This was my first ever visit to the Cresset in Peterborough, even though it’s barely an hour’s drive away from where we live. On the plus side: there’s plenty of free parking, a useful bar/restaurant area, and friendly staff. On the minus side: it feels a bit like a sports centre and when you enter the Sovereign Hall for the show, it’s like someone’s quickly erected a makeshift stage at one end of an aircraft hangar. We were in row E and the seats are not particularly comfortable, there’s no rake until you get to row AA and the place doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. As a result, any show you see there is going to have to work really hard to get its entertainment value across. Fortunately, the cast of Dance to the Music do indeed work really hard!
Perhaps I should come clean here, gentle reader, and explain (if you didn’t already know from my blog about Soo Yoga) that Strictly Come Dancing’s Kristina Rihanoff, who has masterminded (mistressminded?) this show also happens to be my yoga instructor, which made us want even more to come and see it. Added to which, a couple of weeks before the tour started, two of the dancers, plus host Jake Quickenden, joined us for a yoga session. So I almost feel part of the company!
Back to the show. It’s an informative, entertaining and spectacular journey through a century of dance, from the Charlestons of the 1920s to the shapes people throw on the dance floor today. Choreographed and devised by Kristina Rihanoff, it consists of a series of retrospectives celebrating various famous dance styles decade by decade, with a great choice of contemporary music and lavish costumes. Some of the music is pre-recorded, but much is also performed by the aforementioned host and singer Jake Quickenden; he of the jungle, X-Factor and Dancing on Ice – and he’s never going to let us forget it. Jake has a charming, likeable, relaxed style that quickly wins the audience over and he narrates the show with great humour and abundant cheekiness. He also gives us some great musical performances.
A fantastic highlight was Jake’s singing I Heard it through the Grapevine to a seductive rumba (I think it was a rumba – I’m not an expert!) by Kristina with lead dancer Jo Baiao. There’s also a terrific sequence to the music of the Andrews Sisters, with the whole cast throwing themselves into a jive/lindy hop routine. And I really enjoyed the disco section, and much appreciated the fact that they featured one of my favourite 70s tunes, Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry. I’m not sure how often Peterborough swings to that particular soundtrack.
Of course, there’s always that moment that everyone dreads, the audience participation section. Kristina reminds us of her Strictly Paso Doble triumph with John Sergeant, where her celebrity partner dragged the poor woman across the floor like a burglar with his swag. Jake scours the crowd for a chap willing to give it a go on stage with Kristina. Fortunately for us all, as this was the last night, he picked on a willing guy in the front row to whirl the cape onstage – and it was none other than Ben Cohen, Kristina’s dance- and life-partner! Whilst all the other guys in the audience breathed a sigh of relief, Ben promenaded a few classic Paso poses, much to everyone’s amusement.
In addition to Kristina and Jo, we were also treated to the dance artistry of Aaron Brown, Angelina Anastasia, James Davies-Williams and guest stars Marcella Solimeo and Dylon Daniels. I must say I thought Marcella was especially enjoyable to watch, with great dancing mixed with a huge personality. There were also two local bonuses: local youth theatre Kindred gave us a great dance routine, including a very funny let’s make Jake look too old for this sequence; and then we also had the pleasure of Kristina’s young Bespoke Ballroom company, showcasing their talents. Both teams of young performers did themselves proud.
This was – allegedly – the last time Kristina will dance her way around a stage; and was definitely the last night of this particular tour. Not sure if I believe it; once a performer, always a performer. Time will tell. If this did turn out to be the very last Dance to the Music, then I’m sorry you missed a treat.
It’s a happy welcome back to the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, who graced us with their presence last year when we enjoyed their Snow Maiden. For 2020 they have returned with productions of Sleeping Beauty on Monday and Swan Lake on Wednesday, but we plumped for Coppelia on Tuesday, because we’ve only seen it once before and I did feel like I needed a refresher.
