The morning after the day before (or that’s what if felt like when I started writing this) and I’m still trying to capture some of the exhilaration of World Ballet Day where the ballet community united across the globe, glued to Youtube to watch The Australian, Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, National Ballet of Canada and finally, on the globe-hop, San Francisco Ballet. The day kicked off at 3am (GMT), for those who like their mornings early, in Melbourne, then to Moscow, London, Toronto and finishing at 11pm in San Francisco. I found the day of sitting around watching beautiful and talented people, exert themselves, tiring, not because I was trying to emulate my favourite stars by dancing along but I suppose because was trying to take in such an array of information, that the little neurons were having a busy day and it was hard to factor in essentials like comfort breaks, as you didn’t want to miss anything. Edited highlights from most of the companies are available online, in various lengths and formats, although there is not much from Australia and I couldn’t track down SF Ballet’s and the website says, ‘coming soon’.
All theatrical companies and anyone who interacts with an audience now have an online presence, in this age, it is not possible, as a theatrical art, to have an online and social media presence. Companies will engage with their public to a greater or lesser extent. With cinema broadcasts, companies supplement with behind-the-scenes footage, to engage the audience and to explain, for those that may not have programme notes, to help due to the mixed audience of ballet and non-ballet fans. The beauty of something like cinema broadcasts and World Ballet Day, is that no matter where you are in the world, you can be watching the same thing, at the same time and commenting through social media, however some company’s time-zones, it was either really late or early and this was commented upon in quite a few of the social media messages that scrolled across the screen. I, for one, will admit that although I had taken the day off, was not up at 3am or still around at 11pm to see the close of the day but I did feel part of a global community and feel that I learned a lot about other companies from around the world.
The companies started similarly with daily class where it’s not always immediately noticeable, the difference from an amateur and professional class, although feet are usually more pliable and more flexibility, especially in the legs and torsos, class will build and build to leaps and jumps and some furiously fast footwork that leaves the audience breathless. I thought the Australian Ballet class was such a revelation, Fiona Tonkin, the Ballet Mistress was just fantastic, still as supple and quick of foot and brain, herself, she started the day off with some commentary from the Artistic Director, tips such as how they’ve learnt through their medical experts that doing releves at the end of class with feet parallel, prevents a lot of foot and ankle injuries. The daily class starts reasonably slowly but by the time the dancers are executing many fouettes or Steven McRae is seen leaping across the screen, the prowess stands out. What strikes me that for all of ballet’s supposed hierarchy (and show me a job anywhere that is not hierarchical), classes seem to be very integrated, although Principals are definitely more recognisable and towards the front of the bunch as their technique is further advanced and jump further. The Russians of the Bolshoi put on a display of incredible flexibility that to mere mortals like ourselves just seems completely impossible. The Bolshoi dancers are supremely confident and their pure technique sometimes can make them seem a little detached or maybe this was the language barrier or the rehearsal studio is reminiscent of a high-class hotel gym with the dancers arranged remotely around the outside with a big, cavernous space in the middle of the floor.
The ‘Legend of Love’ rehearsal, overseen himself by the Choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich, this was a day for legends of the ballet world, how many changes would Grigorovich and Anthony Dowell who oversaw the Manon rehearsal at the National Ballet of Canada?. Grigorovich seemed a little hostile to the intrusion of the microphone and made no concession to the cameras and there was no interpretation through this long rehearsal but at least we got the chance to see one of the world’s best dancers in Svetlana Zhakarova and soon to be one of the best, I’m sure, Denis Rodkin. Rodkin is one of the new generation of Bolshoi dancers that has been tipped for stardom and he certainly has the looks of a Greek god and handled himself ably but was difficult as dancers weren’t bursting into full flow of dance as I think rehearsal was at an early stage and perhaps these dancers haven’t developed a partnership yet. I would like to get along to more Bolshoi link-ups. Then the rehearsals moved to the stage and further orders were barked out through a microphone by Grigorovich to the soloists. I’ve only become aware of the ballet, Legend of Love, recently through being a ballerina’s choice in an article, if anyone wants to see the finished work, it will transmitted to cinemas on the 26th October. I for one would not tire of watching Zhakarova who has one of those elastic bodies but also has an emotional range which elevates certain dancers to their top status.
