To celebrate Londonderry’s City of Culture celebrations in 2013, the Royal Ballet were announced as an integral part of those celebrations, resting in the middle of the programme and a prominent, holiday weekend. With a backdrop of snow, the dancer’s would warm a cold night, dazzling, especially as one of the highlights of the night was the ‘White Swan Pas-de-deux’, probably the most iconic dances in ballet history. The evening however, was noticeable for, not just the unseasonable weather or the fact that the Royal Ballet have not been to Northern Ireland in twelve years but the anticipation of star billing, Northern Ireland’s brightest hope for producing a Prima Ballerina in a long time, Melissa Hamilton. There have been media interviews and articles in national and local press hailing the return of our ballet Queen or, at the least, ‘Queen-in-waiting’. Along with our own Melissa, she brought with her, her long time ballet partner, Dawid Trzensimiech, Yuhui Choe and Ryoichi Hirano. Remember these names, as growing stars of the company and the night gave us a priceless opportunity to see these stars close up and very intimate, names excitingly being hailed in the press.
Expectations were high as this is one of the World’s greatest ballet companies, with an orchestra that has its’ own prestigious pedigree, however, I was disappointed when the curtains were drawn back to reveal a stage, already full, with very limited space at the front to dance. The stage was set for the evening with the orchestra not just accompanying the dancers but playing a couple of pieces of ballet music before and after the dancers. At the launch of ‘City of Culture 2013’, the evening was billed as the Royal Ballet, accompanied by Northern Ireland’s home orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by the city’s own, Paul Murphy, but as we expectantly purchased our programmes, the title read, ‘The Ulster Orchestra featuring dancers from the Royal Ballet’.
The audience seemed split between the orchestra and, especially, the Guest Conductor, and those that were there purely for the ballet. I had the feeling that I underestimated the strength of feeling towards this home-grown maestro who has deep ballet pedigree himself, as Principal Conductor for Birmingham Royal Ballet, a company who will be dancing Giselle at the Grand Opera House in June. The home audience responded very enthusiastically, even with foot stomping. Although, both audiences can more than appreciate each other’s art form and a great orchestral performance substantially enhances a ballet performance. The other unexpected feature of the evening the MC, BBC Radio Ulster’s John Toal setting a tone of informality, this would not be a traditional ballet performance.
The first dance of the evening, was by Choe and Hirano. Both dancers have received great press since coming to the Royal Ballet via the world’s most prestigious youth competition, the Prix de Lausanne. The first dance of the evening was to be the Pas-de-deux, Meditation from Thais. This work is often seen on gala evenings as it is romantic with some spectacular lifts and some very strong emotions between the two leads. The work was choreographed by the company’s founder choreographer, Frederick Ashton. Ashton was a great choreographer of the romantic ballet. The ballerina dances, en pointe, complete with veil, showing her indecision between the attraction to her romancer that would mean sacrificial life of devotion to a goddess that brought luxury, not penury. She delicately moves, as if floating, around the stage, reluctant to give herself to him but drawn to him, at the same time. Hirano is a strong, muscular dancer and fits perfectly, the delicate Choe, safe in his arms. The dancers really mesh their bodies to each other but not in a sensual way, there is a purity to their love. The most impressive of those lifts was one where the male dancer lifts the ballerina, who is sitting in his hands, crossed at the ankles, straight upwards until his arms are fully extended and not only does the lift involve going straight up but the dancers also come back down in this position. It is such a test of subtle strength and poise and total trust in your partner. Partnering is so important and both of these dancers are so well suited to each other.
After an interlude by the Ulster Orchestra, the part of the evening that I was most looking forward to since I first became aware of the burgeoning career of Melissa Hamilton. I first became aware of a young Northern Ireland dancer @RoyalOperaHouse reading press about her being nominated for the ‘Times Breakthrough Award at the South Bank Show Awards’ in the @BelTel (Belfast Telegraph). She has also been ranked by The Sunday Times as one of the ‘Top 30 Power Players under 30’, nominated for dance awards and an art installation for London 2012, attached to the wall of the Royal Opera House uses Melissa’s body as the modelled model for the piece. It is fair to say that after this build-up, I was very much looking forward to Melissa’s first live performance and I’m sure this will not be the last, especially as she is currently dancing a lead role in Mayerling that I plan to see in June.
