Posts Tagged ‘Barry Wordsworth’

Royal Ballet Triple: Scènes de Ballet/ Voluntaries/ The Rite of Spring, Covent Garden, May 2011

29 May, 2011

The three works in this mixed bill fit beautifully together.

The ensemble of twelve from Scènes de Ballet, photo Dee Conway

Scènes de Ballet is a wonderful work by Frederick Ashton to a piece Stravinsky composed in 1944 for a Ziegfeld review. The stylised brilliance of Ashton’s choreography, with its unexpected poses and épaulement, suits the sharp elegance of music, evoking an era wiped out by the Second World War. The glorious geometric precision, with the twelve girls of the ensemble forming varying patterns occasionally split apart by the four male soloists, like four seasons dividing the twelve months in a year, is a delight. As the curtain rises, the principal male dancer is centre stage surrounded by the male soloists. The female ensemble enters, followed later by the female principal who dances with all five of the men. The idiosyncratic choreography, matching the interesting irregularities of Stravinsky’s score, is a treat.

The four soloists were excellent on both occasions, with the principal couples being Lauren Cuthbertson with Sergei Polunin in the matinée, and Sarah Lamb with Valeri Hristov in the evening. The irregular rhythms make this a difficult piece for the dancers — you really have to feel the music — and in the evening performance Sarah Lamb did so with enormous fluidity and sparkle. The female principal is the star of the show, and she brought the whole ballet to life. Although the dancing was wonderful, the orchestra in this first item sounded a bit ragged under the direction of Barry Wordsworth, though they were far better in the other Stravinsky piece —The Rite of Spring — later in the show.

Sarah Lamb in Voluntaries/ photo Bill Cooper

The second item, Voluntaries was created by Glen Tetley in late 1973 for the Stuttgart ballet. He made it as a memorial to their artistic director John Cranko, following his recent early death, and set it to Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani. The organ music drives the whole work and was played with huge freshness and vitality by Thomas Trotter — well done to the Royal Ballet for engaging him. In Tetley’s wonderful choreography the principal couple is supported by one female and two male soloists, along with an ensemble of six couples.

The matinée was well danced by Leanne Benjamin and Nehemiah Kish, with Sarah Lamb, Ryoichi Hirano and Valeri Hristov, but it was the evening when this ballet really came to life. The huge size difference between Benjamin and Kish, which seemed to cause difficulty in one pas-de-deux, disappeared in the evening with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather, along with Cuthbertson, Hristov and Polunin as the soloists. The ensemble remained the same, but there was no comparison between the afternoon and evening performances. The evening exhibited far more joy and energy, and Nuñez and Pennefather were superb together.

Rite of Spring

As the last item, Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring is a wonderful work, always fresh, and it was superbly performed. The orchestra and dancers produce enormous rhythmic energy, their ritualistic movements announcing the onset of Spring. As night falls, the Chosen One emerges. This sacrificial victim can be male or female in MacMillan’s choreography, and here it was Steven McRae in the afternoon, and Edward Watson in the evening. Both were excellent, and I find Watson to be extraordinary in his portrayal of this role. More than any other member of the company he seems exceptional at being a victim — I’m reminded of his role in The Judas Tree — and his movements made me think of a victim facing his own sacrifice energised by drugs, yet still exhibiting fear at the prospect. There was terror in his eyes and huge emotion in his dancing — a riveting performance!

This wonderful triple bill continues until June 11, but there are only four more performances — for details click here.

Ballo della Regina/ Live Fire Exercise/ DGV:Danse à Grande Vitesse, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, May 2011

14 May, 2011

This triple bill made for a rather fragmented evening, because the first two pieces took only 36 minutes between them, while the two intervals lasted half an hour each.

DGV, Royal Ballet photo by Johan Persson

But it was all worth it because the final item, Christopher Wheeldon’s Danse à Grande Vitesse, was wonderfully invigorating and performed with great energy. A clear stage seems to roll up at the rear into twisted metal sheets, though these are not quite what they seem when light later bleeds through. Wonderful designs by Jean-Marc Puissant, and beautifully lit by Jennifer Tipton, with subtle changes of hue. The lighting yields a very clear view of the principal dancers on the front stage while giving a more subdued feel to those who appear behind, and this is all part of the choreographic effect. The dancing was marvellous, the four principal couples being Zenaida Yanowsky with Eric Underwood, Leanne Benjamin with Steven McRae, Melissa Hamilton with Gary Avis, and Sarah Lamb with Federico Bonelli. All eight danced superbly, as did the dancers in the corps, and I thought Hamilton and Avis particularly stood out, though that was partly the choreography. The music by Michael Nyman was conducted with energetic precision by Daniel Capps, who did a very fine job of uniting music and dance.

