The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2019 – For Only an Hour, 18th August 2019

For Only an HourFirst 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!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas 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….

R+J in loveFollowing 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.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome 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.

R&JAll 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.

R+J togetherThe 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.

R&J in glitterThe 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.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Seasons in our World/Peter and the Wolf, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2019

Seasons in our World/Peter and the WolfIt’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.

Seasons in our WorldThe 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.

Karla DoorbarThe 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.

Haolieng FengI 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.

Peter and the WolfI 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.

Gus PayneNaturally, 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.

Alys SheeKarla 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.

Alexander YapIt’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.

Eilis SmallIt 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

Review – Ballet Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2019

Ballet BlackAlthough 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.

PendulumIt’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.

ClickThe 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.

Click 3No 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.

Ingoma 7After 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.

IngomaI’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.

Ingoma 4It’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

Review – Them/Us, Balletboyz, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 6th March 2019

Them/UsThe 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.

TU3Them/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.

TU5And 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.

TU4Them 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.

TU6Although 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.

TU1I 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.

TU2The 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!

TU7A 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!

Production photos by George Piper 😉

Review – The Snow Maiden, The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th January 2019

Russian State Ballet of SiberiaIt’s always a pleasure to catch some classical ballet from time to time; and as neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had ever seen The Snow Maiden, this visit from the Russian State Ballet of Siberia seemed like a golden opportunity. I always say (stop me if you’ve heard it already) that dance done well is the finest thing you can see on a stage; and dance done badly is the opposite! Although we haven’t seen this dance company before, I had no doubt that they were going to do a good job; previous visits to the Royal and Derngate by the Moscow City Ballet were various kinds of exquisite. However, I do recall a time when Mrs C and I saw a production of Swan Lake in St Petersburg – ok, it wasn’t the Mariinsky, but we had high hopes – and it was just appalling. Bored dancers going through the motions with no thought of artistry so that Japanese tourists could take photos. So we’re always a little bit concerned about dipping our pointe shoes into the murky world of lesser known Russian ballet companies.

in the frost forestBut there was no need to be worried about the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, or to give them their other name, the Krasnoyarsk State Ballet. They’ve visited the UK sixteen times since their first Christmas season in Cardiff in 2002, so I’m surprised I haven’t come across them before. For their current UK tour they have six full length ballets to tempt us with, three of which were performed during their brief three days at Northampton. They’re clearly a hard-working bunch, with only a few days off during their lengthy tour, details of which will follow at the end.

the-snow-maiden-russian-state-ballet-of-siberiaProduction values are commendable. Their relatively simple but extremely effective and attractive sets, with gently moving images like snowfall or water ripples, actually made our Tuesday night audience gasp with appreciation when the curtain went up – you don’t get that with Rambert. Anatoliy Chepurmoy’s sizeable orchestra gave Tchaikovsky’s tunes plenty of attack; full, live music to accompany a ballet always seems to create a greater sense of occasion, for audience and performers alike.

mizgir regretsOne doesn’t tend to go to the ballet to witness an intricate tale; but, as far as story-telling goes, this company did a very good job. The Snow Maiden runs away from the snowy forest because she wants to live life with real people; doesn’t seem unreasonable. She chances on a village where she is invited to join the youngsters watch a young merchant, Mizgir, choose a bride from the single village girls. He chooses Kupava, and all seems well at first, until the Snow Maiden bursts on the scene and she completely steals his heart, much to Kupava’s distress. If he liked it, then he should have put a ring on it. She runs away (again) and meets her mother Spring (the beautiful and graceful Anastasiia Belonogova), who bestows on her the capacity to love. But Spring warns the Snow Maiden that she must stay out of sunlight. Mizgir finds her, falls in love with her all over again, but as soon as she is revealed in the sun’s rays, she melts away. And the moral of this tale is: never forget your Factor 50.

snow maidenFor our performance, the role of the Snow Maiden was danced by Anastasiia Osokina, who, according to the programme, isn’t a soloist but a member of the Corps de Ballet. If that’s the case, her career is definitely on the up. However, I think that might be a mistake in the programme as she appears to have been dancing with the company since 2003 with many notable roles to her name. Whatever, she’s an exquisite dancer with superb expression (something you can sometimes miss with Russian ballerinas) and a joy to watch. When she first meets Lel, the young shepherd danced by Daniil Kostylev, they shared one or two ever so slightly ropey balance moments which I can only put down to slight lack of rehearsal – unsurprising with their performance schedule – because separately, they were as sure-footed as mountain gazelles.