Based in Krasnoyarsk they bring an enticing whiff of the Steppes to our shores, blending innate elegance with technical expertise and a delightful observance of all the conventions of the Grand Russian Ballet. These conventions tend to get unrecognised by us Britishers, but I’m always amused and impressed by the performers’ ability to break off from a dance to take a spontaneous round of applause (always received with utmost humility) and I love the way they walk a wide circuit of the stage to receive gracious acknowledgement gestures from the dancers clinging to the edges. During the next week I shall wave graciously at Mrs Chrisparkle when she comes out of the shower. If it’s good enough for the Siberians, it’s good enough for us.
It was good to be reminded of the content of Coppelia, because it’s a charming and surprisingly funny ballet, with the age-old simple story of boy meets girl meets automated doll. Girl gets jealous but when she discovers her rival is no more than some painted wood, she tricks boy into believing that she is the doll. Truth is revealed, they flee from the ire of the Doctor who has made the doll, there’s a long wedding sequence and they all live happily ever after. No dying swans here. A university friend once pointed out the similarities between the choreography in the video that accompanied Toni Basil’s Mickey and Coppelia. How we scoffed and mocked him for his pretentiousness. But, on reflection, he’s completely right.
Scenery-wise, it would be fair to say the Russian State Ballet of Siberia travel light, but they make up for it with some wonderfully stunning costumes. The ladies are resplendent in beautiful dresses, a mix of bold and subtle colours and styles that bring their own vivacity to the stage. Similarly, the gentlemen are bedecked in smart tunics and strongly coloured shirts; Egor Osokin’s fantastic red military suit as the Burgomeister stood out, as did Ivan Karnaukhov’s Doctor Coppelius’ bright blue cloak creation. The whole thing genuinely is a treat for the eyes, and that’s even without considering the dancing.
The evening started curiously; the lights went down and then there was a long pause before anything happened. Some desultory applause started at the back of the auditorium and at first I thought it was a few disgruntled punters taking the mick. But no, they could see from their vantage point that Maestro Anatoliy Chepurnoy had mounted his podium, although in the front stalls we couldn’t see him. Suddenly his little head popped up over the railing, and with some encouraging hand gestures exhorted us into a rousing round of applause. More! More! his wavy hands were saying, so a few pantomime-style whoops and cheers came from somewhere behind me. Satisfied that we’d greeted the audience with the fervour they deserved, he decided to get on with the conducting.
Delibes’ score is crammed with luscious tunes all the way through, none more luscious than its opening number, the famous Mazurka which gets your feet tapping and your legs entrechatting. They’ve played about with the sequence of the music a little bit; nevertheless, it sounds great, despite the couple of duff notes played by the horn towards the end of the first Act. They’ve also removed some of the spookier aspects to the story, making Coppelius less of a Doctor Evil and more of a crotchety old fop. No matter, it works well with Alexander Gorsky and Gennady Malkhasiants’ revised choreography.
In the lead role of Swanhilda, Elena Svinko is outstanding. She was a magnificent Kupava in last year’s Snow Maiden and once again she brings elegance, skill and a terrific presence to the stage. She uses her expressions to tell the story so well that we completely understand the character and motivations of Swanhilda. She also always looks like she’s having a really wonderful time on stage, which is always a bonus for the Russian ballet. She is matched by Marcello Pelizzoni as Franz, a fresh-faced youth with impressive agility and style, who’s also a superb storyteller. Was he really only born in 1999? That’s amazing – this young man is truly going places. Together the two leads created an excellent partnership.
I enjoyed Ivan Karnaukhov’s semi-villainous Coppelius, flouncing theatrically around the stage; Mariami Kuloshvili didn’t have a large role to dance as the Coppelia Doll but when she brought it to life it was very entertaining. Miryam Roca created a very vivacious Town Celebrity character, and she was nicely accompanied by Egor Osokin’s dignified Burgomeister. The Fairy was danced by Anastasia Osokina with all the grace and charm that we saw last year, and I particularly enjoyed the trio danced by Nerea Astorga, Sofya Eremina and Arianna Guastaferro. The six Corps de Ballet dancers who played Swanhilda’s friends were totally enchanting, particularly bringing out the character and humour in the scene where they break into the Doctor’s toyroom.
