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.

 

Swan Lake, Grand Opera House, Belfast, November 2015

Birmingham-Royal-Ballet-shows-Swan-Lake

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.

Could Ballet Positively Affect Intellect?

The answer from much more qualified people than myself, is, of course, yes but, from a non-practitioner viewpoint and largely audience member perspective, I think ballet particularly fires neurons in the brain via the complimentary senses employed. The stage will be full but also broken down into formations and steps, positions and lines whilst also seeing the performance as a narrative whole and the supporting cast of scenery, costumes and music. Arts is seeing a growing body of theoretical medical evidence to support the fact that participation in dance, enhances the psychological and sociological wellbeing. Like reading a book or looking at an engaging piece of art, I believe that watching dance also enhances psychological wellbeing because of its particularly challenging nature, it does not just produce momentary highs but sustained itself through intellectual as well as emotional impact. However, this is purely supposition and would take further study to prove. Also, it would be interesting to see if the understanding of how one processes and enjoys ballet could influence someone who categorically rejects ballet and can be trained to appreciate it and can have a positive impact on their lives. Could being involved holistically improve cognitive ability and well-being, perhaps? What this leads to, if proven, which will be down to a growing body of academic evidence, as well as physiologically and sociologically and psychologically, that is growing up around dance and the Arts, to prove the invaluable benefits to more than just a fleeting enjoyment but long-lasting benefits because of the all-immersive nature of ballet.

I discovered ballet and adult classes when hopes of making it onto the Royal Opera House stage had been dashed!, adult classes have opened up for me, like a parallel universe in Belfast, full of culturally diverse people. Some have had a background in ballet, classes as a child or through media interest piqued by being on film and television, when ballet is in the news, attendance inevitably goes up. Ballet classes attract dancers from across the globe to the common language and culture, we could travel around the globe if plotted out everywhere fellow dancers are from. Then there is a range of backgrounds from Office Workers/ IT to Cancer Researchers, some have arts school and professional training and some have come to it through media or audience, trying to push an unwilling body into positions it has never naturally been to before. This background provides the inspiration and the community to become immersed in all aspects of supporting the professional community, as audience members and participants in related media. One thing that often surprises, is that arts promoters and venues hosting ballet do not target classes with marketing or added extras/ access, as already-engaged audience members and cultivate relationship. Being engaged in the social, as well as participative side of ballet, opens up a treasure-trove of superhuman achievement (the more you try, as a novice adult, to do ballet, the more you understand the complexities and how difficult it is to make those beautiful lines and shapes). Ballet brings together elements of music, theatre, acting, using some of the leading choreographers and musicians and contrary to certain opinion, is a forward-thinking medium.

Again, mainly from personal experience, this background provides the inspiration and the community to become immersed in ballet as an active participant and to support as an audience member and of all other related media. Next week I will be taking a break from sitting at a desk to sit, engrossed, in front of my tablet, to watch as much of #WorldBalletDay as I can, which shows how innovative the industry is and how much companies are willing to open up the magic, to give us an insight of the mechanics of being a top-class ballet company and to show us, the audience, a wider perspective that what we see on stage, is the end of a lot of hard work and graft. My hope with Friends of Ballet NI has always been to try and create a more connected ballet community and to talk to like-minded people who are also as obsessed with ballet and to stimulate further debate. The delight for me with finding my cultural home with ballet is that there is so much to see and read about that is of such quality that it stimulates informed debate as well as the emotions. Instead of heading home on a Friday evening after ballet class, disparate group of people that we are, we have found a common passion, we gather round a coffee and sometimes a computer will come out and drool over the latest ballet content on the web or such and such a dancer.

Stimulation of the brain and senses also occurs from the challenge of Modern Ballet. It gives the eye, brain and heart a very different challenge. The markers of costume that are in classical, such as, “this is a Prince”, “this is a swan”, for instance, are stripped bare. Sets will be sparse, maybe blocking colour or using projections. With this, the audience member is left to make up their own story, perhaps, of a warring couple or in love or with many modern ballets, pure abstraction, truly the image of a picture come to life. Music is stripped back from full orchestra or maybe non-orchestral or non-traditional instrumentation, maybe even reduced to sounds that are at odds with the dancers or what the audience would expect to hear. Modern ballet is often abstract and perhaps without narrative and is to be looked at like art, an appreciation of the eyes that will stimulate the brain and senses. The dancers are equally challenged, if anyone recently saw, ‘Darcey Bussell’s Ballet Heroes’, Tamar Rojo talked of the difficulties of making the transition from classical to modern. Outlining that classical bodies are pulled up and projected outwards. The modern dancer has to push down and inwards, shortening the body and how this creates difficulties and stresses on a body that is trained in a certain manner for years. To suddenly retrain the body, whilst still having to constantly change and re-adjust and not all dancers can do this. Some people declare that ballet is dead but with this level of creativity and interest for the audience-member, it is not just swans and Sugar-Plum fairies and Princes. From time to time, we may get a little tired of the frou-frou-ness of ballet and recent debate centred on whether to #KeepRescueRetire by @RADheadquarters classics such as the blockbuster, Swan Lake, in favour of more modern pieces and Tamara Rojo has stated her intention to get bin the tutu, as much as possible.