KupavaWhere the ballet really came alive for me was the extensive pas de deux between Ivan Karnaukhov’s Mizgir and Elena Svinko’s Kupava; partly because that is the most luscious of Tchaikovsky’s tunes in this particular ballet (was it borrowed from another of his works, because I can’t locate it on any recordings!) and partly because Ms Svinko’s elegant displeasure at the Snow Maiden’s butting in and stealing her merchant was gripping! Both dancers filled the stage with their superb technical prowess, Mr Karnaukhov leaping from end to end, and Ms Svinko channelling her emotions in the sumptuous grace of her dance. Mr Karnaukhov was also fantastic in the second Act, where his athletic dancing movingly told the character’s mental agony at the Snow Maiden’s unexpected and puddly departure.

snow maiden1After all those high emotions, next came the appearance of the three clowns, led by Maxim Ikonostasov, who provided an amusing and thrilling interlude before the final scene. Looking at it from a dramatic point of view, it’s ironically amusing how quickly Kupava gets over her disappointment. There are a few disconsolate tableaux, and the inevitable graceful salutary waving of the Corps de Ballet on the sidelines, before Lel makes his mark and takes advantage of being Last Man Standing. Their final pas de deux together was typical of the usual classical Russian Wrap-up of a ballet, with some terrific leaps and pirouettes which really impressed and entertained.

Lel and Snow MaidenBritish provincial audiences may not play along with the Russian practice of lengthy rounds of applause after each element of dance, which is why the show comes down earlier than you might expect. But it doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate it; and the applause at curtain call was sustained and hearty! If you fancy a spot of classical Russian ballet without having to pay Covent Garden prices, I’d really recommend the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. Their UK tour continues until 16th March, taking in – deep breath – Norwich, High Wycombe, Bournemouth, Darlington, Swindon, Wimbledon, Southend, Brighton, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Hull, Leicester, Basingstoke, Ipswich, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Halifax and Oxford. And then they get a day off!

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

Last year the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and this year we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us seven shows to consider, and it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion, but we have.

In 3rd place, the two hilarious and skilful programmes that made up the triumphant return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks to you and me) at the Peacock Theatre, London, in September.

In 2nd place, the immaculate and riveting performances of the dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, never failing to hit the mark on technique, emotion and sheer entertainment, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, London, in December.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only managed five classical concerts in 2018 but the quality was, as usual, excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted, so here goes:

In 3rd place, Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, with an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music including Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor played by Alexander Romanovsky, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, including a magical performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, and Michael Petrov giving us a spellbinding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald, at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

In 1st place, A Night at the Ballet, a superb programme of ballet music including Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, with Nathan Fifield conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June. A clean sweep for the RPO!

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, the unstoppable Damian Williams starring in Peter Pan at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the humour-enhanced reincarnation of the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2018.

In 1st place, the utter filth and pure showbiz hilarity of Snow White at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Eight big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and it’s very difficult to judge because they were all excellent in their own way, so I can only rank them in the order that I enjoyed their show. I only listed a top three last year but this time I need a top five:

In 5th place, the beautifully constructed and thought provoking Choose Your Battles tour from Lucy Porter, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, the fearless use of a range of awkward subjects brilliantly mixed up by Paul Chowdhry in his Live Innit tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 3rd place, the quirkily intellectual and extremely clever Total Eclipse of Descartes tour by Rob Newman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 2nd place, and the winner of last year’s best Screaming Blue stand-up, the sheer delight of Daliso Chaponda and his What The African Said tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, on unbeatable form, the fantastic Devil May Care tour by Marcus Brigstocke, at the Royal and Derngate in October.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

It’s been a great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; a longlist of seventeen comics brought forward a shortlist of seven and here are the top five:

In 5th place, hilarious and outrageous as always, Robert White (28th September)

In 4th place, for his ability to invest a room with such sheer happiness, Jonny Awsum (13th April)

In 3rd place, always expect the unexpected with the extraordinary Russell Hicks (16th February)

In 2nd place, a new name to me and a superb talent with refreshing material, Stefano Paolini (12th October)

In 1st place, again, a first timer at Screaming Blue (I believe) but what a gifted way of weaving comedy magic out of some tough material, Sean Meo (14th September)

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the sheer professionalism and endless inventiveness of Patrick Monahan, in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show, Goals, at the Comedy Crate Festival, Black Prince, Northampton in July.