There were one or two slightly dicey moments; a male member of the Corps had a worried look on his face throughout the whole of one dance and when it came to an end he wore that relieved expression you see on a pensioner when they’ve reached the top of an escalator and congratulate themselves on having got that far. It may have been the same chap who in the second Act dropped his hat early on and then kept giggling about it with his friends. There was also a moment when I had to stop Mrs C laughing when Mr Karnaukhov got the hem of this cloak caught under the door to the Doctor’s studio, and you could see frantic shiftings of material from the other side in an attempt to liberate the offending garment, whilst dancers battled on regardless. Inevitable, when a company only plays one performance of a dance at a theatre, that these little issues will emerge. But, on the whole, it was a high-quality performance and everyone seemed happy with how it all went, especially once they’d found Mr Chepurnoy to join them for the final curtain. After their visit to Northampton the company continues its tour to Wolverhampton, High Wycombe, Wimbledon, Southend, Canterbury, Brighton, Halifax, Oxford, Leicester, Basingstoke, Swindon, Ipswich, Bournemouth and Sheffield. I always enjoy seeing these dancers – and I’m sure you would too.
Yes, I know that strictly speaking the decade doesn’t finish until 31st December 2020, but I’ve been banging out this blog for ten years now so it seemed appropriate to add a further stack of celebratory awards to those I dished out a short time ago. Who would have foreseen that from 1st January 2010 to 31st December 2019 I would have seen 1,248 live productions, and reviewed about 99% of them? No wonder my fingers are hurting.
So it is my absolute pleasure to revisit the Chrisparkle Award holders of the past ten years, to celebrate their work and, invidiously, to come up with Decade Awards for each category – which, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, is the Highest Honour the Committee Can Bestow. I’m sure if any of the following double-winners were to prove their success by printing off the details, they’d be entitled to at least a 10% discount in Pizza Express. So it’s not to be sneezed at.
I’ll keep the Awards in the traditional order, so we’ll start with Best Dance Production.
Over the decade I’ve seen 69 dance productions; but the individual annual winners have been from a select group of performers. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo won once, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has won three times, and the Richard Alston Dance Company has won six times. Pretty solid and consistent work there!
How do you compare those three companies/dances, each at their finest? Skill? You can take that for granted. Sheer enjoyment? Each is fantastically enjoyable in their own way, and I don’t see a way of comparing along those lines. So I consulted Mrs Chrisparkle, and her suggestion was to compare one’s emotional response to each. She’s a wise woman, and no mistake. Therefore, and taking each winning performance separately, the top three performances were:
In 3rd place, Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2016
In 2nd place, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd March 2011
Possibly one of the most difficult awards to judge has been our next category, Best Classical Music Concert. From the 50 concerts I’ve seen over the years, by far the majority of which were performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, they in fact won nine of the ten annual awards, with 2015’s award going to the Worthing Symphony Orchestra for that year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala. How do these individual concerts shape up as far as the Decade Award is concerned?