As long as ballet exists, debate will never cease as to its place or relevance but few will forget the stunning performance of ENB at this year’s Glastonbury, the challenges to the mind, spirit and body are phenomenal. Ballet is actually becoming more relevant and challenging as well as being firmly embedded in academic research and the academic community are confirming what we have all believed for some time. I come from class feeling tired but exhilarated with my mind buzzing and this is a fact at all ages, not just for the young or not-so-young, I know that not everyone is Dame Gillian Lynne but how inspirational is she for everyone and encouraging us not to stop: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29122376. I hope that my passion and engagement with ballet will not fade and I for one, believe that it will only intensify and trust that the various articles on the positive of effects of dance on the risk of developing Alzheimers and other brain-related illnesses are correct: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3551063.stm, I do not want to stop, apart from the pure enjoyment and how it positively effects my life for the better.

Northern Ballet: Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby has such an aura and relevancy at the moment with the much-anticipated Hollywood film and designers and fashionistas holding the pages to include the latest 1920s-inspired flapper styles of dropped waists and short hemlines and men in three-piece suits, looking extremely dashing. The Northern Ballet manage to create full-length narrative works on a pretty much annual basis, with limited resources. Recently the company were filmed as they let the British public behind the scenes to show the dire financial straits with budget cuts tightening and the prospect of scaling back what was already a small company, even further, by paying off dancers. Thankfully, due to a ‘Sponsor a Dancer’ campaign (www.northernballet.com/sponsoradancer), the company have been able to not just save the talented dancers that they have but actually increase their number as well as being accompanied by the Northern Symphonia, who were in fine form.

Northern Ballet come from the theatrical spectrum of ballet, telling the story is as paramount as technique of the dancers. The stories they tell have great, wide, sweeping vistas, taking some of the great romantic characters to the stage. A year ago, the company announced they would be developing the Great Gatsby as their new work, which felt very timely, the ballet should have been coming out in the wake of the hype for the film but ended up, with difficulties for the film, coming to stage first. Many people have read The Great Gatsby, probably at school, a lot of us have a residual memory of the shadowy character of Gatsby, finding that his wealth and obscure fame are not enough for him as he pines after his lost love, Daisy, who is now married to a man, both have little affection for each other. Tom Buchanan treats his wife, more as a possession or trophy, whilst he parties with his mistress, who is in turn, married to someone else.

The production commences with the narrator of piece and the conduit by which the story is told and in his perspective, Nick Carraway. Nick appears quite naïve against the sophisticated, aloof, Gatsby, whom we first see looking back on his first love, Daisy, as he leaves her to go off to war. Daisy is young, youthful and flirtatious and Gatsby thinks he has won her heart as she accepts his white rose, symbol of purity and first love, only for it to forgotten in the dust as Daisy is flirtatiously whisked off by a group of soldiers. Gatsby’s reverie ends as his gaze rests on the light on in Daisy’s house, she now inhabits with her aggressive and brutish husband.

The opening scenes set the scene for the main characters and their personalities but little else. It is not until the first scene at the Petrol Station that I felt the production came alive. Introduced to the young garage owner, George Wilson and what I first thought was his mistress because of the flirtatiousness of her character. Myrtle, is dressed in a gorgeous but quite innocent, peach dress. She teases her young husband, played on this occasion by Sebastian Loe. I found both these dancers fascinating to watch, Myrtle, the flirty feminine tease, driving the men in her life wild and yes, there are men, as she drives her husband wild to leave him and join her lover, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband.

The next scene is so imaginative in a ballet as George, left alone, dressed in dirty overalls and unsophisticated ways, dances with the props of his trade, a large tyre. This is the first glimpse of some really innovative and dynamic choreography and complex prop work as the strong dancer flies daringly through the tyre and over the top of it, turning the mundane, almost childlike sequence but with real, adult frustration and loneliness. The seething tension of this sequence demonstrates that this character may not have the sophistication or panache of the others but may be pivotal to the story.

