Review – Nederlands Dans Theater 2, Birmingham Hippodrome, 3rd May 2016

NDT2This was one of those no-brainer bookings. We haven’t seen NDT2 perform since 2007, having discovered them in 1997 and seen them seven times over the following decade. You could call them the youth faction of the Dutch National Dance Company, its performers being strictly limited to those aged between 18 and 23. After that they get promoted to the Premiership level of NDT1. And for those aged over 40, there’s an NDT3 too. Over the years we’ve seen them rise to the challenges of fantastic choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, Hans van Manen, Lightfoot Leon, Johan Inger, Ohad Naharin, and many others.

I new thenPaul Lightfoot, currently Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater, is quoted in the programme as saying “we don’t do strong narrative works”. I read that in the first interval, having tried desperately hard to find a narrative in the first dance of the evening, Johan Inger’s I New Then. It was with some relief that I realised that Paul Lightfoot had already tacitly agreed with me that there wasn’t one. What was clear from the very start was that the quality of NDT2’s dancers is as amazing as it ever has been. Whether in the solos, or partner work, or as part of a full ensemble, the precision, the commitment, the athleticism and the sheer exuberance of each dancer is remarkable.

Gregory LauIn an attempt to find the narrative (that wasn’t there), it seems to me that the strength of I New Then comes from the dualities of freedom of expression versus imprisonment, of control versus submission. Expect the unexpected with this dance; whether it be the sudden appearance of a forest of poles that you didn’t realise were there; or the slow undressing by two of the dancers (don’t worry, they don’t go all the way); or the abstract vocalising by one of the dancers as he witnesses this undressing, which takes on a life force of its own. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t convinced by this series of ohs that culminate in a shrieking sequence. Not that Guido Dutilh didn’t do it brilliantly (there’s a star in the making, for sure) or that the audience didn’t appreciate it – indeed many audience members were laughing their socks off. She just wasn’t sure of its relevance to the piece, other than simply finding a new way to do something different in the world of dance. But then she’s never been convinced of avant garde for avant garde’s sake. I understand where she’s coming from though – that aspect of that dance was perhaps a trifle tedious.

Cacti no CactusOur second dance of the night was Edward Clug’s mutual comfort (deliberately no capitals, apparently). Again, no point looking for a narrative; this dance for four people is characterised by a fascinating choreography that combines sparky, disjointed, and almost brutal actions with really smooth and silky moves. This was the first appearance that evening of the dancer Gregory Lau who struck me as being the company’s truly outstanding dancer of the night. But I also thought Katarina van den Wouwer danced superbly in this deceptively simple short piece – just eleven minutes. After a pause we were treated to a stunning performance of Hans van Manen’s Solo, where three dancers (ironically) all perform aspects of one character. It was an exceptional display, with Benjamin Behrends, Miguel Duarte and Gregory Lau all giving us immaculate spins, remarkable fluidity of movement and a true opportunity to show off their athleticism and power. Even though it’s only seven minutes long, afterwards Mrs C commented, “that was worth the ticket price alone”. It certainly was. A real tour de force.

CactiThe final dance of the night, occupying the traditional “crowd-pleaser” slot, was Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, a very tongue-in-cheek piece that deconstructs beautifully all that pompous pontificating by dance reviewers. Instantly full of high impact, as it starts with all sixteen dancers on the stage, perched on what appear to be recycled packing pallets, making as much noise as they like by tapping, patting, thumping and stomping around, not forgetting making all those gasps, sighs and other aspirations that us unfit people make when we’re overdoing the exercise. In other scenes these pallets are upended, with the dancers performing behind and partly on top of them, as if they were swimmers in a pallet sea, constantly creating visual jokes that work wonderfully well.

G DutilhInterspersed with the exhilarating rhythms that really encourage the athletic dancing, there are some wonderfully po-faced spoken word tracks that try to dissect and make sense of the dance, always in the most riotously pompous way. At one stage, the opinion is voiced that the true power of the dance stems from the cacti themselves (yes there are real (or very good look alike) cacti as part of the performance. There’s another wonderful scene where you can hear an imaginary conversation between two dancers as they work their way through their routine, essentially providing a running commentary on what they’re doing, and whether they think any particular movement has intrinsic artistic merit. It’s all very funny and cleverly done. And who can forget the dead cat?

dancersWe didn’t stay for the Q&A session afterwards as we had a train to catch and it seemed very naughty being at large in Birmingham after 10pm on a school night. Thank you to Dance Consortium for bringing NDT2 back to our shores; we have missed them very much and it’s a thrill to see that they are as exciting and rewarding a watch as ever. They’re still to tour to Plymouth, Nottingham, Brighton and Sadler’s Wells – don’t miss the opportunity to catch them.

Production photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou

Review – Lord of the Flies, New Adventures, Birmingham Hippodrome, 18th May 2014

Lord of the FliesIt’s a tricky thing, converting a much studied, highly allegorical, significant work of literature such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies into just under two hours’ worth of contemporary dance. As the director/choreographer, if you go into too much plot detail you end up getting bogged down in a mere series of gestures and “dance conversations”, and the audience gets concerned about having to understand every single little nuance – which is pretty darn impossible. On the other hand, not enough detail and it becomes too abstract with just hints and suggestions of the original work and you haven’t really covered your remit.

