Showing posts with label Edward Watson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edward Watson. Show all posts

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Woolf Works - it does

Federico Bonelli & Alessandra Ferri (photo: Tristram Kenton)

The wonder of dance is that it makes the human body capable of expressing extreme emotion through movement alone. And what a treat it is to see Alessandra Ferri portraying the anguish of the suicidal Virginia Woolf simply by walking across the Covent Garden stage. The Italian ballerina, who left the Royal Ballet for ABT in her twenties, is now 52 and back from what looks to have been a premature retirement. Artistry oozes from her every centimetre; delicate, vulnerable, dignified and technically flawless too, she is a privilege to watch. Why should it be assumed that dancers will retire in their forties? Why should they, and we, miss out on the fruits of mature artistry?

Woolf Works really does work. Wayne McGregor's choreography in the past has often been virtuosic, intellectual, trendy, or all three at once, yet it's in poetic vision - expressed in whatever medium - that the best creators live on. McGregor has in the past offered flashes of that poetry in moments like Raven Girl's final pas de deux. But here, at least in the first and third sections, the physical poetry of emotion is there in force. It's as if he has found his true voice lying beneath all the bedazzlement and is now letting it sing. Edward Watson in 'I Now, I Then' (based on Mrs Dalloway) as the shell-shocked World War I soldier Septimus accompanied in Max Richter's score by a keening solo cello à la Elgar, matches Ferri and her younger self (Beatrix Stix-Brunnell) in the evocation of that poetry and is a special highlight.

Steven McRae & Natalia Osipova (photo: Tristram Kenton)
Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae (right) navigate the central section, 'Becomings', with the expected magnificence, Osipova's legs reaching what looks like a 240-degree extension. This episode - based, but less tangibly so, on Orlando - perhaps overstays its welcome; half an hour is a long time for any composer to sustain variations on 'La Folia', especially this loud, and while the idea was always that one dance idea begins while another is still in full flow, it can at times be hard to know where to look - whatever you focus on, you always feel you're missing something else. This episode is constant movement, a collage of ideas flashing and whirling by in a continual state of evolution, stunningly lit with lasers through dry ice (though the gold crinkly crinolines are a bit garish).

Finally, in 'Tuesday', Woolf's suicide note and her death blends with the stream-of-consciousness flow of The Waves, unfurling against filmed sea breakers in slow motion; a tender duet  takes place as she pays heart-rending homage to her husband, before walking into the water-embodying corps de ballet, is partnered by them, becomes one of them.

Richter's score is studded with moments of impressive imagination; its surround-sound electronic effects, the use of chamber music moments, voices - notably Virginia Woolf's own at the outset - plus the sounds of nature or of a much amplified scratching pen add constant new dimensions to the minimalist-derived style. Tchaikovsky it ain't, but it serves this multimedia dance theatre experience strongly and is an organic part of the whole.

If you love Woolf Works as much as I did, by the way, and you want a different kind of souvenir, I can highly recommend Caroline Zoob's gorgeous book about Woolf's garden at Monk's House. We see filmed glimpses of this garden in 'I Now, I Then', but the book is so beautifully done that it's the next best thing to visiting the place. In this strange world of ours, too, it is also possible to download an e-book of Woolf's complete novels for all of £1.19.

Woolf Works continues to 26 May. Book here.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I had wonderful chats with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter about the ambitious new ballet Woolf Works, which opens at Covent Garden on Monday and stars the great Alessandra Ferri, making a comeback. It's in the Independent today, but here's the "director's cut"...

Here & below, Woolf Works in rehearsal (photos Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

The Royal Opera House must be hoping that ballet audiences are not afraid of Virginia Woolf. On 11 May the curtain rises on the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length narrative work for the Royal Ballet: Woolf Works, an enormously ambitious creation inspired by three of the novelist’s books, plus the tragic story of her own life and self-inflicted death. 

When the news of McGregor’s plan first broke, jaw-bones splintered on floorboards across a dance world more accustomed to traditional, linear tales – rustic fun like La fille mal gardée or magical metamorphoses like Swan Lake. But McGregor has been working for a different sort of magic as he seeks to translate Woolf’s literary intensity and resonance into dance. “It was a bit overwhelming at first,” he admits. “Woolf is such an iconic figure and her work is incredible, frustrating, difficult, exciting – where do you start? I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the brilliance of her writing.” 