Sets are sparse but designed to provide context whilst not overwhelming the audience as the costumes and music provide the real backdrop to the piece. The Northern Ballet have worked with a number of contemporary composers who are giants of modern classical composition, such as Les Miserables’ Claude Michel Schoenberg. For ‘Gatsby’, the late, great, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett provided the score. The programme notes provide testimony to the composer’s legacy, “those many people who remember Richard with admiration and affection will surely rejoice that so many aspects of his widespread compositional talents will be on display all round the country in the score of Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby”. The score was dazzling as it went from soaring orchestral works to percussion-heavy jazz tracks where a solo snare drum accompanied the dancers. I definitely feel that a score contributes probably as much to the success of a ballet as the choreography does as it helps to engage the brain with what is happening on the stage and certainly opens your heart the way the score to accompany the pas-de-deux did.

I adored the party scenes, the jazz track that accompanies a Charleston-infused corps-de-ballet sequence. The party takes place in the love-nest of Tom and Myrtle, surrounded by fashionable neighbours, they dance and sing. Yes, as well as performing a ballet-come-Charleston, en pointe, the very talented dancers also break into song, ballet dancers do have a voice! This dance goes from the very upright to the low, bending of the knees as the feet swish back and forward and in pointe shoes and men in suits, throwing their partners into the air and executing the classic moves of the period as well as the balletic moves that they are used to. For this, the dancers received extra training in this style that they were not previously competent at but from videos made for this production, they loved the joyousness of the movements that allowed them to be a little less controlled and free. There was an especially eye-catching dancer whose usually tamed, blond curly hair, into a neat ballet bun, was allowed to wear her hair free which underlined this production’s eye-catching attention to detail, to get the atmosphere of the period just right.

Myrtle flirtatiously moves around the part-goers and takes full advantage of being the centre of attention, dancing with both men and women and making sure that her glass is full. Tom’s dark nature bursts violently into the scene, as he takes hold of Myrtle, hits her in the face and she falls to the ground. Nick, who has been Tom and Myrtle’s guest, looks on in horror but, as the party disperses, she forgives Tom and the two dancers join their bodies together. This scene is mainly why this ballet was recommended for age 12+, although as dancers are fully clothed, it is tastefully done and is not pivotal to the production, except for showing Tom’s worst nature which makes you yearn for Gatsby and Daisy to get together. This may also be why, for a matinee, usually packed with children, was rather sparsely attended. Although, the company have not neglected a younger audience as they recently produced ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for Cbeebies, a ballet specially made for children.

For those of us that have read the Great Gatsby or melted at Robert Redford’s portrayal of the ‘boy-made-good, with a past’, the memory that stands out are the lavish and hedonistic parties organised by the mysterious host, standing aloof. Gatsby organised these lavish parties to gain access to the powerful and beautiful of the time. I like to believe that his motives were romantic, to win back his lost love, Daisy came from the upper echelons of society. Although it was also to buy influence and those that may look into his past and where his great wealth came from. A pivotal scene towards the start of the ballet sees men in black overcoats and hats, pass large amounts of cash in dark alleyways, between them, hooking the young Jimmy Gatz, later to become Jay Gatsby, in his pursuit of becoming upwardly mobile. Of course, one person with influence that was not likely to be easily bought off or dissuaded was the brutish husband of the woman that you are hoping to win back with your money and influence and Tom seizes every opportunity to bring him down.

The party scenes are probably what I’ll remember most about this production. Like that most balletic of ballets, Swan Lake, where the corps is as important as the lead dancers, so with most of the productions of the Northern Ballet, there are stars, yes, but this is a real ensemble company. Also with a smaller company, quite often dancers from the lower ranks will get more opportunities to dance solo and lead roles than at larger companies. The party scenes showed the versatility and talent of these dancers as they moved from Charleston through a Waltz to the Tango, all within the boundaries of classical ballet. There was so much to see that my eyes were flitting about the stage and my mental processes were getting such a workout that I was mesmerised and completely drawn into so many emotions that are danced by this most theatrical of ballet companies. David Nixon’s choreography allows strong gender roles, men are men and women are women. There are strong dancers throughout the company.

F Scott Fitzgerald portrayed the rich in his book as real party people and Gatsby’s parties as legendary. The second act opens to another of these parties where Gatsby engineers a secret meeting with Daisy as they gaze into the wall of mirrors that line the room. Mirrored there, the two characters see their past selves, the soldier going off to war and the young, immaturely dressed, girl in white and blue dress. The characters see echoes of what might have been as other dances mirror their movements, through the glass. The forlornness of lost love and this heart-rending pas-de-deux, gives the dancers the opportunity for us to really grieve for them and the lost years. My emotions were fully engaged and senses heightened as they are reunited and then move away as Daisy is thrust away to a second position, en pointe, which makes her look undecided between her new life and her past. From one set of lovers, Myrtle is pining for Daisy’s husband Tom whilst her youthfully naïve husband, is beginning to witness the cracks in his marriage barges into her reverie as he tries to win his wife back as he thrusts a suitcase at her and insists that they go away. He finds an expensive bracelet and his fears are realised that she is another man’s and he locks her up.

