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Irmgard

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  1. I believe the choir is made up of the children who have just been dancing onstage.
  2. It has just been reported on Facebook that the former prima ballerina of Scottish Ballet has died. RIP
  3. Thank you very much! I do enjoy writing them (when I have the time!) and I try to point out dancers who usually get overlooked by the press.
  4. It's hard for me to choose just one Odette/Odile but with Cao/Arrieta you get the best chemistry. There is also the cast of Takahashi/Frola who apparently gave fabulous performances although I was unable to get to Bristol in time for theirs. However, if I had to see just one it would most likely be Cao/Arrieta.
  5. It beggars belief that such a star dancer should only be given one Manon and one "Swan Lake" at the Coliseum. With thirteen London performances of "Swan Lake", I think they could have been shared out more evenly amongst the principals as Shiori Kase also only gets one performance. Glad I managed to see both dancers in Bristol! Just reading other comments about the wonderful Neapolitan dance, it was choreographed by Ashton for two of his favourite dancers, Alexander Grant and Julia Farron around 1952. When I spoke to Julia Farron a few years ago, she told me that, for her retirement, the company put on a special performance of "Swan Lake" just so that she could make her farewell dancing the Neapolitan! It does make you realise how fabulous the footwork of the dancers of that era must have been.
  6. After a white-knuckle drive down the M4 to Bristol on a wet and very blustery Thursday afternoon, it was lovely to be greeted by the sunny smile and charm of Adriana Lizardi as the lead villager in the matinée performance of “Swan Lake”. With her sense of style and lovely footwork, she set the standard for the ladies in the ensemble dances, although it was not met by everyone. Indeed, in the glorious Ashton waltz in Act I, I was surprised by the stiffness in the backbends and rather perfunctory ports de bras of most of the ladies and so my eye was continually drawn to Emily Suzuki for the sheer quality of her dancing, with beautiful use of the feet and head, pliant backbends and ports de bras that flowed – definitely a dancer to watch! The pas de trois was beautifully danced by Shale Wagman, Jung ah Choi and Adela Ramirez with great style and exquisite footwork from all and a particularly thrilling coda. The radiant Choi shone in the first solo with beautifully clear beats and ballon. The always charming Ramirez is the only dancer I have seen in recent years who can make the second solo both flirtatious and demure at the same time while highlighting the delicacy of Petipa’s choreography. Prince Siegfried at this performance was Aitor Arrieta substituting at very short notice for the indisposed Junor Souza. Although it was obviously too short notice to change the cast sheet, I felt it was hugely disrespectful to Arrieta not to make an announcement at the start of the performance, along with the other announcements about recording etc. There was also some sloppiness regarding the cast sheets because, when I picked mine up at the front desk, it was for the previous evening’s performance. It turned out there were a few at the bottom of the pile which were correct but I wonder how many out-of-date ones were handed out! Similarly, at the Saturday matinée, I heard the man behind me saying he was sure, through his binoculars, that the Odette was Japanese (and it was indeed Shiori Kase) but the programme said she was Romanian! Obviously the wrong cast sheet had been placed in his programme and goodness knows how many others! I also noticed typing errors in dancers’ names which I find unforgivable. Arrieta’s nobility was evident from his very first entrance and he danced with all the elegance and beautifully clean technique that I have come to expect from him. Although not credited on the information sheet, the interpolated solo at the end of Act I was actually introduced by Nureyev to the Royal Ballet in 1962 and retained by Ashton when he revamped the company’s production a few years later and is a testament to Nureyev in his absolute prime. It is therefore to Arrieta’s great credit that he gave such a stylish and beautifully phrased account of the fiendishly difficult adagio choreography, and did Nureyev proud. There is a dilemma for theatres over the pause between Acts I and Il, especially when the orchestra pit has been extended into the stalls, i.e. whether to bring up the house lights and have those who did not listen to the announcements think this is an interval and get up to leave, or to leave the lights down which means that people do not hear when the delicate overture to Act II starts. At this performance, although not advertised as a schools’ matinée, there were many school parties filling the seats (the ones surrounding me seemed to be about nine years old) who had obviously been primed to be quiet once the music started (and were much better behaved about this than the adults at other performances). Conductor Orlando Jopling got round the problem of starting Act II by turning to the audience and placing his finger on his lips, at which all the children gradually stopped chattering which meant that this was the only one of the four performances I saw when I was able to enjoy the whole of that overture in complete silence! I have seen neater and more stylish performances of Act II by the ENB corps de ballet of swans than the ones I saw this week but this hardly mattered when the Odette was danced by the miracle that is Begoña Cao. I have loved her Odette/Odile since I first saw her dance it around ten years ago at the Coliseum (partnered by a very young Esteban Berlanga) and I would not have thought it possible for her to improve on the perfection of that performance but she did. With her exquisitely limpid ports de bras, shimmering bourrées, and elongated attitude penchée, she has the most swan-like physique of any of the company’s Odettes, all used to sublime effect in portraying the regal yet vulnerable swan queen. From the moment Arrieta saw her, it was clear he was enchanted and their pas de deux recalled the wonderful chemistry in their recent performances of “Manon”, with him partnering her with great tenderness to gradually gain Odette’s trust. I have to mention Cao’s beautiful arms just before the start of the pas de deux, where her body is lying along her front leg. As she folded her arms over her feet, there was a truly magical moment where they fluttered as if completely unencumbered by bones. Another moment to watch out for is the series of pirouettes at the end, each one preceded by tiny batterie against the ankle which, in Cao’s case, were breathtaking in their delicacy and beauty, and enhanced her air of vulnerability. The highlight for me in Act IIl, apart from the pas de deux, was a joyous rendering of the Neapolitan Dance by Katja Khaniukova and Victor Prigent, with delicious footwork and joie de vivre. However, it was the electrifying pas de deux by Cao and Arrieta which stole the show. Cao’s Odile is all wicked sensuality, dazzling Arrieta with her smile and her huge expressive eyes and it was clear he could not take his eyes off