Capps also conducted the first item, Ballo Della Regina (The Queen’s Ball) giving it a suitably regal tone while maintaining just the right rhythm for dance. It’s a Balanchine work set to music that was cut from Verdi’s opera Don Carlo, and involves a sequence of variations, first with twelve girls in blue, then two principals in white, joined by four soloists in violet. The principals, Marianela Nuñez and Sergei Polunin, danced exquisitely, well supported by Yuhui Choe, Emma-Jane Maguire, Samantha Raine, and Akane Takada as the soloists, and the other twelve girls from the corps. Watching this was a real pleasure, and I look forward to the Company doing it again.

Federico Bonelli in Live Fire Exercise, photo by Bill Cooper

After this short ballet was over we had to wait nearly twice as long again for the second item, Wayne McGregor’s new work Live Fire Exercise. This looked rather intriguing at first, with small trucks and other heavy vehicles moving noiselessly in a window at the back of the stage. Then six silhouettes walk on and there is a silent explosion creating a plume of fire. The images by John Gerrard are wonderful and it was only after the fireball that I realised they were projected onto a screen in 3-D. The surroundings on the screen slowly rotate and the images move forward, becoming larger. It was fascinating, but seriously distracted from the dance going on at the same time. This distraction is a feature of some of McGregor’s other ballets, such as Infra and Limen, and I wonder why he does it. Perhaps he feels the choreography is not sufficiently interesting to fill out twenty minutes, but the images were, and I liked the plume of fire turning to smoke as night falls, and it all seemed to become more focused as the light showed up the dancers. Eventually dawn arrives, the vehicles leave, the silhouettes reappear and suddenly scatter. The music is the Corelli Fantasia by Michael Tippett, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. It’s lovely music, with a strong pastoral feel towards the end, though the whole thing never really came alive despite the terrific dancing.

The high standard of dancing in this triple bill is a great credit to the Company, and I admire the fact that they put on a new ballet and two others that are not standard repertory, but the intervals were enervating, and the hour and twenty minutes between the end of the first work and the start of the last — three quarters of it interval — would have been a good time for dinner.

Performances continue until May 25 — for more details click here.

Rhapsody, Sensorium, and Still Life at the Penguin Café, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, March 2011

17 March, 2011

Why were there empty seats? This is a wonderful Triple Bill, and the Royal Ballet gave a glorious performance, yet on the Grand Tier four boxes in a row were empty. All paid for no doubt, but unused for some of the finest dancing the Company can produce.

Steven McRae in Rhapsody, photo by Tristram Kenton

The evening started with Rhapsody to Rachmaninov’s well-known Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a delightful ballet created by Frederick Ashton in 1980. He made it for Baryshnikov in the lead role, and the quick darting steps for the leading man were brilliantly executed here by Steven McRae — his pirouettes with jumps were terrific. Yet McRae was not alone in his fabulous performance, but beautifully partnered by Alina Cojocaru, who danced with consummate musicality. Barry Wordsworth in the orchestra pit breathed life into Rachmaninov’s music, particularly during the big pas-de-deux, and the whole cast responded with warmth. This was a super performance, and although Ms. Cojocaru got only a relatively small bouquet in the curtain calls, she and McRae received enormous applause, and fully deserved it.

Benjamin and Whitehead in Sensorium, photo by Johan Persson

Following this was Sensorium, a ballet by Alastair Marriott, first performed in May 2009. The music is Debussy, from his Preludes, and the way it captures light and shade is beautifully assisted by Adam Wiltshire’s simple designs along with lighting by John Read showing subtle changes of intensity and colour. The principal couples were Marianela Nuñez with Rupert Pennefather, and Leanne Benjamin with Thomas Whitehead, and they and the other ten supporting dancers gave a wonderfully controlled performance. The choreography doesn’t flow and excite in the way that Rhapsody does, but as the middle item in the programme it was just right before leading in to the exciting romp of Penguin Café.