In the meantime, the other protagonists, Tom and Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan take their tense little party, to New York where the action takes a dramatic turn. Partners that are clearly meant for each other and are clearly attracted to each other, as Daisy and Gatsby get closer to each other. There are some death-defying but appropriate lifts, from the playful where she is tossed between Gatsby and Nick and the lifts as part of the pas-de-deux where the dancers express their love that would be in words, in the literature but in ballet, it is through open arms and romantic hands laid on top of each other and trust through lifts that show great strength and openness as the partners are fully engaged with each other. The two male leads even lift each other at one time, as Tom confronts Gatsby, basically questioning the root of his wealth. The various publicity shots, show Daisy, usually flying through the air,

My only criticism of the piece, would be, that the plot, at times, was over-convoluted or too many characters that it took me a while to know who they were. There are maybe too many characters with not enough time to define them. Also, the ending was very abrupt that it maybe didn’t provide the dramatic build-up or the emotional outlet that my engagement with the love story was yearning for. There had been so much to see throughout the performance, the frenetic party scenes that were immensely watchable to the intimate intertwining and spectacular lifts of the pas-de-deux/ tois and the obvious love and attraction that grows over the piece, is deadened, in a flash and the curtains come down quickly. There is no discovery of the true black-hearted villain of the piece but as the narrator, Nick, knows the truth, we can only hope past the final curtain of some justice. This has made me thirst for more and if it hadn’t been for a major family engagement, I would have went out to the Box Office to buy a ticket for the next performance.

The Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Nixon, has been mesmerising audiences for years with great literary and historical figures, such as Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Dracula and Cleopatra. The latest romantic hero, Gatsby, did not disappoint. Alongside David Nixon, is Co-Director, Patricia Doyle, who has collaborated on many of these works.  This work of literature and period of fashion is pretty much made for this company. The work is so theatrical and filmic, Hollywood will have a very hard act to follow, even the choreographically-aware Director, Baz Luhrmann will be challenged to come up with something quite so mesmerising and engaging. The dancers are just brilliant, their technique is effortless, I can only dream of being able to dance like that. With a challenge put in front of the new BBC Director General to return Arts to public broadcasting and with an arts TV channel such as BBC4 and with Sky Arts already offering ballet, I would like to see this company and companies such as the Scottish Ballet, feature more, especially as they are so theatrical and also would love to see on the big screen, although my hope is that Hollywood do not discover David Nixon and lure him away as he is such a major asset to ballet in this country, even though not a native of the UK, although one of his Premier Dancers, Kenneth Tindall, is commencing an exciting career in choreography. I will now wait with anticipation to see what the next work will be and when they will return.

http://www.danceeurope.net/gallery/the-great-gatsby-northern-ballet

http://northernballet.com/index.php?q=the-great-gatsby

An Interview with the Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Grand Opera House, Tuesday 12th to Saturday 16th March

Sleeping BeautyMatthew Bourne has been one of the most innovative choreographers in recent years and has sparked a new era of dramatic choreographic talent in the UK. Sleeping Beauty is the final chapter of a Petipa/ Tchaikovsky trilogy for Matthew Bourne, re-working Swan Lake and The Nutcracker previously. Coming from the world of contemporary dance and with a CV containing theatre, films and even pop music videos, you can imagine that this ballet was heavy on drama and spectacle and would not satisfy anyone expecting the classically danced fairy-tale with some of ballets greatest dances, the ‘Rose Adage’ or the ‘Lilac Fairy’, both commonly as the toughest dances in ballet.

The introduction to the story, is projected onto the curtain, telling us that the childless King and Queen, desperate for a child plead with the Black Fairy, Carabosse, who grants them their wish and soon we see a very life-like, puppet/ animated baby, running rings round the staff and at one point, scaling the lush gilt/ green curtains until they manage to catch the baby who squeals and hits and kicks until she is laid in her crib by the doting Mother. This was a genuinely funny moment and so well done, bravo to the puppeteers, whose skills are used much later in the production but it would spoil the surprise to tell you where!

The staging is mainly gloriously gothic, the Prologue begins in the year 1890, as Aurora the baby, right through until she reaches adult. The production transports us to 1911 and then as she falls asleep, she wakes up in 2011 with hoody-wearing gap-year students through to, as is projected boldly on the curtain with a peal of laughter from the audience, ‘Last Night’. The main device of this production that updates the ballet but keeps it within the long timeframe from 1890s through to modern day, is that the central role of the Lilac Fairy has been transformed into a male vampire with angel’s wings. Count Lilac as the role is renamed, fits with the gothic theme which is carried throughout the production, especially with the villainous characters who appear to be straight out of the pages of Bram Stoker, rather than twilight. Costumes and scenery reflect this period and are opulent and rich with great use of colours. This is amplified and seems somewhat suitable in a Frank Matcham theatre designed around the same time as this ballet was first choreographed by the master, Marius Petipa.

