Posts Tagged ‘Leanne Benjamin’

Giselle with Benjamin and Watson, Royal Ballet, January 2011

16 January, 2011

Giselle is a jewel in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, and this production by Peter Wright carefully preserves the nineteenth century mime sequences in Act I, where Giselle’s mother warns about the legend of the wilis who will capture some carefree young fellow and make him dance to his death. The young Count Albrecht, sowing his wild oats disguised as a peasant, wins Giselle’s heart, but his wooing raises a passion that destroys her, though as a spirit in Act II she finally saves him from being destroyed by the wilis.

The Wilis in Act II, photo by Bill Cooper

As Giselle herself, Leanne Benjamin was excellent in the Act I mad scene when she learns that her lover has tricked her and betrayed his own fiancée, but her performance in Act II was really superb when, light as a feather, she invested the wraith of Giselle with a wonderfully ethereal quality. Her rejected lover Hilarion was superbly portrayed by Johannes Stepanek, showing a fine firmness and resolve in Act I, only to fall foul of forces beyond his control as the wilis dance him to death in Act II. Giselle’s lover Albrecht was danced by Edward Watson, and much though I admire him in other ballets he lacked the insouciance I associate with this role. As queen of the wilis, Itziar Mendizabal was suitably cold, but lacked the heartless dominance that should come from her big jumps and imperious stage presence.

The corps de ballet performed well in both acts, and the leading wilis Moyna and Zulme in Act II were beautifully danced by Yuhui Choe and Sian Murphy. The Act I scenes came over very well, with an excellent pas-de-six headed by Yuhui Choe and Kenta Kura, who showed his stunning talent for appearing to float in the air. Deidre Chapman gave a fine performance of the extensive mime scenes as Giselle’s mother, and Johannes Stepanek’s observations of Albrecht’s missing sword and his eventual discovery of his rival’s identity was carried through to perfection.

Good conducting by Koen Kessels, who is in the orchestra pit for all the January performances, and next week I shall report on a different cast featuring Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather. Performances with a variety of different casts continue until February 19 — 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.

Royal Ballet Triple: Electric Counterpoint, Asphodel Meadows, Carmen, Covent Garden, May 2010

5 May, 2010

Pennefather and Nuñez in Scarlett's fine new ballet Asphodel Meadows, photo by Johan Persson

Asphodel Meadows is a very interesting new ballet by Liam Scarlett, to Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra. There were fourteen dancers plus three principal couples, one for each movement of the concerto. The first was beautifully danced by Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather with lovely elegant movements, the second more spicily by Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside, and the third fluidly and fast by Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera. Costumes were leotards for the boys and simple skirts and tops for the girls, bluish/beige for the fourteen dancers, with dark brown, charcoal, and crimson, in that order, for the principals in the three movements. I thought the designs by John Macfarlane were excellent, as was the lighting by Jennifer Tipton. It all lasted a little under 25 minutes and was a delight to watch. The title is interesting. Asphodel is a type of lily, and the name is from ancient Greek. Meadows of asphodel appear in Homer’s Odyssey (Book XI, line 539), where Odysseus travels to Hades and encounters the shades of dead heroes.

Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson in Electric Counterpoint, photo by Dee Conway

This new ballet was sandwiched between works that were performed within the last two years. The programme started with Christopher Wheeldon’s Electric Counterpoint, to music by Bach and Steve Reich, played by Robert Clark on the piano and James Woodrow on the solo guitar. It appealed to me much more than when I saw it in early 2008, though the cast was almost identical, with Edward Watson, Sarah Lamb, Leanne Benjamin and Eric Underwood — last time, Benjamin’s role was performed by Zenaida Yanowsky. In the first part each dancer appears alone, starting with Sarah Lamb. There is a wall facing the audience on which is projected another version of Sarah Lamb, dancing as if she were a mirror image. Gradually, however, the dancer and her image go disconcertingly out of phase with one another, but later there is little connection between dancer and image. During this first section, along with the piano music by Bach, there is a recorded voice-over by the dancer who is performing, giving personal details of their life and motivation. In the second part the wall facing the audience vanishes and there is another wall at an oblique angle, with four doors through which the dancers appear. The electronic music is accompanied by guitar, and there is pas-de-deux work as well as solo dancing. It lasts thirty minutes, which I found well spent, and I liked the designs by Jean-Marc Puissant and the lighting by Natasha Chivers.

After seeing this, followed by Asphodel Meadows, the evening didn’t need spoiling with Mat Eks’ dreadful Carmen, and I’m delighted they put it as the third item on the bill, so I could happily leave.

Triple Bill: Concerto, The Judas Tree, Elite Syncopations, Royal Ballet, March 2010

24 March, 2010

These three ballets by Kenneth MacMillan are from different stages in his career, and form a nicely eclectic triple bill.