Rehearsals moved to that most traditional of ballets, La Sylphide with white tutu and kilt and we were into very familiar territory here before moving from one of the oldest ballets to one of the newest and Jean Christophe Maillot’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. Maillot’s is a name that I was aware of but did not know the type of ballet he choreographed but thought the room really lit up with his warmth and even though he interchanged between French and English, which was subsequently being interpreted into Russian, sometimes the language was clear, through demonstration, such as the exchange when Maillot makes a joke, touching his head after adjusting a dancer’s headband to keep his locks out of the way, saying, “pas de problem”. I also felt a lot of charisma coming from the Principal dancers, Krysanova and Lantratov, I don’t think Lantratov is immediately a stand-out name but on screen, your eyes were definitely drawn to him. The Bolshoi ended their offering with an insightful tour round the building with our host and the General Manager who told us of his very long days around the theatre and how he felt helming such an institution and whether the weight of history weighed heavily upon him or not.
From the Bolshoi, I was onto more familiar territory with the Royal and able to recognise more of the faces. The Royal went with the same team that brought us Royal Ballet Live in 2012, with Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer, Kristin McNally with George Lamb as presenter. I can kind of see that they are trying to get inside the world of ballet through the eyes of someone who hasn’t been indoctrinated and maybe won’t be overly-reverential but I think shows over-familiarity sometimes but not necessarily with the art of ballet but then the only other presenter I would like would be myself, of course! That aside, as this is truly about the dancers and the companies and how they are united but different at the same time. The Royal Ballet, difficulties with sound aside, really treated us with their four hours filled with new and old work and work from ballet’s greatest choreographers, Ashton and MacMillan and newest, Wheeldon and Scarlett with a sprinkling of Acosta and Wayne McGregor.
Rehearsals started with one of the world’ brightest choreographic talents, the Royal Ballet’s own Liam Scarlett whose work recently premiered at the gala opening of the New York City Ballet’s season. Although, I would like to see future World Ballet Day’s give opportunities to non-Royal Ballet talent, they were obviously the big-name billing and Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett, although young choreographers, are internationally renowned but choreographers from other UK-based companies such as Northern Ballet’s Kenneth Tindall whom there is a really positive critical buzz growing up around, would be brilliant to see. Especially those UK companies who could not possibly have the resources to offer cinema link-ups and it was a pity that when rounding up UK companies, the Scottish Ballet were omitted but then that is live TV. Although as mentioned at the Bolshoi, without the Royal Ballet, there would be no World Ballet Day as they initiated and put together the concept. The Royal Ballet are the driving force behind World Ballet Day and the founding company of this type of live offering and as such, they have led the way for us to be fully interactive and more appreciative of what goes into making ballet the enduring success and see that it is done, not by standing still but working, very, very hard and not ever thinking that they have reached the pinnacle of their art. It is very interesting to see that no dancer, regardless of their standing, will fail to take critique and try and improve.
Liam Scarlett’s work with the company was for a new work, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, based at what looked like a hedonistic party in the 1930s, between Laura Morera, Bennet Gartside, Steven McRae and Tristan Dyer. There isn’t a pointe shoe in sight and the movements look more reminiscent of a Charleston than a ballet. There was not much of the ballet to see, to judge what the final product will be but I’m sure it will be fascinating. I loved watching Scarlett at work, every little detail is viewed and tweaked, like a photographer taking a portrait photograph, although the choreographer is more like the camera than the person behind it, able to see the detail of the movements and interpret to the exact style that they want. As ballet is a wordless art and as Liam Scarlett usually chooses dense narrative works for his ballets, the choreographer needs to tell his story through the dancers and attention to detail is essential. The other highlights, apart from seeing Marianela Nunez, who is my favourite dancer were Wheeldon’s ‘Aeternum’ and then to Ashton’s ‘Scenes de Ballet’ which will be magical and was magnificently drilled by Ballet Master Christopher Carr who may appear sharp but when you are managing so many dancers and their associated movement with the weight of translating the Founder Choreographer’s steps which carries with it a big burden, Christopher Carr more than has the gravitas to perform this key task. The only thing I didn’t really get was Ludovic Ondiviela’s choreography for Cassandra and I think if you’d tuned in at the moment without knowing anything else that had gone on or that the work was obviously in a very early stage, it may have been off—putting but there is obviously a lot of talent for the future. I also got to see one of my favourite, non-Principal dancers as I think he is fascinating to watch, Thomas Whitehead.
