Showing posts with label Royal Ballet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Ballet. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Salenko & McRae: putting the ginger back into ballet?

Iana Salenko & Steven McRae. Photo: Andre Uspenski

I had a fabulous time interviewing the glorious dancers Iana Salenko and Steven McRae for The Independent. Taster:
Even over post-rehearsal tea Salenko and McRae’s outlooks streamline into one: positive, sensible and with wit always at the ready. He speaks with strong traces of an Australian accent; hers is pure Ukrainian; but they still finish each other’s paragraphs. 
“The most important thing is the connection with a partner, how we understand each other,” says Salenko. “And then it’s the body and proportions. We are similar size: perfect.” McRae remarks that a photo of them in Don Quixote, showed everything: “We were in exactly the same line and even our facial expressions were the same,” he says. “It’s not something we talk about; it just happens naturally. It’s obvious that it works.”
 Article is out today, here.

Having seen them in Romeo and Juliet at the ROH a few weeks ago, I have to say that what will no doubt be called "all the fuss" is not about nothing. Quite simply, they look, sound and dance like soulmates.

Watch out for them in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux in the mixed-bill cinema relay from the ROH on 12 November.

And here's a taster from Swan Lake rehearsals, filmed by Andre Uspenski.

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.

Friday, May 08, 2015


As the UK wakes up to the unexpected election result of an actual, if small, Tory majority, another majority of sorts - those of the artistically inclined people in my social media feeds - are pondering ways to leave the country. Front-runner destinations include Germany, Sweden and Iceland.

So where did it all go wrong?

Time to have a quick look at the power of myth and the lessons we can learn from it. The wound foisted on us by a betrayal is an almost incomparably strong force embedded in the depths of human nature. So the people we feel betrayed us before are paying the price. It's all in the myths.

Try this (with apologies to Petipa/Ivanov and Tchaikovsky).


Once upon a time, there was a handsome politician who was standing for parliament. He went out campaigning by the lake and met a swan who unexpectedly transformed into a beautiful girl. He fell in love with her at once and she loved him too. He promised her everything: true love, compassion, empathy, heath care, arts funding. She promised to vote for him and love him forever if he'd break the spell that kept her doomed to daily metamorphosis into something she was not. He fell on one knee and vowed.

But the next night, at the election ball, there arrived a seductive, spellbinding beauty: a rich and privileged princess with amazing technique. She could pull off all the fancy tricks - the balances, the leaps, the mind-control, the 32 fouettés - and she promised him, besides her body if he wanted it, a huge quantity of private money for his campaign, and for himself beyond that. All was lost. He forgot his promise, or perhaps - taken in by the princess's resemblance to his swan girl - believed that he was indeed renewing it. The moment he vowed allegiance to the newcomer, the weeping swan girl was revealed, wringing her wings in despair out in the cold beyond the window.

When the prince realised his mistake, too late, he ran away to the lake to find his beloved and throw himself at her feet with an abject and public apology, to be printed in all the papers. But it was too late. His betrayal was absolute. You promised to save me. You promised to love me forever. You betrayed me. We are both doomed. The swan girl threw herself into the lake and drowned. He leapt in after her and drowned too. There could be no coming back after such a betrayal.

The imposter princess with all the money was left in charge.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Breaking news: rising star decamps from Royal Ballet

Melissa Hamilton & Matthew Golding in Manon. Photo: Alice Pennefather

The ballerina Melissa Hamilton is to leave Covent Garden for a year in order to work with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden during 2016, as a principal dancer. (Here's my recent article about her from the Independent, September 2014.)

At the Royal Ballet she is still a "first soloist" and those of us who've been loving her performances can't help feeling she should be a principal here too by now. She is a sophisticated dance actress and an intelligent and intuitive performer, as well as being phenomenally determined, and this is an opportunity she deserves in every way. With the German company she will dance Manon, La Bayadère and her first Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Initially, Hamilton will appear as a guest artist with the Semperoper Ballett dancing the title role in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon for the company’s upcoming premiere of the production in November 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Concerts? Remember those? Get down the Wiggy tonight, then

Christmas: the kiss of death, if you're a musician. Or a music-lover, for that matter. Nothing but Messiahs and Nutcrackers being wheeled out all over again as far as the ear can hear. After you've been around for a few decades, you may start wanting to scream at the sound of that celesta. Maybe escapism is the reason so many of us eat and drink ourselves into a stupor over the days of festivities. By 30 December, enough, already.