Steven McRae in Concerto, photo by Johan Persson

Concerto was created in 1966 for the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin, one year after his full-length Romeo and Juliet. The music is Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, a lively, witty work, played here by Jonathan Higgins under the baton of Dominic Grier. It starts with a bassoon and two oboes, closely followed by the piano as the dancers step out into the first movement, where the principal couple was Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae. Both danced beautifully and I thought she was particularly graceful. In the adagio of the second movement, Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather gave a wonderfully smooth performance. They reappear in the third movement, as do Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae, along with Helen Crawford. There are three levels of dancers in this ballet, the principals in orange leotards, the second level in red and the third in yellow. Watching them all from the front of the Amphi one could see very clearly the precision of their placing on stage, and the whole effect, like the music, was ebulliently energetic.

Carlos Acosta in The Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Carlos Acosta in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin in the Judas Tree, photo by Johan Persson

This fine start to the evening was followed by MacMillan’s last and perhaps darkest and most brutal work, The Judas Tree, to music of Brian Elias, written relatively freely without a set scenario. I find it a powerful dance work, on the themes of betrayal and guilt, showing MacMillan to be a master craftsman when it comes to using abstract movement to tell a nasty story. The action involves a foreman and thirteen workmen on a building site in a run-down part of town. Leanne Benjamin, as a provocative and skimpily dressed young woman, seems to have a mutually abusive relationship with Carlos Acosta as the foreman. He ignores her and she flirts with one of his friends, portrayed by Edward Watson, the two of them forming a bond together. The action is very physical and aggressive, with fights among the men and an assault on the woman, who finds some protection from Edward Watson and another friend, portrayed by Bennet Gartside. In the end she is gang raped by the other eleven workmen, and when she blames the foreman, he murders her, then beats up and murders the friend represented by Edward Watson. In a final act of guilt the foreman climbs up the scaffolding and hangs himself. There’s a Biblical, or at least gnostic Christian, background to all this, and when the girl reappears at the end as a wraith-like figure it signifies the indestructibility of the purified soul, but . . . it can simply be taken as a story to be interpreted as one wishes. MacMillan’s choreography is done with his usual finesse, and Acosta, Watson and Gartside all performed it very well in their interactions with one another. Watson in particular portrayed his character very sympathetically, and Leanne Benjamin was superb in her physically demanding role, maintaining integrity and stage presence throughout. Both these two had danced their roles before, unlike the others, but there was also a direct link from the original production in 1992 to the present cast as Irek Mukhamedov, who created the role of the foreman, helped in coaching this revival.

The final item of the evening, Elite Syncopations, MacMillan created in 1974 immediately after his full-length ballet Manon. Where Manon deals with seduction, rape, robbery and violent death, albeit in the context of a great eighteenth-century romantic novel, this is a light-hearted, almost flippant work. The dance is performed to rag-time music, mainly by Scott Joplin, played by a jazz band at the rear of the stage. They and the performers are dressed in extremely colourful and elaborately stylized costumes by Ian Spurling, and the whole effect is delightful fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the dancing was glorious. Mara Galeazzi was the first female soloist, and Sarah Lamb the second. Both were excellent, and Lamb danced very well with Valeri Hristov in the waltz. Laura McCulloch and Paul Kay were hilarious in their deliberately absurd Alaskan rag, and the dancing could hardly have been better, until suddenly Steven McRae came on for his solo and was electrifying, with excellent precision and attack, and superb musicality.

If you need a reason to go to the ballet, the final item alone is worth the price of the ticket, but there are only six performances of this triple bill, with the last one on 15th April.

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.

Mayerling, Royal Ballet, October 2009

10 October, 2009

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Royal Ballet photo by Bill Cooper

This was the second night of the present run, with Johan Kobborg in the main role as the 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. His death, with that of his mistress, the seventeen-year-old Mary Vetsera, in January 1889 inspired Kenneth MacMillan to create this ballet in 1978. The state authorities in 1889 attributed the two deaths to a suicide pact in which Rudolf killed her and then himself, but this was almost certainly a cover-up. When the Viennese Medical Institute examined Mary Vestera’s remains in the 1990s they concluded she had suffered severe blows to the head and there was no bullet hole. Rudolf had been shot, but not by his own gun. Although I’m not a conspiracy theorist, the events at Rudolf’s hunting lodge at Mayerling were certainly different from the official version, but there is no need to spoil a good story and MacMillan’s ballet is a darkly dramatic piece.

Kobborg portrayed the prince with care and restraint, allowing the choreography to show his libertine and allegedly sinister side. With Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera we had a superb pair of dancers, and their pas-de-deux at the end of Act II flowed with freedom and spontaneity. Rudolf’s ex-mistress, Countess Larisch was beautifully danced by Laura Morera, showing great stage presence. Emma Maguire as Rudolf’s wife Stephanie did a fine job, and Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar, a courtesan and regular mistress to Rudolf, danced with panache. These are just a few of the dancers in a huge cast that worked very well together.

The music is by Liszt, arranged by John Lanchbery, and was conducted here by Barry Wordsworth. The present run continues until November 10th, and I shall report again after seeing a further performance.

