‘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.


A (Rubbish) Dancer’s Diary, part 3

Well, the week has dawned with its usual summer slate grey, washed-out and chilly.  To think each year we start the summer with hope, oh what foolish dreams.  Anyway, my other dream of being a very unprofessional ballet dancer is also becoming reality this week.   Hopefully the performance will not be as dismal as the Northern Ireland weather and it will give many people some joy, mainly, of course, through our dancing! but also through people’s generous donations for the Alzheimer’s Society: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Second-Chance-Adult-Ballet.

It is a struggle when you are so far out of your comfort zone and a little like ‘old dog, new tricks’.  To be perfectly honest, in some ways, it has been the first time that I have not enjoyed dancing as much, I said to a class-mate, “I don’t like pressure ballet”.  This may be to do with changes in my life, outside of the ballet studio and just too much at the wrong time.  However, I also know that if I had opted out of performing, it would be even worse with a ‘being surplus to requirements feeling’ and hopefully, the high you get from doing something that is reasonably extraordinary as you certainly don’t do it every day as I mostly sit at a desk and type.

The best part of preparing for performance is that when you get people together in a pressurised situation, the camaraderie is great, all in it together feeling and sharing emotions.  I have picked up tips on how to improve and realise that everyone is nervous, no matter how good they look and how long they have been dancing for.  The mind is a funny instrument and it plays tricks on all of us and tries to throw us off, it takes exercising of the mind as well as of the body and that is why this performance is so completely apt.

Alzheimer's flyer

At the moment, I will be glad to get back to ballet for fun but hopefully after Friday evening, I will be on a post-performance high and wanting more!

A (Rubbish) Dancer’s Diary, Part 2


Ballet is a very long story of progression where virtually every week is an education, if you want it to be.  I suppose that is why dance is one of the best things for keeping you young and proven to help with mental wellbeing.  Although, my mental wellbeing can sometimes be very challenged by ballet or is it the mirror? or the fact that I am trying to do what should have been in my body since a small child but as it isn’t?, I just have to do the best I can do.  Those I watch as they confidently move around the dance studio, perfecting their solos, some very different dancers, the more compact, fleet of foot technician or the long-limbed dancer who draws you into the spectacle or the calm assurance of the dancer who has trained for a long time and that training has given her an awareness of the ballet form, they are just gorgeous to watch.  I feel privileged to watch and to learn from much better dancers who never judge and are always encouraging and can give great tips.  Also, when worrying about feeling sore and then hear younger dancers, just out of their 20s discussing aches and pains, makes me feel a lot better, I have a few years on them and anyway, we’ll have the summer to recover, this is the last push of the year.

What particularly stood out for me, sitting at the back of the room, is the calmness of the assured dancer.  They are at home on stage or at least they make it look as if they are.  They are in tune with the music and the music brings its’ calmness too. Some will be in the middle of the music, some will dance to the edge of it, creating accents or an extra breath, but all will be confident.  There is also the confidence that muscle memory, built up over years, brings, from long hours spent at the barre, in dance studios.  I have learnt much from this calmness and it should, eventually, help with nerves as I train myself to listen to the music, forget about the mirrors and just try and make my dancing a pleasurable experience.  After all, I am pretty sure that my dream of dancing for the Royal Ballet has pretty much passed me by or of waking up some morning and so inspired by my heroine, Marianela Nunez, that I can suddenly dance like her, so I intend to enjoy the thrill of every moment that I have to dance.  This is no excuse for running and hiding or not pushing yourself, just don’t give in to defeat or not push yourself but when it doesn’t always go right, at least there will be another class next week and there will always be fellow dancers to share with.

This week, there will also be the opportunity for ballet to bring us together socially as the Royal Ballet live cinema relay will be shown on Wednesday 18th May.  The ballet is the much talked about, ‘Frankenstein’, the new Liam Scarlett ballet and now, there is a role that I could aspire to!