In 3rd place, Alexander Shelley Conducts Scheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2013
In 2nd place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017
Now we come to the award for Best Entertainment Show of the Decade. You know what an Entertainment show is? It’s anything that doesn’t fall into any of the other categories. Over the past ten years we’ve seen 80 such productions and they’re a wide range of shows, so comparisons are onerous as well as odious. However, it’s interesting to see that of the ten award winners, two were Palladium pantos, two were Sheffield pantos, two were regular Burlesque Shows at the Royal and Derngate, one was a Strictly spin-off, one a mime artist, one a spoof comedy-musical, and the last was a celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday! Let’s see who wins:
In 3rd place, The Boy With Tape On His Face is Tape Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2016
In 2nd place, Dick Whittington, London Palladium, 29th December 2017
Next is a Big One, so to speak, it’s the Decade Award for the Best Star Standup. Since 1st January 2010 I have seen and written about 301 comedy shows – not just star standups, but also Screaming Blue Murders, comedians at Edinburgh, Leicester and elsewhere. That’s a lot of laughter. The annual award was introduced in 2011, so we have nine previous champions contending for the title – eight, actually, as Dara O’Briain has won twice. So here goes with these awards:
In 3rd place, Sarah Millican, Outsider, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd July 2016
In 2nd place, Rob Beckett, Wallop, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2019
And now on a more local level, here’s the Decade Award for the Best Screaming Blue Murder Standup. Our regular Friday (occasionally venturing into Saturday) evening comedy club at the Royal and Derngate continues to go from strength to strength and it’s very rare that a show isn’t sold out. We have seen some incredible comics there over the years, and I am delighted to announce the following gigs were the best we enjoyed:
For the past three years there has been a Best of the Rest Standup Award – for performances from the Leicester Comedy Festival, Upfront Comedy clubs, Comedy Crate Edinburgh Fringe Previews and so on. Happy to announce that the Decade Award (although it should really be called the Three Year Award) goes to the extraordinary show that was: Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester, 25th February 2017
Time for another Biggie; the Decade Award for Best Musical. Please cut me some slack here, gentle reader. My favourite musical of all time, was, is and always will be A Chorus Line, and there was a terrific revival of it at the London Palladium in 2013. So, if I’m true to my word, that should win the Decade Award and the Best Actor Awards should probably go to its cast members. However, somehow, it’s not so straightforward. Over the past ten years I’ve seen 135 productions of musicals, and I’d like other shows to share in the glory. So, if you’re agreeable, I’d like to share this award between A Chorus Line and another show. Even if you aren’t agreeable, I’m still going to do it.
In the interests of giving everyone a fair crack of the whip, I’ve also separated the category into Best New Musical and Best Revival of a Musical, which is where we start:
In 3rd place, Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016
In 2nd place, Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019
Equally difficult to choose, here’s the top three for the Best Revival of a Play – Decade Award.
In 3rd place, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019
In 2nd place, King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017
And the winner is: The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012
Let’s head further north for the next few Awards and consider those plucky performers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Edinburgh Awards were introduced in 2014, and since then I’ve seen 266 Edinburgh Fringe performances. Let’s consider the first Award – Best Play of the Decade (well, six years):
In 3rd place, Trainspotting, In Your Face Theatre, 8th August 2014
In 2nd place, Us/Them, BRONKS, 25th August 2016
And the winner is: My Mate Dave Died, Sheffield University Theatre Company, 23rd August 2018</A>
And now it’s the Best Individual Performance in an Edinburgh Fringe Play –
In 3rd place, Chris Duffy, Fear No Colours, Tonight with Donny Stixx, 21st August 2018
In 2nd place, David Carl. Project Y, Trump Lear, 21st August 2019
And the winner is: Sam Redway, Knaive Theatre, Bin Laden: The One Man Show, 21st August 2017
For the Best stand-up comedy show in Edinburgh Award, for four of the five years, the annual Award went to Spank!, with Olaf Falafel’s There’s No I in Idiot just edging it for 2018. So I’m simply going to award the Decade honour to Spank!, and in honour of many happy revisits to that grimy den in the Underbelly Cowgate, here’s a link to our first visit, which encouraged us to keep going!
Carrying on, now it’s the Decade Award for Best Of The Rest in Edinburgh:
In 3rd place, The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes, 20th August 2019
In 2nd place, Garry Starr Performs Everything, 24th August 2018
Best Local Production – which, in fact, equates to the Best University of Northampton Acting/Acting and Creative Students productions over the past four years; the honour goes to Blue Stockings, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2016
Now it’s time to get personal again, and consider the best performances of the decade. First, Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. And the top three are:
In 3rd place, Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016
In 2nd place, Rosalie Craig in Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019
And the winner is: Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre, 11th October 2014
Now for the guys, Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical this Decade. The top three are:
In 3rd place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013
In 2nd place, John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th August 2017
And the winner is: Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016
Moving on – the end is in sight, ladies and gentlemen – Best Performance by an Actress in a Play this Decade.