Thank you to all those doughty musicians who brave the seasonal wheeliebin to remind us that life goes on. At the Wigmore Hall tonight the smiley, gleamy-toned Australian pianist Piers Lane is doing a recital that is refreshingly free from anything topical. The first half is Rachmaninov and the second is Schubert, culminating with the great A major Sonata D959. Do please try to tear yourselves away from the overload and hear some really wonderful piano playing. Book here.

A few other chippings of gold amid the general plastic recycling have come from the Royal Ballet, which gave Alice's Adventures in Wonderland instead of The Nutcracker this time, and BBC4, which made the Christmas ballet treat The Winter's Tale - an absolute glory of a full-length story ballet, choreographed this year by Christopher Wheeldon, which needs to be seen by lots and lots of people. It is not exactly seasonal, despite the title; instead, it's a very grown-up and brilliantly imagined balletic translation of Shakespeare's play, with a specially composed score by Joby Talbot and featuring astounding performances from Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson as Leontes and Hermione, and Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae as Perdita and Florizel. (You can catch it on the iPlayer for another 25 days if you missed it.)

Last but not least, do catch Fascinating Aida's brilliant show Charm Offensive at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the first two weeks of January. Here's a taster, which I've been attempting to bear in mind this past week (honest, guv).

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Free ZooNation! Mad Hatter's Tea Party to be LIVE STREAMED

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party: ZooNation in rehearsal
Photo: David Sandison
I spent an utterly enthralling and invigorating few hours at the ROH the other week watching ZooNation rehearse its new family show for the Linbury, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and then writing about it. Huge respect for these amazing dancers who work so hard but manage to create so much fun while doing so. Full feature is in the Independent today along with a photo gallery from the rehearsals.

The show - the first-ever commission in hip-hop style from the ROH - runs from Saturday until 3 January, but the theatre has just announced that the performance on 18 December will be live-streamed on a) the Royal Opera House's Youtube channel and b) the BBC Arts website. If what I saw is anything to go by, it's going to be both terrifically danced and terrifically bonkers - and the tickets have been going like the proverbial hot cakes. Indeed, it's pretty much sold out - just a few tickets left now for Saturday 13 Dec 12.30pm - so you may have to log on to share the fun with ZooNation's dazzling stars Tommy Franzen, Lizzie Gough, Teneisha Bonner and, of course, 'Turbo'.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Monday, September 29, 2014

Marvellous Melissa rises to Manon

The young Belfast-born ballerina Melissa Hamilton of the Royal Ballet is making her debut as Manon in a couple of weeks' time. I had a lovely talk with her for the Independent (out today, here), but it's been rather truncated, so here's the "Director's Cut".

Blessed with long, powerful legs, beautifully fluid arms and an opened-out, all-giving style of expression, the young Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton has been compared to “Charlize Theron in pointe shoes”. Now she is preparing for a crucial debut on 13 October as Manon in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet of the same name – possibly her biggest challenge to date. British-born female principals have been in short supply in the company of late (the sparkly Lauren Cuthbertson is currently the only one), so hopes run high for the future of 26-year-old Hamilton from Northern Ireland, whose official ranking is “first soloist”.

Hamilton’s delicate looks belie her ferocious strength, both physical and mental. She started her training in earnest only at 16 – many others attend vocational schools from 11 – and it is her sheer single-minded determination that has enabled her to make up for lost time. 

Growing up in Dromore, near Belfast, she took ballet lessons as a hobby, until attending a summer course in Scotland when she was 13 opened her eyes to the possibility of dancing full time. “In Northern Ireland it was virtually unheard of to become a professional dancer,” she says. “My parents knew nothing about the ballet world, so it was difficult for them to advise me. That course showed me that if you want to be a ballerina you can’t just do one lesson a week. I had so much to learn.”

Her father and mother, respectively a builders’ merchant and a teacher, persuaded her to complete her GCSEs first, keen for her to have “an education to fall back on”. Still, the drive to dance remained; and though rejected by the Royal Ballet School, Hamilton won a scholarship to the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham. 