A (Rubbish) Dancer’s Diary, Part 1



One day, a not-so-little girl watched Darcey Bussell on the telly and decided that she wanted to have a part of that, even in a small way.  Fortunately she found out that it wasn’t too late to strap on pink ribboned ballet slippers and an inspirational teacher at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast’s University Quarter who believed that it was never too late to discover or re-discover ballet.  Ruth Adams, pioneer of Adult Ballet in Northern Ireland, realised that ballet was not just for little girls who still had dreams of dancing on the Covent Garden stage but women and men who had long ago given up that dream but were still thrilled to be able to let go, inside the full-bodied ballet music and pirouette and arabesque whilst thinking that possibly (as there were no mirrors in those early days) that they in some way looked like Darcey.  Ruth Adams passed her mantle and classes onto Chee-Shong Soon when she retired who has had the responsibility for the last number of years, trying to realise even a fraction of the dreams of dancer’s, ranging in age from students right up to late 60s.  Encouraging when we feel like giving up, knocking off some of the rough edges and introducing some harmony into the Helen Lewis dance studio of a Friday evening.  In 2015, sadly, Ruth Adams passed away but she has left a massive ballet legacy in Northern Ireland with dancers of all ages and abilities, take their love of ballet out of the studio and patronise the theatres and cinemas around Belfast and have even been known to go on tour to Covent Garden and have big ambitions for Paris and Milan.


To celebrate the contribution of Ruth Adams to the cultural life of Belfast and especially to ballet, Chee-Shong Soon has been rehearsing a group amateur dancers (great dancers and a self-confessed rubbish dancer, pretty much because ballet is a tough mistress/ master), for a version of La Bayadere.  It is in equal measures thrilling and terrifying.  Any tips on how to conquer stage-fright nerves and keeping a 40+ body going for extra rehearsals.  This week I have been struggling with my first injury with a hip that is painful, which is why, I suppose, most dancers retire at around 40, not get going.  I expressed my wonder that a few years ago, I would not have believed that in my 40s, I would be planning to dance, on stage, albeit, in my highly amateurish way but you never know what life holds in store and we are fortunate to have facilities and encouraging teachers to accommodate us.


Ballet, as we know, is like a drug and you want to keep dancing and dancing and do not want the body to be telling us different, it is like the brain is going in one direction and the body is lying in some slovenly corner, eating crisps with a snide smile, saying, make me.  Although I joke that I am able to know what it feels like to be a professional dancer, oh, about less than a percentage point, in that you are rehearsing the same thing over and over or watching others perfect their solos, then you are going to bed and waking up and going to the next rehearsal.  Well, on a Friday night, Saturday morning, anyway.


The evening performance of La Bayadere will be held in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on the 8th July and tickets are on sale to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society and as a celebration of the life of Ruth Adams to whom so much of us owe to giving us a love of ballet.


Swan Lake, Grand Opera House, Belfast, November 2015


My first thought, I must admit, was, oh, here we are again, another ballet, another Swan Lake but then, what is this I see, the critics love it and are giving it pretty much five stars across the board!  When something is as famous as Swan Lake and recognisable ballet in the world and strong imagery for everyone, for me, it was a mother’s jewellery box that opened to a moonlit wood with a pirouetting ballerina, to the music of Tchaikovsky, this obviously planted the seeds before I realised and Swan Lake continues to work its magic on not just ballet fans and packs out opera houses.  The version that I have seen most often is the much-criticised Royal Ballet version, sister company of Birmingham Royal Ballet that has just been retired and recently I saw a turgid version in London by a Russian company who reduced it to a piece full of technique but little artistry.  The version of Swan Lake that the Birmingham Royal Ballet have in their repertoire is by Sir Peter Wright, who has re-choreographed the Nutcracker that the Royal have in their repertoire which has been so successful because it is so evocative which is very much why I loved this production of Swan Lake.  The ballet pretty much sets the scene for what is a heartfelt but somewhat austere production, with the prelude of a coffin, draped in sombre black cloth and led by mourners in black, although with the darkness, it took me a while to adjust and see what was creating such a dark atmosphere and what the large and imposing shape that was weighing them with a burden, denoting this as the ending British audiences are most familiar with, some preludes have Odette picking flowers!