hers. Cao used her phenomenal elongated attitude penchée, in which her foot was level with the top of Arrieta’s head, as if ensnaring him in a trap from which he obviously did not want to escape. Just as Cao’s Manon luxuriated in her sensuality, so did her Odile in a beautifully seductive solo which had just enough of Odette’s softness to make it believable that she could deceive her prince. The fireworks in the Coda from both Arrieta and Cao brought forth ecstatic, spontaneous applause from the audience, as did many other moments in the performance, which is one of the joys of being amongst children seeing ballet for the first time. Ashton’s exquisite choreography for Act IV (shrewdly acquired by Derek Deane for his proscenium production) was for me the highlight of the swans’ dancing at all the performances with its haunting melancholy as they all emerge from the swirling ‘mists’, and their uniformity of style and movement perfectly matched the music. Cao and Arrieta were unforgettable here: he all remorse and she summoning up supreme dignity as she forgives him. This was an exceptional performance which I am sure will stay in the minds of the audience for a long time and will have made ballet fans of many of the children. It is therefore incomprehensible to me that Cao was only given one performance during the two-week tour and, as the Coliseum casting has just been announced, only has the final Sunday performance. As with her Manon, grab a ticket if you can! What a difference a change of conductor makes! Thursday evening’s performance was in the hands of Maestro Gavin Sutherland who galvanised the orchestra and gave the music that lightness of touch which the dancers need to support them in the intricate footwork of the many solos and the lift to send them soaring in the aerial steps. Unfortunately, I have to draw a veil over the pas de trois in this performance which, apart from a diagonal of beautiful double cabrioles from Erik Woolhouse in the Coda, for the most part lacked style and finesse. However, the waltz brought forth some lovely dancing from both ladies and gentlemen, responding to Sutherland’s wonderful phrasing of the music. Prince Siegfried was Ken Saruhashi, whose outstanding debut I saw in Liverpool in 2014. His Siegfried is a fully rounded character, both regal and thoughtful as he ponders his mother’s command for him to marry. His Act I solo, with his beautiful arabesque line and soft pliés captured that elusive quality of yearning which is the essence of the solo but escapes so many Siegfrieds. His Odette/Odile was Rina Kanehara who had made her debut the previous week. She is possessed of a formidable technique which meant she sailed through all the difficulties of both roles and tossed off an impeccable series of fouetté turns in Act II, throwing in a few doubles for good measure. However, she never let the brilliance of her technique overshadow the gentleness of her Odette and I particularly liked the way she used her eyes: wide-eyed apprehension in Act II, turning to tenderness as she learns to trust Siegfried, sparkling in Act III as she entrances him and haunted in Act IV when she has been betrayed. Again, in Act III the other highlight was a sparkling Neapolitan danced by Crystal Costa and Barry Drummond in true Ashton style (another clever acquisition by Deane for his proscenium version), with both of them filling the stage with their sunny personalities. There was also a fiery Spanish dance by Amber Hunt, Stina Quagebeur, Francisco Bosch and Fernando Coloma but I have to express my disappointment at the Czardas and Mazurka where, apart from all the lead couples in the Czardas and a couple of dancers such as Quagebeur in the Mazurka at other performances, these were danced with no understanding that they developed from Court dances of Hungary and Poland, respectively, and need to be danced with a degree of finesse and hauteur (and, for the ladies, no bouncing!) which was sadly missing, although the men certainly looked as if they were enjoying throwing themselves around! Once again, Act IV brought forth the most beautiful dancing from the swans and a very poignant finale from Saruhashi and Kanehara with the wonderfully sinister Von Rothbart of Shevelle Dynott doing his best to thwart them. On Friday evening, Arrieta and Costa were outstanding in their solos in the pas de trois. They both have such clean footwork and amazing ballon which makes their energy seem boundless. Francesca Velicu, completing the trio, brings a sweetness to her dancing and is lighter than air in the pas de deux section but is rather imprecise in her footwork and ports de bras. Siegfried was Isaac Hernandez. With all his attributes, he should make an excellent prince but qualities such as nobility and projecting beyond the stage seem to elude him completely. When his mother tells him he must marry, he looked like a sulky teenager rather than someone contemplating his destiny. It appears he does not know what to do with his arms, letting them swing aimlessly at his side when walking. He has the most beautiful entrechats but otherwise tends to not bother about his feet and has a bad habit of dropping his back when landing from jetés. I had high hopes for the Act I solo which he started with a beautifully stretched foot but thereafter it was just a series of adagio steps in which he looked uncomfortable. I find it sad that such huge potential does not seem to be being nurtured so that the standard of his whole performance matches the pyrotechnics he displayed in Act III. However, whatever his artistic failings, there is no doubt of his skill as a partner, presenting the divine Jurgita Dronina to perfection. She is the most feminine of Odettes and totally captivating in her fragility and vulnerability, responding to every touch by Siegfried. Physically very different from Cao, I found it fascinating to compare the way they both play to their strengths to produce such outstanding characterisations. Whereas Cao’s elongated attitude penchée said everything about her Odette and Odile, with Dronina it was the supported attitude leaning back against Siegfried which revealed her character. In Act II, her very expressive eyes had a vulnerability about them which flowed through her whole body, as if she was not quite sure she could trust him. In Act III, as he wrapped his arms around her, the look on her face was like the cat who got the cream, with a posture indicating a preening triumph. In Act IV, there was an almost crumpled feeling of hopelessness in the droop of her neck and upper body which was intensely moving. And while Cao’s bourrées shimmered, Dronina’s undulated. In fact, there was a beautiful softness to all her dancing, even in Act III where it was clear Odile was seducing Siegfried by being as much like Odette as possible, although this did not prevent her from giving us an immaculate series of fouetté turns. I also found her mime to be exemplary and beautifully clear. When she explains her situation to Siegfried in Act II (where Hernandez looked distinctly uncomfortable in his gestures, ‘mumbling’ them), and she says “my mother’s tears” I found this to be very moving, as it was in Act IV when she repeats “tears” while explaining Siegfried’s betrayal to the other swans. Although she does not have Cao’s ‘boneless’ arms, I loved the proud arch of her back in Act II, especially in arabesque with her arms stretched out behind her, and even sustaining it in the half-turns in attitude, which reminded me of a swan gliding along with its wings ‘lifted’. As well as a performance to treasure from Dronina, this performance was also notable for a flawless cygnets’ dance. Although there were individually lovely cygnets in other performances (and I much admired Choi’s beautiful échappés on Saturday afternoon), it was in this one that everything was perfectly synchronised, including the tricky series of pas de chat with legs all at the same height at the same time and soft landings in perfect unison. Congratulations to Crystal Costa, Adela Ramirez, Katja Khaniukova and Adriana Lizardi for giving it the wow factor! The radiant Adela Ramirez also delighted in the Neapolitan dance, along with the excellent Rhys Antoni Yeomans, and there was a very spirited Spanish dance from Jia Zhang, Angela Wood, Aitor Arrieta and Daniel McCormick. On Saturday afternoon, Anjuli Hudson was a delightfully stylish lead villager, and my eye was again drawn to the beautiful dancing of Emily Suzuki in the waltz which also featured some very fine dancing and partnering from the gentlemen. Joseph Caley was nobility personified from his first entrance as Siegfried and danced with a wonderful elegance, especially in the Act l solo, although I would have liked a little more expressiveness from him, especially as his Odette/Odile was the lovely Shiori Kase whose every movement spoke volumes. Her Odette was so regal that there was no doubt she was queen of the swans. And yet, there was a touching vulnerability about her that made her pas de deux with Caley, in which he made her look as light as swansdown, very poignant. Her solo was a lovely blend of delicate, precise footwork and sustained balances, such that I realised the photograph of her being used to advertise “The Nutcracker” does not do justice to the very pretty, expressive line of her arabesques and attitudes. Her Odile was glittering and full of confidence, especially in the Coda in which not only did she give us the full complement of thrilling fouettés but ended the last one with at least a triple turn, if not a quadruple! In Act IV, her Odette forgave the very remorseful Siegfried with a touching dignity and their final pas de deux was heartbreaking. The corps de ballet of swans also rose to the occasion with a particularly haunting quality to their dancing which obviously touched the souls of the audience, many of whom were applauding on their feet even before the curtain had fallen. I hope in this very long post I have whetted appetites for the London performances!
  7. I didn't mean in the actual entrance there were arabesques of different heights but later on, particularly when they were in lines at the side of the stage. I also noticed the different pliés in 4th and 5th but, as you say, this may have been a spacing thing. I am a huge admirer of Makarova but I still prefer Nureyev ‘s staging of the Kingdom of Shades and how glorious (and more difficult!) that was, not least because of the double ramp at the beginning which created a truly magical effect. In his version, each girl entered, stepping immediately into arabesque fondu instead of on a straight leg and then going into a plié. They then went through plié in 4th to tendu devant with a most wonderful sweeping ports de bras and body bend which filled out the music beautifully but was, of course, much more difficult to do in complete unison, and that is why I salute the dancers of that era who always danced it with such serenity.
  8. I am rather late posting my thoughts about the performance on 5 November but here goes. I have admired the technical brilliance of the charismatic Cesar Corrales since he burst onto the stage in the Russian Dance in Eagling’s ‘Nutcracker’ for ENB at the Coliseum in 2014, barely eighteen years of age. Since then, it has been a pleasure to watch him develop his artistry further, ending his time with ENB with electrifying performances as the ‘jeune homme’ this January. It was therefore very gratifying to see that Kevin O’Hare has such faith in him that he partnered him with not one but two of the Royal Ballet’s leading ladies for his debut in a major role with the company, only a few weeks after his twenty-second birthday, and that this faith was rewarded with a performance of all the dramatic depth and effortless technique I have come to expect from Corrales. From the moment he stepped onto the stage (and yes, dancers do appreciate applause on their entrance, if it does not disrupt the mood of the piece, so that they can feel the audience is ‘with’ them), he was every inch a warrior prince with his regal bearing and elegant mime. Although the choreography does not allow for all the pyrotechnics of which he is capable, there was plenty to admire in the powerful virility of his dancing and, in particular, his perfectly placed turns and panther-like landings from jumps. I particularly liked his first scene with Natalia Osipova's Nikiya, in which I thought she was glorious, and I thought there was a wonderful chemistry between the two of them. Osipova initially impressed with her beautifully expressive body (and astonishingly deep backbends) and then her vulnerability in her confrontation with Gamzatti. Where I felt she was not so successful was in the Kingdom of Shades with its demands for complete purity of classical technique and line (and I am lucky enough to have seen Markarova herself in this role in her prime). The difficulties of the scarf pas de deux were surmounted with ease, with Corrales giving just the right amount of tension to the scarf, but too often I noticed a loss of turnout or untidy footwork from Osipova, not helped by her unflattering pointe shoes which gave her feet a rather blunted look. So, unlike Marianela Nuñez, whom I saw at the dress rehearsal, she did not seem as comfortable as Nikiya as she had as Gamzatti. With her impeccable technique and style, Nuñez's dancing was an absolute feast for the eyes and I loved her interpretation of Gamzatti: all surface smiles and graciousness but with the deadliness of a cobra ready to strike when scorned. In the scene where Nikiya is ordered to dance for Gamzatti and Solor, I was struck by Nuñez's almost gloating smile contrasted with Corrales's combination of anguish and anger as he was forced to sit beside her while his beloved danced. In a ballet which does not lend itself to deep characterisation, I felt these three leads made their characters thoroughly believable, three-dimensional people. When the production was new for the company, I remember the Bronze Idol's solo was one of its highlights but i was decidedly underwhelmed at this performance. Likewise, I was not as impressed by the Shades as the rest of the audience seemed to be, noticing arabesques at different heights, body angles not quite identical and legs closing at slightly different times, unlike the corps de ballet in the 1970s and 1980s whose precision in the Nureyev staging was so breathtaking that it won them an award. Every time I think I might be remembering past performances through rose-coloured glasses, I find a film clip or DVD which shows that yes, they really were that good!