There the full extent of her disadvantage as a late starter struck home. She says she felt constantly discouraged and after a year she was advised to abandon her dream altogether. Fortunately, fate seems to have had other ideas. The husband and wife team Irek and Masha Mukhamedov, former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, arrived at the school as teachers and spotted her potential. After a year, they left for Irek to become director of the Greek National Opera Ballet; aged 17, Hamilton elected to decamp solo to Athens for intensive one-to-one coaching with Masha. 

Melissa Hamilton, photo by Bill Cooper
It might have seemed a leap of faith, but Hamilton says it was a no-brainer. “I didn’t see the point of staying somewhere where you’re trying to convince people,” she comments. “It probably looked impulsive, but I went with my gut instinct. I think when something’s right, then as human beings we know it.” Private study with Masha Mukhamedov was utterly different from anything she had experienced until then: “It was more than a teacher-pupil set up; it was more as if she was the mentor and I became a product. She was creating me, just as much as I wanted to be there. We found each other completely and it worked.”

It certainly did. After winning the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007, Hamilton was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre, yet her overriding dream was to join the Royal Ballet in London. She sent a DVD to the company’s director, Monica Mason, and was invited to take class with them. A place in the corps de ballet was soon hers. 

She rose through the ranks via that same focused determination to work, work, work. “I lived in a little bubble in Covent Garden,” she says, “and in the summer I’d only take one week off, then go back to the studio and practise on my own.” 

About six months ago, though, she began to feel that something had to change if she was to move on to another level. “Sometimes if you want something so badly you become your own worst enemy,” she says. “I’ve often tried to make things work instead of letting them happen. Now I’m learning to let go. 

“I realised that my friends’ lives had changed, but mine hadn’t. I felt I couldn’t keep living the way I’d lived until then.” She moved to a leafy part of north London, near some of her friends and with her new home went a new attitude: she decided to stop “fighting”.

“I think my whole initial work life has been a fight,” she says. “I’ve never hidden that it was a struggle. It was. It was hard. It was traumatic to a certain extent. From the get-go I was fighting against people who said I couldn’t do it. You get into a routine of thinking this is just the way it is – but it doesn’t need to be like that.

“I felt I was holding myself back, because I was still het up about living like I should be living, rather than living in the moment and appreciating everything that happened to me fully. It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life: I’m able to live right now, rather than thinking constantly of the end goal. It’s a much more pleasing way to be.”

This, she says, is why she feels ready at last to tackle the tragic heroine of MacMillan’s ballet, based on Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. “You need to have had a certain amount of experience both on and off stage to do this role well,” she says. “Now I’m at a point in my own life where I’m ready to grasp Manon.” 

Melissa Hamilton in Raven Girl,
photo by Johan Persson
Torn between true love for the Chevalier des Grieux and the lure of filthy lucre, Manon makes all the wrong choices and is destroyed by them. “I think she’s in genuinely in love, but ultimately she loves herself more,” says Hamilton. “Des Grieux gives himself completely, yet she tires of it because there’s no game, nothing to keep her fighting to get it. She needs to be adored and draped in jewels to make her feel something. That’s her ultimate destruction – she can’t be content, she constantly wants and needs.” 

Her des Grieux is the Royal Ballet’s Canadian star Matthew Golding, who joined the company in February (and if Hamilton resembles Charlize Theron, Golding looks uncannily like Brad Pitt). The pair have already danced Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet DGV together, but Manon will be their first major appearance as a partnership. “We’re finding each other as people and as characters, building something together, which is very exciting,” Hamilton enthuses.

Now her horizons are broadening in other ways. She has begun to love travelling; and a recent visit to Barcelona brought her to the studio of the sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, with whom she is hoping to develop a collaboration. Invitations to appear abroad as a guest artist “seem to be popping up,” she says; and recently she has become the insurance company Allianz’s cultural ambassador to Northern Ireland. With their backing she hopes to find ways of raising awareness of and access to ballet there, whether touring with colleagues or setting up courses or masterclasses. 

“It seems a shame that if you want a career in ballet, you have to leave the country,” she remarks. “The public in Northern Ireland doesn’t know that a girl from there is now dancing with the Royal Ballet. I think that’s sad, because you should be able to feel some sense of pride that someone’s done that.

“I’d like to develop ways to help young dancers have an easier path into ballet than I had,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful world that so many people don’t even know exists. If I can bring that back to Northern Ireland, then it’s an honour.”