Dominic North“Do you know the story of Lord of the Flies?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, as we quaffed our pre-matinee glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “No”, she replied, “do you?” “It’s all about a group of boys who get washed up on some desert island and have to survive.” I realised my response was light on narrative but I couldn’t remember much else. I read it when I was about 16 at school Because I Had To. “Oh yes,“ I added, “there’s also a boy called Piggy who gets killed”. “Is there a synopsis in the programme?” she enquired. There wasn’t. Two and a half hours later, by the time we were in post-show discussion mode, we realised there were a number of moments that we didn’t really understand. What was the pig’s head all about? Who was the mysterious bloke who suddenly appeared and then dropped out of sight? And then came back again? Why was the one guy left on stage at the end? What do the clothes rails represent? One quick flick through the Wikipedia synopsis of the story answers most of those questions, but I agree with Mrs C – and the ladies on the train home in the evening whom we eavesdropped and heard saying the same thing – a synopsis would have been helpful. And I still don’t get what the clothes rails were for.

Danny ReubensScott Ambler is the choreographer for this piece, with Matthew Bourne as overall director. I am a huge admirer of Mr Ambler’s work – ever since we first saw him as the Prince in Swan Lake, I’ve never seen that role performed better, and I’ve followed his career with thinly-disguised fandom. I think he’s done a superb job with the choreography in Lord of the Flies, creating some exhilarating solos, exciting stand-out group work and characterful quirky moments for individual dancers throughout the show.

Layton WilliamsThere’s a core cast of nine dancers taking the main parts, but in each venue around the country, there is a backing ensemble made up of local young men and boys, from college students to teenagers down to little kids, all of whom study dance or performing arts, and who, on the strength of the performance we saw, overwhelmingly put their heart and soul into it. Naturally, this structure is going to lead to an imbalance of dance skills and expertise, so Mr Ambler has had to construct routines that will bring the best of out of all members of the cast, both experienced and beginners. The result is fantastic – apart from the obvious differences of ages with some of the dancers, the integration between the professionals and ensemble is seamless. You simply cannot see the join. There are many sequences when you have twelve or fourteen dancers centre stage performing the “main dance” (for want of a better expression) while the rest of the cast lurk on the edges, observing or acting out their own mini-playlets; but it’s astounding to think that three to five of those main dancers will be from the local cast.

Chris WilsonThe Birmingham Hippodrome has a pretty massive expanse performance area but the show occupies every possible space. When all the cast are on stage there is so much to watch, with so many different relationships being played out, so much interaction between the dancers and so many little individual scenes that give you an insight into the characters depicted, that I think you’d need to see this show at least three times to be sure of seeing everything. There is an excellent sense of plot progression, as the costumes, make up and choreography all work together to increase the sense of developing chaos and savagery. Even if there are moments when you really don’t get what the story is trying to say, or the symbolism escapes you, the overall visual and musical impact is so strong that it carries you along anyway.

Fenton LockleyIt’s danced throughout with the superb skill and commitment that you would expect from a Matthew Bourne production. Ralph, the kind of “Head Boy” character, is danced by Dominic North, who I think we have seen before but I haven’t really noticed much before. Not only is he a great dancer, but his facial expressions are really communicative, so you can follow plot details and understand Ralph’s character really well. He’s perfectly cast up against Danny Reubens’ “bad boy” Jack, who, I have to say, is exceptional in this production. He was great in last year’s Sleeping Beauty but since then he has really upped his game immensely over the past year. He’s one of those performers you can’t stop watching – definitely a star of the future. In addition, Layton Williams is brilliant as the wistful and unworldly Simon, with elegant and expressive solo work and he is fantastic in his final scene. There’s also a thoughtful and sincere performance by Sam Plant as the doomed Piggy, the responsible intellectual who is always going to be bullied by brutes.

Jack DologhanAll the ensemble guys were also equally fantastic, but a few really stood out for various reasons; Chris Wilson for his extraordinary presence and strong dance skills, Jack Dologhan for the humour and resilience of being the littlest chap, Khalid Daley for the sensitive way he moved with the music, Fenton Lockley for the way he acted through dance, and Hugo von Frangstein for his all-round stage presence and maturity. But, really, they were all great.

Khalid DaleyWe’ve seen a number of Matthew Bourne/Adventures in Motion Pictures/New Adventures shows now over the years, and we both agreed that for visual impact and emotional contact this is very high up there with the greats. Swan Lake is still The Boss for us, but we enjoyed this more than Cinderella, Nutcracker!, Dorian Gray and maybe even Sleeping Beauty. You might just want to refresh your memory of the plot before going to see it, that’s all. This powerful and hard-hitting production is touring on and off for the rest of the year and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their contemporary dance.