  9. I am always keen to see new dancers in roles so, as I was travelling to Southampton for the Thursday evening performance of “Manon”, I decided to go earlier and watch the matinee as well. MacMillan created this ballet on the two quintessential Ashton dancers, Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, and his choreography for “Manon”, more than any other of his works, pays homage to Ashton’s style. Unfortunately Emma Hawes, in her debut as Manon, appeared to still be coming to terms with the style of the choreography, leaving little room for dramatic interpretation of this most complex of characters and lacking the pliancy in her upper body which is so integral to the role. Her Des Grieux, Rupert Pennefeather, partnered her in true chevalier fashion but I did not sense any chemistry between them or, if there was, it did not carry across the footlights and therefore I felt no emotional involvement in the pas de deux. His own solos were cleanly danced but, again, were curiously lacking in emotion. However, with somewhat underpowered performances in the leading roles, it did give me the chance to observe what else was going on around the edges of the stage. I still feel there are too many cartoon characters onstage in all the scenes, particularly as the gambling den scene descends into drunken debauchery, but there are the occasional flashes of excellent characterisation. Having now seen four different Beggar Chiefs, only the experienced Pedro Lapetra manages to present a fully-rounded character whilst sailing through the complexities of the choreography but the other dancers, all new to me, certainly acquitted themselves admirably of the choreography. I found the dance for the deported prostitutes in Act III the most moving at this matinee performance as more of the dancers found a way of physically expressing pathos but I feel they are still too upright, especially the girl who breaks out of the group in a series of temps levés. Fabian Reimair gave another chilling portrayal of Monsieur GM and James Streeter was the brutal Gaoler. The gambling den scene was enlivened by the warring antics of Courtesans Katja Khaniukova and Anjuli Hudson and by Daniel McCormick’s increasingly drunken Lescaut and, making her debut as his Mistress, Jung ah Choi. She is a dancer I have long admired in small solo roles and for her very powerful performances as Myrtha in the Skeaping “Giselle” in 2017. In fact, so powerful was she in this role that, due to a colleague’s injury, she ended up giving two breathtakingly dramatic performances in one day in Belfast of this most taxing and longest version of the role with its fiendish choreography, including an extended first solo. Choi’s Mistress was radiant and her solos were flirtatious and distinctly feminine with effortless, secure pirouettes in attitude, and she made full use of the ronds de jambe en dehors and en dedans to show off her shapely legs to prospective clients. I particularly enjoyed the flirtatious interplay between her and GM before Manon arrives in Act I. So, despite my disappointment in the two leads, there was still much to enjoy in this performance. With Nureyev’s Juliet, Skeaping’s Giselle and now MacMillan’s Manon, Alison McWhinney has scored a hat-trick of outstanding performances as a young girl who dies for love. McWhinney is the sweetest of Manons who takes some time to realise the power of her charms. Manon’s signature step in the ballet is a series of walks forward and back on pointe, sometimes with relevé and sometimes with a small passé just above the ankle before the foot closes delicately in 5th in front or behind. It is set to her musical motif which is the hauntingly delicate Massenet song “Twilight”. When Manon has waved away the arms of GM, Lescaut, Madame and the Old Man in Act I, she moves forward with this step and McWhinney performed it so dreamily that it appeared she was floating above the ground and literally took my breath away with its beauty. It was also a delight to see her beautiful use of quicksilver épaulement, a hallmark of Sibley’s dancing which Ashton exploited to the full in Titania’s choreography, as did MacMillan for his mercurial Manon. Her Des Grieux was the passionate Francesco Gabriele Frola who impressed me very much in “No Man’s Land” at the beginning of the season. Although his dancing is not quite as elegant as Jeffrey Cirio’s, he also has the same ability to imbue every movement with emotion, never taking his eyes off Manon, and the chemistry between the two of them was electrifying. Their pas de deux in the courtyard was one of great tenderness and led to the bedroom pas de deux which went from playfully affectionate to the awakening of a deeper love to rapturous abandonment, perfectly mirroring the beautiful playing of the orchestra. Orlando Jopling conducted this performance, as well as the matinee and Friday evening, and at each performance I did find his Act I a bit wan (even pianissimo Massenet needs intensity) until halfway through the courtyard pas de deux but then the music took off with all the dramatic colour I have come to expect from this orchestra. To side-track, I found it very interesting to hear audience members, on entering the auditorium and seeing the pit open, exclaiming with delight that there was to be a live orchestra – perhaps the ENB publicity department missed another marketing opportunity here! Daniel Kraus played Monsieur GM at this performance as a much younger man but still with the ruthless streak of an aristocrat used to having his own way. With Giorgio Garrett as Manon’s mercenary brother, instructing her how to behave towards GM, the pas de trois was a rather chilling display of grooming. When Des Grieux returns to find Manon gone, Frola’s despair was so volatile that Lescaut really had his work cut out to make him accept the money, making this a very dramatic ending to Act I. In Act II, Rina Kanehara was once again a delightfully young, silly Mistress, getting almost as drunk as Lescaut so that their pas de deux was genuinely funny without them ever becoming caricatures. McWhinney made a glorious entrance, luxuriating in her jewels and her allure. What I really loved was the way she imbued her signature step with Manon’s new-found sophistication which she carried through into her seductive solo followed seamlessly by the adage of aerial manipulation which had a dreamlike quality to it, especially when she dives into the arms of the waiting men. Frola, meanwhile, was the picture of despair, always trying to get her attention. Before the start of the interlude when Manon and Des Grieux are left alone together, Des Grieux has to remove his coat for the practical reason of not restricting his ports de bras in the ensuing solo. In his exceptional characterisation, Frola almost tore his coat off and loosened his neckcloth as if he was being suffocated by his despair. When they have escaped and are back at the lodgings, both McWhinney and Frola brought great dramatic depth to the pas de deux as he tries to get her