Manon, Royal Ballet, from 26 September. Melissa Hamilton dances on 13 October. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Saturday, September 06, 2014

In which your blogger nearly dances with the Royal Ballet...

Your Cinderella put on her ballet hat the other day and went to the ball. Well, a gala at Claridge's. The Royal Academy of Dance celebrated the 60th anniversary of its most prestigious award, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, by holding a fundraising dinner at which the prize was handed over to an entire company for the first time, rather than just one individual: namely, the Royal Ballet. Darcey Bussell, president of the RAD, is in the photo above, giving the award to RB director Kevin O'Hare.

The evening, complete with a glittery auction, raised about £65,000 towards the creation of a new bursary scheme to help young dancers from all over the world to enter the RAD's Genée International Ballet Competition. A talent for dance, like that for music, is no respecter of geography or bank accounts. In these straitened times this kind of support has become more crucial than ever to ensure that gifted youngsters do not miss out on opportunities due to financial disadvantage. The Genée is one of the biggest: its former medallists have frequently gone on to very distinguished careers, including RB stars Steven McRae and Lauren Cuthbertson (pictured right as Juliet). More info about the new bursary scheme will be revealed in time for next year's competition.

This got me thinking. I do wonder if some of the top musical competitions could consider starting a similar scheme for young instrumentalists. Not everyone can afford to travel to Moscow, Fort Worth or Leeds. Independent schemes like the Solti Foundation offer grants for young musicians for such purposes, but why should the most famous and well-heeled of contests not offer means-tested bursaries to gifted entrants who couldn't otherwise afford to go?

Meanwhile, it was quite a night. The exquisite Art Deco ballroom of this most fantastical of swanky London hotels was chock-full of the ballet world's great and good. And if you're me, dear reader, thinking back to the starry-eyed schoolkid who used to run up to the back of the amphitheatre on every possible occasion, this meant a lot more than Christmas come early.

I had some wonderful chats during the course of the evening with luminaries past and present: Lesley Collier, for example, who was the one I loved best when I was 13 and had never met before - she now coaches the principal dancers. Darcey Bussell talked into my voice recorder about the occasion and about her championship of dance for all; and over dinner I encountered, among others, Philip Mosley, a brilliant Puck, who was the original model for Billy Elliot, and the Canadian premier danseur Matthew Golding, who joined the company earlier this year and happens to be a dead ringer for Brad Pitt.

My fairy godmother was the RAD's press office, my pumpkin was South West Trains and I did not lose a shoe. There was dancing - the fun, after-dinner kind, to Abba and Michael Jackson and suchlike. If I'd only had the guts, I could have danced with the Royal Ballet...

Watch this space for more news of exciting initiatives - this one and others too - designed to support talented young dancers and more. The autumn promises much.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Up close with Natalia Osipova

If I had to name a few of my favourite assignments EVER, this one would be right up there. I went to the Royal Ballet studios at the ROH and watched a rehearsal for Alastair Marriott's new ballet Connectome, which premieres on Saturday, and talked to him and its star, Natalia Osipova. And I spent two hours observing them at work, about two or three metres away from Osipova, Ed Watson and Steven McRae and four hugely impressive young soloists, and it was absolutely unbelievable. The resulting article is in today's Independent, here. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


* Hungarian Dances yesterday at the St James Theatre Studio was a fabulous experience. A treat, a privilege and a joy to perform with amazing musicians in such a great venue. Huge thanks to everyone concerned! More Hungarian Dances later in the year at the Musical Museum, near Kew Bridge, on Sunday afternoon 8 September and Pen Fro Literary Festival, Pembrokeshire, on 12 September. Watch this space for further dates...

* Please read this eloquent piece by Tasmin Little in the Telegraph re sexism in the classical music. She tells it like it is.

* If you're near a big screen tomorrow, go and see the FREE, live, open-air relay of Mayerling from Covent Garden. It is top ballerina Mara Galeazzi's farewell performance with the Royal Ballet and features Edward Watson as Prince Rudolf. I went to see them both in action in the ROH a couple of weeks ago and emerged utterly wrung out by the combination of intense emotion and astonishing dancing. Is Mayerling the greatest ballet drama ever created? Personally, I think it might be. Don't miss it. Take a brolly if you must, but just don't miss it.