The first act sets the scene with Aurora as a mischievous baby, watched over by a full moon outside the window of her gilded crib. Creatures of the night move through the mist, propelled along by a travelator so that the dancers appear to float, adding to the sense of other-worldliness. These creatures are dressed in heavy-looking costumes with rich but muted colours of green and the King of this unearthly-looking bunch was dressed in a blue tunic with accents of purple to denote the ‘Lilac Fairy’ Aurora’s guardian angel. We do not usually conjure an impression of this role as a man with long, black hair pulled into a half pony-tail, black-banded eyes like a mask, complete with angelic wings. The baby shows no fear but only curiosity and gurgles and moves as they perform dances, in their own style to denote gifts of beauty/ grace/ passion and downright carefree precociousness that they bestow on Aurora. The role of the ‘Lilac Fairy’, is one of ballet’s most pivotal roles and it has been described as, “a dancer has to convey her majesty with absolute authority. Throughout the variation, the Lilac Fairy should project a sense of confidence with lyrical strength … lyrical dancing requires energy and attack — it’s not anaemic” and this is what we get from the dancer, played this evening by Christopher Marney.

As the fairies bestow their graces, the scene suddenly erupts and descends into the depths as the Black Fairy, who has been overlooked by the ungrateful parents, makes her presence felt in a burst of smoke and rumbling music as she ominously enters the scene flanked by man-beasts, writhing round the scene. The terrified parents and servants come to see what the commotion is. The Black Fairy, Carabosse, gives them a vision of how the baby Aurora, as a young woman, would be killed. Cleverly but somewhat terrifyingly, the grown-up Aurora with perfect body, has no facial features, a blank mask. Representing the curse, she will not live long enough to achieve her full beauty, her life will be snatched away at the point where she will flourish into womanhood, Count Lilac intervenes to mitigate the curse from death to sleep for 100 years and she will be awakened by her true lovers’ kiss. The form of her true love has a similarly featureless face but has the clothes of a young man who works with the land.

Carabosse is played by a male dancer, who is scarily tall and wears an eerily-red satin dress with black trimming and wig, her hench-men/ creatures are in black, feathery shorts, leaping around and onto pillars and bounding about the stage causing havo at Carabosse’s evil bidding. This is the first glimpse we have of the lead character, Aurora, albeit with blanked-out, featureless face. She is fearless dancer, with a body that is at sometimes rigid, as she is lifted above heads and at others, as lifeless as a rag-doll, she is manhandled as a pawn in the schemes of those who played a part in her creation. The choreography takes great courage but also a lot of finesse, going from tom-boyish frivolity to high romance, the work is characterised by so many different styles that it takes real skill to perform.

It is now 1911, Aurora is coming-of-age. Carabosse died in banishment and with it, most thought, the curse. Aurora is full of life and first love as she casts aside the trappings of her status with her boots and stockings and runs to the window. The head of a young man, dressed for his job of working outdoors. Aurora playfully hides him in her bedroom as he refuses to go back out the way he came in, by the window, and as her Nurse-maid and then Mother come in to try and tame Aurora, she hides him behind pillars and under the bed. Next we see an Edwardian pic-nic complete with all the family and guests dressed in whites for tennis and lounging about the lawn in the sunshine, care-free. The King and Queen look much like the Tsar and Tsarina as in Stephen Poliakov’s ‘Lost Prince’, the last time they were free before their assassination which is a nod to the original that was brought to the stage as the last Tsar was deposed in Revolutionary Russia. The style of this piece is very filmic with a lot of dancers on stage, waltzing round in a much more controlled manner than Aurora was wishing but she was pulled away by her parents-endorsed suitor whom again appeared to be to be a character from a film, Cecil from A Room with a View, this suitor was sedate and bookish, not at all the kind of person she would be tied to, her spirit is full of love and romance.

This sedate gathering is suddenly interrupted by an uninvited guest. Dressed in a cream suit with long black hair and a high-collared black shirt. In contrast to the insipid suitors Aurora is somewhat attracted but because of her sunny nature, she is ultimately repelled by him. The party is interrupted by that very British of intrusive guests, the rain, Aurora uses the distraction to disappear suddenly from the black-hearted son of Carabosse, Caradoc, and the guests break away. Aurora reappears alone and throws off the prim, sailor dress, exposing her undergarments but as befits the age, still very much covered with layers of slips and ruffles. She throws the dress on Leo’s, her childhood sweetheart’s, wheel-barrow as he is tending to the roses. She dances in a care-free way, she is also bare-foot. Leo comes back to get on with his work and is teased into a dance with Aurora.