Choreographers do not often risk stepping on the toes of literary critics. “There are so many experts on Woolf,” McGregor reflects, “and so many people who love it or detest it that when you say you’re doing a Woolf project you get an absolute tirade of either positive or negative energy. I’m not used to that. I only relaxed into the work after about six weeks, when I realised all I could do was to make a piece about my own experience of Woolf, filtered through my body, my imagination and my mind, and that was it.” 

McGregor, 45, the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet since 2006, came to the company from the contemporary dance sphere and has always pushed at the limits of the possible. He stretches everything, from his dancers’ physical capacities in pieces such as Infra and Chroma to the potential of creative collaborations, notably Raven Girl with the author Audrey Niffeneger; last year he challenged the audience’s powers of perception in the detailed and symbol-laden Tetractys – The Art of Fugue. Now in Woolf Works, he is giving the process of storytelling itself a conceptual makeover. 

“I was interested in exploring multiple narratives and multiple viewpoints,” he says, “and our dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, put a copy of Mrs Dalloway under my nose. I felt the whole idea of stream-of-consciouness writing, many points of focus, shifting between times, was exciting and could be analogous with dance. It could also challenge, perhaps, the orthodoxies of how we make story ballets, which for me is about having a dialogue with heritage in a different way.” 

Wayne McGregor
Each of the ballet’s three parts is inspired by a different novel; McGregor has retitled them. A “meditation around Mrs Dalloway” becomes ‘I Now, I Then’; the second act, Becomings, which he terms “a flamboyant, very virtuosic 35 minutes of extraordinary dance,” is based on Orlando, Woolf’s whirl through the centuries with the protagonist changing sex en route. “It’s very lavish, with new visualisation techniques and a collage structure with a full-on assault and collision of the senses,” McGregor says. Finally, The Waves: “This is one of my favourite Woolf novels, because it’s like poetry, very abstract, but it’s also the one that relates most closely to Woolf and her passing.” Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse close to her home in Sussex. “For her, water was a place of solace and beauty and her drowning is almost about becoming one with the universe. We’ve called this section Tuesday because that is the first word she wrote on her suicide note.” 

McGregor has commissioned for it a new score from the British composer Max Richter – the current Mr Cool of the classical contemporary world. The pair had already collaborated on Infra, among other projects, and more recently McGregor has choreographed for Zurich Ballet Richter’s major hit, Recomposed by Max Richter: The Four Seasons. 

Woolf Works’ score involves full orchestra, live electronics, pre-recorded sounds from nature and fragments of text: “Everything’s in there, including the kitchen sink,” Richter declares. “I love collaborating and the projects I do with Wayne are my favourite things. If I’m writing an instrumental work, then it’s me sitting in a room on my own and going slowly bonkers. But a ballet is the opposite process – it’s all about conversations and puzzle solving.”

Max Richter. Photo by Yulia Mahr
“I think what’s so impressive about Wayne,” he adds, “is that he has phenomenal skills as a maker of movement, but that’s just the starting point. He has an omnivorous intelligence and he’s always seeking out new ways of structuring ideas and information. That is the meeting point for us; in the musical sphere I’m also constantly looking for new ways to present material and to combine and enlarge languages.”

For Richter, reading Woolf during his schooldays was a revelation: “She handles language in such an extraordinarily personal and musical way,” he says. “She manages to pull off amazing literary tricks without drawing attention to them, and under her beautifully wrought surfaces there’s an amazing intelligence at work.” Her structures have been a direct inspiration for the music: “For me, Orlando is a novel in variation form,” he says. “I’ve written it as variations on a famous baroque theme, La Folia.”

The Orlando section’s central figure is to be Edward Watson, McGregor’s muse – prime among a cast of Royal Ballet luminaries that also includes Natalia Osipova and Sarah Lamb. But all eyes are upon the Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 52, who is returning to the company to dance the dual role of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Ferri began her career with the Royal Ballet after training at its school, but left in 1985 to join American Ballet Theatre at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation. Although she officially retired in 2007, she began to appear again as both dancer and choreographer two years ago. McGregor says that he went to New York to ask her to consider the role.

“Dance is notoriously a young people’s art form,” he remarks. “Even though dancers often remain phenomenal into their fifties and sixties, we don’t see them much on stage. Alessandra is amazingly physical and always a great actress. And you just cannot trade those years of experience and training in a body. I’ve learned so much from her – she’s very collaborative, she’s in extraordinary shape and we’ve been able to push each other to find new ideas.”