* Please support the ISM's campaign to secure funding for music education beyond 2015. There's a petition to sign, here.
Every little helps, or we hope it does.

* Here's a discussion from Voice of Russia radio that I did last week with Alice Lagnado and John Riley about the lasting importance of The Rite of Spring. The writes, the rights, and sometimes the wrongs too.

* And here's a Friday Historical in advance, because I will be otherwise occupied this week: Fritz Kreisler and his cellist brother, Hugo, with pianist Charlton Heath, playing one of my favourite pieces from the Hungarian Dances concert: Kreisler's Marche miniature viennoise. (Did you know Kreisler had a cellist brother? Neither did I. They're a gorgeous team.)

Friday, June 07, 2013

Royal Ballet is OUT of Les vepres sicilienne at the ROH

Big news from Covent Garden for last thing on a Friday afternoon. Here's the press statement. Suffice it to say that for the theatre's own glorious ballet company, and its school, and the Royal Danish Ballet too, to be out, wholesale, replaced by "freelance dancers", in which had been much vaunted as a flapship production for next season and the climax of the Verdi bicentenary is - well, rather operatic. Ooof.

7 JUNE 2013

17, 21, 24, 29 October, 1, 4, 7, 11 November 2013

“We regret that it has been necessary to rethink the inclusion of the Four Seasons ballet, in its entirety, from Act III of The Royal Opera’s new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes which opens in October. As a result of artistically differing approaches to the project between Johan Kobborg and director Stefan Herheim, Johan Kobborg and The Royal Ballet will no longer be working on this production.”

“There will still be a strong element of dance in the production, however no longer featuring Artists from The Royal Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet and students from The Royal Ballet School.”

“We are delighted that choreographer Andre de Jong, who has previously worked with director Stefan Herheim on his production of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam, is now the choreographer, working with freelance dancers.”

Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet and Kasper Holten, Director of Opera

Friday, May 24, 2013

The lives of other birds? Gabriel Yared talks about writing for Ravel Girl

My interview with Gabriel Yared, composer of the new mingled orchestral and electronic score for Raven Girl, is up now on the Royal Opera House's website. Raven Girl's world premiere is tonight (I'm going to see it next week) and dance fans are on tenterhooks.

More on Raven Girl here:
Booking here.

Yared has scored such movies as Betty Blue, The English Patient and The Lives of Others, to name but three. Here's the interview:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Alice's Adventures at the ROH

So did you all go to the cinecast of the Royal Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland yesterday?

It was such a full-on, energetic and brilliant performance that I felt as tired this morning as if I'd danced it myself. Er, OK, not quite. I was in the theatre this time, not the cinema - and enjoying the fact that there were so many young children around who were visiting the gorgeous ROH for the first time and falling under the spell of live performance at the age of only six or seven.

Alice is, first of all, the perfect (purrfect) ballet for anyone who has a large, striped cat.

The outsize Cheshire Cat - a giant puppet whose limbs, tail and head are manipulated by black-clad dancers and that hence is able to come to pieces and disappear bit by bit as Lewis Carroll stipulates - is so cleverly conceived and slickly executed that you'd think it would steal the show.

But of course the rest is on that level as well. It's a virtuoso tour-de-force for every part of the company: Bob Crowley's designs, Joby Talbot's glittering music and the total choreographic effect mesh together into one madcap yet consistent world, while the level of execution (pace Queen of Hearts) is tip-top from orchestra to lighting to corps to soloists. There's no weak link anywhere in the piece.

There seems no limit to the daredevil imagination of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon or the abilities of his dancers. Steven McRae's tap-dancing Mad Hatter is a special joy...

(That's from the previous TV broadcast/DVD, with Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice.)

More great moments with Zenaida Yanowsky's spoof Rose Adage as the Queen of Hearts (hilarious, yes - but have you ever noticed that mothers in ballet stories get a really raw deal?). And the flamingos, and the scampering little hedgehogs, and the fresh, tender, striking choreography for the pas de deux of Alice and Jack - Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli...

Incidentally, Eric Underwood's supple-backed, strong-torsoed Caterpillar needs special mention. His smouldering power and super stage presence has stood out in quite a number of performances this season and I for one can't understand why this fabulous American, who started his career in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is not ranked higher than Soloist. He got a huge and much-deserved cheer last night.