This is the austerity Prince Siegfried, not in terms of set design or costumes, they are lavish, corps males are in dark wigs and beards with robes to the floor, the back-drop is heavy with the air of oppression, all designed to aid our mind’s eye to to the weightiness placed on young Siegfried’s shoulders and explain why he is keen to break free and surrounds himself with the carefree Benno and pleasant ladies to lift the atmosphere.  Siegfried is a romantic, taking off with break-neck speed into the night, leaving the Palace behind.  He is stopped in his tracks by the greatest beauty he has ever seen and their souls are knit together instantly as only at the greatest love can free them of their respective burdens.  I haven’t always understood this from Swan Lake, the human drama gets lost in psycho-babble, Rothbart being the darker, alter-ego of Siegfried giving no reason or depth that explains his descent over the next few hours.  With the intentionally dark atmosphere and presenting a Court and mother, probably in mourning from the amount of black and the absence of a King, the tone is set that shows Siegfried as trapped into producing an heir to save the throne and dynasty.  A trio of Princesses from neighbouring lands are presented in a book, like their modelling portfolio and he rejects them all.  He’s quickly lifted from the doldrums by his ever-loyal friend, dancing courtiers and a duo of lovely ladies trying to cheer him up, finally they pick up their bows to chase after the flock of birds, they see from the Palace window, only to be left dead in their tracks by the most beautiful sight that he has ever beheld in the Swan Queen, Odette.

The first Act sees some nice solo work with some of the footwork a little limp but then the tempo of the ballet was set at quite a pace, this was maybe a choice, to fit the steps in or provide a contrast to the white acts.  The upper bodies of the dancers were perfect with expressive arms and confident, smiling providing a merry party.  The male star of the first act is often not Siegfried, who, oppressed by his position and gilded prison, can seem a little insipid but it was his friend, Benno, that shone.  Benno was played by William Bracewell, you could not take your eyes off him when he was dancing, graceful, long lines and great extension and jump.  He has the advantage of a bright costume and smiling face and is the party-master to Siegfried.  Siegfried can be less showy, more stately, dancer and performs intricate partner work.  Siegfried was played by Joseph Caley whose presence grew throughout the evening and his partnership with Momoko Hirata’s Odette, was pretty much perfection.  Before Hirata makes her slight but immense presence felt on the stage, William Bracewell is the star, commanding attention and interacting well with his best friends, especially Siegfried, leading through to the final, heart-breaking, scene.

Act II introduces us to Odette, and her most beautiful bevy of women who come to life as the sun goes down and they are released from their prison, the Lake of Tears.  Odette transmits her story through historic ballet mime and the whole audience know exactly what she is conveying with her expressive limbs that are going to display such feats to leave the audience gasping.  The villain, Rothbart, snarls and hisses pretty much at the audience and holds the beatific creatures under his spell, clad in an iron mask and is pretty much pure pantomime, although has an expression in his movement that is just about the right side of farce, as the tone of the piece is rather sombre, totally hamming it up would not be right.  It is this act and probably the Black Swan solo that make this the most popular and recognisable ballet in the world, amongst ballet fans and non-ballet fans alike, nearly everyone in the world is able to identify the Tchaikovsky score or the pas-de-quatre with the girls moving forward in absolute unison, in pristine white tutus and feathered head-dresses, lamenting their captivity and protective of their Queen, Odette.

The audience held its breath as Momoko Hirata took to the stage as Odette.  There is quite a lot of dancing before we see our Swan Queen and she stretched her limbs in a representation of those famously glorious wings that command the attention of this Prince who has caught her in the sights of his cross-bow.  He is immediately transfixed by her ethereal beauty, in contrast to the oppressiveness of his surroundings and women that offer themselves up as joint inheritor of a rich kingdom, she shows unwillingness to be caught.  Hirata is not long of limb but she knows exactly where to place them for the full effect and she dances with real precision but also with grace and artistry.  Her flock are captivating, although I thought the head-dresses were on the large side and looked a little incongruous.  They moved as one body with very elegant ‘big swans’, graceful arms and extension, danced by Yvette Knight and Yinjing Zhang.

