Ballet – The Art of Being Human

As I leaned on the barre in ballet class and I joked to my neighbour, that when you can select your body off the shelf, I’m going for a ‘Marianela Nunez’, although likely to be way out of my price range!  This led my ballet compatriot informing me that there is actually research being done at the moment to transplant bodies for robotic bodies but with head and brain intact.  We conversed for a while about the feelings of inappropriateness of this and what makes us human, is it our body, our brain or the sum of our parts or our consciousness alone?  Thinking about this, I realised that the reason I love ballet so much and immerse myself, is that, ballet, by and large is a triumph of will over this bag of bones, attached by muscles and tendons and connected by a supply of food and oxygen through the blood, controlled by chemicals and electricity.  What you see is never ever and nor should it be, what you get and it is this delving under the flesh and bone of a human being that makes the arts something that we strive to be part of and to choose to devote savings and free-time towards.  The human body is at the heart and soul of ballet and is free of device in that the language is created by positioning of the body and interaction with other dancers on the stage.  A ballet dancer gets to be on that stage through a lot of sheer hard work, determination and a body that lends itself to the rigours of elite dance and artistry.  Of course, there is no suggestion that ballet is about to replace it’s dancers with robotic hybrids but has challenged me to think about what keeps grounded in humanity, connected by so much more than molecules and why we seek out experiences like going to the theatre and why we hope that our children, grandchildren or friends teach their children the joy of dance and the arts as it is so important to our society, communities and the essence of being human.

 

Oh, sometimes, if only we were like machines or computers that could be re-programmed or even switched off!  Life is a rich tapestry of interactions, human experience is so immense and the body holds memories and experiences of its’ own.  In our electronic-driven age, we are being told that the reality, more and more, is to view our bodies as purely mechanical.  Ballet, and other forms of dance or artistry, tell us differently, dancers may look ethereal but the real magical element – it is all grounded from the dirt of the earth – very human blood, sweat and tears with the only the few being talented enough and strong enough to make it to the pinnacle.  Those of us living through the maelstrom that is the twenty-first century, it will not have gone unnoticed that is has been dubbed the post-truth generation with lots of contemporary debate centred around fakery.   We have never had better information or more access, although, conversely, this can lead to obfuscation as facts get lost in the slew of social media and devices and ways to receive, self-awareness or self-censoring seems to be at an all-time low.  It is comforting to know, that the essentials of ballet cannot be faked, sometimes there might be a bit of ‘being in the right place at the right time’, to rise to the top but this can only be done with supreme technique, stage presence and musicality.  Ballet is an aesthetic art-form and dancers pretend to be characters, a lot of the time, that you will never see in any world, never mind the modern world but the reason we can embrace these worlds, is that ballet technique holds so much truth and authenticity as the professional dancer cannot fake the hard work and long hours that must go in to the beautiful swan or handsome prince, on stage.   Another very current debate is how aesthetically driven this media-saturated generation have become.  As an Adult Ballet dancer, one of my main issues is not having started early with ballet and therefore, having it in my body and the muscle memory, so have to work very hard, just to look a little better than a 4-year-old.  Admittedly, I am not a professional dancer and do not have the learned emotional responses or the long years of study but having some experience of the work in a ballet body, my experience as an audience-member and advocate, has given me so much more insight and respect and joy, when watching performances.  It has also given me a deeper understanding, that it is an emotional experience, and emotions, when properly directed, turn a mechanical act into an act  of artistry and beauty.  We love ballet so much as the sum of all its’ parts, give us this emotional high-ground.