Particularly fascinating to see Alice at the RB two days after Giselle by the Mikhailovsky. The former is everything that the latter is not: sterling quality at every level, slick, contemporary, seamless, crazy, riotous, ironic, funny. The latter, though occasionally clunky in scenery and workaday in general level of the corps, had one thing (or two, depending how you see them) that the Royal doesn't: namely, Osipova and Vasiliev.

Lamb and Bonelli are both beautiful, technically tremendous dancers. The role of Alice is a particular workout for the lead ballerina, who's on stage and holding the show almost the whole time - a massive challenge carried off by Lamb with immense strength, charm and delicacy. But neither of these two excellent principals manipulates the confluence of time and space on stage the way the Russian duo do. They were part of the performance, key members of the Olympian teamwork; they didn't transcend it.

In the second interval, we spotted two audience members, pale and frown-faced, putting on their coats. They looked like ex-dancers. You'll miss the best bit if you leave now, we said. "We are not so impressed," said the man, Russian accent to the fore. "We find rather simplistic." That's your problem, mate, we didn't say. It's not a word I'd ever choose to describe a production as complex, bravura and vivid as this one. Was that, perhaps, a little indication of the different priorities of British versus Russian ballet? But next year, come to think of it, Wheeldon and Joby Talbot are teaming up again to bring us another full-length creation at the RB: The Winter's Tale. By Shakespeare. That will be very different - and interesting indeed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The future's Liam Scarlett. And it's also Daniil Trifonov

I went along to Covent Garden to meet Liam Scarlett, at 26 the hottest new choreographic property in town. He's decided to give up his dancing career - which was going jolly well - to concentrate full time on choreography and Kevin O'Hare has created a new post of Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet especially for him. My piece about him is in today's Independent.

It's fairly extraordinary interviewing ballet people after being used to musicians for so long. One doesn't like to generalise, of course, but first of all, they are so young...and so thin...and so lovely. They are poetic, intuitive, extremely bright and astoundingly determined, even driven - after all, it's a short career. Their vocation is the life they live - perhaps even more so than musicians. You know the business about a singer being his/her own instrument? With dance, it's like that, but it isn't a voice box; it's everything.

Meanwhile, it's a landmark day for me in a way I'd prefer to forget, really, but since I can't, I'm having a night off all my habitual high cultcha and  we're going to see Skyfall at the IMAX. As my own present to all of you - for to give is better than to receive - here is Daniil Trifonov playing the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie at the 2010 Chopin Competition. I came away from his QEH recital last week thinking "Someone should book this boy to play Prokofiev 2, soon - it'll be his piece to a T." And guess what? He's playing it on Thursday at the RFH with the Philharmonia and Lorin Maazel.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A dancer-director hits the ground running

More ballet! I had the first interview for a national newspaper with the new director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare. I found the one-time Birmingham Royal Ballet premier danseur thinking big, with a strong, clear vision for where he wants the company to go from here. Among the highlights we can look forward to are a triple bill in November of ballets from the three hottest British choreographers associated with the company - Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett; a new one-act ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, probably to the Chopin Preludes (wonderful idea!), and more new three-acters in the future.

Incidentally, Osipova left the Bolshoi last year together with her partner Ivan Vasiliev, and their new company, the Mikhailovsky Ballet, appears to be OK about her making guest appearances elsewhere. Ratmansky was director of the Bolshoi for five years up to 2009.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A firebird as a swan

It's been noted everywhere, since Natalia Osipova hit town the other day, that the Russian prima ballerina assoluta-in-the-making isn't necessarily a natural Odette. She's more firebird than swan, setting the place so much alight as Odile in Act III that it's no surprise everything goes up in smoke at the end. On the other hand, why should Odette be a moaning minnie? A swan is strong, fierce and near-supernatural, a favourite symbol of mythical purity and grace, the creature that leads Lohengrin and seduces Zeus. And, incidentally, a swan can break a man's arm.

Osipova's swan is Odette with a modern twist: fabulously musical, she goes into slow motion with those wonderful ritardando spins, or chooses an arabesque angle all her own, her Bolshoi training's super-extension a vivid contrast with the expert ensemble but contained style of the Royal Ballet corps. We may want to see her leap, but she wants to act - and for good reason. Her Odette is slow to trust yet quick to love, which makes her betrayal all the more tragic; and Osipova gives us an inspired moment before she throws herself into the lake that is the instant Odette cracks. Visibly, before she embarks on her final mime, she realises she can take no more: now her mind is made up and nothing will stop her. Acosta's Siegfried follows her, of course. But it is Rothbart's death that we see on stage, and the ferociously marvellous Gary Avis seems to drown in a turbulent lake of vengeful swans. We experience our heroine and hero's last moments vicariously through his.