to take off her bracelet, and McWhinney’s struggle to give up her life of luxury was evident, ending with her shock when he throws her to the floor. GM bursting in with Lescaut as his prisoner was truly dramatic and McWhinney was very moving as she tried to reach her brother after he had been shot. When McWhinney’s Manon arrives in the New World and we see her signature step for the final time, she imbued it with a quiet, resigned dignity. Her Gaoler was Francisco Bosch who, especially in the scene in his office, was like a cat with a mouse, toying with her and enjoying inflicting pain so this was probably the most distressing sexual assault of all the performances I saw. The final scene between Frola and McWhinney was heartbreaking as, before the pas de deux started, they clung to each other with great intensity as she sank further into delirium. As Frola realised she was dead, his body was literally wracked with sobs and I am sure there were very few dry eyes in the audience as the curtain fell on this emotional rollercoaster of a performance. I could not resist staying to see Cao, Arrieta and Souza again in their final performance of the tour which reached even greater heights than the one which enthralled me the previous week. They had wonderful support from Daniel McCormick giving yet another darkly powerful performance as Lescaut and Daniel Kraus as the calculating Gaoler. There were also some wonderful characterisations, in particular from Adela Ramirez and Crystal Costa as the competing Courtesans who were genuinely funny in their dance-off while still displaying their gorgeously clean technique for which I always admire both of them. Katja Khaniukova and Anjuli Hudson also caught my eye as Townswomen on the quayside because of their lovely dancing (and especially their use of épaulement) and their concern for the collapsed prisoners. But the evening really belonged to the three leads and Cao in particular. She is a dancer at the height of her artistic and technical powers and I have to confess finding it incomprehensible that the ENB website does not list her for any performances of “Swan Lake” on tour although I am hoping that one of the ‘TBC’ performances in Bristol is being reserved for her as it is a ballet which fits her to perfection. Instead of finding new words to describe the performance, I can only say that her first pas de deux with Arrieta, who was the embodiment of youthful passion, was even more ardent, their bedroom pas de deux even more rapturous and the pas de trois for her with Souza’s arrogant GM and Lescaut was even more erotic. In Act II, Cao was exultant in her own luxuriant sensuality, especially in her solo which was a miracle of beautiful technique and allure, and her serenity as she was carried on high by her admirers was hypnotic. Cao and Arrieta are perfectly paired in this ballet as they both use their formidable technique as a means to an end in creating real characters that we care about, and nowhere was this more in evidence than in Act III. Every once in a while, an audience is privileged to watch a performance of such greatness that words cannot adequately describe it but, from the moment Cao stepped tentatively off the boat, through her assault by the Gaoler to her tragic death, this was just such a performance, with her body taking on such fragility that, when she sank to the floor after her brutal assault, it seemed it would not be possible for her to get up again. With her all the way was Arrieta, whose all-consuming love and despair as she fades away was heartbreaking. There is always a moment I wait for just before Manon’s death when she runs downstage on a diagonal and throws herself into an off-balance arabesque which Des Grieux must catch to stop her falling on the floor. This was done with such abandon by Cao and caught so perfectly at the last moment (and completely on the swell in the music) by Arrieta that it made me catch my breath. As Arrieta sobbed over her dead body, the audience broke into spontaneous applause quite a few bars before the orchestra finished but which seemed entirely appropriate for this unforgettable performance. Indeed, my football-fan cousin who had never seen a ballet in his life before declared he would be very happy to see another one as he had enjoyed the performance so much!
  10. I It is a few years since I have been to the Mayflower but I would recommend slightly further back in the stalls rather than the front row as I doubt you will see the feet properly there. I have sat in the front row of the dress circle before and that was also a good view (not far enough away for binoculars unless you are short-sighted). I'm delighted to hear that you will going to a performance in Southampton. I am also catching a few more shows there, especially as there are only seven at the Coliseum!
  11. I went to Milton Keynes last week to see three performances of three different casts but before I talk about them, I would like to make a few comments on the production overall. I was sad to read in a previous post the company’s 2008 staging being described as having “bombed” when the company was under Eagling’s directorship. Tickets may not have sold but the performances themselves were outstanding. Lack of ticket sales was due to the abysmal, almost non-existent publicity by a publicity department that failed to realise that “Manon” is not a familiar ballet to the general audiences outside of London. As for Eagling, although he was Artistic Director, he did not have overall control and was, indeed, answerable to the General Manager, as was the publicity department, so he should not be held responsible for the publicity debacle. Even though the publicity department personnel have changed under the new regime and had hundreds of thousands of pounds thrown at them, they seem to have made the same London-centric mistake again, creating a not particularly interesting poster, describing the ballet as a “lusty tale” of doomed love. “Lusty” hardly describes this most heartbreaking of stories! Bizarrely, they have used an action shot from 2008/9 on the company’s website to advertise the supporters’ events, which would have been a far more eye-catching image to advertise the ballet. Having travelled to Oxford, Southampton and London in 2008/9 to see each of the fabulous six casts once and a few several times, in my opinion it was superior to the current staging. At that time, it was staged by Monica Parker, who was assistant to MacMillan in 1974 when he created the ballet, full of the beautiful ports de bras and épaulements instilled in both choreographer and dancers steeped in the Ashtonian tradition of pliant upper bodies and exquisite footwork. In the current staging, apart from the principals, there was not much evidence of these lovely details except from dancers, such as Adela Ramirez, who had been in the production ten years ago. I was also struck ten years ago by the wonderful dramatic qualities of the whole company so that each person on stage was real and contributed to the