 

Talent is to the forefront and there are no shortcuts from the hard work and resilience, dancers must dig very deep into their bodies and souls to pull out a performance that will live in the memory, for years to come.  The really exciting thing about talent, is that it can’t be purchased off the shelf.  The twentieth anniversary of the reign of Marianela Nunez as Principal at the Royal Ballet and as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the history of the art-form, would not be quite so exciting if we could go into a shop and buy it off the shelf or print it out on a 3-D printer!  World Ballet Day and Insights are such a success as we see ballet in its rawest form, seeing the dancer’s body being made in the studio and at the barre.  Technique is an essential element but so are musicality, acting and being someone that audiences want to engage with on stage.  A love and a heart for ballet cannot be faked, it cannot be programmed into a robot and thrown on stage.  Maybe you can but I for one, hope that this is not our future and that ballet never tries to shortcut that route of training intensely,  with rigorous discipline and skilled in technique and then the human spirit is let loose and can dominate and push through when the going gets tough, resilience is an ever-decreasing commodity and needs to be nurtured for the sake of humanity.  We should never lose our humanity or what have we left?  How can we connect – fake it, buy it, make it?  This is not a future I want to live in, so we should cherish and treasure ballet for how it shines a light on our humanity and we makes the world a better place.

And as an indulgence and illustration of this humanity, I give you Exhibit one: Roberto Bolle, Sleeping Beauty solo; and Exhibit Two: Marianela Nunez as the Black Swan

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A (Rubbish) Dancer’s Diary

003Well, it’s that time of the year again when our Second Chance Ballet, Adult Ballet dancers get together to honour the woman that brought adult ballet to Belfast long before celebrity culture was a thing and Hollywood A-listers took to the ballet barre to make it a trendy form of exercise, Ruth Adams.  One of my original memories of ballet in the dim and distant past was of an iridescent-white ballerina, dancing round and round to a tinny version of Tchaikovsky’s most glorious score in my mum’s musical jewellery box.  Swan Lake is so thoroughly ingrained in the public psyche that it has come to epitomise ballet, something that the original authors would never have believed possible but then this has helped the myth of the mythical ballet to become such a cross-cultural phenomenon.  Dancing Swan Lake has been a long-time dream of mine and I just love listening to the luscious score as it builds and builds into a crescendo of anticipation, although, I think I am in somewhat of the same place as Odette as she looks on in horror at her beloved’s betrayal.

Being an adult ballet dancer, does not make you ease up on yourself, well, I don’t anyway.  I find that I am constantly trying to pull some part of my body into a shape resembling a body that could in some way produce the lines of a real dancer.  I do this throughout the day as well, in the shower, brushing my teeth, standing in the bus queue, although, not altogether sure if it is making any difference.  What all this hopefully leads up to is being able to get together with Adult Ballet friends and make certain shapes and forms to do a passable, amateur version of Swan Lake, my childhood dream.

Rehearsals started, in earnest, a month or so ago, so in many ways, this is as close to the feeling that a professional dancer must get, in my piddling little way, although not many dancers sit at a desk for umpteenth number of hours a week and with the associated brain-packing that goes with an office job which you can’t get further away from dancing.  Then I remember why we are doing this apart from the fact that it will hopefully help our own mental acuity but to remember a pioneer of adult ballet and many more people who will be caught up with the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s.  Ironically, dancing being one of the top past-times to help stave off this wasting disease of the mind, hopefully by pushing ourselves, we are helping our future selves to stay healthier.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/second-chance-adult-ballet-swan-lake

And although I have not realised my life-long dream of dancing the pas-de-quatre or ‘Little’ Swans but then you need some dreams to still bring to realisation and make you work harder!

THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE: Northern Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Grand Opera House, Belfast, 28th September 2016

The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet is pretty much the definitive version and doesn’t lack for anything.  However, like the recent Scottish Ballet version of Swan Lake, I believe there is room in the world for at least two and the Northern Ballet’s one of them.  Over the years, I have witnessed many profound interpretations of classical literature from Northern Ballet and this is one to add to the cannon, although, in recent years, along with being named Europe’s top company, they have spread their wings and turned to top European talent, Le Ballet de Monte Carlo’s chief.  From my brief experiences of Jean-Christophe Maillot, World Ballet Day appearances and watching his highly entertaining version of The Nutcracker, he appears to be a choreographer of heart and soul with a deft touch for comedy and so it was with his Romeo and Juliet.  A sparse, mainly white set but lit theatrically and with cleverly moveable parts that added to the drama rather than detracted.  The ballet had a central thread with the character of Friar Laurence who was witness to key events of the piece.  Romeo is a dreamer, not interested in casual flirtation like his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio who are wide boys, great to be around if you are on their friend but insufferable if you are a Capulet.

