The ENB advertises this as, “Probably the best ballet you’ve never seen.” Most full-length ballets are either very familiar, such as Swan Lake and TheNutcracker, or are based on well-known stories, such as the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice in Wonderland. Unless you have read Byron’s poem The Corsair, buying the excellent programme is therefore essential. This will give you the full story which starts with the pirate captain, Conrad, and his faithful slave, Ali, going to rescue Menora, the woman he loves, from a slave trader. Having rescued her amid much joyful dancing, the most famous part of the ballet is the dance between Ali and Menora. This is not technically a pas de deux, as Conrad dances part of it with him but the most exciting choreography is given to the relatively junior soloist Joan Sebastian Zamora who drew the loudest cheers of the night with his astonishingly athletic leaps and twists, while Erina Takahashi was superb as Menora. I felt a little sorry for Yonah Acosta’s Conrad as his part, originally a non-dancing one, is very much in the background but he came into his own later in the ballet.
After the slave dealer has recaptured Menora, Act III features the Pasha’s opium-induced dream, Le Jardin Animé, in which the flowers of his garden come to life, dancing beautifully with students from the English National Ballet as the buzzing insects around them. After this pastoral interlude, it is back to the action as Conrad recaptures Menora and they sail off into the sunset – only to end up shipwrecked. The production and costume design by Bob Ringwood is very different from his productions for films such as Batman and Alien III but equally stunning, permitting a smooth transition from scene to scene without interruption, particularly in the third act which moves rapidly through five separate scenes. In summary, a hugely enjoyable family show, even if it is a story of murder and kidnap by pirates, sexual slavery and a drug-induced hallucination!
I still think it’s best Nutcracker around. Wayne Eagling’s choreography has steadily been tweaked over the years, so that the rather clumsy switching between the handsome young man at the ball and the nutcracker is now handled very neatly. I went to a matinee and did not expect top casts but Laurretta Summerscales and Max Westwell seemed pretty top notch to me, both dancing perfectly, as did the entire company. The only mistake I made was in getting a seat in the balcony. It’s so much less comfortable than equivalent seats in the Covent Garden amphitheatre, at least for long legged people like me. Still well worth it thanks to an £11.50 offer at LastMinute.com.
Thank goodness it was nothing like those gloomy posters. After a short film about Nureyev, the opening ballet was Petrushka, with Fokine’s original choreography and Benois’s designs for the Ballets Russes. The score by Stravinsky is one of his most enjoyable, based on Russian folk tunes like Rite of Spring and the Firebird. The ballet is full of colour and was well danced at the matinee, although Anton Lukovkin did have the unenviable job of following film of Nureyev himself but acquitted himself well. The second ballet, Song of a Wayfarer, is a duet between the wayfarer and his destiny, a calm reflection between the two more exuberant pieces. The Mahler songs were excellently sung in German by Nicholas Lester but there were no surtitles and no libretto in the programme, just a simple description of the ballet.
The triumphant climax of the triple bill was Raymonda Act III, a glorious wedding celebration in gold and white. Going to the matinee, I did not expect the top casting but I cannot believe anyone could have surpassed the performances of Elena Glurdjidze and Dimitri Gruzdyev as the couple getting married. James Streeter and Stina Quagebeur led the company in swirling, exuberant style for the Hungarian dance. This was followed by a series of set pieces, culminating in an astonishing solo by Elena Glurdjidze which drew every ounce of sensuality from Glazunov’s music and well deserved the huge applause it received.
I’m not sure it makes sense to have a tribute to someone who is dead – a Celebration of Rudolf Nureyev might have made more sense and would certainly have fitted the ballets better. A more celebratory, less gloomy poster campaign might also have helped ensure a full house, thought it was not bad for a matinee. If I did not have other commitments, I’d certainly go again.
Thank you, Tamara Rojo, for revitalising the English National Ballet. The ENB’s range was beautifully highlighted by the three works gathered as Ecstasy & Death. The first, Petite Mort, a modern ballet choreographed by Jiří Kylián was possibly the most advanced, challenging work I have seen the ENB tackle and they performed it perfectly. The title is a French term for orgasm, literally “little death,” encapsulating both sides of the triple bill’s title, as did the next ballet, Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. With a story by Jean Cocteau, set in an artist’s garrett and on Paris rooftops, this was a glorious melodrama, beautifully danced by Fabian Reimair as the tortured young artist and Jia Zhang as both the girl who he makes love to and the figure of Death who carries him away at the end.
There was nothing profound about Harald Lander’s Etudes which closed the programme. Its setting is a dance studio with ballet dancers practising their moves, giving the whole company a chance to show off which they did to glorious effect. Tamara Rojo herself took the starring role, as a twirling, swirling tour-de-force, as if to ram home what her leadership has brought to the company. There was a special cheer at the end for Alban Lendorf who came in to partner her at very short notice (he was not even on the day’s cast list) to replace the injured Vadim Muntagirov.
I feel sorry for Tamara Rojo’s predecessor, Wayne Eagling, – his Nutcracker is the best I have ever seen – but I think it was time for a change. Coming from the Royal Ballet, she appears to have brought two things with her. The first is a much better pricing policy: I had a good seat in the Upper Circle for £10. Unfortunately the second is overlong intervals: two intervals of 30 minutes each. If an audience can manage 100 minutes of Sunken Garden with no interval, then I’m sure we can manage 90 minutes of dance with just one. Even the ENB previous practice of one 25 and one 20 minute interval was preferable.
