‘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.

 

Royal Ballet’s Thoroughly Modern Triple Bill: Resident Choreography Team

I am a self-confessed classical-ballet nut, the programming on offer when I made another jaunt over to London, was a thoroughly modern, triple bill from the Royal Ballet’s in-house choreography team, which has just been widened to include Liam Scarlett as ‘Artist-in-Residence’.  His was to be the first work on the bill.  Scarlett recently stepped down from his career as a dancer, you may have recently spotted him in Swan Lake.  As to what, ‘Artist-in-Residence’ is but I would honestly have to answer with, what is the role and what does it is?  Is it solely a choreography role, is it just the Royal Ballet or will the Opera have a similar position or to Costume/ Set Design and for a certain tenure? 

 

Liam Scarlett carries with him an exciting reputation and is still only in his 20’s and looks as fresh-faced as his years.  Tonight’s Scarlett was one that was originally made for Miami City Ballet but was the first showing on the Covent Garden stage with the Royal Ballet dancers.  Viscera is an abstract work, which is an interesting concept for a work of dance which is a very expressive and outward-looking medium but this conjures up feelings of introspection and it is interesting to see how this could be brought out to the audience.  Scarlett does not seem to take the easy route but works with some difficult subject matter, Victorian prostitute murder involving establishment figures to taking internal emotions ruling the entire body.  Costumes were also designed by Scarlett and the leotards worn by the women were a lot more effective than the onesie-type, rather dour looking costumes worn by the men.  The backdrop was sparse with focus on the dancers bodies dressed in rich colours that reflected the mood of the ballet.  Even though this work is brand new, it had a distinctly classical feel which is reflected right to the end of their toes where the women danced en pointe.  There were no edges to the ballet with lovely expressive arms and smooth, romantic flow.  The partnerships were complimentary rather than being antagonistic to each other.  This ballet was made up of four dances, a four, a five, a five with some beautiful pas-de-deux, through the middle.

 

There were plenty of exciting lifts, the women sailing through the air with the partnership showing the full strength of the male dancers.  This was an awesome sight (in the correct meaning of the term).  The partnerships were amazing and the leading ladies were perfectly supported.  The greatest testimony to my appreciation of this ballet and the choreography, I felt that it ended too early and was just beginning to get into the atmosphere of the ballet as it finished.  The work was set to a Piano Concerto by American composer, Lowell Lieberman with the solo pianist making full use of the instrument with runs up and down the keyboard to give the dance its’ lyrical feeling but with light and shade and different rhythms to keep the audience transfixed.

 

It will be interesting to see where Liam Scarlett’s career goes now.  He is already an established name in the ballet world and the fact that he is a home-grown talent makes it so much more exciting to see his career develop.  His works have been so well-received and up to now, have been choreographed in conjunction with his dancing career.  This will give him the freedom to concentrate on his own works and working alongside two other leading choreographers, instead of in the shadow of the legends of the Royal Ballet, Ashton and MacMillan, has experienced choreographers working as part of the team, Christopher Wheeldon having a similar experience, although with a pretty fabulous International reputation for one towards the start of his career with the Bolshoi on his CV.  The triumvirate is completed with the thoroughly modern and innovative choreographer, Wayne McGregor who uses a moves away from the classical form and pushes the dancers into incredible forms that challenges the dancers and audiences alike.  It should be a fertile time for choreography, as with the Royal Ballet’s resources have probably not created as many new roles or full-length narrative ballets as they possibly should.  Especially when companies throughout Britain that do not have the resources of the Royal Ballet, such as the Northern and Scottish Ballet companies, produce thrilling full-length ballets, seemingly on an annual basis, it is about time that the Royal Ballet use their resources to again get back to where they were when, say, Kenneth MacMillan was producing works for them.  As Luke Jennings, in his review commented and I have mentioned previously myself, the new works that have been produced, to this point, have been choreographed by males.  It is easy for women to dominate as dancers but at senior level, management and choreographically, men dominate and a small issue is where is the place is for women creatives?  However, it is telling that the National Dance Awards have recognised the all-female creative team behind Scottish Ballet’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, which is a phenomenal work that I believe will be in the SB’s repertoire for years to come.

