It was a particularly good year for non-narrative ballet and ENB’s triple bill had to be my favourite dance programme of the year. I watched the matinee on 12 March and did rather expect the B team, so I was particularly thrilled to see dancers such as Tamara Rojo and Erina Takahashi in three superb examples of modern ballet. The Royal Ballet also thrilled with Connectome and Monotones, although both were repeats of recent productions.
Of the narrative ballets, Vienna Festival Ballet was as enjoyable as ever with Coppelia and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Carmina Burana was wonderfully spectacular. Apart from Onegin at the start of the year, it was not so good for the Royal Ballet, culminating with a Carmen that had me laughing for the wrong reasons.
Other commitments prevented me getting to see Le Coq d’Or but at least I managed the second of the triple bills which included the final scene. First came Scheherazade in the version first performed as part of Les Saisons Russes du XXI siècle a couple of years ago. This was a much more polished performance, with terrific dancing from Julia Makhalina and Artem Yachmennikov as the leads. The excerpt from Le Coq d’Or was great fun but I didn’t really miss seeing the whole thing. Then came a gorgeous treat, a performance of Fokine’s Swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, originally created for Anna Pavlova. Infuriatingly, it wasn’t listed in the programme and I didn’t catch the name of the brilliant dancer.
The afternoon finished with Polovtsian Dances. This was much more enjoyable than when I saw it as part of Prince Igor earlier this year. In that case, the stage was full of scenery and singers, leaving little space for an unimaginatively choreographed version. On Sunday, the chorus stood in the boxes at the side of the auditorium, with almost no scenery, allowing the dancers wearing copies of Nicholas Roerich‘s original costumes to fill the stage with Fokine’s fabulous choreography. I’m not sure how authentic it was but the back flips by star dancer Maxim Pavlov, only added to the fun. This is the third programme I’ve seen put together by Andris Liepa to honour Diaghilev and it was easily the best, thanks largely to the incredible energy of the young company. At this rate, his next programme is going to be unmissable.
It is impossible not to describe The Dream as magical. Frederick Ashton ditched the Athenian court, ditched Pyramus and Thisbe and centred the ballet around Oberon and Titania, parts created for Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, both of whom helped as lead coaches for this production. Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez danced beautiful and Bennet Garside managed to dance wonderfully and also be very funny as Bottom, with Paul Kay as a very mischievous Puck. Alastair Marriott’s Connectome could hardly have been more different, highlighting the brilliant dancing of Natalia Osipova accompanied by six male dancers. The other great star of the production was the lighting designer, Bruno Poet, who worked with Es Devlin’s clever set to astonishing effect, so good I could have happily watched it even without the dancers. Sadly, I decided to skip the final ballet of the evening to get home before midnight – shame there wasn’t a matinee.
The Royal Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s Serenade was a nice start to the afternoon but I couldn’t help thinking of Houston Ballet’s performances of Balanchine works last year. They managed to give them a touch of Hollywood – a very American touch of swing and swagger that would have improved this to. However, on to the big event: Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, inspired by the painter Walter Sickert’s obsession with Jack the Ripper. I missed its premiere a couple of years ago so was glad to grab this chance to see it. Unfortunately, not just the subject matter was dark, the stage was too. Although it was excellent, I almost fell asleep and heard a couple of people complaining that they had nodded off. It is possible to convey the necessary dark mood without lowering actual light levels this much. That left DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse which really woke everyone up. The music was commissioned from Michael Nyman to celebrate the French TGV trains. I’d never heard a full orchestra performing Nyman’s work live before, only his own band, and the textures were far more complex and fascinating. The choreography fitted the music perfectly, starting with a 6 Million Dollar Man/ Bionic Woman style of depicting speed through slow motion, then moving on with the music to more athletic action. It’s good to be back in London!
What a wonderful afternoon. This is the second full length new ballet composed by Joby Talbot and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, following their tremendous success with Alice in Wonderland and it is just as good. It is also important to mention designer Bob Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz who also worked on both ballets so effectively. Many people only remember the direction “Exit pursued by a bear” at the end of Act I so there’s always fascination to see how it has been done. I won’t give it away – it’s good but not as brilliant as the bear in the Terry Hands production for the RSC which I saw in the mid-80s. On that occasion, the entire stage was covered in white fur representing snow throughout the first act. At the end, the whole thing reared up and became an immense bear – fantastic but it wouldn’t be practical to dance on fur. I’ll give a clue that there are similarities in the two approaches. Christopher Wheeldon likes to develop his choreography directly with the dancers, so the matinee I saw was not danced by the ones who helped develop it. I am not sure this was any disadvantage as it gave them a chance to bring an extra something to the part. On this occasion, the star was Bennet Gartside as Leontes, an amazing performance as he replaced Thiago Soares who was supposed to dance it this afternoon. His dancing was superb and, above all, he captured the character of the king, as he moved from happiness through jealousy and tragedy to joy. My only regret is that I only booked for one performance and now it is sold out so it will probably be a couple of years before I see it again.
After a week with no chance to go to the theatre, it was great to catch two terrific performances yesterday, the first being the matinee of LAC. This updating of Swan Lake featured “Her Majesty of the Night” rather than Rothbart as the evil manipulator but was otherwise much the same story. It was a shame that it was performed to pre-recorded music, the quality of which was not as high as I would have liked, but everything else was marvelous, especially the terrific costumes by Philippe Guillotel. It was very much an ensemble production of a uniformly high standard so it is unfair to single out a specific performance, but the choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot was energetic, flamboyant and passionate with a great touch of humour, often at the expense of Petipa’s original. It is a shame it was only half full for the matinee but you’d never have guessed it from the volume of the well deserved applause at the end. I do hope this vibrant, original company makes visiting London a regular event.
This was a hugely ambitious project – to commission three new dance works to commemorate the start of the First World War. It worked and all three of them knocked spots off the Royal Ballet’s effort with their revival of MacMillan’s Gloria earlier this year. Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land played with the title, referring to both the area between the front lines and to the women working in the munitions factory. All the leads were excellent, especially Alina Cojocaru, but I have to also praise Max Westwell as I ended up sitting next to his parents. This was followed by a revival of the Firebirdthe company premiered last year. The music is still wonderful and was brilliantly played by the ENB’s orchestra under Gavin Sutherland and the reduced choreography was an improvement on last year’s. Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath featured figures rising up only to fall to the ground again and again. It seemed a bit repetitive but that was the point, as the music featured recordings from the Imperial War Museum of soldiers from country after country listing the numbers of the fellow soldiers killed in the war. The most remarkable new work was Dust from Akram Khan, apparently his first work for a ballet company. His own astonishing dancing dominated, leaving me to wonder whether the choreography could stand up without him to dance. Luckily it was a question I didn’t need to ask as he both he and Tamara Rojo danced at the matinee as they had for the premiere the night before. I doubt I’ll see any better dance or ballet this year. As I was leaving the Barbican, a group of young people was just in front of me. One guy said to the others that it was the first time he’d cried in a theatre. He wasn’t the only one.