I was privileged to see two performances, the first night cast with one of the greatest interpretive ballerinas of her time, Martha Leebolt and up and coming leading man, Guiliano Contadini.  It was difficult not to view this as possibly one of the last opportunities to see Leebolt on stage in Belfast, Mercutio was played on both occasions by Kevin Poeung who has been growing as a dramatic dancer for a few years and plays is an excitingly technically clean dancer plays Mercutio to perfection.  Mercutio is the ring-leader of this little gang, and is reckless in the pursuit of pleasure but is not reckless when it comes to fine ballet technique with high, split-leap jumps that are rapier sharp and personality to fill this theatrical role, it was an eye-catching performance.  The other key role is that of Tybalt.  Javier specialises in dark, moody characters with his Cuban-trained strong, technical dancing, he is a great interpreter.  For a lot of the ballet, Tybalt is rather restrained and the main influence for this is a sophisticated and haughty but glamorous, Lady Capulet.

Lady Capulet is danced by a very elegant, Lucia Solari with a cat-like movement and fluidity as she glides through the production barely disturbing the air but attracting attention through through the nobility of her presence.  She wants her daughter to follow her and marry a man of noble birth and tries to instil some of this elegance into her daughter and thrusts the hapless Paris forward who doesn’t make any ripples himself but his presence is little felt.  Juliet who we see for the first time, toying and playing with her Nurse is more like Lise from La Fille, wayward and full of joy and life. The interplay between Juliet and her Nurse is the heart relationship that she doesn’t get from her mother.  The sequence introducing Juliet and her Nurse is very playful and paints the picture of a very young girl who matures extremely quickly as she experiences all momentous life events in a matter of days.  In the dancing form of Martha Leebolt, we see the full blossoming of Juliet as she goes from childish games to first love to dramatic end.

Led by Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio crash the Capulet ball to have a bit of fun and score some points off the hated enemy by invading their hallowed territory.  This is the moment the world’s most famous romance is born as the star-crossed lovers meet as Juliet, dressed as a vision in gold, catches his eye.  There is a lovely little sequence, where they take a break from the brightly lit ballroom and innocently explore their burgeoning love by touch and feel, an underused sensation in ballet but created a deep bond between our leads.  Unusually for the Northern Ballet, this was a much more grounded production, a lot of the exploration of this exciting and new love was done by touch and feel, like an external extension of the soul.  It was very beautiful and must have seen many hours in the studio for the dancers to perfect movements that are not naturally in the ballet repertoire.  The movements added to the tenderness of the the meeting and as the score builds, painting luscious pictures for the choreography to build upon until the audience are also carried along on this romantic rush.

Ingeniously, central to the staging, there is a white-painted ramp that lifts up to form Juliet’s balcony and the radiant Martha Leebolt, makes her appearance, to nearly the height of the proscenium arch, which gives a frisson of excitement, along with her usual mesmerising performance where you fully believe that she is in the first flush of youthful love, to form the balcony. In the matinee performance, Juliet was played by Miki Akuto who is also a fine dancer with great technique and her Romeo was Matthew Koon.  Matinees are where dancers with not so much experience get a chance to hone their performances and with their two most famous dancers, partly moving on, it is a great opportunity to view these dancers at an early stage of their career.  Romeo dances and leaps through the air to hang off the balcony, propelled magnificently by feats of love.  Juliet reappears and takes control after her reticence borne out of years of family strife to take control beckoning Romeo to lift her down and join the luscious music of this famous begin a pas-de-deux that had me transfixed from start to finish.  Again as the MacMillan balcony pas-de-deux is so iconic and in so many ways with the interpretation and storytelling is very reminiscent of the sort of work that the Northern Ballet would be most comfortable in with the lifts that they accomplish so well.  This is a more grounded and understated pas-de-deux as if their souls are being passed from one to the other through touch and gesture.  I was deeply moved and watched with rapt attention as the two dancers ended the first act with the audience thirsting for more.