Jewels, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, June 2009

9 June, 2009

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This 1967 Balanchine ballet is in three parts: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Mr. B originally hoped that the jewellers Van Cleef and Arpels might bankroll the ballet, and although that never happened, they did sponsor this Royal Ballet production two years ago. The staging is simple yet effective and in each part the costumes, reflecting emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, are delightful.

Emeralds is to Fauré’s incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande. In this strange tale by Maeterlinck, Mélisande is found by a stream in a forest, like a naiad, and the green of emeralds recalls both the forest and the watery world from whence she comes. The leading couple were Tamara Rojo and Valeri Hristov, with Leanne Benjamin and Bennet Gartside as the second couple, and Deirdre Chapman, Laura Morera and Steven McRae in the pas-de-trois. They all danced extremely well, particularly Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae, as did the supporting artists, and this was a wonderful start to the evening.

Rubies is to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra. The racy choreography involves a pas-de-deux for a central couple, in this case Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta, who were full of vivacity, looking as if they were really enjoying themselves. They are complemented by another woman, in this case Laura McCulloch, who plays a temptress role, and she and the lead couple take it in turns to accompany the supporting dancers. Again the ensemble work was excellent.

Diamonds is to music from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 3, which was his last composition before starting work on Swan Lake, and the ballerina is like a diamond in glacial splendour, a precursor to the cold beauty of Odette in Swan Lake. The principal couple, Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather were brilliant. He danced like a god, with great precision and a lovely line, and she was simply delightful. They were attended by: Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi, Helen Crawford and Emma Maguire, as the four soloists, whose dancing was a delight to watch, as they inter-weaved with one another on stage. Again the ensemble work of the other dancers was superb, and this was altogether a terrific evening with a wonderful cast. Valeriy Ovsyanikov conducted with great brio and precision.

Les Sylphides, Sensorium, The Firebird, Royal Ballet, 21 May 2009, return visit

22 May, 2009

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This was a return visit to see a performance with a different cast. Here is the link to the earlier review of the first night.

This time Les Sylphides featured David Makhateli and Tamara Rojo as the principal couple, backed up by Yuhui Choe in the waltz, Helen Crawford in the Mazurka, and the same leading sylphs as before. All were very good, as was the corps, but I thought Rojo and Choe were outstanding. The conducting by Barry Wordsworth was very slow at the beginning, though it picked up tempo later, but the trouble is that his work lacks incision and edge — it is just mellifluous and laboured, or in a single word, dull.

In the other cast for Alastair Marriott’s new ballet Sensorium, to music by Debussy, we had Mara Galeazzi with Bennet Gartside, and Melissa Hamilton with Gary Avis as the main couples. The lighting worked well this time, and the designs by Adam Wiltshire were excellent as before, with white leotards for the principal ladies and light peacock blue for the others. The cast seemed very much in tune with the ballet, and Melissa Hamilton was simply wonderful. It’s astonishing that she’s a mere 21 years old.

The Firebird was once again a blaze of colour, and the corps were terrific. This time we had Leanne Benjamin as a very fine firebird, with Edward Watson as the Tsarevich, Genesia Rosato as the Tsarevna, and Christopher Saunders as the immortal Kostcheï. All did well, and Saunders was very strong in this part, which seems to suit him better than some of the other roles I’ve seen him do.

Les Sylphides, Sensorium, The Firebird, Royal Ballet, May 2009

5 May, 2009

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This was a lovely triple bill, with a new ballet by Alastair Marriott sandwiched between two well-known works by Mikhail Fokine.

The first item, Les Sylphides was very well danced, with Johan Kobborg and Yuhui Choe doing an excellent job as the principal couple. They were backed up by Laura Morera in the waltz, Lauren Cuthbertson in the Mazurka, and Iohna Loots and Bethany Keating as leading sylphs, not all I’m afraid as musical as Yuhui Choe. But with good technique it’s difficult to go wrong with Fokine’s glorious choreography and Chopin’s wonderful music.

Sensorium, choreographed by Alastair Marriott to music of Debussy, was a sensuous and cleanly performed dance work that lasted almost half and hour, and didn’t flag for a minute. The costumes were simple leotards for the girls and full length leotards for the two men, Thomas Whitehead who danced with Leanne Benjamin, and Rupert Pennefather who partnered Alexandra Ansanelli. All danced well, as did the ten girls who backed them up, and Pennefather in particular showed a lovely line, and very clean technique. One fault was that dancers moving across the front of the stage were in the dark, but otherwise the lighting, designed by John Read, gave just the right texture for this work.

Finally The Firebird was a terrific show of colour, with Mara Galeazzi heavily made up for the part of this magical bird. Her dancing however seemed to lack fluidity, and Thiago Soares as the Tsarevich did not cut as strong a figure as he might. But Elizabeth McGorian was a lovely Tsarevna, and Gary Avis was simply superb as the immortal Kostcheï. The supporting cast did a very fine job, and this might have been a successful Firebird were it not marred by Barry Wordsworth’s sloppy conducting — the music is Stravinsky and should sound like it.