Here is Anthony Dowell coaching Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Christopher Saunders in the climactic pas de trois - from the Royal Ballet Live webcast last April. (I love how the pianist gets totally carried away - and the thing that Dowell describes as "the Judy Garland moment"...)

Back to Osipova & Acosta: it was the Black Swan pas de deux that sent everyone nuts, and with good reason. Osipova works the audience with the instinct for timing, and virtuoso teasingness, of a prize comedy actress, though her interpretation is certainly not about laughs. In her solo, she goes into a phenomenal series of turns and extensions with that trademark slow control; then seems about to do it again on the other side, until, with a glance into the auditorium, seems to say "nah, maybe not...". The smile she flashes at the conclusion would have set the house aflame even if the sequence of fouettes - and whatever else it was that she did in those famous spins, which were doubles with knobs on - had not already done so. Acosta's whirls themselves drew a loud whoop of joy from somewhere in the stalls in mid flow: like Papageno, I think he could have won a few auditorium marriage proposals given the chance. He is a dancer who, like Dowell, can own the stage with the move of one arm and can hover in the air for what feels like a whole minute when allowed, in the Black Swan finale, to leap. If only they would bring back Siegfried's Ashton solo in Act I...

Speaking of which, it hasn't escaped any critic's notice that this production is a wee bit past its sell-by date. The lurid designs, for a start. The schlock-Gothic Act III is more Rocky Horror Show than royal ball. Rothbart looks, as owl, like a cross between Rod Stewart and, unfortunately, Jimmy Savile (what has Rothbart been doing to his troop of bewitched maidens anyway?), and later, in the ballroom, more like George Michael on a really bad day. However powerful Gary Avis's acting - and no character dancer could be more so - it's hard to take Rothbart seriously in this get-up.

But though it's the designs that cause the most complaint, I have to add my usual bug-bear about the limited benefits of supposed "authenticity". Going back to the original text as far as possible means that we lose all the old RB production's gorgeous Frederick Ashton contributions (except the Neapolitan Dance, which would probably cause a balletomanes' riot if chopped). In Act I, it's not only Siegfred's solo that I miss, but also the old Ashton waltz. David Bintley's choreography for the waltz, apparently based on an original-version 'Dance of the Stools' - the wooden sort, I hasten to add - is irritating, fussy and chaotic and the maypole adds nothing at all except clutter. Meanwhile Act IV is missing some of my favourite music - the clarinet-led, Russian folksongish lament - jettisoned in favour of a pretty but interminable waltz, when there are waltzes galore elsewhere already. Also, Ashton's Act IV made spectacular use of possibly the most dramatic piece in the whole score, which does not come into this version at all. The current staging does win on drama in Act IV - but at a price.

But hey. We weren't there for the production, but for Osipova - and it was her night all right. I was sitting next to a dance critic of long experience and some renown who remarked that bringing in a star like Osipova is a move that could inspire the whole company, showing them all what's really possible. And going home, I bumped into Brian, My Ballet Teacher, who was in ecstasies, saying that Osipova had delivered moments in the role as he had never seen them done before. Brian has lived and breathed classical ballet all his life - he used to dance leading roles with London Festival Ballet and his classes are gloriously poetic and Vaganova-inspired - and he knows what he's talking about.

The orchestra, under Boris Gruzhin, was on mostly excellent form - what a treat to hear such luxury Tchaikovsky - and it's hard to imagine the violin solos played more wonderfully than they are by concertmaster Vasko Vassilev, whose deep amethyst tone is now an essential part of Royal Ballet Tchaikovsky classics as a brand. Please, Kevin O'Hare, couldn't we have him go on stage for a curtain call?

The Mikhailovsky Ballet - of which Osipova and her usual partner/husband, the utterly incredible Ivan Vasiliev, are members - is coming to Britain in the spring. Doing, among other things, Swan Lake. If the First Couple of Dance are there, buy, beg or steal a ticket.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

In Darcey's shoes?