The second half is where most of the action takes place and in innovation to the usual staging of ballet, inaction!  Maillot uses the dancers as if they are on pause and their stillness is so convincing, the only one moving is Friar Laurence who moves around and between the still figures, surveying the scene and prophesying what is to happen.  The fight to the death between Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo and Tybalt is done in slow-motion which was really effective but also I am sure very difficult for the dancers to master.  They are used to being in control but to slow moves down and still make them look real and balletic, it must have taken incredible work in the studio.  However, I think the work lost some impact in the exclusion of any kind of weaponry and Romeo, passive throughout most of the work, is difficult to then see where the spark for murder came from, especially as Tybalt’s death is not as reactionary as picking up a blade and plunging it in, in the heat of the moment or even a heavy club!  This is done in a quirky and ingenious way as well.  I felt it lacked some key elements that are there for a good purpose and why Shakespeare’s works have transcended time, the ability to demonstrate the desperation of their love and the consequence for its discovery and why Friar Laurence sees so much hope in it.

Romeo flees to his new love, Juliet, whose cousin he has just killed and the two argue only to be reconciled in love as she leads him to the bed for their unconventional wedding night only to be awoken by her Nurse, surprised to see Romeo in bed.  Juliet’s nurse is always one of those loved characters who gives our heroine her lightness and spirit and not her mother, Lady Capulet who gives her daughter no visible love and just wants to see her making a good marriage.  This makes it easier for Juliet to defy her mother and seeks her heart which is more a mirror of the warmth of relationship that she has with her nurse.

The final scenes are pretty much done in contemporary ballet style, there are not pointe shoes or big costumes in sight.  Friar Laurence does his creeping through the scene as a marker of impending doom as the character feel implicated and powerless to stop.  Martha Leebolt was able to clearly demonstrate the anguish that Juliet goes through in such a short space of time, from youthful girl through to newly-wed, to grief to prospect of forced marriage to contemplating her own mortality and then really witnessing death first-hand.  The character of Juliet is the driving force for the partnership throughout and in many ways, with the puppyish Romeo, entranced by her is the architect of both their downfalls.  It is easier to take vengeance of a beloved friend whilst under the hot-blooded provocation of a sword fight but the death scenes are somewhat more cold-blooded and therefore don’t always fit with the arc of the story.  Sometimes, although clever and innovative, we know that Shakespeare is still relevant today with strife in the world but the ending of this, although danced excellently and told to such a high degree, there is a slight anti-climax that does not fit the soaring Prokofiev score.  However, this is still a fine work of ballet theatre, delivered to a thrilling standard of technique and drama and minor niggles aside that do not take away from the overall power and innovation of the work.

giualiano-contadini-as-romeo-and-martha-leebolt-as-juliet-photo-andy-ross-1200x861I cannot wait until the Northern Ballet return to these shores.  They have so many talented dancers who are rapier-sharp in their technique, strong in their jumps, soaring in their story-telling and interpretation of literature.  This runs deep through the company, it is not easy to tell who are the lower-ranked dancers and this bodes so well for their adventurous future.  I know that dancers appreciate the warmth of the audiences in Belfast and hope they continue to grow for this excellent company, not just fans of ballet but fans of the theatre as theatre is delivered to such a high standard.  I do hope our Northern friends return soon.  I just wish I had the courage to stand to my feet as some audience members did, to salute one of the world’s greatest interpretive ballerinas with a to-die-for technique, Martha Leebolt, who we may never see again in Northern Ireland.  On this run, I did not manage to see Tobias Batley dancing, although I have many times in the past and their partnership has been a big strength of this company and wish them very well and much success in the future.  Although I suspect that this future may lie on further shores than the UK or Europe, possibly.  Thank-you so much for your commitment to ballet and dance and touring ballet to parts of the UK that other companies do not tour to.