Indeed, it sounds as if Woolf Works allows McGregor to question all the regular discourses around ballet, literature, design, music and performance. “It’s not a straightforward story,” he emphasises. “Woolf writes about the prosaic matter of getting from lunch to dinner – but is that the only reality? Is reality La fille mal gardée? There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s great and funny and there are dancing chickens. But who said that had to be the only version of reality?”

What’s certain is that it is not every day that a groundbreaking venture on this scale is unveiled on the Royal Opera House’s main stage. “It’s a real challenge, because people don’t know what to expect,” McGregor admits. “But I think it’s the responsibility of a big lyric opera house to offer work that is on the edge. If they don’t, and they only present things that are easy to watch and that they know people already like, that would kill off the art-form. They have to be able to take risks.” 

Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, 11-26 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Friday, May 01, 2015

A choreographer and his muse...

Coming up fast at Covent Garden: Wayne McGregor's new ballet Woolf Works, based on three Virginia Woolf novels and her life story. More of this soon. Meanwhile, here is Wayne working with his regular muse, the incredible Edward Watson, who is Orlando. Amazing to watch their connection as Wayne imagines something and Ed immediately knows how to make it real.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading and talking

I've been talking to some interesting people recently...

The unbelievable Edward Watson, who is dancing the lead role in Mayerling at Covent Garden next month. The crazed Crown Prince Rudolf is, weirdly enough, the only ballet prince he's played, other than Albrecht in Giselle, who's not really that princely. A dancer with his levels of drama, flexibility and power would probably be wasted chasing after a swan. Catch him first in the equally incredible The Metamorphosis.

A composer called Nimrod - who, as it turned out, lived next door to me in West Hampstead 20 years ago, except that we never met. The Philharmonia played a work of Nimrod Borenstein's the other week with Ashkenazy conducting, and has commissioned a new piece from him for June at the RFH. He's also writing a violin concerto for Dimitry Sitkovetsky. He's a live wire who thinks big, and talked to me (for the JC) about finding his voice and what he's doing with it now that he has.

It's All About Piano! Francoise Clerc, the one-woman dynamo at the heart of the Institut Francais's classical music programming, has put together an absolute bonanza of a piano festival, which will take place over three days next weekend, 22-24 March. Star performers include Imogen Cooper, Nick van Bloss, Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Cyprien Katsaris and Anne Queffelec; there's a chance to hear some rising stars including a raft of the most gifted budding virtuosi from the Paris Conservatoire, a modern American programme from Ivan Ilic, jazz from Laurent de Wilde, talks by Steinway technicians, children's events and plenty more. When did London last have a piano festival like this? Um. Pass. This is for Classical Music Magazine and you'll need to be logged in to read the whole article.

Meanwhile, if you're in Birmingham on Wednesday evening or Thursday lunchtime, I'm doing pre-concert talks for the CBSO to introduce Beethoven's Symphonies Nos.6 and 7. Andris Nelsons conducts them both. Very privileged to be allowed to hold forth about my two favourite Beethovens, let alone to complement such an event: there's a major buzz about Nelsons' Beethoven cycle and Symphony Hall is apparently packed solid.

And next Sunday at 12.30pm I'm at The Rest is Noise to introduce a talk about Korngold in America and discuss the issues around him with the Open University's Ben Winters. In the Purcell Room, and part of the ongoing festival's American Weekend. (We're not in the current listings PDF as far as I can tell, so this may be a late addition!)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oh, my ears and whiskers!

Christopher Wheeldon's madcap, rainbow ballet of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is coming back to Covent Garden on Friday and it will hit the big screens live on 28 March. I went down the rabbit hole to have a chat with two of its stars, Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson. The piece is out in The Independent today - and Lauren also talks about what it was like when her Knave, Sergei Polunin, walked out with no notice last year.

Sod's Law, though, along with the ROH website, reveals this morning that poor old Lauren is not able to go on for her three performances after all. Seems to be the lingering effects of the ankle surgery. We wish her the speediest possible recovery. Sarah Lamb replaces her, and Yuhui Choe takes over the performances that Sarah was previously scheduled to do. Meanwhile, watch the ROH news page for more of my interview with the wonderful Ed, in which we talk about Mayerling.