This was a much clearer version of the story-telling than I have seen for a long time.  The story had an arc and we understand better why these characters go to their watery end, the opening scene foretold that this was not the happy ending Swan Lake that is often offered up by Russian and Russian-influenced companies or the rather turgid affair that I recently witnessed in London by a Russian company who used it solely as a vehicle for their star to whip out as many fouettes in as short a period as she could.  Nor is it the much-criticised Royal Ballet version that is a little ponderous.  The Birmingham Royal Ballet have created anything but a ponderous version, the tempo is high which maybe accounts for some less than clean footwork in Act I, as the White Swan solos are perfect with lovely extension and expressive arms and hands.  The interpretation of the relationship between Siegfried and Odette, I felt, was much more cogent, they were much more kindred spirits and Siegfried as danced by Joseph Caley, came into his spotlight with strong partnering of Hirata and I enjoyed being close enough to see the placement of hands to support his Swan Queen.  The sheer effort that goes into completing high-intensity solos and maintain a princely bearing after this sheer physical exertion but it added to the atmosphere to hear the breathing, you don’t get that in the cinema, as much as this has opened the stages if the world to us.  Act I sets the scene of a Court in mourning, draped in heavy black and with no King in sight, we assume that the weight of maintaining the dynasty fell to Siegfried and the oppressiveness of feeling trapped by his responsibilities and a political match, why he fell so hard for a glorious creature.  Odette, herself trapped by a tyrannical master.  Some versions either have Siegfried as a nothing, pampered Prince out for his jollies or a psycho-babble alter-ego of Rothbart, with the popularity of dynastic television, this made much more sense.

The Act ends with Siegfried promising eternal fidelity and the hope of tender release from Rothbart’s curse, the couple are united, briefly, before dawn and Rothbart returns and Odette and her swans return to the Lake of Tears.  Act II gets underway with a more spirited Siegfried who now sees a future of love and rejects Princesses from neighbouring lands and their entourages until, that is, uninvited guests arrive, a very grand, Baron von Rothbart with his spirited and sensual daughter.  The Princesses give us a few laughs, as they line up in their dazzling finery, lavishly decorated costumes, sparkling in the lights, the jealousy and rivalry is apparent in their acting.  Sometimes this section is belaboured as most people secretly are just waiting for the fireworks of the Black Swan but as previously noted, this production does not hang about and the solos were enjoyable and did not hang about for too long.  With such a delicate White Swan, it’s always interesting to see what the dancer will give us form her antithesis, Odile.  What we did get was a suitably bravura Black Swan but again was in keeping with the story and nature of the piece, the right amount of sensuality and then mimicking Odette to lure our hapless Prince to his betrayal.  Swan Lake is iconic also as it sees the leading ballerina playing the dual role of Odette/ Odile as she moves from white, romantic, Swan to Black, sensual Swan and this all leads to the pinnacle of the ballet as the leading ballerina executes the difficult fouette move, turning on one leg and propelling herself round and round, 32 times.  It is an explosive, showcase moment that critics argue is to the detriment of the piece as ballerinas use it to show off their prowess and not to tell the story.  In this case, I thought it sat rather nicely in this ballet and there wasn’t a, “here I am, look at me” with several bows, although the audience gave a rather noisy clap of appreciation to the detriment of Siegfried’s solo who was doing his show-piece turning while the audience were still loudly showing their appreciation.  The male solo is equally as difficult but just doesn’t get quite so much appreciation, fouettes were immaculate, not too showy but definitely inspired awe and the ballerina did not milk the applause as can sometimes happen, breaking the flow of the story.  The Act ends with Rothbart and Odile in the ascendancy, tricking Siegfried into thinking he was declaring his love and betrothal to Odette but instead being seduced into a match with Odile and thus trapping Odette in her icy tomb of the Lake of Tears forever.  Siegfried is somewhat duped into falling headlong in love with a glossier picture of his true love, however, he does display a dangerous vanity as he cavorts across the stage, the showy pair dance ecstatically in an act of bravura than deep love.  As an image of Odette appears at the window to warn Siegfried, he is too caught up in the grandeur to notice and starts the fall to his and Odette’s destruction.