In 3rd place, Penelope Wilton in Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th October 2014
In 2nd place, Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow, Royal and Derngate Northampton, 18th February 2010
You can almost hear Frank Sinatra ringing in your ears… And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain…. Yes, that sad moment we hoped would never come – next March the Richard Alston Dance Company shuts up shop for the last time, with decades of magical performances behind them that have contributed so much over the years to my personal enjoyment of contemporary dance.
I first saw a Richard Alston piece way back in 1980 when Rainbow Ripples was part of a programme danced by Ballet Rambert (as they were then called) at the New Theatre Oxford, in the company of my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, even though they didn’t have those lavish titles bestowed on them at the time. My first encounter with the Richard Alston Dance Company was with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Wycombe Swan in 1998, featuring, as their star dancer, a young Martin Lawrance; and since then we’ve seen them no less than on fifteen occasions. These are sad times we’re dealing with here.
To wrap up their glorious place in modern dance history, they’re undertaking one final tour – the Final Edition, which, after Edinburgh last week, visited Northampton this week. The programme on Wednesday featured two new pieces and the return of two old favourites, more of which shortly. But first, for the third year running, we opened with a Curtain Raiser, Flocking, from Two Thirds Sky in collaboration with the Creative Learning department at the Royal and Derngate and Northampton School for Boys.
Flocking, choreographed by RADC alumnus Ihsaan de Banya, with Laura Gibson and Lisa Spackman, is a short but beautiful piece that echoes the sights and sounds of a coastline, with the flocking of birds, the sounds of the waves, and the movement of flotsam and jetsam, all to Zoe Keating’s superb 2010 soundtrack, Flying and Flocking. The 25 young dancers were outstanding in their crisp, creative precision of movement, expressing the choreography (which reminded me of Christopher Bruce in many ways) with confidence and artistry. It was a truly impressive experience, and each performer gave it tremendous commitment. A fantastic way to start the evening.
The first of the company pieces was the return of Richard Alston’s beautiful Brahms Hungarian, a deceptively complex and witty mix of Hungarian gypsy dance with classical ballet moves – I’m sure I saw a nod to Le Corsaire in there somewhere. With the women in summery floral dresses and the men in trendy waistcoats, this dance has all the visual beauty you could want. Pianist Jason Ridgway deftly plays Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their non-orchestrated version, which gives the whole dance an extra layer of elegance. The partnerships between the dancers all worked extremely well, but for me, the standout performances were, as they were throughout the whole evening, by Joshua Harriette (my One To Watch from last year) and Ellen Yilma.
After an interval, our next dance was a revival of Richard Alston’s 2015 creation, Mazur, danced with enormous expression and gentlemanliness by Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis. Using the example of how Chopin’s Mazurkas reminded the composer of his homeland when he was abroad, it’s a dance about a meeting of minds between friends, maybe more, sharing what they have lost. Messrs Harriette and Shikkis brought great warmth and balance to this piece and the occasional flash of humour, whilst executing it with technical mastery; and once again the dance benefited from Jason Ridgway’s charming and expressive playing.
Next up was Martin Lawrance’s new piece – and his final creation for the company – A Far Cry. In the programme notes he states that a far cry is “when you want to express its difference from something familiar” – and sums up his feelings of loss that the company is going to close. This beautiful dance emanates both sorrow and loss; the significance of the image of the fading burning sun on the backdrop towards the end of the dance was not lost on me. The choreography itself is a mix of the majestic and the manic; majestic when the dancers are confidently going through their steps, manic when they’re rushing around, rather like lost frenetic molecules, scrambling for survival. A very effective and compellingly moving work.
After a second interval, our final dance was Richard Alston’s new piece, Voices and Light Footsteps, danced by the whole company in ten movements to the music of Monteverdi – a mixture of orchestral, instrumental pieces and stunning madrigals. This time the women are in stunning satin evening dresses, whereas the guys are comparatively scruffy which I thought looked slightly odd. The dance itself is very haunting, very mellifluous; the dancers frequently break into small groups of three and these trios work together very creatively, suggesting relationships or themes that might not be there when just two dancers are partnered together. The combination of the music and the movement had a very relaxing effect, providing an almost cosy ending to the programme, and to the company’s work.