Its title may say Still Life, but this extraordinary work by David Bintley is nothing if not full of movement, eloquently expressing the life and energy of animals who are being left behind in a changing world. Emma Maguire was charming in the first movement as the Great Auk, a type of penguin that became extinct in the nineteenth century, and Zenaida Yanowsky was in sparkling form in the second movement as the Utah Longhorn Ram, excellently partnered by Gary Avis. These largish animals are followed by the Texan Kangaroo Rat, danced with wonderful fluidity by James Hay, and then come the dancing fleas, with Iohna Loots dancing brightly as the skunk flea in orange. After that comes the large Southern Cape Zebra with his bevy of charming ladies, and Edward Watson portrayed him with great stage presence.

Steven McRae as the Monkey, photo by Tristram Kenton

Towards the end, Steven McRae burst in as the Brazilian Woolly Monkey, dancing up a storm with fabulous jumps and fluid movements. It’s a glorious ballet to watch, and the music by Stephen Jeffes is an eclectic mix of Charleston, ballroom, jazz, folk and Latin American, superbly conducted by Paul Murphy. I particularly loved the huge bounce he gave to the movement with the fleas, but it was all enormous fun.

This is a Triple Bill not to be missed. The company is doing an extraordinary job in putting on these evenings with three ballets, and the idea that there are empty seats in well-appointed boxes is appalling. There are five more performances, finishing on March 28 — for more details click here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, February 2011

1 March, 2011

When the performers came on at the end, even the trees took a bow. It was that sort of evening, when the whole cast did a superb job, and the audience loved them all. And why not indeed? This was the world premiere of a brand new full-length ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to specially commissioned music by Joby Talbot, and the audience roared their approval.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice and Sergei Polunin as Jack, photos by Johan Persson

Lewis Carroll’s original story is a wonderfully unusual and creative tale, hard to put on stage as a ballet because it’s impossible to reproduce Carroll’s clever word play. But this ballet matched its creativity, and the music matched the choreography. The scenario by Nicholas Wright was very effective, the lighting design by Natasha Katz was magical, and the video projections were glorious. I loved the fluttering leaves towards the end, and the tumble down the rabbit hole early in Act I gave me a sudden sense of vertigo.

Alice trapped by being too large

But what of the dancing? Lauren Cuthbertson was a remarkable Alice — how on earth did she keep going in Act I when she’s on stage virtually all the time? Amazing! Sergei Polunin was a star as her beloved Jack, the gardener’s son, and as his alter ego the Knave of Hearts. Steven McRae was fantastic as the Mad Hatter — his tap dancing was brilliant, and I loved his costume in pink and green. In fact the costumes and designs by Bob Crowley were a delight. I liked the nineteenth century outfits at the start, as if we were in A Month in the Country, followed by modern clothes at the end. That might seem odd, since Alice is simply waking from a dream and the costumes should be the same when she awakes, but somehow it worked. And in between — in Wonderland — the costumes were immensely colourful.

Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts

So many vignettes from the original story were included, one cannot mention them all, but Simon Russell Beale as the Duchess in the ‘Pig and Pepper’ chapter was a revelation. I had no idea he was so musical. Eric Underwood was a wonderful caterpillar, and Edward Watson was very fine in his two roles, as Lewis Carroll and the White Rabbit. But if one had to pick one performer, apart from Lauren Cuthbertson, it was Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts. She was also the mother in the ‘prologue’, ejecting Alice’s beloved Jack from the garden party because she thought he stole a tart — then in Wonderland she becomes the imperious Queen of Hearts. Her spoof on the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty was worth the whole show, and Yanowsky played it with superb comic timing.

In case it sounds as if I was overwhelmed with appreciation, here are a couple of quibbles. I thought Act I had moments where things didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the choreography was dull, though Act II carried on at a frenetic pace. And while Joby Talbot’s music suited the choreography very well, with wonderful uses of the percussion section, and Barry Wordsworth got the orchestra to play it eloquently, I felt a lack of tension. But these are relatively minor quibbles, and if we compare this new full-length ballet to the new full-length opera Anna Nicole that premiered from the Royal Opera House less than two weeks ago, the ballet is far more creative.