story. There were, of course, some silly moments even then but this time I found there was too much reliance on pantomime acting and silly walks amongst the plethora of beggars, harlots and gentlemen. One of the scenes I had previously found very moving was the arrival of the deported prostitutes. Considering that, in real life, these girls would have had a sea voyage lasting several months and would have been kept in the hold like cattle with little exposure to sunlight and fresh air, plus being half-starved, the vulnerability and pathos depicted by the dancers as they alternately collapsed from exhaustion or pleaded with the townspeople was deeply touching. This time round, I felt the girls were too upright and did not imbue their dancing with enough pathos. In 2008/9, the Georgiadis designs were not available to the company and so they had to make do with those used by the Royal Danish Ballet. The minimalist sets lend themselves admirably to touring, allowing all concentration to be on the stage action, but the costumes are harder to take, with the curious dichotomy of the gentlemen in period costume complete with wigs and the white make-up of the time, while the courtesans and harlots are dressed in net skirts, paying no heed to the period and, in the case of the cutaway puffball skirts, not complementing the choreography. Finally, the company now has to use the orchestration recently done for the Royal Ballet instead of the exquisite original by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt. Massenet’s music is delicate and elegant but capable of great emotion, as for example his haunting opera “Werther”, and Leighton Lucas did an admirable job of orchestrating various songs and pieces from Massenet’s more obscure operas to create one of the great ballet scores of the 20th century. However, it seems someone decided it was too subtle for 21st century audiences and, when I heard it at the Royal Opera House when the new orchestration was first used, I was very disappointed by how overblown it was. Luckily Maestro Gavin Sutherland conducts it lovingly and he and the orchestra bring out all by Massenet that is beautiful, delicate and passionate so that it sounds almost as sublime as the original. My gripes aside, this is still a ballet to be treasured and I would urge anyone who can get to Southampton this week or London in January to do so as you will see some extraordinary performances on offer. I doubt that the London casting will be announced until after the casting for all the ‘Nutcracker’ performances has been sorted out (and what a nightmare that must be, even if the company has reduced its performances to twenty-three performances in eighteen days this year) but, if you book before casting is available, I am sure you will not be disappointed by whichever cast you end up seeing. And so to the individual performances. Jurgita Dronina learned the role of Manon about ten years ago when she was a very young principal with the Royal Swedish Ballet but she never had the opportunity to perform it. On Wednesday night, it was clear that she was delighted to be performing a role which she seemed born to dance. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Olivia Cooke as television’s latest incarnation of the ultimate material girl, Becky Sharpe, Dronina enchanted as soon as she stepped out of the carriage. Abbé Prévost describes Manon as “very young” and Dronina looks no more than fifteen years old, with wide-eyed wonderment at everything and everyone she encounters. There is a childlike innocence to her first encounters and even the old man who has befriended her on the journey is treated like a pet dog rather than a possible conquest. It is only in the magical moment when, Monsieur GM, Lescaut and Madame having placed their hands on her, her demeanour changes and she realises her allure as she shakes them off, although it seems she still cannot believe in her charms completely. It therefore makes the moment so special when, left alone, Des Grieux dances for her because, her face and body, seen in profile as she is sitting on the chair, gradually light up as she falls in love with him. It comes as no surprise that, after an ecstatic pas de deux, this very young girl impulsively suggests they run away together without thinking of the consequences. With his boyish good looks, Isaac Hernandez should be a natural for Des Grieux but, at this performance, he seemed too intent on the mechanics of the choreography to respond to Dronina’s exceptional characterisation. He looked uncomfortable in the dreamy choreography for Des Grieux’s solos, with their requirements for a beautiful arabesque line and expressive footwork. His partnering was very secure but I hope it will take on a more rapturous quality in later performances. Fabian Reimair was previously an unforgettable Lescaut whose drunken pas de deux with the superlative Sarah MacIlroy was a masterpiece of comic timing but now he has taken on the role of the dangerous Monsieur GM. Continuing the comparison with “Vanity Fair”, like Lord Steyne he is a charismatic aristocrat who does not hesitate to wield his power to get exactly what he wants. He is also someone for whom only the best will do and shows no interest in the courtesans on offer but, as soon as Manon appears, it is clear he is besotted. When he and Lescaut find Manon alone at the lodgings, he places a necklace seductively around her neck and, as the diamonds touch her skin, Dronina’s face expresses complete rapture. In the pas de trois that follows, Reimair is riveting as the usually proud, aloof lord whose facade gradually crumbles with desire for Manon, quivering with lust each time he touches her foot or leg. As Lescaut and Manon leave him centre stage, he loses all composure so that, when Manon lures him to the bed, he is like a man possessed and would have devoured the startled Manon had Lescaut not stopped him. He dominated the gambling den scene in Act II, showing off the beautiful Manon who seemed genuinely attached to him although aware of his dangerous side, as evidenced by the fright on her face each time Des Grieux tries to dance with her. Dronina was glorious in this scene, especially revelling in tantalising the other men as they manipulate her, and in her seductive solo. And so to the final Act when, having killed Lescaut in a frighteningly cold act of vengeance to punish Manon for betraying him, GM has her arrested for prostitution and deported to the New World with Des Grieux bribing the guards to allow him to accompany her. Dronina was exceptional here, in her portrayal of a fragile, broken woman who finds herself powerless against the brutal Gaoler (an unrecognisably evil James Streeter), who abuses her and discards her, and then she descends into delirium as she and Des Grieux escape. As her body fails her, it is as if she cannot bear to be parted from Des Grieux for even a second as she hurls herself into his arms with all her remaining strength - a truly wonderful performance from a remarkable artist. At this