If you’re lucky enough to be near Brighton, Swansea, Bromley, Aldeburgh, Woking, Glasgow, Warwick, or the company’s home base at The Place, in addition to Bern in Switzerland – good for you, you have one last chance to see the company on this tour between now and November. Can’t deny it though – I’m gutted that this is the end. I’m sure that both Sir Richard and Martin Lawrance will continue to create fantastic new works in the future, but I don’t know where we’ll go to find them. To all the dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians who have given us such pleasure through the company over the years, I have just one word to say to you. Bravo!
Now for some thought-provoking and atmospheric dance, with Alyona Ageeva’s PosleSlov Theatre’s production of (Some)Body at C Venues – C Aquila – Temple at 15:25 on Saturday 24th. Let’s read the blurb: “Does a body make us human? Does it have a soul? What hides beneath nudity? What is nudity itself? Nudity is extreme openness and vulnerability and, at the same time, an incomprehensible power connected not only with sexuality. The magic of Eros, the compelling power of nudity, the way up and the way down, transcendence and co-creation, fragility and strength. Life, death, pain and love – all of this complex and unspeakable physical phenomenon is what we are researching in (Some)Body. ‘Hypnotic’ (Guardian). ‘Bold, sensitive and meaningful’ (FringeReview.co.uk). ‘Compelling’ ***** (BroadwayBaby.com).
We saw this company last year with their creative Sky Labyrinths and it was excellent. Check back around 4.30 pm to see if this production is too. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.
A very interesting piece for number of reasons. At first the dynamic is full of impact and tension; but after a while you sense that there is no sense of progress or development. Choreographically it’s largely slow and stylised, and totally devoid of expression. In one sense, that’s disappointing, in another that’s what the whole show is about. Thought-provoking for sure; it could have gone even further.
First show of this year’s fringe that might be classed as dance – although it also comes under cabaret – For Only an Hour, at Dance Base, Studio 3, at 19:35 on Sunday 18th. Here’s the blurb: “‘Sanger is one of the most versatile artists on the British stage, as this performance amply demonstrates’ (Dance Europe, 2018). Danced to a hilarious medley of Angela Lansbury, Delia Smith and Bette Midler this one-man romp is a pseudo-glamorous jaunt through pop culture, queer art, childhood dreams and life-changing surgery. It may be entertaining, but it demands a punishing vulnerability of the performer with surprises at every turn. Supported by haunting music by Donna McKevitt, glittering queer garments by Andrew Walker, mentoring by Wendy Houstoun and a unique improvised lighting design by Jen Wren.”
The title, apparently, is taken from Jacques Brel’s Jackie – so that’s already got me even more intrigued. I’ve enjoyed Wendy Houstoun’s work with DV8 in the past so it will be interesting to see her influence on Mr Sanger. I’m expecting this to be pretty funny in parts, although no doubt mixed with lots of pathos. Check back when it’s finished shortly before 9pm to see what we thought of it. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.
You can really see the influence of Houstoun’s work in this extremely entertaining, occasionally unsettling piece, performed with terrific aplomb and fluency by Phil Sanger, who, apart from anything else has a really beautiful voice; I loved his version of Jacky – Tacky – and his can-can is amazing! Very enjoyable!
Has there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….
Following their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.
Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.
Some adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.
All the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.
Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.
The dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.
However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.
The tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.
It’s been a couple of years since the Birmingham Royal Ballet danced their way onto the Derngate stage – and many years before that since we last saw them at the Birmingham Hippodrome. So it’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to enjoy some first-rate dance and a quality live music performance from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. For our performance, the company’s principal dancers were resting so it was an interesting chance to see some of the younger performers have their time to shine.
The first piece, Seasons in our World, was inspired by a poem by David Laing, Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, no less, and balletomane to boot. Its rather complex birth was a result of several discussions and workshops between its three young choreographers, Laura Day, Lachlan Monaghan and Kit Holder, who are all members of the company. Ms Day wanted to create the Spring section of the work. Mr Monaghan, who is Australian, wanted to incorporate the dangers of a too-hot Antipodean climate into the Summer section, whilst Mr Holder choreographed Winter. They also collaborated with award-winning composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian in creation of the accompanying music.