The stage is set by being bathed in a golden glow as Shostakovich’s beautiful, ‘Concerto’, accompanies a female dancer as she elaborately develops a pas-de-deux, based on ballet’s foundation exercise, barre work, into a gorgeous. Her male partner acts as a support, taking on the role of the barre. This work was created by one of the Royal Ballet’s most creative choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan http://www.kennethmacmillan.com/ballets/all-works/1966-1970/concerto.html as he watched Lynn Seymour, fluidly move her body into a multiplicity of movements, with a graceful flow of the arms, in particular as she bends to the floor and stretches the entirety of her body, to make it ready for all the work that it will do in pursuit of grace and beauty. It takes a choreographer of note (see brilliant @Telegraph article likening MacMillan to Shakespeare: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/10004071/Mayerling-a-dance-to-the-death.html), to turn what is somewhat mundane into a pas-de-deux that the audience cannot take their eyes off or breathe for fear of disturbing the air that Melissa Hamilton appears to be floating on. The role of the male dancer in this is pretty much a support one, mirroring the ballerina’s movements, lifting her from standing, en pointe, in one direction to the other. Melissa has been dancing with Dawid Trzensimiech for a number of years and they have built a strong partnership of trust. They have appeared at galas and competitions to build their classical repertoire, rather than be type-cast as a modern dancer as Melissa is particularly lauded for her long extensions and at times, that extension took her to within touching distance of the audience who were all holding their collective breath. The audience were in a collective pact, not to disturb the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see world-class dancers in such as intimate setting.
Shostakovich’s Concerto is achingly beautiful, like Massanet’s ‘Meditation’ and both are deeply romantic. The pieces are slow, allowing ample time for the audience to see every movement and strain from the dancers. It also allows us the opportunity to view the beautiful heritage costumes that many great dancers have worn. The costumes are lovingly preserved and handed down from generation to generation, from Margot Fonteyn through to Melissa, moulded to fit the particular dancer, sequins replaced and stitching mended as they go through the rigours of one of the toughest art-forms on the planet. I personally have pictures of the Swan Lake tutu, Black and White Swan, in multiple formats, including Darcey Bussell, backstage, at the Royal Opera House, with the backdrop of the complex and brutalist stage machinery, standing en pointe, in anticipation of taking on one of ballet’s most difficult and iconic sequences.
As the second half of the evening commenced, I was disappointed to learn there would only be two more dances and would only see Melissa Hamilton one last time in what is popularly known as the ‘White Swan Pas-de-deux’, probably ballet’s most loved and famous work. The dancers were accompanied by the orchestra with the familiar violin solo soaring away. Trzensimiech as Prince Siegfried pursues the beautiful White Swan to declare his love and break the spell that binds her to an evil magician that holds her as a swan until night-time when Odette and her company of swans become beautiful women. The only way to permanently break the spell that holds her captive, is to find true love. Odette is yearning and oh so delicate, she does not easily give her love until she is sure of Siegfried’s constancy and the truth of his feelings. Melissa Hamilton transforms into the epitome of the White Swan, Odette, longing, delicate and romantic. Her long extensions help to convey that yearning for real, true love as she stretches away from her partner in indecision but turns to him, to break the spell, giving in to the power and strength of his love. Dawid Trzensimiech as Siegfried is eager to woo her and to obtain the object of his desire but he does so lovingly, so that she eventually melts into his arms and she enfolds to him.