On Saturday afternoon, incidentally, I went to the (mostly) excellent triple bill of Apollo, 24 Preludes (the new Ratmansky to orchestrated Chopin) and Aeternum (new Wheeldon) and three quarters of the cast - six out of eight dancers - had to be replaced in the Ratmansky. The last-minute line-up did provide a chance to enjoy the radiant dancing of someone who seems to be a real "one to watch" - Melisssa Hamilton, who hails from Northern Ireland and won a Critics' Circle Award in 2009. More about the programme when I've got a mo.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A hundred years ago already?

(OK, OK, I promise I'm never, ever going to say again that I'm on holiday and won't blog for a week. Apologies for typos in the past few posts - I was working on a shiny-screened laptop in brilliant Egyptian sunshine....... Now back. Bit chilly here, i'n't it?)

My birthday tribute to The Rite of Spring - a piece of music without which my life might have been very different - is out in today's Independent. (Own obligatory book plug here.) Below, please find the director's cut. First, here's a fascinating interview with Monica Mason, Kenneth MacMillan's original Chosen Maiden, about the making of his version, with extracts of dancing from the amazing Ed Watson, the most recent male Chosen One at Covent Garden, among others.

Jessica Duchen

It was probably the most cataclysmic moment in the history of music. On 29 May 1913 the curtain rose at Paris’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the new ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Minutes later the place was in uproar. This event set the music of the 20th century in motion as surely as the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 13 months later heralded a terrifying new age in warfare, politics and society. 

Speaking recently at the first night of the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th and 21st-century music, The Rest is Noise, the artistic director Jude Kelly termed this era “the age of violence”. And in 1913 The Rite of Spring was indubitably the most violent music the world had yet heard. Harmony is slashed, cubic, multilayered. Often the orchestra effectively plays in two keys at once. Melody, when it is present at all, is fragmentary, suggesting the ambience and contours of folk songs. Rhythm drives the whole thing, but those rhythms – elemental, driven, clashing – are anything but predictable, throwing the listener about like a runaway train. Stravinsky sets up a pattern only in order to shatter it. It has been suggested that the work contains “a touch of sadism”. 

The ballet’s story is indeed cruel. An imaginary ancient tribe sacrifices a young virgin to propitiate the god of spring. We are hapless witnesses as the Chosen Maiden is selected, glorified, then forced to dance herself to death. It is a gut-wrenching idea that could seem almost to tap into a primitive bloodlust. Whether or not that was deliberate on Stravinsky’s part, or Nijinsky’s, is something we’ll probably never know. 

Stravinsky claimed that he had the idea for the ballet in a “fleeting vision”. But someone else needs to receive more credit for dreaming it up: the ballet’s designer, the Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who was far more deeply engaged with matters of folklore – besides Theosophy and occult mysticism – than the composer himself. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets drew on fairy stories and Russian folk music, but the wellsprings of horror that underlie The Rite are never fully present. Stravinsky certainly developed the scenario in collaboration with Roerich, and later the artist was furious to see his crucial role in its creation downgraded while the composer hogged the glory. 

Not that there was much of that to be had from the hissing and cat-calling on the first night. The protest broke out shortly after curtain-up. Stravinsky fled the auditorium and observed the rest of the performance from backstage: “I have never again been that angry,” he recalled. Serge Diaghilev – the impresario behind the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, responsible for commissioning all concerned – was nevertheless rather satisfied with the outcome. Even then, there was no such thing as bad publicity.

The “riot at The Rite” has been the subject of endless scrutiny. Doubt has been cast on whether it really amounted to a riot at all; noise, yes, but fist-fights, probably not, though around 40 people are said to have been thrown out of the theatre. In all likelihood the disapprobation was directed at Nijinsky’s eccentric and ungainly choreography, rather than Stravinsky’s efforts; after all, with so much noise, the music was scarcely audible. Commentators have pointed to all manner of issues at stake that night, from a faction in attendance that was loyal to Diaghilev’s better-established choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, to the sensitivities of a French audience beleaguered by the tense atmosphere that prefigured World War I. But some composers who heard it were not happy either; Puccini attended on the second night and dubbed it the work of “a madman”.