In 4th place, the fantastic delivery and fresh material of Drew Fraser (Upfront Comedy) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 3rd place, the musical madness and effervescence of Friz Frizzle, Song Ruiner (Leicester Comedy Festival, Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan 34 Bar, Leicester) in February.

In 2nd place, the fantastic comedy character creation that is Barbara Nice (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, a solid gold discovery of great confident delivery and material, Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw seventeen musicals this year, and only – perhaps – three weren’t really up to scratch. So that meant it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and still very fresh in the memory, the superb production of Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2019.

In 4th place, the invigorating and hugely emotional revival of Barnum, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in February.

In 3rd place, the stunningly technological revival of Chess at the London Coliseum that we saw in May.

In 2nd place, the visually and musically overpowering experience that is the new look Les Miserables, at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 1st place, believe the hype, it simply blew us both away; Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 14 such plays this year; one of which we left at the interval, but most of the rest were very good indeed. Here’s my top five:

In 5th place, Alan Bennett’s quirky, funny and sad examination of the current state of the NHS in Allelujah, at the Bridge Theatre, London in July.

In 4th place, the very challenging and in many ways absolutely bonkers A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October.

In 3rd place, a production which most other people didn’t seem to appreciate but I thought was masterful in so many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in March.

In 2nd place, the abstract, fanciful, and totally adorable, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 1st place, the heart-stopping, tragic, hilarious and exciting The Lovely Bones, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty revivals, the majority of which were absolute smashers. Eight made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the immaculate characterisation and brilliantly realised humour of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC in Stratford in August.

In 4th place, the powerful performances and clarity of story-telling of Timon of Athens, by the RSC in Stratford in December.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly clever updating of Tartuffe by the RSC in Stratford in September.

In 2nd place, the eye-opening and redefining version of Hamlet by the RSC touring to the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, the fabulously funny and joyful revival of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, by the RSC in Stratford in April.

A clean sweep for the RSC is pretty amazing! However, as always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the tedious and generally pointless production of Macbeth, also by the RSC in Stratford in April.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the individual tour-de-force of and by Alison Skilbeck in Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 4th place, another gripping solo performance in Fear No Colours’ Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

In 3rd place, the very funny and beautifully written Gayface, written by Chet Wilson (The Space on North Bridge)

In 2nd place, the anarchic and hilarious Holy Sh*t by Jack Fairhurst (Paradise in the Vault)

In 1st place, the play that had us in stitches for the first 75% and then tears for the rest of it, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s incredible My Mate Dave Died by Mike Alexander (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Wilf Walsworth for My Mate Dave Died (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 2nd place, Alison Skilbeck for Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 1st place, Chris Duffy for Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, still as funny as ever but this year eclipsed by a couple of truly brilliant shows, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, a comic we have seen many times before but never on fire like this, the fantastic Abigoliah Schamaun in Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 1st place, someone who tickled our funnybone in a way it hadn’t been tickled before, Olaf FalafelThere’s no I in idiot (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

A short list of ten provides this top five, which was agony to choose, so I decided to favour new talent over more established artists:

In 5th place, the always hilarious and increasingly popular Foil Arms and Hog, Craicling (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, the emotion-packed and fantastically musical, John Partridge – Stripped (Assembly Checkpoint)

In 3rd place, always worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Taming of the Shrew with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, a brilliant comedy find from the likeable Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel – Camels (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, throwing away all the rule books, the brilliant Garry Starr Performs Everything (Underbelly Cowgate)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so awful we had to walk out at a convenient break (along with the majority of the audience), was Hillary’s Kitchen (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

In 5th place, the 2018-19 3rd Year Students’ production of A Christmas Carol at the Isham Dark Studio in December.

In 4th place, Ytho’s production of O,FFS that they took to Edinburgh, but which I saw at the University in October.

In 3rd place, from the Flash Festival, Blue Shift Theatre’s production of Deciding What to do with Dad.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Open Eye Theatre’s production of Drained.

In 1st place, the 2017-18 3rd Year Students’ production of Accused at St Peter’s Church in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here are the top five, they were all fantastic in their own way:

In 5th place, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 3rd place, Rebecca Lock as Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London in February.

