accept her fate and stands out as the hope for this pure band of wronged maidens.

Cinema is not a replacement to the Live performance but, if you are lucky enough to be able to travel to or live in London, with multiple casting, the cinema gives you the option to able to see multiple offerings, side by side and with performers that are possibly not a priority to see but would still really like to see them.  It is fair to say that the stars of this particular run of Swan Lake were Osipova/ Acosta but then, if someone has told you that Zanaida Yanowsky’s Swan Lake is pretty extraordinary and very moving, this gives patrons the opportunity to do so without having the outlay of two trips to the theatre.  Although, the cinema price is more expensive than you’re usual trip, especially outside of London but that is because you are getting nearly three hours of live-by-satellite entertainment from one of the greatest arts venues in the world and it is an excuse to get a little bit dolled up, how many times in life do you get the opportunity?  The best description I heard from another blogger was Pirouettes, Popcorn and Pearls, of the title.  I think that this is what I’ll think of, of my ballet in the cinema experience from now on and treat it like a night to the theatre and put on a pair of killer heels and nice top and scoff some popcorn whilst watching some of the finest ballet in the world, at a much more intimate distance than any patron seated in the auditorium.  The camerawork got right in where the action was and amongst the feet of the corps in their magical display, creating a gilded prison for lost girls where they support each other and use the darkness of the evening as a veil so that they can live out freely spreading their magical beauty around the stage.  Carlos Acosta in his recent interview praised the Corps for how hard they work and with the ending of the Swan Lake run, each corps dancer was presented with a red rose which is such a beautiful touch and maybe don’t receive star billing but are very much part of the team that make Swan Lake the ballet that we know and love and keep coming back for more, time and again.


Royal Ballet’s Thoroughly Modern Triple Bill: Resident Choreography Team

I am a self-confessed classical-ballet nut, the programming on offer when I made another jaunt over to London, was a thoroughly modern, triple bill from the Royal Ballet’s in-house choreography team, which has just been widened to include Liam Scarlett as ‘Artist-in-Residence’.  His was to be the first work on the bill.  Scarlett recently stepped down from his career as a dancer, you may have recently spotted him in Swan Lake.  As to what, ‘Artist-in-Residence’ is but I would honestly have to answer with, what is the role and what does it is?  Is it solely a choreography role, is it just the Royal Ballet or will the Opera have a similar position or to Costume/ Set Design and for a certain tenure? 


Liam Scarlett carries with him an exciting reputation and is still only in his 20’s and looks as fresh-faced as his years.  Tonight’s Scarlett was one that was originally made for Miami City Ballet but was the first showing on the Covent Garden stage with the Royal Ballet dancers.  Viscera is an abstract work, which is an interesting concept for a work of dance which is a very expressive and outward-looking medium but this conjures up feelings of introspection and it is interesting to see how this could be brought out to the audience.  Scarlett does not seem to take the easy route but works with some difficult subject matter, Victorian prostitute murder involving establishment figures to taking internal emotions ruling the entire body.  Costumes were also designed by Scarlett and the leotards worn by the women were a lot more effective than the onesie-type, rather dour looking costumes worn by the men.  The backdrop was sparse with focus on the dancers bodies dressed in rich colours that reflected the mood of the ballet.  Even though this work is brand new, it had a distinctly classical feel which is reflected right to the end of their toes where the women danced en pointe.  There were no edges to the ballet with lovely expressive arms and smooth, romantic flow.  The partnerships were complimentary rather than being antagonistic to each other.  This ballet was made up of four dances, a four, a five, a five with some beautiful pas-de-deux, through the middle.


There were plenty of exciting lifts, the women sailing through the air with the partnership showing the full strength of the male dancers.  This was an awesome sight (in the correct meaning of the term).  The partnerships were amazing and the leading ladies were perfectly supported.  The greatest testimony to my appreciation of this ballet and the choreography, I felt that it ended too early and was just beginning to get into the atmosphere of the ballet as it finished.  The work was set to a Piano Concerto by American composer, Lowell Lieberman with the solo pianist making full use of the instrument with runs up and down the keyboard to give the dance its’ lyrical feeling but with light and shade and different rhythms to keep the audience transfixed.


It will be interesting to see where Liam Scarlett’s career goes now.  He is already an established name in the ballet world and the fact that he is a home-grown talent makes it so much more exciting to see his career develop.  His works have been so well-received and up to now, have been choreographed in conjunction with his dancing career.  This will give him the freedom to concentrate on his own works and working alongside two other leading choreographers, instead of in the shadow of the legends of the Royal Ballet, Ashton and MacMillan, has experienced choreographers working as part of the team, Christopher Wheeldon having a similar experience, although with a pretty fabulous International reputation for one towards the start of his career with the Bolshoi on his CV.  The triumvirate is completed with the thoroughly modern and innovative choreographer, Wayne McGregor who uses a moves away from the classical form and pushes the dancers into incredible forms that challenges the dancers and audiences alike.  It should be a fertile time for choreography, as with the Royal Ballet’s resources have probably not created as many new roles or full-length narrative ballets as they possibly should.  Especially when companies throughout Britain that do not have the resources of the Royal Ballet, such as the Northern and Scottish Ballet companies, produce thrilling full-length ballets, seemingly on an annual basis, it is about time that the Royal Ballet use their resources to again get back to where they were when, say, Kenneth MacMillan was producing works for them.  As Luke Jennings, in his review commented and I have mentioned previously myself, the new works that have been produced, to this point, have been choreographed by males.  It is easy for women to dominate as dancers but at senior level, management and choreographically, men dominate and a small issue is where is the place is for women creatives?  However, it is telling that the National Dance Awards have recognised the all-female creative team behind Scottish Ballet’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, which is a phenomenal work that I believe will be in the SB’s repertoire for years to come.