I don’t have to tell anyone, how magical Tchaikovsky’s music is and the three ballets that Matthew Bourne has lovingly updated, all contain some of the world’s finest and most romantic music. Matthew Bourne uses a recording of a full orchestra and I do not feel short-changed by this as I would rather see ballet and gorgeous sets and costumes than not at all. As Leo and Aurora dance for the first time as a romantic couple, it is accompanied by a luscious cello producing painfully romantic music ever, the score is moving and heart-rending. The young couple flirt around each other and perform a series of heart-stopping lifts as the fearless Aurora launches herself into the strong grasp of Leo, toughened by years of manual labour.

Ashley Shaw plays the part of Aurora and as a dancer in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, she probably has a lot more dancing and much more of a transformation, realistically portraying the passing of years and the growth into her own person, even though there are many that want to control her. The wicked Caradoc plans for his banished Mother’s wicked scheme to come true and he replaces Leo’s red rose of love with a black rose to poison her flourishing life and to bring about the destruction of true love. The scene becomes chaotic as Aurora’s grasp on this world weakens. Caradoc has set Leo up to take the blame as guests reappear, he replaces the red rose in his wheel-barrow for the black one and then uses Aurora’s discarded dress as further evidence of his guilt. Count Lilac intervenes at this moment to act out that Aurora is sleeping and not dead and revealing Caradoc as the black-hearted villain, Caradoc is banished, like his mother. Count Lilac sweeps the lifeless form of Aurora away to the house as the family and family friends all fall asleep, the beautiful grounds, tended lovingly by Leo are choked with weeds, like their fledgling romance. Leo is heartbroken and throws himself in anguish before the gates, Count Lilac picks him up and reveals for the first time, that he is a vampire with a soul and turns Leo into one of his own so that he and his love can survive the 100 years of sleep to awaken his love with the truth of his own heart.

We are then transported 100 years forward, to a group gap-yearers, taking pictures of themselves in homage to the fairy-tale heroine, Aurora, whose tragic story had been preserved. Our eyes are then drawn to a green tent and out climbs Leo, who has obviously been at his post, outside the gates of Aurora’s gilded prison for those 100 years. Count Lilac transports Leo into a dream world where he is drawn along by a rose, representing Aurora. The bodies in this dream sequence are clad, the women in corset and bloomers and the men, bare-chested in long-johns. With Matthew Bourne’s ballets we expect dominant male roles and we are not disappointed but we also get beautiful female roles and dancers and the dancers transform themselves from chaste to vamps throughout the production. The dream sequence ends as Count Lilac leads Leo on a tortuous journey, or at least, although the simulated labouring steps fell somewhere short of comedic and not quite dramatic.

We see Caradoc’s hoodie-henchmen with skeleton-masked faces as the modern-day epitome of fear, following Leo. Count Lilac gives Leo the rose and the key to unlock the gates and leads him to Aurora where Leo awakens her with a kiss only to be beaten by these hooded skeletal hench-men so that the first person Aurora sees as she awakes is Caradoc. She is repulsed by him and will not willingly give him her love that he expects is his birth-right as his Mother was the wronged creator of this Princess. Caradoc/ Carabosse are both played by the scarily imposing, Adam Maskell, he is manly and frightening and if love wasn’t willingly given, he would take it. He is sexually powerful and the audience fears for Aurora at his hands, especially as he carries her off to his lair which turns into a representation of a S&M club, dancers, not in romantic red but lurid red, in-your-face sexual creatures, dancing round the hero, Leo, provocatively, using stockinged legs, complete with spiky heels. Into this den of iniquity comes the representation of virginity, Aurora, although the dress is skimpier and finished with feathery detail and heavily blackened eye make-up. She looks as if she has been possessed and she has by Caradoc who has kept her captive for a year and she eventually lies on a two-person chaise in a representation of a virgin sacrifice, giving herself over to Caradoc.

Caradoc reappears as pretty much, the Master of Evil, the Devil. Matthew Bourne makes ballet accessible but I would caution that this is not a child’s fairytale and the costume and setting of this scene is genuinely terrifying. Caradoc plans not just to take Aurora but to kill her. At the point where he is about to plunge the knife into her, Count Lilac and Leo intervene, killing Caradoc with his own knife, through the heart. Aurora finally returns to her true heart’s desire and they are united as one.