In 1st place, Caroline Quentin as the Duchess of Hareford in Me and My Girl at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Ash Hunter as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 3rd place, Tim Howar as Freddie in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 2nd place, Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 1st place, Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Fourteen in the rather long shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Penelope Keith as Mrs St Maugham in The Chalk Garden, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April.

In 3rd place, Zoe Wanamaker as Meg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 2nd place, Kathryn Turner as Timon in Timon of Athens, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in December.

In 1st place, Christine Beaumont as Susie in The Lovely Bones at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Another long shortlist, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, a short appearance, but what a masterclass, Sir Antony Sher as Nicolas in One for the Road, part of Pinter One, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in October.

In 4th place, Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 3rd place, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in September.

In 2nd place, Toby Jones as Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet in the RSC’s Hamlet, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fourth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Swan Theatre as runner-up.

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2019!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 29th December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeFor the record, this was the 7th time Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake since 1996 – and to be honest, I thought I’d seen it more. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the finest full-length dance that’s been created in my lifetime, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, balletomanes or not, either live or on DVD/TV, who wasn’t impressed with it.

Dominic North as the PrinceIf you haven’t seen it – I can only recommend you try to get a ticket; however, not at Sadler’s Wells, as the entire run is sold out but elsewhere on its tour to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol. You don’t have to have seen an original, classical version of the ballet beforehand, but if you have, there’s the additional fun of working out how Sir Matthew has adapted some of the original characters. But it’s still a superb, stand-alone story of how the young Prince, deprived of maternal affection, is trying to make sense of his life, duty and emotions; and how he finds a purpose with the Swan who may – or may not – be imaginary.

Will BozierI’d love to invite you to read my reviews of when we saw it in Milton Keynes in 2010 and Leicester in 2013 as well, because they show how this dance is constantly evolving. In those blogs I wrote about the changes I had seen from how I remembered it in its early days. Those changes were made sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and once again, in this 2018/2019 tour, there have been further changes, primarily thanks to Kerry Biggin’s re-staging. So much of the meaning of the dance is up to your own personal interpretation of what you see, and your emotional response to it, which also changes over the years.

Prince at SwankThe scene that seems to cry out for constant tinkering is the seedy backstreet disco towards the end of Act One. When we saw it five years ago, I enjoyed how they had created recognisable historical characters like Joe Orton and Quentin Crisp among the attendees – and that the older, tweedy lesbian disco bunny who has always been part of the action was very like June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George. This time round, the disco scene is more anodyne. Out go the recognisable characters to be replaced by a less charismatic range of dancers; the girls are all in the same glitzy party dresses, the boys are all largely indistinguishable; and they’re all more or less the same age. I missed the sailors on shore leave, who kicked the Prince in the gutter outside the club on the way home. I missed the tweedy lesbian who hovered around the performing female artiste. I missed the schoolboy who sneaks into the disco illicitly, still wearing his school cap.

Swans a swanningSome time ago they changed the opening scene, where we meet the young Prince, getting washed and dressed, and being taken out with the Queen to learn the Art of Royalty. Originally it was a deliberate representation of a child in the role; nowadays it’s danced by the same performer who plays the grown-up Prince. The “child” dancer would also go on to play the schoolboy in the disco scene – which is why I presume he’s now missing. The main problem with that though, is the very final, searingly moving tableau of the show. The Swan always used to cradle the boy in his arms as they look down on the dead Prince on the bed (sorry if that’s a shock). Now he’s just seen with another unknown dancer – who he? – and that final tableau doesn’t particularly make sense anymore.

Queen launchingElsewhere, the First Act dog no longer comedically pulls the soldier who’s taking it for a walk off stage; in the opera house scene, the cast no longer serenely bow to an empty royal box – instead the soldier/courtier rushes in to pick up the girlfriend’s handbag and gets caught in the spotlights. However, there are also many instances where new changes create a superb effect. The lighting, for instance, in this current production, seems to provide extra stage depth in many of the scenes, and the looming shadows cast in the Prince’s bedroom take on a life of their own. The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, played Tchaikovsky’s memorable score with tight excitement and supreme levels of emotion. No change there – I can’t remember a time when the music wasn’t superb.