performance, Lescaut was performed as a loveable rogue with a dangerous streak by Ken Saruhashi whose clean, elegant technique made his fiendish solos, including the drunken one, look smooth as silk. His dramatic qualities made him totally believable as a manipulative chancer who could sell not only his mistress but his sister to the highest bidder and still retain our sympathy. His long-suffering Mistress was the charming Crystal Costa whose exquisite footwork and ports de bras made her Act II solo especially lovely. She also created a wonderfully sympathetic character and the haunted look on her face in Act I as she realises the tumbril of imprisoned prostitutes could foretell her own future will stay with me for a long time. The Thursday matinee was memorable for the sublime partnership of Erina Takahashi and Jeffrey Cirio as Manon and her Des Grieux. From the moment he first saw her, Cirio could not take his eyes off Manon and, once he has manoeuvred bumping into her, she cannot take her eyes off him. Cirio’s beautiful, elegant dancing was in the best Anthony Dowell tradition and he knows how to imbue every movement with emotion and dramatic intent, with every solo being directed towards Takahashi. Their initial pas de deux had such a youthful freshness to it that it was the embodiment of young love and this continued in the bedroom pas de deux. Monsieur GM was danced by Dmitri Gruzdyev, whose performances as Des Grieux in 2008/9 with Fernanda Oliveira as an incandescent Manon were electrifying. His GM is a lecherous predator who, from his eyeing up of all the other girls at the coaching inn and in the gambling den, would have been happy with any or all of them, had Manon not appeared. Once Manon succumbs to him, it is clear from her entrance in Act II that it is only because of his wealth. Her face is almost expressionless and her movements mechanical as he parades her round the room, faltering only slightly after she realises Des Grieux is there. Takahashi is exultant as she is aerially passed around from man to man but there is always an awareness of Des Grieux and, when he falls at her feet when they are finally alone, her façade crumbles and she quickly concocts a plan so that she can return to him. At the start of Act III, Takahashi’s fragility and her hesitant bourrées, always supported by the loving Des Grieux was intensely moving. The Gaoler at this performance was Daniel Kraus who played him with a quiet, calculating authority. He does not immediately force himself on Manon but, when she rebuffs his advances, it is clear he is not used to being rejected and the inevitable happens. The final pas de deux of the dying Manon and her distraught Des Grieux was stunning, and his reaction when he realises she is dead was heartbreaking. Giorgio Garrett, as her scheming, manipulative brother, gave us a beautifully danced Lescaut. Rina Kanehara was his delightfully youthful mistress who was always eager to please. Even when being manhandled by him in the drunken pas de deux, she still had a smile on her face! Thursday evening brought stunning performances from Begoña Cao, Aitor Arrieta and Junor Souza. Cao’s Manon is definitely modelled on Prévost’s, who is being sent to a convent by her family to keep her safe from her already budding desire for wealth and attention. However, she is not completely aware of her allure until the moment when she waves away the hands of her admirers in Act I and her body language subtly becomes more sensuous and even more attractive to the ruthless, arrogant but oh so elegant Monsieur GM of Junor Souza. But although she is curious about him, the chemistry between her and Des Grieux is palpable as their eyes meet over the dropped money bag. (And there was a wonderful touch here by Cao who, when given the bag to guard by the old man, shakes it gently and, obviously hearing the money clink inside it, hugs it to her chest like something very precious.) Des Grieux is a huge role both dramatically and technically for such a young dancer but Arrieta surmounts all its challenges with his elegant, secure dancing and his youthful passion to give such an extraordinarily nuanced performance it was hard to believe this was only his second one. With Cao’s beautifully pliant body and his ardent partnering, the bedroom pas de deux was lifted to new heights of sensuality and abandon. The pas de trois which followed with Lescaut (played by Daniel McCormick whose dark good looks made him totally believable as Cao’s brother) and GM was truly erotic, with Manon tantalising GM with her seductive, long legs. McCormick’s Lescaut, so well danced, grew in character throughout the piece and he was especially effective in the brutal way he forced Des Grieux to accept GM’s payment for the departed Manon. In Act II, as Manon and GM paraded around the gambling den, it was clear she was revelling in her allure both for GM and the other men in the room and GM was happy to indulge this. Her solo, to a beautiful Massenet song, “Nuit d’Espagne” was a marvel of sensuality with lovely épaulement and languorous leg movements and this was followed by a spectacular aerial manipulation by all the men during which she looked completely triumphant. As she was lowered to drape herself against GM’s knees, she immediately held out her wrist for her reward and, having put the bracelet on her, Souza looked at all the men gathered behind him and smiled arrogantly as if to say “that’s all you are going to get of her because she’s mine”. When Des Grieux implores her on his knees to come back to him, Cao’s Manon visibly crumbles in a moment of great tenderness and their pas de deux of reconciliation back at his lodgings was very moving. The intrusion of GM with Lescaut as his prisoner was particularly violent, and Souza showed a malevolent pleasure in wreaking his revenge on Manon and her brother. In Act III, Cao’s naturally thin body and some excellent eye make-up made her look very fragile and exhausted as she and Des Grieux disembark, he distraught as he tries to hold up her collapsing body. The Gaoler was again played by Daniel Kraus who, when frustrated by her rebuffs, wrapped her legs around his body so forcefully that it seemed they might break. And, as he lets her fall to the floor after he has assaulted her, she appears totally broken. When Des Grieux arrives and stabs the Gaoler in the back, he and Manon turn the Gaoler over and their fear when they realise he is dead was wonderfully dramatic. It was again Cao’s pliant body, coupled with her wild, pained eyes, Arrieta’s distraught, bewildered attempts to comfort her and his anguish when he realises she is dead which made this one of the most moving endings to this ballet I have ever seen. It was therefore wonderful to see Cao and Arrieta spontaneously applauded by all their colleagues onstage when they stepped forward again after the company bow. This is a very long post but I hope it may encourage more people to make the trip to Southampton to give the performers the full audiences they so richly deserve.