‘Strictly Ballet’ – Popular Dance programme spin-off?

Seeing this picture yesterday on Gethin Jones’ Twitter page and with the obvious link to Strictly Come Dancing (Gethin having left at the semi-final stage of the competition, before Darcey was a judge, with no dance or stage experience, ah, the good old days!), my thoughts turned to a Strictly spin-off with ballet as the focus.

I found Darcey’s contribution to World Ballet Day really meaningful and although her enthusiasm is clear during broadcasts to the cinema, I think it is difficult for her to be seen as other than a Strictly Judge who used to be a Ballet Dancers.  World Ballet Day gave her so much more chance to become involved and pass on her wisdom on, not just her many years of stage experience coming through but her Presidency of the Royal Academy of Dance and enthusiasm for teaching.  I found her partnership with Gethin Jones made the Royal Ballet’s contribution to World Ballet Day, the slickest and most interesting.  The presenter, who as far as I’m aware, is brand new to ballet, was fully engaged with the work of the ballet dancers and asked meaningful and interesting questions that would help the novice to ballet, negotiate what was happening but not bringing it down too far to a level where, the ballet aficionado would feel patronised.

With the recent Great British Bake Off debacle, it has made people evaluate what the BBC is for and what it does best and it is those programmes that give you a warm and cosy feeling and programmes that are informative and cultural and make you think.  The BBC is also very good at creating spin-off programmes from popular shows, so why not Strictly Ballet?  Although those of us that have even the smallest experience of ballet know that it is incredibly tough to do and even more tough to make it somewhat elegant and also, most ballet dancers don’t have a moment to do anything else but focus on their intense but short careers.  The UK is world-leading in its’ cultural output and to sustain that position, it is good to get as many people interested in high arts as possible and it is a challenge that uplifts and enriches our lives.  At the same time, must be balanced against not dumbing down the elements that make us culturally significant which can be found, especially in ballet, pretty much that unobtainable search for perfection that drives great art forward and an awareness of the balance between past heritage and modern innovation.

There was a great programme on many years ago as part of the Imagine series about the ‘Company of Elders’ at Saddlers Wells which I still fondly recall.  It showed the profound impact of dance on people of an older generation through finding something that engaged physically and mentally but not only that, provided community.  Wouldn’t it be great to have an inter-generational, popular ballet programme, on the television where the public could be educated as to why we get so immersed in this art form and to preserve our theatrical heritage for generations to come by letting others see the struggles but ultimately the exhilaration that keeps us coming back again and again.  Strictly has worked very well for inter-generational viewing and has made alive again, a tradition of families of all ages, sitting down, Saturday night viewing.

The fashion and advertising industry have not only bought into the aesthetic qualities of ballet but have also seen beyond that to the people behind the peak physiques and the consummate artistry.  Social Media has been a massive boost and given power into the hands of the dancers.  A recent Elle Magazine article proclaimed, ‘Ballerinas are the new Rock Stars‘ and hopefully they are being recognised for their talent, at last, or certainly as they were in the heady days of Fonteyn and Nureyev or Darcey Bussell herself.

I can’t wait to get home to watch World Ballet Day, all the bits I missed by valuing sleep too highly and without the welcome distraction of social media which is an essential part of the day.  This should keep me going until my next live ballet experience or viewing via the medium of the big screen.  I’ll also watch the Royal Ballet segment again with my focused attention and really listen to the advice and wisdom from Darcey that was so interesting.  It will also not be a big imposition to watch the handsome Strictly dancer with the mellifluous Welsh voice.