This is theatrical ballet at its best. Vampires are wonderfully popular at the moment and we’ve seen vampires for teenagers and vampires trying to be human in Barry Island, so why not in the world of ballet where stories are highly fantastical and other-worldly. Ballet does not always need to be cloistered within classicism, ballet lives and breathes in the modern world and is not confined as a dusty museum piece. It is great to see the most traditional of works, given a theatrical make-over with moments of high drama and amazing sets and costumes and a story that largely, works in the modern-age. I am a devotee of classical ballet and I like to see the purely classical works and companies such as the Royal Ballet, coming to City of Culture on the 30th and 31st March alongside the ballet theatre companies such as Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures or Northern Ballet, coming in May to the Grand Opera House with The Great Gatsby. What ‘ballet theatre’ lacks in pure technicality, makes up for in drama and acting out the dance. This Sleeping Beauty was told with the greatest of theatre and woke the story from its slumber, giving the ballet a very bright new future.

Trocks, Grand Opera House Belfast, 27th February 2013

We’re Men in Tights …

And Tutus and Pointe Shoes

But what we really are, is phenomenally talented dancers, completing some of the most astonishing ballet dancing ever seen.  Les Ballet Trockadero des Monte Carlo graced the stage of the Grand Opera House for a two-night run. This all-male company, playing dual roles of male and female also deliver comedy of the highest order.  The show commences with the ominous announcement of cast changes, “in the great Russian tradition”, a long string of names, some comically changed, especially the last “Miss NotNearlyGoodEnough” who had left the company to join the “Ballet Imperial de Strabane” with Strabane said in perfect ‘Norn Irn’.  This is cleverly done, in more ways than one, as it sets the tone for the evening with a wink to the local audience they were entertaining.

The company performed some of ballet’s most popular works, starting with ‘Swan Lake , Act II’, complete with White Swan, a Prince, white signets dancing the famous pas-de-quatre across the stage.  After an interval, this was followed by the ‘Black Swan pas-de-deux’ with the most famous sequence of steps in ballet.  A solo dancer then treated us with an interlude and the ‘Dying Swan’ (which is a separate work, made famous by Anna Pavlova which pretty much died out with her).  Then ‘Pas-de-Quatre’,  a gala work celebrating the most famous Russian dancers of the time and described as, “survives today as one of the most charming (and silly) evocations of Romantic Ballet in the 1840s”.  The final work used the entirety of this magnificent touring company, who number about twenty dancers, in a Bolshoi-inspired pastiche, ‘Walpurgis Night’, which was a Grecian-themed work based on fairies and nymphs, except the fairies were solidly-built men, some with chest hair springing out over their tutus and ludicrously overdone make-up.

The Trocks are an internationally renowned company, formed in New York, nearly forty years ago, at a time when one of ballet’s most famous Fathers, George Balanchine, was nearing the end of his time with the New York City Ballet.  The Trocks were probably a response to the serious romantic ideal that Balanchine was foremost advocate of, the perfectly-formed ballerina which sometimes meant dancers were not so much encouraged but expected to be stick thin. There is a popular story that  Balanchine would run his knuckles down a dancer’s sternum, and if he didn’t touch bone, she would never meet this ideal.  Balanchine was one of the last remnants of one of the founding companies, Ballets Russes.  The Trocks are steeped into the Russian traditions but are also able to sympathetically send up the more ridiculous traditions but ,as with all perfect farces,  the comic effect comes from their  being amazingly proficient in what they do.  The dancers come from some of the world’s top companies, mainly in America but also Cuba, Paris, Italy and the English National Ballet.

The Trocks’ dancing is like a mirror held up to ballet but from the other side.  There is no question that the dancing is mesmerising, especially as preconceptions suggest that men should not be able to dance in pointe shoes, lift male dancers who are obviously much bigger than they are, from a standing position to above their heads.   However, as excellent as the dancing was, the Trocks’ raison d’etre is to play ballet for comedic value, so the move would be executed perfectly and then the dancer would fall in a heap, or a spectacular leap would be executed that would result in a ‘swan dive’ ending with a face-plant into the floor and the unfortunate dancer having his feathers ruffled and letting his male partner know of his disgust. The full range of the heavily made-up faces are painted to accentuate the ridiculousness of these larger-than-normal-sized dancers;  and the more comedic the role, the more exaggerated the make-up.  The make-up is another star of the production as a visual enhancement for the production and its dancers.