StrangerBut it’s all about the dancing, isn’t it? Throughout the show it feels like the choreography has been ratcheted up a notch. It’s dangerous, it’s visceral, it’s strenuous. The Act One pas de deux between the Prince and the Queen is thrilling in the near-violence of the Prince’s physical beseeching for attention from his wayward mother. The Prince’s happiness and relief at the end of Act Two as he tears up his suicide note is the most boundless and joyous I’ve ever seen it. The fury of the jealous big-headed Act Three guest who insists that his partner behaves herself, is even more over the top and her dismissing him by chucking her cloak over his head is even more hilarious. The Act Three mocking of the Prince by the Swan and the other guests is even more savage. The general hissing and chattering of the swans, where once they were silent, creates further aggression and hostility; more than ever the swans in this production inhabit a macho environment of competitiveness and antagonism. All the way through the choreography continues to push the boundaries to encourage and enable even more technical brilliance from the dancers and a stronger emotional response from the audience.

Stranger in flightFor our show, we had two knock-out performances from Dominic North as the Prince and Will Bozier as the Swan. We saw Mr North in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies a few years ago and he still retains those incredibly expressive features that make all the difference when it comes to clear story-telling – in fact, this production of Swan Lake tells its story more clearly and eloquently than we’ve ever seen before. Mr North is an immaculate precision dancer who shines throughout the whole show, whether it be in his dance-based confrontations with the Queen, his rhapsodic joy at being saved by the Swan, or his being manipulated by the Stranger – he was perfect. Mr Bozier is a real find; tall and broad, he makes for a very masculine Swan and an extraordinarily insolent Stranger. Physically he towers over Mr North in their dances together – in a protective way as the Swan and overflowing with arrogance as the Stranger. I’ve not seen Mr Bozier before; he’s a dancer of superb skill and very exciting to watch. I can’t wait to see him in another role in the future.

QueenOur Queen was Nicole Kabera, and, like the rest of the cast, a perfect fit for the role. Superbly man-hungry, you sense this queen will have worked her way through the entire army by daybreak; no wonder she has no time for her pathetic specimen of a son. Ms Kabera has a fantastic stage presence and a very alluring manner; you can really feel that the Prince would be overwhelmingly intimidated by her. Katrina Lyndon’s Girlfriend is a complete hoot who really puts the common into commoner, with her total lack of etiquette but enormous sense of fun; in what I think is a change (or an addition) to the plot, this Girlfriend decides to return the money to the Private Secretary that he had originally paid her for trapping the Prince. And Glenn Graham was our smart and sinister Private Secretary; we saw him dance the Swan five years ago and he still packs a very strong stage presence.

Naughty swansWhat can I say? It’s a devastatingly wonderful production. Mrs C and I were up on our feet at the end with no hesitation. I can’t think of any production better suited to introduce an adult who knows nothing of the genre to the world of dance. However, it was also terrific to see so many children in the audience, both boys and girls, enthralled by it. Twenty-three years ago I knew this show would run and run. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Rambert2 and Ghost Dances, Sadler’s Wells, 8th November 2018

Rambert2 and Ghost DancesIt’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Rambert, and a full nineteen years since we last saw Ghost Dances – which was the prime motivator for coming to see this revival at Sadler’s Wells. Over the decades it has remained my absolute favourite dance and – whilst being fully aware that this sounds completely pretentious – I truly consider it one of the cultural foundations on which my whole life has been based. I first saw it way back when, in the seas of time, with my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters – a mere slip of a thing we were – so it was only right that we invited them to join us for what would be their first time of seeing it in 36 years. How the hell can it be that long ago?

Grey MatterBut there’s a twist with this programme from Rambert – they’ve created Rambert2, a company for 18 to 25 year old dancers. It’s good for companies to keep evolving, suiting the needs of the age and the tastes of the dance fan base; and there are other dance outfits – Nederlands Dans Theater springs instantly to mind – who have a “young persons” troupe as well as their standard company. When we first saw NDT2 we were totally blown away by their vigour, commitment, skill and enormous sense of daring and fun. Would the new Rambert2, who dance the first, second and fourth dances in this programme, be the same?