The result is a very enjoyable, if difficult to follow, thirty-five minutes of elegant, delicate, even fragile choreography, performed with great skill and grace by the company. It’s a feast for the eyes, with shimmery, sensual costumes, stunning lighting, and clever interaction between the dancers and the see-through scenery panels. Dancers perform in threes, and in couples, and with some excellent solo work by Haoliang Feng (I believe). The Winter section offers a little more humour than the rest of the dance, with sequences where the dancers huddle together like freezing penguins; although their close work together reminded me more of the background characters in Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances (which is no bad thing). The music is very suggestive and full of mini-melodies that you think are going to take off but then they stop and move on to another theme; very evocative to listen to, but also very disconcerting, and with some surprisingly harsh percussion, no doubt there to reflect the potential harshness of climate.
I enjoyed it, and I liked very much how Winter turned into next year’s Spring; but I couldn’t help but think it lacked a certain something. Maybe having three choreographers equals too many cooks? Certainly you wouldn’t say that the piece as a whole had one vision; but then, I guess, that wasn’t the idea in the first place. No question as to the quality of the dance though, it was elegant and beautiful throughout.
I still have the Music for Pleasure recording of Peter and the Wolf performed by the Little Symphony of London and narrated by Paul Daneman – I must have been about nine when I got it. I loved it – and as a result would pompously announce that Prokofiev was my favourite composer; and, the best part of fifty years later, he’s still very high up there in my affections and respect. Peter and the Wolf is awash with brilliant tunes, lush orchestrations, and creative recreations of animal interaction as portrayed by an orchestra. The slinky movement of the cat on the clarinet, the awkward grumpiness of the duck on the oboe, the featherweight frippery of the bird on the flute, the sinister stealth of the wolf are all beautifully realised; plus, of course, Peter’s youthful self-confidence on the strings and the swagger of the triumphal march at the end.
Naturally, it lends itself perfectly to the medium of dance, as the inventive choreographer Ruth Brill, also a member of the company – this evening’s entertainment is nothing if not in-house – expertly proves. Updated from its original pro-Soviet propaganda background of 1936, this production sets it in some municipal backyard, with a dirty old dumped armchair, a broken supermarket trolley, bin stores and some construction scaffolding. At first, I couldn’t see how that would work at all, but you very quickly realise that it fits like a dream. And the cast of characters bridge both this urban setting and the imaginary meadow setting of the original perfectly.
Karla Doorbar’s Peter (yes, a female Peter because the character is “defiant, goal-driven, carefree, moving on instinct” according to Ruth Brill) is a trendy, Sporty-Spice kind of girl, clearly able to take charge of any situation. Gus Payne’s bird is dressed in blue with a flapping yellow jacket, which again represents both the animal and the trendy young urbanite. Alexander Yap’s wolf is in a grey hoodie, Alys Shee’s duck is welded to her headphones, Eilis Small is in black boots, Max Maslen’s Grandfather in comfortable loungewear and the hunters are all girls about town.
It’s a very effective set of characterisations, and the choreography uses all the available space, on and off the construction site, with great inventiveness. Being really picky, there were a couple of moments though where the choreography just didn’t tie in with the narration. For example, Hollie McNish’s enjoyable and conspiratorial voice tells us “Peter, sitting in the tree, said “Don’t shoot!”” But she wasn’t sitting in the tree, she was down near where we imagine the pond to be. Koen Kessels’ orchestra did a magnificent job with Prokofiev’s score, and, quite apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable dance to watch, it was a true treat for the ears too. But the dancers were all on absolute top form and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It has to be said; this is quite an odd combination of pieces, as Seasons in our World is rather difficult to follow as a narration, whereas nothing could be more straightforward in the story-telling department than Peter and the Wolf. And for a show that would naturally attract many children to the audience, I would imagine the first dance would perplex a number of youngsters, who would get fidgety as a result. For a young-at-heart adult like myself, the programme was an enjoyable mix of the challenging and the reassuring. After its couple of nights in Northampton, the tour continues to Shrewsbury, Malvern and Wolverhampton. Recommended!