Tonight Kenneth MacMillan's last full-evening ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, opens at Covent Garden after being missing for a generation. It's so much associated with Darcey Bussell, whom it propelled to stardom, that to step into her shoes is a tall order. I talked to the leading ballerinas Marianela Nunez and Sarah Lamb about what it's like to try. Here's my feature from today's Independent.

And here is the adorable Marianela in rehearsal, filmed in the Royal Ballet's entire day of live webcasts in March (on her birthday).

Meanwhile, it's Diamond Jubilee time. Of course, this being London in June, it's raining and the forecast for tomorrow's River Pageant is 13 degrees... Readers overseas might like to know that there are flags everywhere. The whole of London has sprouted up looking like it's the Last Night of the Proms. Union Jacks are all over the city centre, where the Christmas lights usually go, and plenty of people have hung bunting outside their houses. The atmosphere is wonderful, despite the rain, or perhaps because of it. Let's face it, the Queen is a remarkable woman who has been doing the same job for 60 years with a professionalism that puts the politicians to absolute shame.

As far as the River Pageant is concerned - 1000 carefully-chosen boats on the Thames - they could have come up with a more imaginative musical programme, really, although there are some nice premieres. You may have missed my "jeepers-who-came-up-with-this-UKIP-style-fantasy" piece about the music on the ten boats, written when the programme was announced. I'd nurtured a faint hope that the then-still-TBC Ninth Boat might hold a waterborne world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Ninth Symphony. It doesn't. Just as well. Now, several months later, it's evident that all of this is just aural wallpaper. Probably there'll be so much noise that nobody will be able to hear anything anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sergei Polunin jumps ship

And just as we were wondering if men in ballet are upwardly mobile... the Royal Ballet puts out a statement saying that Sergei Polunin has resigned with immediate effect. I interviewed him in the autumn for The Independent and sensed he was champing at the bit, so I'm not wholly surprised - though hadn't expected him to jump ship quite this soon, given the prominence the company was according him. Well, he's off. No reasons have been stated for his resignation, thus far (and I hope it's nothing to do with the tattoos).

The news is causing quite some shock in the dance-loving Twitterverse, and the words "with immediate effect" are startling and somewhat dramatic. He is, of course, in that programme at Sadler's Wells, as I reported this morning, and speculation is rife as to where he will go from here. A number of performances will have to be recast, including a worldwide cinema relay of Romeo and Juliet scheduled for March.

Here's the statement from Monica Mason just issued by the ROH:

This has obviously come as a huge shock, Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years.  I wish him every success in the future.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Shock news: good-looking violinist can really play

Dodging our diligent builders who work on bank holidays, I turned on BBC Breakfast to see what the hurricane news was from the US, only to find myself witnessing some pretty bloody amazing Paganini instead. The culprit: Charlie Siem, a young British violinist fresh out of Cambridge and, uh, the modelling world. When I read that he was the 'global face' of Dunhill, I thought that meant the cigarettes and I was all ready to write an Outraged Non-Smoker of Sheen piece about the iniquities of young musicians having to get ahead by modelling for a filthy habit that kills people. But it turns out that Dunhill is actually a James Bond-ish designer menswear label...I wouldn't know; my husband is, like, more of a Ralph Lauren man.

When a fresh-faced, square-jawed, youthful supermodel type emerges with violin in hand and one painted fingernail, the knee-jerk music-critic reaction is to yawn and switch off; the knee-jerk Gidon Kremer-style reaction could be to walk out of the festival. But this guy can really play. And not just because he has Menuhin's Guarneri del Gesu, nor just because he's related to Ole Bull (have tweeted him to ask how so, but am not currently convinced he does his own tweets), nor just because Lady Gaga likes him. Seems he can talk the talk, walk the walk and, best of all, play the Paganini.

Have we turned full circle? Now that almost every young musician who pops up does look good, they need more than ever to be differentiated by their playing. Rather than one photogenic fiddler standing out from the crowd of technically adept ones because of his or her appearance, do we have a case in which the really fine musicians will emerge from the crowd of photogenic ones because of their playing after all? Hmm. He's got a new album out (hence BBC Breakfast), so see what you think.

Here's Charlie in something a little different (?! pink shorts) - two years ago, in Cuba with the Royal Ballet...

...and some Wieniawski.