Next up we crossed the Atlantic to another company that is held in high regard but that the world may not be as aware of, the National Ballet of Canada. The company had Manon in the repertoire too and we saw a succession of Principal dancers being coached in the lead roles in the Manon pas-de-deux , a pivotal part of the ballet, of love, before calculation and destruction takes over. Ballet companies now have to co-produce works but it is also the 40th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s anti-heroine ballet which might account for it being in repertoire of two companies. National Ballet of Canada were privileged to have theirs overseen by Anthony Dowell who was very complimentary of their progress and it was great that so many of the greats were involved in this day. Apart from seeing some great dancers, especially some of the male dancers who have become household names,, Guillaume Cote and Evan McKie, who has just re-joined his home company and the fabulously talented Cote who was also the second ballet-dancer-father-to-be of the day. Although as the company only showed us Manon and then one other work, although so completely different from the Royal’s Manon that started their season already, NBC’s allowed us to contrast various leading partnerships. The other ballet on offer was very interesting and might have been good to see more of this, Neumeier’s Najinsky which starts with Najinsky’s last performance and where his sanity broke. As well as the hectic interpretation of the drama of ‘Rite of Spring’ and a solo worked on central character of Najinska, there was a knock-out performance of the Najinsky solo, reflecting his soul’s response to the death of many of his friends and countrymen during the First World War. The dancer must be fearless, throwing themselves to the floor on numerous occasions.
Finally, the day moved on a South Westerly trajectory to San Francisco Ballet. San Francisco Ballet took a similar approach to the Royal, in that they set aside a portion of time to a number of works that were quite diverse and had full input by the Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, showing the full range of the company from traditional to modern. SFB started the day with Don Quixote and the Principal dancers were just fantastic and watchable. Then it was onto a modern work, Yuri Posskhov’s RAkU. Possokhov could have been seen earlier at the Bolshoi in a funny little aside, showing how much more open Russia has become when discussing the ballet, ‘Bauprobe’ and how to create pivotal scene where there should be gallons of water onstage, there is a joke about the water representing tears and how there was no water during the Soviet period and the joke was, “that was because there were no tears during Stalin’s reign”. RAkU is a very modern work, featuring fantastic and experienced ballerina, Yuan Yuan Tan, a beautifully lyrical dancer, so full of grace. The day at SF moved onto Helgi Tomasson’s own piece, Concerto Grosso and finally the modern, Forsyth.
World Ballet Day seems to have very much been spawned by Royal Ballet Live in 2012 and mentioned by the Director of the Bolshoi, the Royal Ballet contacted them but I would think that it was very much a matter of contacting companies across a geographical spread and see who would be willing to become involved. Alongside the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi are a company with a Live Cinema offering which probably makes these companies leading figures in this kind of output and frankly, if you want to do a Ballet Day, these are probably the first two companies on the page. Presuming that World Ballet Day will now become a permanent fixture in the ballet calendar, it is nice to dream who I’d like to see next time, maybe Paris Opera Ballet, the Mariinsky or some of the Asian companies. Many dancers mentioned how they loved touring in Japan because of how much the Japanese love ballet and definitely one of the New York companies. I also think we do not see enough of smaller companies who do not have access to satellite link-ups, something like what was brought together for the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ with Ballet UK would be a great day. The question comes to mind also, how Northern Ireland could be involved in a UK or a World Ballet Day or some such offering and the only think I can think is by having a Ballet Class day, maybe, it would be nice to see more collaboration across the country as a product of something like WBD and like English Youth Ballet. I’m sure that there have been post-WBD discussions to see how ballet can be further brought into the 21st Century and beyond, I feel that ballet is strong and innovative, particularly in this field and globalisation is a key factor and also finding how to be sustainable in an age when online content makes it possible to reach across the globe without actually leaving your dance studio. WBD showed us that ballet is not an oppressive art (mostly) and that dancers are learning all the time which I think is amazing and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and to learn, at any level. My greatest and lasting memories of WBD are from The Royal, which is probably because it is my home company (although would love to see them physically engaging, in some way, tours/ talks/ workshops/ exhibitions, taking their lead from the fabulous Bolshoi to Belfast Costume Exhibition at Northern Ireland’s most historic and controversial buildings, Crumlin Road Gaol), I am most familiar with, the first was that although ballet dancers can perform feats of superhuman ability, was to see Steven McRae taking barre alongside his wife, Elizabeth Harrod who is heavily pregnant. It was so touching in a world that can be seen as extremely driven and harsh, this moment was kind of a symbol of World Ballet Day, that a new era in ballet is opening up and the old, closed world of dancers driven to collapse, physically as well as mentally where familial and personal life is positively. The second was Carlos Acosta teaching Vadim Muntagirov the role of Basilo in Don Quixote, a role most associated with Carlos and now has produce the updated version for the Royal and it was just touching again to see a dancer at the beginning of his career and one that is probably going to be become an iconic dancer, from one whose fame and renown reaches beyond ballet and can pass on so much teaching. Carlos had all the swagger and personality of the role which will be his greatest gift to a dancer such as Vadim whose abilities are already there to behold.