Some people may think it is odd that I can rate a travelling company such as Vienna Festival Ballet more highly than the obviously much more skilled Royal Ballet. As I can’t go out much at the moment, I decided to look at the very different experience of big and small theatres and venues.
Skill levels. Obviously the big companies can draw on more highly skilled actors and dancers than the little ones but sometimes the very best actors love working in small theatres (e.g. Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in “All That Fall” last year) and some small theatres can draw the very best actors, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond. It also takes a different sort of skill to work on a big stage in a big theatre – OperaUpClose can get extremely good singers who may not have the power to fill the Coliseum or ROH.
Musical scale. Most of the best concerts I have been to have been in small venues such as the JACK Quartet playing Xenakis’s astonishing Tetras Quartet at the Wigmore Hall or the amazing Japanese band Nissennenmondai at Upset the Rhythm. You can never see that level of virtuosity in a symphony orchestra or in a stadium, unless it is on the video screens.
Practice makes perfect. Travelling companies will recruit for a specific production and then play it night after night, raising their performances to levels they would not initially be able to achieve. Oddly, the use of pre-recorded music can help too as it is absolutely the same every night. I love the use of a full orchestra by the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet but the tightest performance by the ENB I have seen was their collaboration with Flawless in “Against Time,” a touring production danced to a recorded backing.
Friendliness. Small theatres and venues offer a far more intimate experience than the bigger venues and sharing the experience with a few dozen people can make you feel a part of something very special whereas larger places can become very impersonal.
I have been a Friend of the ENB for a couple of years (really good value if you are over 60) but only just got round to attending one of their open days. I should have done so earlier: it is an astonishing experience to be part of a small group (limited to ten) sitting in the rehearsal studio at Markova House while they practise. I was lucky enough to see a number of principals in duets from Sleeping Beauty, followed by Shiori Kase rehearsing for her performance in Diana and Acteon at the Emerging Dancer awards. To have dancers so close that you find yourself moving your feet out of the way (probably unnecessarily) is a very different experience to seeing them on stage (especially if you sit as far away as I usually do). Despite my comments on the importance of the music in ballet, it hardly matters in these circumstances that there is just a piano to accompany them. I also thoroughly recommend going to small theatres to see opera and plays. OperaUpClose, usually at the King’s Head but also touring gave an excellent, very involving performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw a year or two back, whilst I’ve already said how much I enjoy plays at the Orange Tree and Pentameters.
The ENB have very kindly given me some lovely pictures of the ballet to put on my blog, all photographed by Patrick Baldwin:
“Here come the fairies!” (click on any picture for full-size)
The bad fairy Carabosse (the brilliant James Streeter when I saw it) with ‘her’ retainers.
The Lilac Fairy (Lauretta Summerscales) defeats Carbosse
The handsome Prince Désiré wakes Aurora from her long sleep (Esteban Berlanga and the excellent Ksenia Ovsyanick)
The pictures were provided by the ENB (www.ballet.org.uk) and were taken by Patrick Baldwin. It is difficult to tell whether all artists were from the cast I saw up in the balcony but they look wonderful anyway.
There was plenty of booing at the end, not because it wasn’t good but because James Streeter was so excellently evil as the bad fairy Carabosse! There was a lot of fuss about Tamara Rojo dancing Princess Aurora (the beauty of the title) in the first performance of the season but I saw Ksenia Ovsyanick in the matinee on January 15th and felt she could not have been bettered. I hadn’t realised it was a special family-friendly performance so there were lots of children in the audience. Luckily, they only added to my delight, creating a real pantomime atmosphere. “Here come the fairies” said a child’s voice followed by an excited “More fairies!”
There have been a few events this year that do not fit into the conventional categories. I really enjoyed Like a Fish our of Water from Seven Sisters, a strange little tale told through an iPod touch with headphones while walking around Uxbridge lido watching short performances from members of the English National Ballet. As every year nowadays, there were fun happenings on the South Bank and Slow Food UK‘s family event at Massimo’s in February was lovely but it was telling that half the people there were Italian.
However, the most wonderful of all was the Musicircus at the Coliseum, celebrating what would have been John Cage’s 100th birthday. I thought this would be interesting but did not expect such perfect entertainment. From the hand-clapping sisters above (from the ENO’s Flickr set) to the brilliant musicianship of Sxip Shirey. Perhaps the favourite of all my favourites.
It’s that time of year when bloggers list their “best of the year” but I’m not going to pretend I know what was best. I do know my favourite and that was les Noces as part of a terrific Royal Ballet triple bill. It has been part of their repertoire for years but this was the first time I had seen it. I loved it so much I went back the following night! The music itself by Stravinsky is so wonderful that I would have enjoyed simply watching the performance from the musicians and the choir. Add to that vibrant, unique dancing and I was completely won over. Runner up was the English National Ballet’s Beyond Ballets Russes (more Stravinsky with Rite of Spring and Apollo) and a special mention to their unique collaboration with Flawless which was great fun.