I thought there were no surprises left in Swan Lake for me but there was an audible gasp from the audience as Act III curtain rose, dry ice billowed across the stage and suddenly, a corps of White Swans appeared from the murk.  It was so atmospheric and genuinely moved the audience.  Act III, the climax of the ballet, Siegfried seeks redemption from his vainglorious chasing after seductive Black Swans and desperately seeks his true love, Odette.  The atmosphere is laden with betrayal and doom.  Some of the greatest corps dancing is seen in this act as the dancers swoop in and out and form intricate patterns around their Queen in an attempt to protect her from first, further betrayal and secondly, the wicked Rothbart.  Siegfried eventually wins an audience with Odette and works hard to open his heart and see how humbled he is at his somewhat unwitting betrayal.  Rothbart makes his ghastly presence felt and I love the moment as the Swans form a guard of honour and Siegried runs with Odette held high, soaring above the earthly spectre.  We want them to defeat Rothbart and keep running off to their glory but alas, Rothbart will not be defeated, except through mortal sacrifice.  Odette feels the futility of her situation most keenly and has the least ties to mortal life, making the sacrificial leap and giving up her mortality to the ‘Lake of Tears’, Siegfried has a tighter grip on mortality and the responsibility of a kingdom and is also Rothbart tries to fight him off following his love, Odette and retain his powerful grip on the Swans.  Siegfried turns to fight, knocks off Rothbart’s formidable mask to reveal a defeated, destroyed man whose power will also soon vanish with the sacrificial deaths, finally united in death, as in love, of Odette and Siegfried.  The Swans finish Rothbart off as they flock powerfully.  The final, extremely effecting scene is of mortal love between friends and confidantes as Benno carries the be-cloaked face and body of Siegfried.  I have not seen an audience get to their feet so spontaneously and in such great numbers, there were few that were not so deeply moved by this work to stay seated.  The appreciation was very much worthy.  Even this Swan Lake cynic was won over again and fully aware of the power of this work and why it is so popular.  Although, that said, I would like to see touring companies being more bold but then, it is our responsibility as audiences to lead that charge for boldness and support the Arts in any way that we can in this age of austerity.

1984 World Premiere, Northern Ballet, September 2015

028Europe’s Best Dance Company, Northern Ballet, made the bold choice to ask young but noted choreographer, Jonathan Watkins to choreograph a ballet and Watkins made the daring choice of George Orwell’s celebrated but what most would assume as undanceable, 1984.  Concepts such as ‘Big Brother, ‘Room 101, ‘Newspeak’, ‘Thought Police’, ‘Ministry of Truth’ etc., have permeated into popular society especially with technology, such as social media and mass media catching up with Orwell’s literary imagination to make such a society a distinct possibility but would a ballet using the choreographic language that was established in pre-Revolutionary France that uses the body only to convey its’ message.  This choreographic language has accommodated vast change throughout its’ history but would ballet be able to sustain and convey such drudgery as twenty-four hour monitoring, leading to a people that no longer think and act for themselves.  1984 was written post- World Wars and in a climate of fear, in the wake of Fascism and paranoia with the rise of Communism.  There have been a lot of works of classical literature being adapted recently that are thought to be pretty much undanceable and the Northern Ballet have a long history of adapting great works of literature such as Wuthering Heights and Great Gatsby and Jonathan Watkins received very high acclaim for his adaptation of another great Northern novel, Kes.  What struck me, whilst watching the dancers performing their prescribed tasks and movements, that, in many ways, ballet is the perfect medium with its rigid perfection of a corps de ballet, moving at the same time and in the same prescribed way but this time with a blankness behind the eyes.  I got the distinct feeling that what I was watching felt like theatre done through the medium of ballet.  The first cast for this World Premiere is one of ballet’s most dramatic pairings around at the moment, Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt.  To an add an extra frisson to this exciting story of bringing a new ballet to the stage, choreographer and Principal Dancer went to the Royal Ballet School together, having both attended the Royal Ballet School, which must have further enhanced the collaborative process and where where fascination with the literary work began.