Stravinsky emerged from the fracas dispirited; he feared that the hostile reception would shatter the momentum he had achieved following enthusiastic responses to his first two ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). But just under a year later, The Rite was rescued when the conductor Pierre Monteux championed it at the Casino de Paris, purely as a concert piece. Allowed to stand or fall on its musical merits, The Rite rose triumphant. 

Today The Rite of Spring has achieved a popularity that Stravinsky could only have dreamed of on that notorious first night. It is a tribute to him that even after a century in which every traditional parameter of music – tonality, rhythm, melody, sonority – has been subverted or destroyed, this work has lost none of its power. In a year dominated to excess by composers’ anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – The Rite, only about half an hour long, is enjoying a similar celebration in its own right. 

If anything, its power has increased with familiarity (no doubt helped along when Disney animated it with volcanoes and dinosaurs in Fantasia). It is a concert staple, a modern classic. Last year the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in Trafalgar Square; a 10,000-strong audience turned out to cheer it on. In the theatre, numerous choreographers have turned their hand to its reinterpretation, from Kenneth MacMillan’s geometric marvels to the heartbreaking terror of Pina Bausch’s version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal. 

We can expect plenty more of it this year. Sadler’s Wells is to stage a celebration entitled A String of Rites, including Michael Keegan Dolan’s choreography of The Rite for Fabulous Beast, a large-scale community project and a new, full-evening ballet by Akram Khan, entitled iTMOi (in the mind of Igor), with new music by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. And first, the work features in a concert in The Rest is Noise, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s clear that as it reaches its hundredth birthday Stravinsky’s most famous score has become as perennial as spring itself.

The Rite of Spring features in The Rest is Noise at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 February with the London Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Wagner’s opera changed the face of music when later composers fell under the spell of its harmonic language; but its eroticism scandalised many listeners. Clara Schumann wrote: “It was the most repulsive thing...To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated …I endured it to the end since I wanted to hear the whole lot!”

Georges Bizet: Carmen (1875)
Bizet’s opera was a flop when it first opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. It broke the conventions of the venue’s repertoire by ending in murder and tragedy; and the sexually liberated Carmen was regarded as a scandalous, immoral heroine. The opera’s many admirers included Nietzche and also Tchaikovsky, who was greatly influenced by it, but Bizet died three months after the world premiere and never saw its success.

Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)
Strauss amplified Oscar Wilde’s play about the lust-maddened princess and her demand for the head of John the Baptist with music that mixed sensual beauty with claustrophobic and violent excess. Salome’s final scena over the severed head culminates in a chord that encapsulates her depravity so thoroughly that tracts have been written about this moment alone. The opera was banned in London for its first two years. Strauss set out to shock – and succeeded.

Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No.2 (1908)
“I feel wind from other planets,” runs the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set for soprano and string quartet in this ground-breaking work. So did its audience. The planet in question was the final movement’s experiment in “atonality”: a piece written without any tonal centre, giving an impression of floating, unrooted dissonance that exists for its own sake rather than for its relativity. More than a century later, the effect still sounds radical.

John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, Adams’s opera fell foul of ferocious international sensitivities. Planned productions were cancelled and some responses expressed horror that the work should dare to portray the emotions of characters on both sides. After 9/11, an article in the New York Times accused it of “romanticizing terrorism”. Its UK stage premiere finally took place at English National Opera last year, to considerable acclaim.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Kafka at the ballet

Here's my piece from yesterday's Independent about Arthur Pita's new dance theatre work based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka. One day Edward Watson awoke to find that he had been transformed into a giant insect.... It's at ROH2 all this week.

The Metamorphosis is the book of the moment. I've been in Paris for a couple of days to do an interview and while there I also met up for tea and tarte aux framboises on the Place des Vosges with Mikhail Rudy (he of The Pianist and the animated Kandinsky Pictures at an Exhibition). His next collaborative project, due for premiere in Paris in March 2012, is based on...yes, The Metamorphosis, and will involve film projections by the Quay Brothers to a selection of Janacek piano music. Meanwhile he's bringing Pictures to the UK in November - performances in Southampton (17 Nov) and at the Wimbledon Festival (19 Nov). Well worth the train ride, imho.

Meanwhile, my interviewee - an intergalactic opera star - talked to me for two hours, then sent me home with a red nose. That is a first. I hasten to add that it's made of foam. It is now perching on my desk lamp, smiling at me (in a manner of speaking), while I think of his unforgettable performance as Werther earlier this year.