See it during its first run if you can, though I’m sure it will be revived in a year or two’s time. This is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, whose first performance in Toronto is on June 4. Performances by the Royal Ballet continue until March 15 — for more details click here.

La Valse/ Invitus Invitam/ Winter Dreams/ Theme and Variations, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, October 2010

16 October, 2010

The high point of this lovely mixed bill was Theme and Variations, created by Balanchine in 1947 for Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. The following year Ms. Alonso founded the Cuban National Ballet, and now at almost 90 years old did us the honour of attending, and appearing on stage at the end flanked by Monica Mason and Carlos Acosta. More on him later when we come to Winter Dreams, but in the meantime, what wonderful dancing from Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Theme and Variations. Their main pas-de-deux was flawlessly executed, and Polunin’s solo, involving a double tour-en-l’air followed by a pirouette — repeated perfectly time after time in perfect harmony with the music — elicited cheers from the audience. This was a wonderful show of classical dance, and indeed Balanchine intended this ballet: “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music.” The dancing from the entire cast was excellent, and it’s only a shame that the music — the final movement of the Suite No. 3 for Orchestra (opus 55) — was unevenly conducted by Barry Wordsworth. It was lifeless at the beginning but too loud when the trombones all roared into action, though it settled down later.

The first item — Ashton’s choreography for Ravel’s La Valse — was beautifully performed by the company. The music was completed in 1920, encouraged by a commission from Diaghilev, who then rejected it as “untheatrical” and not a ballet but “a portrait of ballet”. Since then it has been choreographed many times, most notably by Balanchine in 1951, and Ashton in 1958. Ravel envisaged La Valse as set at the imperial court of Vienna in 1855, and saw it as “a choreographic poem … a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz … the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel.” The waltz themes in the music are subject to unexpected modulations and instrumentation, but the conducting did not quite bring out the macabre quality of Ravel’s creation, though the dancing was, as I said, excellent.

Winter Dreams with Acosta and Nuñez, photos by Johan Persson

 

Winter Dreams, to music of Tchaikovsky arranged by Philip Gammon, was beautifully performed by Gammon himself at the piano, along with a small band at the rear of the stage, playing traditional Russian music, and including traditional Russian instruments. This ballet by Kenneth MacMillan is a distillation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but its genesis was a pas-de-deux for a gala celebrating the ninetieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1990. After he’d created it MacMillan said, “When I saw it, I realised that this was the farewell between Masha and Vershinin from Three Sisters, and I had to go on and make Winter Dreams”, which he did in 1991. The central pas-de-deux was superbly performed by Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta as Masha and Vershinin, and Masha’s husband was wonderfully portrayed by Jonathan Cope. The other two sisters were beautifully danced by Mara Galeazzi as Olga, and Laura Morera as Irina, and the whole cast performed with elegance and emotion. The ballet is not a rendition of Chekhov’s play, but recreates its melancholy and atmosphere of quiet despair.

Invitus Invitam with Benjamin and Watson

The new item on this mixed bill was Invitus Invitam by Kim Brandstrup, a ballet inspired by the relationship between the Roman emperor Titus, and Berenice, queen in the Roman province of Judaea. Racine created a play Berenice on the story of their ill-fated love. When Titus’s father Vespasian died it seemed he would be free to marry Berenice, but public opinion was against marriage with a foreign queen, and Titus chose duty to Rome over his love for Berenice. The ballet involves three meetings between them. In the first she senses something is amiss, in the second she knows it but resists it, and in the third they meet for the last time before parting forever. The title comes from a single sentence in Suetonius where he says that Titus, who passionately loved Berenice and intended to marry her, let her go invitus invitam (against his will, against her will). Berenice and Titus were danced with subtlety and restrained emotion by Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, and this was a fine sequel to the unworldly quality of La Valse. The setting by Richard Hudson, with clever lighting by Lucy Carter, involved lines, circles and spirals appearing on a vast blackboard, with rulings like a piece of graph paper, showing mathematical constructions of angles. This created an atmosphere of calculation and inevitability, and later morphed into brick walls from the Royal Opera House’s Rigoletto set. On the other hand the presence of two people with notes, who seemed to be preparing the scene, suggested that things might always have gone differently, but that is life. It always seems more inevitable in hindsight. Music was by Thomas Adès after Francois Couperin.