The dancers in their corps work brilliantly; as we know equal star billing in Swan Lake goes to the corps and the elements are there but enhanced with strategically choreographed pratt-falls and dancers running into each other or turning in the wrong direction.  One of the funniest moments of the production was when  the character of Rothbart, the evil magician who’d turned the beautiful girls into trapped but equally beautiful swans, chases the not so delicate dancers round  a little bit too zealously so that they look pretty much scared for their life and lose the calm floatiness of the original production.  One of the dancers with a most memorable face, who played the production to perfection for laughs with a wide-eyed and mouthed expression, completed flips out of nowhere, pretty much from a standing start.  Swan Lake ended with the cast taking a bow, a bouquet is presented to the Prima Ballerina who eyes up the man who carries it on under the jealous eye of her leading man and, still in character, the closed curtain opens prematurely to reveal the dancers fighting with each other in a scene reminiscent of Black Swan or Gelsey Kirkland’s autobiography  where she details the problems between herself and Baryshnikov to do with the presenting of flowers and his status as the ‘Alpha Male’.

There are a lot of ballet references, but these does not detract from the evening being accessible for all, whether there for the first time, never having seen ballet before or a ballet regular.  Black Swan made a major impression on audiences and this popularised dance was next for the Trocks treatment and as this work started, it was always in the back of  our mind that a male dancer could not possibly execute the infamous 32 fouettes  – but I will not spoil the surprise, suffice to say, oxygen canisters were required.  The male dancer playing the Prince, Siegfried, was about the size and body mass of 12-year-old, performing the leaps and jumps around the stage but also lifting the much larger, heavier dancer above his head and who would wrap his leg around Siegfried’s head.  Black Swan was played pretty much straight with the White Swan occasionally interrupting the scene to be forcibly ejected in a parody of jealousy when the dancers let their more butch side out.

The next work ripe for a parody is the Dying Swan which is nothing to do with Swan Lake but was a short work choreographed for Prima Ballerina, Anna Pavlova.  The part was played by a dancer, not so much reminiscent of a dying swan, as a turkey twizzler that would have Jamie Oliver launching a new campaign.  This was a solo work and his knobbly knees find themselves heading into some very ugly positions before he dramatically realises and corrects his turn-out.  The dancer was eventually put out of his misery to find himself on the wrong side of the curtain and then losing his way.  The work had fantastic humour and it made me think about how we only really accept the perfect form in body and the lengths that dancers go to, to achieve this and then that there were some mesmerising male dancers, playing male roles that in any other company would not be given these lead roles because they were so tiny; but then they defied convention to lift their heavier, larger male dancers.

As another homage to Ballets Russes , their next ‘work’ was the fluffy, pink meringue that was ‘Pas-de-Quatre’.  Four Prima Ballerinas competing for supremacy with the obviously ‘senior’ dancer expecting obeisance as her junior dancers split themselves down the middle to bow to her.  The stand-out moment is the final scene with the dancers grouped in a final circle, only for one to find herself locked out and having to burst into the circle in a brilliant flying leap.

The last performance of the evening was a full company work with equal male and female roles.  There were Grecian god, statuesque lead characters dressed in gold and a pas-de-trois of female dancers that was actually beautifully executed that I forgot I was watching men dancing.  The corps were dressed either in fuscia-pink toga-style dresses or as nymphs, which were the male roles.  Another tiny member of the company played a sprite who created jumps and mischief wherever he went.  It must be massive fun for the dancers to turn the ballet world on its head but it must also be liberating to be able to take off the pointe shoes and dance as men as some get the chance to do, whilst the corps lie with their heads poking out from the wings,  as you see one enjoying herself too much and tucking into her prop of a bunch of grapes, more like an audience member.  This last work is a feast for the eyes, there is a lot of colour and so many lifts and twirls and jumping that it is a fitting piece to end on.

However, they had one last major surprise for the audience which has us rising to our feet in the ultimate mark of respect, as after taking their bows for the amazing show that they had just performed, the River Dance music kicked in and the whole company performed a perfect Irish dance in pointe shoes with legs flinging towards the sky and feet bouncing off the floor and all in perfect timing and  then  the line splits round the sides to meet in the middle and then advance to the front of the stage.  This just blew the whole of the Grand Opera House away – and don’t forget, this was largely a seasoned ballet audience, who have seen many productions over the years.  I, for one, was as entertained as the person beside me who was an absolute ballet novice.

The Trocks certainly fulfilled their mission statement and original purpose, “to bring the pleasure of dance to the widest possible audience “ for these two nights in Belfast.  It has been about ten years since they last graced these shores and I, for one will be begging for their return.

But, in the meantime, it will be back to the serious business of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty from the 12th – 16th March, although there is nothing particularly conventional about Matthew Bourne either,  as he adds the contemporary touch of vampires to his production.  The Trocks, far from making me see the flaws in ballet and ballet dancers as slightly ridiculous,  has made me so much more impressed by how fantastically talented ballet dancers are and how they do not have any limits to their talents.  The Trocks could have films made about them and their story should be told loud and clear and every time we get a bit too serious about the art form, I will think about this night.