The Northern Ballet have been receiving some very prestigious and deserved accolades, awarded Europe’s Best Ballet Company at the Taglioni Awards, a few years after being under threat of extinction, the company is now blossoming with a new building, acquiring exciting new dancers and doing more touring than ever.  The Northern Ballet excel as a company outside of the glamorous environs of London which can mean tighter budgets but maybe a less hot-house atmosphere leads to artistic freedoms that cannot thrive in a packed arena.  The Northern Ballet is renowned for passionate interpretations of the ballet narrative and produce works based on the theatrical end art-form as they used to be names, Northern Ballet Theatre.  The company threw themselves into this work with all the strength of feeling (or devoid of feeling that the work encapsulates).  This is what makes ballet great, the regimentation of class that builds great technique to build a solid foundation with the corps and then layer on top, freedom of expression as ballet is an art-form, first and foremost.  The greatest dancers are able to interpret the story to captivate and engross and can interpret music to another level so that they inhabit their own beautiful timing that takes your breath away, here we have two of the finest dramatic interpreters in Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt.  Graciousness permeates from every movement but for the grim other-worldliness of they can unleash this in a spectacular pas-de-deux or contain it when being furtive around the other workers of the ‘Outer Party’, they are naïve and also incredibly brave. Tobias and Martha are two of the country’s finest exponents of ballet theatre and their leading partnership has been getting hotter and hotter over the last few years, we see moments of this and Tobias Batley carries this doom-heavy work on his shoulders with a beautiful pas-de-deux with his gracious partner at the middle, before further descent into gloom and destruction.

The setting for this ballet, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, matched the atmosphere of the piece, more than a gilt and velvet grand theatre would and it was a thrill to see every sinew and muscle of the dancer’s body, up close.  When the massed dancers were throwing out hate, the audience were, in some way, complicit, and in the worst light, audiences could be construed as a benign Big Brother, voyeuristically watching in the dark, whilst dancers strain to create beauty for our pleasure.  ‘Big Brother’ watches from video screens at the back of the stage, the rest of the set is sparse and the costumes are drab, almost war-like, uniforms of blue.  There are stifled flashes of brilliance from other dancers and I, for one, would have liked to have seen some more dancing from them but then with ballet theatre this is often the compromise.  Kevin Poeung, for one, gives a ‘boutique’ solo that is enough to witness beautiful dancing and feel the heartbreak of not being able to witness such a talent in full flow.  The poignant parallel would be if, in the 21st century, government and funding exerted too much power over art that it became suppressed and robotic and without freedom.  Tobias Batley plays the everyman, Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, a worker whose job it is to erase history and destroying any written accounts that have a personal view contrary to Big Brother’s.  Winston is tantalised as he has made steps to subvert this careful order set by Big Brother by venturing into the Proles district and being lured into purchasing a diary.  To our modern world where we unburden our feelings all the time, the purchase of book with blank pages is so innocuous not to be noted but in a world where thoughts can lead to open rebellion and the total loss of power, this is a serious misadventure.

The Proles are those whose lives are seen as too insignificant not even to warrant monitoring and live somewhat drab lives but their movements have more freedom and maybe significantly, do not dance in pointe shoes, as Victoria Sibson shadows Tobias Batley by always dancing in the background.  Her dancing is rather enigmatic, only being able to hazard a guess as to its purpose but nonetheless, it is striking in the red, earthy colours of the Proles.  Winston rejoins his fellow workers but to partake in the obligatory, daily minutes of hate, he is out of step with his fellow workers of corps dancers and cannot get back in step again, which is a very intelligent use of the ballet form as one of the greatest sins that a corps can make, is not be perfectly in sync.  Not only has something been awakened in Winston by the frisson of his rebellion but also something more than picking up the contraband diary but his soul has been awakened by the sight of Julia, a fellow worker who also has forays into the Proles district and wears a red ribbon with her drab blue uniform.  An element to Winston being out of step, is that he is looking for Julia, he probably isn’t aware of what she has awakened and whether it is a soul or love, that is the beauty of the work, as it is up to the interpretation.  Winston and Julia subvert further laws by passing a note between themselves and it is not long before they are meeting under what looks like a tree that has been long neglected and given up its fight for survival in this blank world, they are in front of a cold blue background but at least it is not metal or concrete which dominates the Ministry of Truth.  Winston and Julia are quickly overcome by passion stripping off their uniforms to costumes that underline their vulnerability for what was a very memorable pas-de-deux.  This pas-de-deux is executed with all the trust that a long-established partnership gives and this was fully necessary as the choreographer gave us dancing that was both tender, very seductive and a real feast for the eyes and these dancers were more than equal to it.  I really didn’t want the first act to end and I found it difficult to get back into the darkness of the piece after he bright lights of the atrium.