Production and dancer photos from the Birmingham Royal Ballet website
Although Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.
It’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.
The programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.
No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.
After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.
I’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.
It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!
Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper
The Balletboyz have carved out a fantastic reputation for themselves in the twenty years or so since they left the Royal Ballet. I first saw Michael Nunn and William Trevitt in a Dance Bites programme at the Wycombe Swan back in 1996, sharing the stage alongside such great names as Deborah Bull, Jonathan Cope, Adam Cooper and Dame Darcey Bussell. Their name came from a TV film they made of their creative partnership, and in about 2001 they created the George Piper Dances. But the Balletboyz label stuck, and wisely they reverted to that catchy name by which they are respected and loved today.
Them/Us is a new programme partly devised by the current group of dancers under the direction of Messrs Nunn and Trevitt, and partly choreographed by Christopher Wealdon. It’s a creative process that has worked backwards. Us, the second act of the programme, is an expansion of an original pas de deux choreographed by Mr Wealdon, which premiered in 2017 to great acclaim, designed to provide more of a narrative introduction to the existing work.
And then before the interval, Them – created by the company – is a further introduction to the later content, taking ideas from the dancers as to the very varied definitions of what Them might mean (to them, obviously). The result is an exciting and exhilarating double-act of dances, with fantastic performances of variations on similar choreographic movements, reflected between both pieces.
Them starts with six dancers, in multicoloured tracksuit-type shirt and trousers, seemingly meeting for the first time. A large and sturdy cube structure is walked into place, with which the dancers interact, walking through the spaces it provides or being enclosed by its invisible walls. The dancers each set up their own choreography with one another, whether it be handshake-type gestures, jokey gymnastics or intimate closer movement. As the dance progresses, two dancers who are already working together will attract a third to their group; and then a fourth, and eventually a chain of dancers linked by hands starts to envelop and wrap around itself. It’s almost a viscous flowing movement; it reminded me of the swirly convolutions of a model of a double helix molecule.
Although I couldn’t truly discern a clear and obvious narrative to the dance, what struck me was that it was all about individual people supporting each other. This is not one of those male-oriented dances that is all about supremacy and survival of the fittest. This is an environment where everyone matters, and conflict is replaced by care. This sense of charity and kindness continues on to Us, where the six dancers now appear more formally in long grey jackets, a little like frock coats, but their movements become freer as the jackets come off and they just appear in white shirts. The whole momentum culminates in the original duet, where the shirts are also removed and the whole final sequence reminded me of a guy looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, unsure of what he sees in his reflection; until his reflection takes over and reassures him that all will be well. Or, it could be a simple love story. Either way, it’s one of the most dynamic and tender performances you’re ever likely to see between two male dancers.
I was particularly impressed with the fluidity and flexibility, not only how the dancers used their bodies but also in their control of the choreographic movement throughout. Nothing was ever distorted, jarring or irrational in its movement; even when the music suggested a throb of pain or a blow to the head, everything flowed beautifully, with the effect that it made the dancers’ performances look easy – which of course, is far from the truth! That the company members possess great skill is obvious; what they also have is an enormous understanding and trust between themselves, which really becomes apparent in such a detailed and accurate performance.
The whole company dance with enormous strength, style and emotion; but, to name names, the final duet from Harry Price and Bradley Waller is stand-out sensational, and I also really enjoyed their performances alongside Liam Riddick earlier in the evening, who is on immaculate form as always. Coming up the ranks Ben Knapper performed a fantastic solo inside the cube to powerful drum rhythms and he is definitely my new One To Watch in contemporary dance. And I haven’t even mentioned the thrilling music!
A full Sadler’s Wells on a Wednesday night speaks volumes for the popularity of the company and the esteem with which it is held. After their week in London, their tour continues to Salisbury, Bromley, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Exeter, Chester, Richmond, Guildford, Glasgow, High Wycombe, Oxford, Finchley and Bristol by the end of April. Powerful and emotional – a must-see!