That the Royal Ballet could put on these four works in one evening, and do them all to perfection, is a testament to the strength of this company. A single ticket buys an eclectic evening’s entertainment, and further performances will take place on October 18, 22, 28 and 30 — for more details click here.

Onegin, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, October 2010

8 October, 2010

This was a second view of John Cranko’s wonderful ballet during the present run, this time with an entirely different cast of principals: Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera as Onegin and Tatiana, Sergei Polunin and Melissa Hamilton as Lensky and Olga, and Gary Avis as Prince Gremin. For my previous review of the first night cast of Kobborg/ Cojacaru/ McRae/ Takada/ Gartside click here. Both casts were terrific — each in its own way unbeatable — but I’ll avoid comparisons and simply report on the present one.

At the beginning of Act I, Melissa Hamilton as Olga moved with wonderful grace, and she and Polunin seemed made for one another. Their joyful dancing together made Onegin’s attempt to break them apart all the more poignant, and Bonelli’s superb aloofness and disdain in the role of Onegin showed there was no question of his flirting with Olga just to teach Lensky how shallow she is. No, this was a devilish trick by a bored young man. His tearing up of Tatiana’s letter was a masterpiece of cool rudeness, and his pirouettes before the duel showed furious emotion.

Laura Morera as Tatiana showed great emotional sincerity, and her beautiful movements in the dream pas-de-deux of Act I made an enchanting impression, sadly spoiled by one audience member whose repeated emotional outbursts had nothing to do with the dancing. Fortunately there was nothing to spoil her final pas-de-deux with Onegin before she throws him out of her dressing room. Add to that a wonderful pas-de-deux at the ball with Gary Avis, and you have a remarkable performance of Tatiana’s role. Avis showed superb stage presence, as ever, and made an unbeatable Prince Gremin. His charming re-introduction of Onegin and Tatiana in Act III, before he sweeps her out of the room, was a masterpiece of skilful timing and savoir faire. The whole performance was excellent, but the main accolades must go to Bonelli and Morera who played their roles with consummate technique and musicality.

The music by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, based on Tchaikovsky, was well played by the orchestra under the baton of Barry Wordsworth, and five further performances are scheduled for October 9, 12, 13, 20, 25.

La Fille mal gardée, Cojocaru and McRae, Royal Ballet, March 2010

19 March, 2010

It’s always a pleasure to watch this delightful Ashton ballet to music of Hérold, radically reshaped by John Lanchbery. Now in its fiftieth anniversary year, the original designs by Osbert Lancaster look perennially fresh, and Ashton’s choreography is a delight, with its clever use of satin ribbons and kerchiefs.

William Tuckett as Widow Simone, photo by Tristram Kenton

The performance on March 18 was due to be danced by Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg as Lisa and Colas, but Steven McRae made his debut as Colas, taking over from the injured Kobborg. He did a superb job as Lisa’s lover, cheekily interfering with her nuptial arrangements to the moronic Alain, whose only claim to her attention is his father’s money and vineyards. McRae danced with precision and snap, and being still such a young member of the company he fitted the part perfectly. His partnering of Alina Cojocaru worked wonderfully well, and they seemed to have excellent chemistry together. She was fresh and saucy but without ever going too far, and the relationship with her mother, Widow Simone showed ample sympathy on both sides. William Tuckett was simply excellent as the Widow, never overstepping the mark into slapstick, yet always accidentally witty, particularly in the clog dance. Add to this a wonderful performance by Jose Martin as Alain, and you have a first rate set of principals, well aided by a very fine supporting cast. Everyone seemed to be having fun, as did the orchestra, under the baton of Barry Wordsworth, particularly the piccolo and tuba players.

If you missed this performance, McRae should be dancing the role of Colas again on March 27 and April 26, partnered by Roberta Marquez, and Cojocaru is due to dance Lisa again on the evenings of March 18, 26, and the matinée of April 3, partnered by Johan Kobborg if he’s recovered from his injury. If not, then you will probably get Cojocaru and McRae again, a real treat.