 

Getting back to the triple, the second work was from a choreographer who came through from a modern dance background to astound the, perhaps what people may see, as the staid atmosphere of the Royal Opera House.  Infra was his first work with the Royal Ballet but has been programmed on a number of occasions and changes depending on the dancers that Wayne McGregor works with and evolves with the times.  I sometimes refer to Wayne McGregor’s works when I’m feeling a little facetious as the big pants/ no shoes ballets.  The works did not require massive staging and sets were sparse from changing the lighting or the backdrop to Wayne McGregor’s strip of black and white lighting on a long strip, like a raised platform with figures in black and white, like commuters rushing to catch something and perhaps missing the lonely soul going in the opposite direction who doesn’t have their lives quite so on track.  This presented, to me, a feeling of loneliness with a solitary figure drifting along whilst others rushed about with purpose.  I felt this was a little distracting and the accompanying sounds did more to sum up the atmosphere.  I have seen other works where Wayne McGregor uses blocks of light or colours, much more effectively but then, it may have made the evening’s programme, much too much the same and the theme of the ballet was monotone or pale colours that merged into the background.  The ballet conjured a feeling that the dancers were reflecting the struggles of relationships that go on behind what you may see on the surface as people rush about with a seeming purpose. 

 

The choreography varies as you would presume, the dancers place their bodies and feet at jagged angles, dancers’ bodies entwined portraying relationship struggles.  Wayne McGregor’s choreography puts the dancers into much more overt positions that you are in no doubt in what part of the relationship, the dancers are in.  I would like to see much more of Wayne McGregor’s choreography and to see what he has done recently, to form an opinion of whether he is a great choreographer or just doesn’t suit what I see as ballet or was an enfent terrible that the ballet world latched onto to shake it out of it’s slumber.  How will this choreography team, working with the same group of dancers, move the company and the art-form along. 

 

The final act was to be from Christopher Wheeldon whose success has been on an upward trajectory although critics have had small reservations, on the whole, about Alice in Wonderland which was well received but tempered with a little criticism that it may have lacked punch but then the story of Alice is itself, abstract.  Fool’s Paradise is fully abstract and is a luscious work, bathed in gold and with gold leaf falling from the ceiling.  The ballet transports you away from the real world to these ethereal characters doing wonderful things in harmony.  What I particularly loved about this was that the men came out first, fully confident in their dancing and in their maleness which was a heady combination when the women joined them and they toyed with her, showing off their moves and wooing her with the charms of their dancing and especially, their strength.  The advantage of modern choreography is that men are equal partners to the ladies rather than being coat-hangers for the women or the brute force blandness to their loveliness.  An evening such as this evening, should be a showcase to younger boys who may have the wrong preconceptions about ballet dancers, especially in this country and I know that the choreography of modern companies such as the Ballet Boyz are definitely aimed at redressing this.  This was a fine way to end this evening of modern choreography and definitely shows that claims that ballet is dead are thoroughly egregious.  Fool’s Paradise is luscious from a choreographer that is in full command of his dancers and the work as a whole.  As I may have said before, Fool’s Paradise was scored by Joby Talbot, formerly of my favourite band, The Divine Comedy, whom I had the pleasure of seeing at Royal Festival Hall the previous evening and Joby’s career as one of Britain’s top composers was seriously taking off as he left the band but never did I think we would both end up here.  The score was on the grand and luscious side and much more romantic than I was expecting but then that is what comes from the composer and choreographer working in development of the ballet together.  This was not a work that was scored once the ballet was finished but Joby Talbot works closely in collaboration with Christopher Wheeldon on the music to his ballets and Joby Talbot is fast becoming the Tchaikovsky of the modern ballet era.  Piano features heavily in Joby’s works and the full range of the keyboard was employed as well as the sparsest of notes, to the greatest of effects.  Although I would have thought I was pretty much an expert on Joby’s music I was thoroughly blown away by his scoring to Fool’s Paradise and I was very happy to sit back and drink in the gorgeousness of this work and am very much looking forward to being around at the same time as such fabulous choreographers and their residency at the Royal Ballet, to write what I think will be a very fertile chapter of Royal Ballet history.  However with Tony Hall’s recent departure to the BBC, it will be interesting to see who will take over ultimate control of the Covent Garden stage and in what direction they will take the Royal Opera House in these times of Arts cuts and austerity.