Act II took us on a downward trajectory and there is little to fill anyone with hope.  Orwell had lived through extreme times, Europe was recovering from the most violent period in history and Communism was on the march, he was also very ill, so the work reflects this bleak set of circumstances.  Not just that but this work of fiction has seen it become more and more real and pertinent in our own modern times  It is brave that the Northern Ballet are not only pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Ballet Theatre but giving us a work that has also a lot to say about out society, at large.  The piece is not set in a defined period, there are no computers or mobile technology but there is a dominating screen that flashes the eyes of Big Brother which either you will love and think it adds to the ballet or hate for its intrusion and diminish the presence of the artists on the stage.  The screen and graphics are by the same company that provide them for X-Factor.  Maybe some of the subtleties are lost and characterisation becomes glowing eyes on a screen or the villainous O’Brien, played by a suitably menacing, Javier Torres was maybe a little underused or sketched out in one-dimensional only, we don’t know his rise to position and how it’s warped his soul or even hinted at the insecurities that usually lead someone to treat human life as so insignificant that they become a torturer.  The final scenes of the crushing of the human spirit are danced with great aplomb and there is no cheesiness about the very unpleasant scenes of torture, mental and physical, designed to break down any rebellious spirit by playing on Winston’s greatest fears.

Ballet has in previous years been accused of being overly reliant on big classics such as Swan Lake and perhaps it has but with choreographers now producing works that are not just great works of theatre but can have great relevance and provoke thoughts about our own world.  There are clear inferences of Nazism and Communism, totalitarian regimes that depended on paranoia, brutality and most importantly, conformity.  Don’t forget that although many of the terms in 1984 have found their way, tellingly, into modern parlance, Room 101, Big Brother, even describing, for instance, the over use of surveillance or political ‘doublespeak’ as Orwellian, this book was written in a pre-CCTV, internet, social media age Orwell was prophetic in seeing that latent or overt oppression would not end with the end of World War II but would advance.  It is only when it is too late that Winston and Julia realise that they have been caught in a rat-trap and the secret eyes of Big Brother are startling discovered, it is too late for them to escape.


Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt, entwined as Winston and Julia

Ballet often ends in tragedy but there is usually some sort of sacrificial redemption in it, to uplift the audience, a glimmer of hope.  In a world that increasingly is questioning the value of Arts and freedom to have views contrary to that of the mass media and social media, seems to be in decline, Arts budgets are decided on the size of the audience or how much hashtag activity they generate.  1984 is a cautionary tale to not snuff out consciousness and free expression, to not take history as written without searching out several sources and your make up your own mind.  It is a miracle that a lot of these concepts can be conveyed via the medium of dance and why I love dance so much, stories are told purely via the body and through human dedication alone, there is no device or apparatus, just human empowerment and the highest level of training.  The pas-de-deux in Act I stunning and brave and emotional, sometimes it is the simplest gesture just like the leg of a lover desperately reaching out for another human being, that is the most memorable.  This is a thinking ballet, probably more than an emotional ballet, the further distance I have had from this ballet, the further I have appreciated it.  Northern Ballet artistic output is high for a company of their resources, producing full-length ballets on a regular basis, with Artistic Director, David Nixon and a loyal group of dancers who have been together as an artistic team for several years but with the much-needed injection of cash, they have added up and coming talents like Archie Sullivan, winner of the Ballet section of BBC’s Young Dancer of the Year (and what a lot of people think should have been overall winner). As long as Northern Ballet give us this range of ballets, the announcement has been made that they are returning Yorkshire and the Brontes for Jane Eyre and I’m still waiting for David Nixon to choreograph Pride and Prejudice, that keep us on the edge and excited and doing something different from other companies in the UK and around Europe, they will remain an incredibly exciting company.  With young choreographers like Jonathan Watkins and the company’s own retired dancer, Kenneth Tindall making a name for themselves, Northern Ballet will deservedly own the accolade of Europe’s Best Dance Company.

For more enlightening photographs about this production from Martha Leebolt, see her Vogue article: http://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/2015/08/1984-northern-ballet-ballerina-martha-leebolt-profile