More Grey MatterThe proof of the pudding is in the dancing! The first dance of the evening was Grey Matter, choreographed by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Rambert’s Guest Artistic Director whilst they find a replacement for Mark Baldwin. This is not, incidentally, to be confused with Didy Veldman’s Greymatter that she choreographed for Rambert in 1997. The programme notes remind us that Grey Matter refers to our brain cells, and that the dance is about a person who loses sight of their memories, and a community grows around them giving them support. However! I have to say, I didn’t get that narrative from watching the dance at all. For me, the costumes of the dancers suggested to me that they were all individual pieces of brain matter; neurons, electrical impulses, even infected material that the other healthy brainy globules united to crush. They were all individual parts of a functioning brain; supportive, defensive, communicative. The young dancers were on fine form, and gave a great performance. The lighting also added a huge amount of atmosphere and suspense; the choreography amused me, but I couldn’t actually put my finger on ascribing a style to it. Definitely exhilarating, and extremely curious.

E2 7SDNext up was Rafael Bonachela’s E2 7SD. He created it in 2004; it’s obviously a postcode so I checked it out with Google Maps and it takes us to Horatio House, Horatio Street, Hackney. Seems pretty random; maybe like the random conversations that form part of the street soundscape that accompanies this modern duet, performed with robust conviction by Meshach Henry and Darlyn Perez. To me this felt like the several stages of a big argument, with a number of “I love you but I hate you” moments. I admired it enormously, but I have to say I didn’t emotionally engage with it.

Ghost DancersThen came, for us, The Big One. Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, danced by the (fractionally) more mature Rambert dancers, to traditional folk music from South America. Originally created as a response to the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile, three eerie and cruel ghost dancers stalk the land, watching and waiting for the chance to eliminate members of the community with a simple crush of the head, or a callous mimicry of their dance movement. No one is exempt from their power; but no one stays dead for ever, as the people continue to fight back to lead their ordinary lives and maybe one day overthrow the tyrants. My personal favourite section is Papel de Plata, where a chirpy young man leads some girls a merry dance by lovin’ and leavin’ them as young men are sometimes wont to do, only to be taken by the ghost dancers before he’s had a chance to ask the fourth girl out. Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters confessed they had tears throughout Dolencias, their favourite section – but then they knew they would. The music was played live by band of six, including the traditional instruments played by Forbes Henderson, who played for the original production all those years ago, and was a member of the group Incantation, who brought the South American sound into the British charts in the 1980s.

Ghost DancesIt was a stunning performance all round, most notably from the trio of Ghost Dancers, Miguel Altunaga, Joshua Barwick and Liam Francis, who were most maliciously ruthless in their extermination of their fellow countrymen. But everyone performed with a tremendous sense of story-telling and an awful lot of heart. We all absolutely loved it.

Killer PigFinal dance of the evening, and back to the young blood of Rambert2, was the fabulously named Killer Pig, which is what you get if you push Peppa just an oink too far. A cluster of eight dancers crowd in a corner of the stage, almost like this is the area where they go to get their batteries recharged, before they’re off and cavorting all over the place, much of the time on tiptoe but moving as if they’re wading through hot mud, the girls dressed discreetly in vests and hot pants, the boys in what looked disarmingly like oversized diapers. It’s a challenge on every aspect, but the pulsating rhythm and the commitment of the dancers carries you away with them. The incessant hyperactivity was broken up a couple of times by some brief solos, one of which, by Salome Pressac, absolutely took our breath away. Much of the time Hua Han takes centre stage, and he shocks you with his extraordinarily flexible limb-work. After a while I got the sense that the dancers were trying to outdo each other by attempting parodies of classical ballet stances and elements, but this is one of those dances that if you try to follow a narrative, you’re really leading yourself up the garden path. Whatever, it went down huge in Sadler’s Wells, and we all absolutely succumbed to its flashy fun.

The thirteen dancers who make up Rambert2 are certainly a spirited, energetic and talented group; it would be fascinating to see them perform something a little more lyrical next time. Their tour (without Ghost Dances, alas) continues into next year, visiting Norwich, Exeter, Belfast, Guildford, Oxford and Winchester.

Recent production photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2018

Richard Alston October 2018It’s always a pleasure to see the Richard Alston Dance Company on their autumn tour – I’ve been a fan (there’s no point denying it) since I first saw the company in 1998, although I’ve enjoyed his choreography since I first saw Rambert perform Rainbow Ripples back in 1980. The word on the street is that this is his penultimate annual tour before the company closes in 2020 – dark days ahead for contemporary dance lovers; particularly as the current casting of the company has many new fresh-faced young dancers honing their skills, performing great dance and promising even greater things in the future.