Getting back to the triple, the second work was from a choreographer who came through from a modern dance background to astound the, perhaps what people may see, as the staid atmosphere of the Royal Opera House.  Infra was his first work with the Royal Ballet but has been programmed on a number of occasions and changes depending on the dancers that Wayne McGregor works with and evolves with the times.  I sometimes refer to Wayne McGregor’s works when I’m feeling a little facetious as the big pants/ no shoes ballets.  The works did not require massive staging and sets were sparse from changing the lighting or the backdrop to Wayne McGregor’s strip of black and white lighting on a long strip, like a raised platform with figures in black and white, like commuters rushing to catch something and perhaps missing the lonely soul going in the opposite direction who doesn’t have their lives quite so on track.  This presented, to me, a feeling of loneliness with a solitary figure drifting along whilst others rushed about with purpose.  I felt this was a little distracting and the accompanying sounds did more to sum up the atmosphere.  I have seen other works where Wayne McGregor uses blocks of light or colours, much more effectively but then, it may have made the evening’s programme, much too much the same and the theme of the ballet was monotone or pale colours that merged into the background.  The ballet conjured a feeling that the dancers were reflecting the struggles of relationships that go on behind what you may see on the surface as people rush about with a seeming purpose. 


The choreography varies as you would presume, the dancers place their bodies and feet at jagged angles, dancers’ bodies entwined portraying relationship struggles.  Wayne McGregor’s choreography puts the dancers into much more overt positions that you are in no doubt in what part of the relationship, the dancers are in.  I would like to see much more of Wayne McGregor’s choreography and to see what he has done recently, to form an opinion of whether he is a great choreographer or just doesn’t suit what I see as ballet or was an enfent terrible that the ballet world latched onto to shake it out of it’s slumber.  How will this choreography team, working with the same group of dancers, move the company and the art-form along. 


The final act was to be from Christopher Wheeldon whose success has been on an upward trajectory although critics have had small reservations, on the whole, about Alice in Wonderland which was well received but tempered with a little criticism that it may have lacked punch but then the story of Alice is itself, abstract.  Fool’s Paradise is fully abstract and is a luscious work, bathed in gold and with gold leaf falling from the ceiling.  The ballet transports you away from the real world to these ethereal characters doing wonderful things in harmony.  What I particularly loved about this was that the men came out first, fully confident in their dancing and in their maleness which was a heady combination when the women joined them and they toyed with her, showing off their moves and wooing her with the charms of their dancing and especially, their strength.  The advantage of modern choreography is that men are equal partners to the ladies rather than being coat-hangers for the women or the brute force blandness to their loveliness.  An evening such as this evening, should be a showcase to younger boys who may have the wrong preconceptions about ballet dancers, especially in this country and I know that the choreography of modern companies such as the Ballet Boyz are definitely aimed at redressing this.  This was a fine way to end this evening of modern choreography and definitely shows that claims that ballet is dead are thoroughly egregious.  Fool’s Paradise is luscious from a choreographer that is in full command of his dancers and the work as a whole.  As I may have said before, Fool’s Paradise was scored by Joby Talbot, formerly of my favourite band, The Divine Comedy, whom I had the pleasure of seeing at Royal Festival Hall the previous evening and Joby’s career as one of Britain’s top composers was seriously taking off as he left the band but never did I think we would both end up here.  The score was on the grand and luscious side and much more romantic than I was expecting but then that is what comes from the composer and choreographer working in development of the ballet together.  This was not a work that was scored once the ballet was finished but Joby Talbot works closely in collaboration with Christopher Wheeldon on the music to his ballets and Joby Talbot is fast becoming the Tchaikovsky of the modern ballet era.  Piano features heavily in Joby’s works and the full range of the keyboard was employed as well as the sparsest of notes, to the greatest of effects.  Although I would have thought I was pretty much an expert on Joby’s music I was thoroughly blown away by his scoring to Fool’s Paradise and I was very happy to sit back and drink in the gorgeousness of this work and am very much looking forward to being around at the same time as such fabulous choreographers and their residency at the Royal Ballet, to write what I think will be a very fertile chapter of Royal Ballet history.  However with Tony Hall’s recent departure to the BBC, it will be interesting to see who will take over ultimate control of the Covent Garden stage and in what direction they will take the Royal Opera House in these times of Arts cuts and austerity.