Posts Tagged ‘Kaija Saariaho’

Royal Ballet Triple: Limen, Marguerite and Armand, Requiem, Covent Garden, October 2011

9 October, 2011

Having seen Limen two years ago, my main memory was of blue number lights at the rear of the stage in a confusing on-again-off-again pattern, along with dancers barely visible in a half-light, but that is only in the second part. The first half is better, and I like Kaija Saariaho’s music, I love the use of bright colours in Lucy Carter’s lighting, and I rather like the video projections of liquid crystal numbers floating in a blue background at the start. Wayne McGregor’s choreography was brilliantly executed by Steven McRae and a first rate cast, but the last part in half light is dull, overshadowed by the bright blue lights at the rear, and I was glad of the interval before the main two items of the evening.

Rojo and Polunin, photo Tristram Kenton

Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand is a beautiful ballet based on Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, with designs by Cecil Beaton. He wrote it for Fonteyn, partnered by Nureyev, who was almost twenty years her junior, and it was performed here by Tamara Rojo with the 21-year old Sergei Polunin. Her dancing, reminiscent of Fonteyn herself, showed huge emotional commitment, and her pain is palpable as he throws her aside in anger. Hers is a characterisation of the role it will be hard to beat. Polunin’s stage presence and physicality were wonderful, and the rest of the cast gave fine support, with Gary Avis as a most engaging Duke, like a lightly bearded version of Bruce Forsythe, and Christopher Saunders as a very solid father. When Ashton originally wanted to create this piece the right music evaded him until he heard Liszt’s piano sonata in B minor on the radio in 1962, and the ballet followed the next year to an orchestrated version of the sonata. In this performance Barry Wordsworth conducted the orchestra, but with Robert Clarke sounding overly sententious on the piano the music failed to match the heights of emotion reached by the dancers.

Leanne Benjamin in Requiem, photo Johan Persson

Finally in Requiem, to Fauré’s music, the emotion of the dancers is more restrained but very much the essence of the piece. Kenneth MacMillan created this ballet as a tribute to another wonderful British choreographer, John Cranko of the Stuttgart Ballet. The board of governors of the Royal Opera House originally turned down the idea of creating a ballet to Fauré’s sacred music, but MacMillan turned to the Stuttgart Ballet itself, which performed it as a memorial to the loss of their inspiring leader. The dancers exhibit collective grief, and the evening cast was wonderful together, with Carlos Acosta exhibiting enormous physical presence, and Leanne Benjamin riding high above the company as they carried her. These are dancers whose very presence is a tribute to dance, and the performance of the Sanctus by Leanne Benjamin and Rupert Pennefather was beautiful. The company danced with utter conviction, and perfect placing, and the pas-de-trois with Pennefather, Acosta and Benjamin at the end was superbly done.

Carlos Acosta in Requiem, photo Johan Persson

Requiem is really something to behold, and this triple bill is an opportunity to see highly emotional work of Ashton and MacMillan in the same programme. Don’t miss it. There are four more performances until October 20 — for details click here.

Triple Bill — Agon, Sphinx, and Limen, Royal Ballet, November 2009

5 November, 2009

Melissa Hamilton and Carlos Acosta in Agon, photo by Bill Cooper

Agon is a Greek word meaning ‘contest’, and this 1957 Balanchine ballet is for twelve dancers who perform in twos, threes, etc. without any story. The music by Stravinsky is interestingly varied, some parts strongly represented by wind instruments, and others very quiet. The main pas-de-deux towards the end was brilliantly performed by Carlos Acosta and Melissa Hamilton, who continues to impress as a rising star in the company. In the two pas-de-trois we had Johan Kobborg with Yuhui Choe and Hikaru Kobayashi, and Mara Galeazzi with Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney. The dancers all performed beautifully, and Daniel Capps did an excellent job conducting the orchestra.

Sphinx is a ballet by Glen Tetley to music of Martinů, originally choreographed for American Ballet Theatre in 1977. It’s based on Jean Cocteau’s La machine infernale, a reworking of the Oedipus myth, exploring the conflict between free will and fate. There are three dancers, the Sphinx, Oedipus and Anubis, the jackal-headed god who shepherds the dead into the Egyptian underworld. The choreography for the two men is intensely physical and both Edward Watson as Anubis, and Rupert Pennefather as Oedipus, danced like gods, while Marianela Nuñez was an attractively seductive sphinx. This was the first performance of the work by the Royal Ballet, and it used the original designs by the late Rouben Ter-Arutunian, with costumes by Willa Kim and lighting by John B. Read. The costumes were very effective, making the men look as if they were dancing naked, but with painted bodies.