The final dance of the evening was to be the ‘Black Swan Pas-de-Deux’. The nemesis of the White Swan, who seeks to break the love between Odette and Siegfried. Odile is guided the evil bidding of the magician that holds Odette in his power. Hirano bounds onto the stage, playing Siegfried, as, in front of the audience of Court, spurred on by the rather showier ‘Black Swan’, Odile, he quickly forgets the purity and tenderness displayed when he is with Odette as he pulls out his flashiest moves, jumping high off the ground and leaping round the stage, however, with the limited stage, this piece was somewhat limited but none the less filled with amazement. Siegfried, spurred on by the equally showy Odile, puffs out his chest to show off his prowess, seduced into her web of deceit. The pampered, preening Prince Siegfried is flattered and seduced into betraying the tragic and vulnerable White Swan.
Yuhui Choe plays a rather impudent Black Swan, smiling her way through as she uses all her powers of seduction to draw in her prey. Choe is a clean, crisp dancer who executes her steps with a finely-honed precision. I felt that she was more suited to the first piece that she danced, that of the virginal beauty, full of love, than the wily seductress but these dancers are not yet Principals and are still learning their craft. However, I always see Choe as happy and smiling and she was fresh from the role of Alice (in Wonderland) and I can see her more suited to this type of role, than the tempting seductress that is Odile. She can execute jumps with effortless ease and glide through the air but with the limited staging, the dancers were not able to do much in the way of jumps and the real whiz-bang showpiece for the female dancer, the 32 fouettes, just was not possible. Hirano completes a powerful duo and he looks as if he is ready to leap and fly across the stage as well but there will be no Grand Jete-ing tonight but the tension and the awe of seeing dancers of this calibre at such a close viewing range, makes the audience hold their breath when on stage so as not to disturb them or break the spell that encircles these awe-inspiring dancers.
Despite the disappointments of the evening, frankly the main one being that we did not see enough ballet in a programme that was billed originally as the Royal Ballet accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra to a rebranding to, ‘The Ulster Orchestra with dancers from the Royal Ballet’, it was still a magical evening and one that I felt privileged to be a part of. Stroke City, as it is affectionately known, is looking really well since the last time that I travelled here, it takes a lot for Belfast people to cross the Glenshane Pass and it is testimony to the effect of the ‘City of Culture’ and the Royal Ballet, that we made this journey. Until I arrived at the Millennium Forum, I was not aware of the power of the loyalty of an orchestral audience and the Londonderry people to one of their famous sons. As Guest Conductor, Paul Murphy took to the stage to cheers and foot stomping to lead the orchestra which also greeted the end of each performance. Ballet audiences are equally loyal and I spoke to many throughout the evening who had made the journey for this very special performance and also bore testimony to the same conflict of emotions, joy at seeing these special dancers but tinged with disappointment to outright dissatisfaction at the sparsity of the ballet programme. However, despite the disappointments we will never forget this evening, as the dancing that we were treated was mesmerising. Dancers that are on the cusp of greatness and have had such enthusiastic publicity, more than graced our stage and hopefully excited the audience to see more ballet, especially all the little girls decked out in their finery. The next ballet on these shores will be Giselle, by Birmingham Royal Ballet, with their orchestra conducted by none other than Paul Murphy, I’m sure this enthusiastic audience will be in attendance and as Giselle is held up as the perfect ballet by many professionals.
Maybe this evening will inspire the next Melissa Hamilton. I do firmly believe that Melissa is so full of natural talent, having such long extensions and a body that seems to know no limits and can do things that no mere mortal can do, but also she has the character, grace, poise and intensity to make it to the top of her profession. Recently we have heard so much about, ‘Inspire a Generation’, and I am sure that Melissa will inspire the next generation of ballet dancers in Northern Ireland, showing that it is possible, somewhere that does not have its own professional company and you never know, maybe sometime in the future, Melissa’s inspirational career will inspire someone else to start a company or school in this untapped but fertile talent pool or in the very distant future, Melissa may retire to Northern Ireland and start her own professional ballet company like her forebear, Dame Ninette de Valois, whose company she proudly represents.
For another interesting video, see Yuhui Choe: A Day in the Life of a Ballet Dancer