  12. I attended the matinee on 25 September and the performance the following evening. As in 2014 and 2015, “No Man’s Land” remains my favourite piece and I was pleased to see that a small adjustment had been made to the second scene where the girls are making the bombshells. In previous years, the girls looked bored and were rather sloppy in their work which I felt did not ring true. Now, there is a mechanical precision to their actions and their faces show a grim determination which, to me, was far more moving. At the matinee, the first pas de deux was danced rather tentatively by Francesca Velicu and Fernando Carratala Coloma but, in the second pas de deux, Angela Wood brought out all the youthful innocence and tender yearning, as well as her exquisite technique, that I remember from her performance in 2015 when she was partnered to perfection by Fabian Reimair. Skylar Martin was her partner on this occasion and, while he is not yet in Reimair’s league in portraying emotion through his dancing, his partnering was very sensitive. Someone who never fails to deliver both emotionally and technically is Junor Souza, who partnered Begona Cao in the final, haunting pas de deux. The two of them were totally in tune with each other in this heartbreaking duet, perfectly matching Julia Richter’s eloquent playing of the beautiful Liszt solo which accompanies it. For me, the most spectacular dance moment of the entire programme came earlier in the piece, when Souza turns Cao in a spiralling, off-balance arabesque that was breathtaking in its beauty and its execution. The four supporting couples were excellent, especially the lyrical dancing of the luminous Jia Zhang. On Wednesday evening, the first pas de deux took on a whole new dynamic with a thrilling performance by Katja Khaniukova and new recruit Francesco Gabriele Frola. His secure partnering and the intensity of both of them made this a searing portrait of the anger and pain of separation. The second pas de deux was danced by Alison McWhinney and James Streeter with great tenderness and bodes well for McWhinney’s forthcoming debut as Manon. Jurgita Dronina and Joseph Caley danced the final pas de deux and, as always, I was struck by Dronina’s exceptional musicality and her ability, like Cao, to imbue even the most subtle movement with emotion. As Caley walked away from her at the end, her body was that of a woman broken by shock and grief. I did not find Caley as expressive and, indeed, he seemed more suited to the more abstract “Second Breath”. As always, Gavin Sutherland, who conducted all performances of this run, drew sumptuous playing of Liszt’s music from the orchestra. The overwhelming feeling for me of this programme was the sense of grief and shattered lives of the wives and sweethearts left behind and nowhere was this more powerfully portrayed than in Stina Quagebeur’s “Vera” which the Monday evening and Tuesday and Thursday matinee audiences had the privilege of seeing. Created for the company’s choreographic workshop in 2014, I was very sad to have missed it then and it was my main reason for attending the Tuesday matinee. Inspired by Vera Brittain’s writings, this beautifully-crafted miniature, lasting only a few minutes, was a haunting elegy to lost love and a lost generation. It was movingly danced by Crystal Costa, another dancer whose exquisite technique is always melded to deeply felt emotion, and Giorgio Garrett, whose youthful presence reminded us of the tender age of this lost generation. Quagebeur thoughtfully chose music by the composer and poet, Ivor Gurney, himself a victim of shellshock, which added to the poignancy of this gem. “Second Breath” grows on me each time I see it, for its mesmeric opening sequences performed almost in slow motion and for its final pas de deux which, like Scarlett’s first pas de deux, seems to express anger and despair in equal measures. At the Tuesday matinee, this was an outstanding performance of both fluidity and elegance from Anjuli Hudson and Joshua McSherry-Gray. Likewise, on Wednesday evening, Begona Cao and Joseph Caley gave a stunning, almost dare-devil account of the choreography. And so to “Dust”, in which the final pas de deux was danced at both performances by Erina Takahashi and Jeffrey Cirio. I was surprised that I was not more moved by it at the matinee and it was only during the evening performance that I realised that Cirio was dancing it with a beautiful lyricism (which bodes well for his Des Grieux) but none of the jerkiness that James Streeter brought to it in 2014 and 2015 when, for me, it was a harrowing portrayal of a lost soul unable to communicate with his lover, either shrinking from her touch or reacting violently to her. It was therefore left to Takahashi to bring out the emotion of the piece and the haunted look on her face was unforgettable. I have never really understood the purpose of the middle section when the girls imitate Taiko drummers, apart from it being a filler between the first and second sections, but it is always danced with great commitment and style. On Wednesday evening, the opening minutes of the piece were performed by Fabian Reimair and I can only repeat what I wrote in 2015, that his is a truly shocking portrayal of the effect of shellshock on the body, reminiscent of a handful of wartime film clips documenting this condition. As he manipulated the arms of the dancers on either side of him, there was such perfect coordination that their arms appeared to become his wings with which he tried to take flight. This was a truly remarkable performance and I cannot understand why he and James Streeter, who also performs this section, did not get to take a separate bow with the pas de deux couple. This short season at Sadler’s Wells marked the final performances of much loved company member Jennie Harrington, who has graced the corps de ballet for fifteen years with her sunny presence and who has worked extensively with Dance for Parkinson’s. Happily, she will be remaining with the company, assisting the artistic staff and it is to be hoped she will continue to appear in various character roles.
  13. American Ballet Theatre brought "Lilac Garden" to Sadlers Wells a few years ago (cannot remember the exact date but less than ten years ago). Reverently danced although perhaps lacking the underlying tension. I had the huge pleasure and privilege of watching Tudor himself rehearse Leslie Browne in this piece in New York in 1980/81 (again I cannot remember the exact year) - my most treasured ballet experience!
  14. My main reason for attending a third performance of this programme was to see Jia Zhang as the Queen in "The Cage" on Thursday evening. As expected, she delivered a searing performance, her body language and amazing, ultra-long legs seeming to say "mess with me at your peril" from the outset as she ruthlessly stalked the stage. It was also another chance to watch the extraordinary transformation of Jurgita Dronina from her exquisitely beautiful swan-like dancing in "Approximate Sonata" to gauche and ultimately remorseless killer insect. I marvelled again at the marriage of the choreography with the music, which surely could not have been bettered had Robbins commissioned a score directly from Stravinsky, and it was a pleasure to hear it played so stylishly by the ENB Philharmonic string section under the baton of Maestro Gavin Sutherland. Apart from Dronina, I also enjoyed the vivacious interpretation of the 4th Sonata by Precious Adams and Aaron Robison in “Approximate Sonata”. I was tempted to give “Fantastic Beings” a miss but sat through it for a third time, mainly to see the wondrous partnership of Junor Souza and Begona Cao, even more ravishing in their pas de deux on second viewing, and the effervescent dancing of Ken Saruhashi and Crystal Costa (unaccountably not given a place in the front line for the bows). I felt the ‘role’ given to Erina Takahashi was a waste of her formidable talent. I did appreciate the phenomenon of Alison McWhinney slowly rising en pointe into what I can only describe as the vertical splits with only the tips of her fingers for support but, apart from these small moments, I have to agree with others that I did not really see the point of reviving this work. If the company wanted to do a work by an American choreographer that was energetic and used a lot of dancers, my choice would have been Glen Tetley’s “Voluntaries” which also has the advantage of being set to great music by Poulenc. Or, perhaps, it would have been good to see a more intimate piece of his, “Sphinx”, (again to great music by Martinu) which was in LFB’s repertoire in the 1980s and would have been a fitting tribute to the late, lamented Elisabetta Terabust, a stalwart of the company for so many years. Both works are notated but, alas, it seems Tetley is all but forgotten these days.
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