Limen is a new ballet by Wayne McGregor. The title refers to the threshold of some physiological or psychological response, and we were presented at the beginning with dancers behind a transparent bluish screen. On the screen were projected single digit numbers of various sizes — like those on an LED display — that moved and changed value. The costumes by Moritz Junge were colourful tops with shorts, well set off by Lucy Carter’s lighting, which at one point showed thick bright coloured stripes from one side of the stage to the other. The choreography combined strong physicality alternating with moments of calm, but towards the end I found the production distracted me from watching the dancers. A screen with a matrix of small blue lights at the back of the stage moved very slowly forward, and as it did so some lights went out, while others came on. I’ve seen mysterious on-off lighting on stage before, but the trouble is that I’m always trying to work out the pattern and this distracts me from the dancing or singing that is the main point of the work. Obviously the lights were meant to recall the screen at the start, because as they came closer I could see that each light was a small single digit number. Presumably one has now gone over the threshold to a new level of reality.

The choreography fitted very well with the lovely music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, conducted by Barry Wordsworth, who was also the conductor of the previous ballet Sphinx. Since this ballet was brand new, it was danced by a very strong cast of fifteen, including Edward Watson, Steven McRae and Eric Underwood among the men, and Leanne Benjamin and Marianela Nuñez among the women. It works well, but Wayne McGregor seems to have too strong a predilection for screens that distract from his choreography.

Review — L’Amour de loin, English National Opera, London Coliseum, July 2009

1 July, 2009


If you like Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande you may love this opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, though I prefer music with more bite. It is a static, dreamlike creation lacking theatrical action, though that side of things was ably provided by director Daniele Finzi Pasca. He drew on his experience with Cirque du Soleil, and really did a terrific job, being responsible for the choreography and the lighting design, which was very colourful and clever. Each of the three principals was shadowed by two acrobats, and in that sense it reminded me of the recent Royal Opera production of Acis and Galatea, but this was so much better than Wayne McGregor’s nonsense that there was no comparison at all.

The story itself is based on a love poem by a famous troubadour from 12th century Aquitaine, a period when such poems in the Provençal language dealt with amor de lonh (distant love). The original author was troubadour Jaufré Rudel, prince of Blaye in Aquitaine, and his work had the title La vida breve. There are three main characters: the troubadour Jaufré; a travelling pilgrim; and Cleménce the princess of Tripoli.

The prince is obsessed by the idea of an ideal love, and though his companions mock him, the pilgrim says he has met such a lady, and when he returns to Tripoli, tells Cleménce about the prince. She prefers to remain distant to avoid any suffering, but the prince wants to meet her, and makes the journey, albeit full of foreboding and indecision, from which he becomes seriously ill. By the time he arrives in North Africa he is close to death, and meeting her, dies in her arms, metaphorically consummating his love. She rages against fate and enters a convent, praying to one far away, whether God or her lover we know not.

The libretto by Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf is rather dreamy, like the music. For example as Jaufré travels by ship he asks the pilgrim, “Why is the sea blue?” and the pilgrim responds, “Because it reflects the sky”. “But why is the sky blue?” “Because it reflects the sea”. What are we to make of that — was it in the original by Jaufré himself?

Saariaho’s music is kind to the singers in the sense that they never seem to be battling with it, but easily singing over it, and I thought Faith Sherman did particularly well as the pilgrim. So indeed did Roderick Williams as Jaufré, and Joan Rodgers did well as Cleménce. This UK premiere, under the baton of music director Edward Gardner, presumably did justice to the composer’s intentions, but I have to say that I found it dull. The production however was extraordinary, and I loved the set designs by Jean Rabasse, and the costumes by Kevin Pollard, even if the pilgrim did look like an elf from Peter Jackson’s film version of the Lord of the Rings. The journey by ship was done against a wonderful background of swirling water projected onto a screen, with acrobats performing throughout the voyage. The only thing I didn’t like about the production was the small screen that two performers wheeled to the front of the stage from time to time, showing rather odd images — it was a distraction.