Hugo von FragsteinPS. There was a curtain-up announcement forewarning us that cast members would be at the exits after the show to collect donations to Matthew Bourne’s charitable foundation, Re:Bourne. We’re both perfectly happy to make a small donation on the way out of a theatre but, to be honest, you really do need a little more information about the work that a charity does if you’re to make a contribution. The announcement didn’t give any such details and the advertising in the programme about it is woolly at best. I’m sure it’s a decent cause but we didn’t feel able to give more than a moderate amount without more information. If you’re involved in Re:Bourne please feel free to post more information about its work!

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo a.k.a The Trocks, Birmingham Hippodrome, 2nd February 2013

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte CarloIt’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Trocks to our shores, and indeed the intervening months between booking the tickets and seeing the show are actively spent in happy anticipation. If you don’t already know, every member of this all-male company of amazing dancers takes on a male and female persona appropriate to the Grand Tradition of Classical Ballet. Get to the theatre early so you have some time to read their biographies in the programme because they are wickedly funny. Olga SupphozovaYou can never be quite sure who or what you will see until you hear the pre-show announcement explaining the changes to the programme; along with the reassurance that all the ballerinas are in a very good mood for that performance. Will some of one’s old favourite performers still be strutting their stuff? Will there be some new shining stars in the company? Will they do all their old routines? The answers to those questions – certainly as far as the Saturday matinee in Birmingham were concerned – are yes, yes and no.

Lariska DumbchenkoWe’ve seen the Trocks now probably at least ten times, last time a couple of years ago, and on nearly every one of those occasions the first dance has been Act Two of Swan Lake, which is both one of the funniest and most superbly performed pieces you’re ever likely to see on a stage. This time, however, there was no Swan Lake! It is being performed at a couple of the gigs on their tour, but at Birmingham instead our opening act was Les Sylphides.

Jacques d’AnielsLes Sylphides combines the beauty of classical ballet with plenty of opportunities for slapstick. It showcases the dancers’ extraordinary talents but remains extremely funny. From the moment Olga Supphozova (one of my old favourites) strides on stage and demands that she takes over from Lariska Dumbchenko (another of my old favourites), who stomps off in a huff, you know they haven’t lost their ability to mock the art form in a most loving way. Miss Supphozova (the excellent Robert Carter) is on top form as she beefs her way through the routine, Marina Plezegetovstageskayacausing and side-stepping pratfalls and beguilingly drawing the audience along with her with that coquettish smile. She was matched with superb dancing by Marina Plezegetovstageskaya, which is the first time we’ve seen her, and together they were masterfully accompanied by M. Jacques d’Aniels, in a new reincarnation embodied by Lawrence Neuhauser. His vague, mindless expression is a complete hoot. The other dancers were all superb and the physical comedy of the dance was of the highest order – especially hilarious was the delightfully vacuous Miss Ludmila Beaulemova, a new Trock played by Scott Austin.

Ludmila BeaulemovaOur pas de deux for the matinee was danced by Yakatarina Verbosovich and Kravlji Snepek. Miss Verbosovich (the extraordinary Chase Johnsey) was on stunning form, with a performance of grace and precision that Darcey Bussell would have found hard to match. Mr Snepek (new Trock Philip Martin-Neilson, the youngest member of the company) grew into his performance and I am sure he will be a splendid stalwart of the group in the years to come.

Yakatarina VerbosovichThis was followed by La Vivandière, pas de six. I was a little disappointed because I also saw that Le Grand Pas De Quatre is being played at some theatres and that is a real favourite – but this was the first time we had seen La Vivandière. There was no need to be disappointed, as it’s beautifully danced and very funny. The hairy-chested Miss Dumbchenko (the brilliant Raffaele Morra) was back on stage and giving it her all. It was also a great opportunity to see some deft and seemingly effortless (I’m sure it isn’t) solo work by Andrei Leftov (the superb Boysie Dakobe).

Kravlji SnepekA major highlight of any Trocks performance is the Dying Swan solo – a five minute comic masterpiece of sheer magic. Joy of joys, it was to be a rare appearance by Miss Ida Nevasayneva, my favourite Trock, the marvellous creation of Paul Ghiselin. From the visual gags of the misplaced spotlight and the loose feathers, to Miss Nevasayneva’s wobbly, bandy legs and pained expressions, it’s five minutes where you can barely see the stage for tears of laughter. To witness Comrade Ida executing the terminal fowl one more time (something I had feared I would never see again) was a genuine thrill.

Andrei Leftov The final piece was Walpurgis Night, again a new piece for us – Go For Barocco and Raymonda’s Wedding seem to be temporarily retired. Superbly danced and elegantly staged, if I’m honest for me it didn’t have quite enough humour content to make the whole afternoon a balanced programme. It was still very enjoyable though, and the audience loved it. As usual we were treated to a surprise comedy curtain call act, which was very cleverly done and extremely different – but Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed we prefer their Lord of the Dance curtain routine.

Ida NevasaynevaBut this is to take nothing away from the excellence of the performance. The Birmingham Hippodrome is a very big theatre and it was a delight to see it so packed with happy balletomanes and comedy appreciators alike! The Trocks are touring the UK until the end of February and you’ll regret it if you don’t catch them.