 

The Performance – A (Rubbish)Dancer’s Diary

Alzheimer's flyer

Rehearsals over, ballet shoes put into storage, pre-performance stress and post-performance high are now all far behind me.  Unfortunately my Royal Ballet contract has not landed on the mat, so I have to go back to the mundane world of office work and leave the camaraderie of a shared, stressful but ultimately satisfactory experience, behind.  Adult ballet has taken off in the last number of years with more and more researchers putting together the link between dance and wellbeing and also with the world becoming somewhat more individualistic, people are craving a community of shared interests and this is what I have found through Second Chance Ballet at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.  Sometimes in Northern Ireland, we might have been accused of being a tad provincial or colloquial but I have met so many interesting and friendly people from across the globe and of all ages, although unfortunately we are still somewhat lacking in the male of the species but then, that is something that will hopefully change.

I still have some ballet dreams to be fulfilled, one has passed and that is to where pointe shoes (too old, in ballet years), to wear a tutu (still possible) and to do a soaring pas-de-deux with the feeling of being lighter than air (possible but not likely) but sure, a girl can dream and Friday night has still given me that hope.  And when you have people who are beautiful dancing creatures with what seems like a lot of confidence giving you so much encouragement and displaying some of the vulnerabilities that you know you have yourself, this is what makes the experience so special.  My friend said to me, “what would Marianela (@MNunezOfficial) do?” and this became our little joke to ease the tension, so I pretended I inhabited that level of perfection and was dancing towards my Solor or @RobertoBolle who was just out of sight, the other side of the stage lights!

Of course, there was a profound and poignant reason for doing this, not just giving a bunch of amateur dancers of varying abilities the thrill of being on the stage but to honour a lady who started Adult Ballet in Northern Ireland and therefore us, along this road.  Ruth Adams let us dance, the other side of those red curtains, staring out to a full auditorium of family and friends.  Many people who started dancing or were brought back to dancing with Ruth Adams commented how much she would have loved the performance and that is where I took my inspiration from.  Ballet has added a new dimension to my life and although there are constant reminders out there that life is very real, for a few moments, we were transported to a world of Nikiyas and Solors and we even cheered for Gamzatti!

Ruth Adams passed her love of adult ballet and her classes onto Chee-Shong Soon who has certainly developed this troupe of amateur dancers with just the most appropriate mix of drive, inspiration and passion.  I did not envisage a performance on such a scale as having to negotiate three costume changes for myself, however, we did draw the line at having a live orchestra, as one dancer was asked!  I was truly in awe of how Chee-Shong put this together, not even working full-time in ballet or dance, although we all dream of our parallel lives of what we would do to transform ballet in Northern Ireland and make it as visible as it should be, if we had lots of time and money.  After all, Northern Ireland has one of the world’s up and coming ballet stars in Melissa Hamilton and she would always be welcome down at the Crescent Arts Centre for a Guest appearance, if she ever wanted one!  Lots and lots of people of all ages are filling up dance studios and standing at barres and more studios and classes being added, around the country.  I’ve seen the cinemas begin to fill with audiences and the same audience still flocks to live theatre (unfortunately not as often as we would wish and would also like to see some of the smaller companies being given access to the big theatres and their technology for live screening, although, can see how funding might be an issue), we are a strong community and it would be nice to get that recognition.  Maybe some year!

Right now, it is nice to have a couple of months off but with the prospect of a few summer classes to keep my feet moving.  Also, there are big plans for next year as well as we get those swan arms out.  The ballet of ballets, where there is so much dancing and character as well as classical roles with ballet’s most famous corps de ballet scenes, the oft imitated pas-de-quatre and the Black Swan, although I don’t think I will be volunteering to execute 32 fouettes, maybe the next year!

Alzheimer’s Society: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Second-Chance-Adult-Ballet.

And here’s our beautiful New York dancer who has given us a lot of grace and great fun and a beautiful tutu as well.  There were a lot of covetous ballet dancers.

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