Richard AlstonMr Alston introduced the evening with an explanation of the first two items on the menu. Like last year, we began with a curtain raiser featuring young local talent. We watched eight young dancers from Northampton School for Boys performing Lost Child, choreographed by their teacher, Alison Clinton, inspired by the story of Peter Pan. We were genuinely impressed with their commitment, skill and artistry. It was full of character and story-telling, and dotted with many moments of humour; and some terrific leaps too. Above all, you could tell that they really enjoyed it; and that sense of pleasure always communicates itself back on to the audience so that we loved it too. Congratulations team; we were happy to tell a couple of the guys during the first interval how much we enjoyed their performance – and they seemed happy to hear it.

ShimmerMr Alston also wanted to explain the thought process behind the next piece, Mid Century Modern. To celebrate his fifty years as a choreographer, this is like an Alston’s Greatest Hits sequence; six excerpts from dances he has choreographed over the years. They’re not in chronological order, they’re ordered to create a contrasting impact. It’s also an excellent way to introduce us to the company, as two of the pieces are solos, another is a duet, and the rest involve everyone.

DetourWe started with Fever (2001), a showcase for Elly Braund and Nicholas Shikkis, amongst the very finest dancers performing today. They commanded the stage with their immense control and fluidity; totally engrossed with the accompanying madrigal music. Nowhere Slowly (1970) is Mr Alston’s earliest extant piece of choreography, and features the excellent Jennifer Hayes encircling the stage in a deceptively simple action of dance drama. Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), set to a Schubert Adagio from Death and the Maiden, is a charming piece that suggests how peoples’ lives can be interwoven by the same activity. The excerpt from Rainbow Bandit (1977) was danced in total silence and shows how concentration itself can be beautiful – I would have loved to hear the “Rainbow Chuck Bandit” vocal soundtrack again though! The solo from Shimmer (2004) is a monument to elegance, and a perfect vehicle for new company rising star Joshua Harriette. Finally there was a sequence from Signal of a Shake (1999), one of those crowd-pleasing numbers where the story was told twice – the second time at top speed – to the stately sounds of Handel. The variety of styles and the superb execution made this an excellent opener to the Alston programme.

ProverbAfter the first interval we returned for Martin Lawrance’s new work, Detour. Seven dancers react to the highly percussive soundtrack from Michael Gordon’s Timber Remixed, which reminded me of the sound of helicopter wings revolving continually, more frenetically, until the sound was just an electronic blur. Very exciting and mesmerically beautiful, this demands a lot from its dancers, combining speed with elegance as it hurtles towards its final crescendo. The final coupling of Monique Jonas and Joshua Harriette was mind-blowing, with their almost circus-skill balancing act. We both absolutely loved it. Then it was time for Richard Alston’s 2006 work, Proverb, with its intriguing soundtrack of the repeated line “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”, embellished and enhanced so that it resembles some form of Gregorian Chant. I particularly appreciated Peter Todd’s costumes – coloured, textured dresses that had been invaded by black down one side, as though in perpetual half-mourning. The full company of dancers all worked together to create an image of interdependence and harmony; a heart-warming message in these rather fractious times.

Brahms HungarianAfter the second interval we returned for another new piece – Richard Alston’s Brahms Hungarian, a sequence of ten dances to the accompaniment of those famous Brahms’ Hungarian Dances but not, as they usually are, played by a full orchestra, but to the plaintive and delicate notes of Jason Ridgway on the piano. This was a fabulous way to end the evening. The traditional Gypsy rhythms inspired some very grand and formal, yet expressive, choreography; and I admired Fotini Dinou’s swirling floral dresses for the female dancers, matched by stark and smart angular jackets for the men. I think this is the closest I’ve seen Richard Alston choreograph something so closely akin to classical ballet, with the girls on tiptoe (they’d be en pointe if they were in the right shoes) and the men supporting the women in an (almost) traditional pas de deux. It was stunning.

 Brahms Hungarian 2With a number of changes in personnel in the company’s line-up (five dancers from last year’s show have moved on, five remained) I feared there might be some “gaps” in this year’s offering, but not a bit of it. The company is as strong as ever and gave us a truly superb night of dance. Congratulations to all!