|Xander Parish in Ballet 101 (photo from the Yorkshire Post)|
Maybe it's something in the Humber's water, but an inordinate number of superb British ballet dancers have come out of the pleasing historic town of Hull, which is often termed - most unfairly - 'the armpit of England'. Those dancers include Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, and Xander Parish, the first British dancer in the Mariinsky, so it's worth celebrating - and that's exactly what Hull, currently the UK City of Culture, did on Saturday.
Having refurbished and built new sections for its New Theatre, it was an inspired idea to call in the Royal Ballet for a reopening gala - the company's first visit to the town in 30 years. Hull's home-grown stars were out in force. Parish put in an appearance out of Russia; alongside him were his sister Demelza Parish, a Royal Ballet first artist; Joseph Caley, now a principal with English National Ballet; Elizabeth Harrod, an RB soloist, aka Mrs Steven McRae; and the local ballet school that can really take the credit for laying the foundations of their success, the Skelton Hooper School of Dance and Theatre, brought their current youngsters to strut their stuff alongside.
|(photo: Yorkshire Post)|
But then, almost everything in this generous programme was a highlight. William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude - that Schubert finale for three girls and two boys that leaves you breathless just from watching - was a tremendous opener, with Marianela Nuñez, Beatriz Stix-Brunnell, Akane Takada, James Hay and Valentino Zucchetti (though the lime green and magenta sets the teeth on edge a bit). A warm introduction from O'Hare paid tribute to his own Hull background, then introduced Parish for a star turn in Ballet 101 by Eric Gauthier - a dazzling array of ballet poses interacting with narration and showing off Parish's steely technique. Parish (whom I interviewed for The Independent a few years back) had set off for St Petersburg after feeling he'd had to carry one spear too many; now the Russian company has moulded him into a magnificently princely principal, his mile-long limbs and super-wide wingspan enhanced by the open-hearted Mariinsky style. Fortunately Ballet 101 showed off that he's far more than a mere gentlemanly presence - though he can do that too, as evinced by the Sylvia pas de deux, serenely performed with the enchanting Yasmin Naghdi.
The star turns thrilled from start to finish: Natalia Osipova and Matthew Ball in the balcony scene (minus balcony) from Romeo and Juliet was my personal number one: Osipova, one-of-a-kind volatile, vivacious and scarcely touching the stage, offset finely by Ball - a beautifully classic dancer in the English tradition, poetic and very gentlemanly indeed, with the special quality of never looking rushed, no matter how fast he spins. Edward Watson and Melissa Hamilton (who's home from Dresden and on sizzling form with fine-tuned, sinewy strength and presence) brought a very grown-up Wayne McGregor pas de deux, Qualia, in which they do plenty of things that one didn't think a human body could possibly do. At the other end of the spectrum, Steven McRae and violinist Robert Gibbs took the stage together for a rip-roaring tap version of Monti's Czardas, choreographed by McRae. This list could carry on - it's only a taste of the wonders on offer.
Here's Steven performing Czardas on World Ballet Day, with violinist Vasko Vassiliev:
Parish's fellow Hull dancers pulled a special weight, and that of others. Demelza Parish shone in the world premiere of Heart's Furies, a trio by Andrew McNicol set (rather startlingly) to the first movement of Janáček's Piano Sonata and capturing its turbulence and anguish. Joseph Caley turned a different kind of anguish - Hamlet's, no less - into the dazzling jazzy solo from David Bintley's The Shakespeare Suite, and later joined Takada for the Le Corsaire pas de deux to close the performance. Harrod and McRae finished the first half with a beautiful, heartbreaking account of the last pas de deux from The Two Pigeons, complete with supremely well-behaved birds. A colleague who's seen the work innumerable times assured me that they sometimes aren't, and that once one of them fluttered off into the gods and eluded capture for several hours thereafter.
The ballet school gave an apposite piece of their own called A Dancer's Story, simple yet very effective: children in a Hull backstreet gaze through a dance studio's windows, then are transformed into its pupils, watching and learning from the older students.
And if there's one a "takeaway" thought from the evening, it was this. Part of ballet's mystique, its mythology, its self-narrative, is the image of the child drawn to dance by seeing her/his peer group dancing and longing to join in. Partly it's the Nutcracker story: the child transformed into the woman she longs to become. Partly, it's something within all of us, the atmosphere of those long-lost formative years recaptured in the unique language of dance and recreated for new generation after new generation. But in classical music, are we missing this type of narrative?
It can happen if you join a youth orchestra: the youngsters at the back of the second fiddles can be inspired by the older leaders, an example that spurs them on to work hard and follow their dream (that's how my OH started out: in the Cheshire Youth Orchestra, whose leader at the time happened to be the teenage Peter Manning, now the Royal Opera House's own concertmaster). But to reach that point, the smallest children have already had to start playing, to have been inspired to start and work their way to a halfway decent level of ability. You don't often get to press your nose to the glass of a music school's window and long to join in, and the only way to do this via the TV is usually the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which happens only every two years and now mostly on a non-mainstream channel with limited actual performances. In ballet, though, we wouldn't even question the notion that that's how it begins, that you have to start training very young, and that that's how most kids get interested: through the example of their peer groups. Is there some way we can make this story a bigger part of music as well?
|Photo: Danny Lawson/PA|
Huge congratulations, then, to this year's City of Culture and wishing Hull the best of the best for the rest of it.
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