Review – Ballet Black Triple Bill

Ballet Black Triple Bill (featuring Storyville)
The Barbican, London
18th March 2016

If you’ve not heard of or seen Ballet Black before, I urge you to get onto YouTube and check out their work. They were founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho and Denzil Bailey, as a company to showcase the talents of dancers of black and Asian heritage. They’re a really well-loved company, especially here in London where they’re based. They have a training academy here too. In fact, one of the really nice things about coming to a Ballet Black show is that there always seems to be a lot of kids, teenagers, young people and their families in the audience – which goes to show how committed they are to teaching and learning I think, and getting young people and their families involved in the world of ballet. Which is great, and makes for a really fun audience experience too.

One of the notable things about the company is that it’s small – there’s only 8 dancers. This means that in effect everyone is functioning like a soloist, and everyone is incredibly strong on stage, as you can imagine.

Friday’s show opened with two more abstract pieces, the first of which was Cristaux. It’s all about the play and dance of light, reflecting and refracting, from crystals – so the Balanchine influence is clear. It features some stunning costuming by Swarovski, with the ballerina (this evening Cira Robinson) appearing as a kind of Metropolis Fairy with a huge Deco-style style tiara made from crystal. The piece is a pas de deux and one of the things I noticed about is that both dancers kept their legs relivately low. There wasn’t a huge amount of massive extension, just clean and strong controlled lines.

Towards the end of piece a huge crystal pendulum appears as if from nowhere, swinging right across the breadth of stage and continuing until it comes to a stop. It seems almost dangerous, as the dancers execute the higher lifts, as if the ballerina could collide with it. There’s a real sense of peril! The beams of light from the pendulum and also the tiara beam out into the audience like searchlights, which i also found quite thrilling. The dancers throughout are not exactly unsmiling, but they do keep their facial expression neutral, which adds an air of ambiguity to the piece too.

This is in contrast to the second piece of the evening, To Begin, Begin. It starts in a seemingly more sober manner, with the dancers in blues and greys, and uses large lengths of fabric to create moving sculptures on stage. It portrays a journey of romantic discovery, and the 6 dancers on stage break off in different configurations, but consistently come back together into pas de deux. There’s playful moments, like when the fabric is used like bedsheets for a romantic vignette. The piece works towards an uplifting ending, with some gorgeous music. A small thing, but what i noticed in particular was the way the dancers were smiling, beaming into each others faces in a really intimate and joyful way.

The headline of the bill is Storyville. When I saw Ballet Black for the first time, the last time they were at the Royal Opera House’s studio theatre with a mixed bill, I came away really impressed and moved by their storytelling abilities – so I was especially excited to see this. Storyville is set in 1915 New Orleans, and the music takes inspiration from that era of Jazz. It makes use of very few props, absolutely no stage scenery, and the costuming remains subtle. This means that the story is told on the strength of the acting alone, which is really impressive. The piece does make use of silent film-style text on cards to introduce characters and move the action forward in time, which is a really nice touch and done in quite a knowing, humorous way.

Storyville tells the story of Nola, a girl who arrives in New Orleans full of hopeful innocence. She becomes a dancer, and soon becomes known as one of the best – and most lucrative – dancers at Lulu White’s club. At the same time, she falls in love with a sailor, who Lulu White is none too impressed by. White and her henchman/lover Mack warn Nola off her lover, and off men in general, telling her to “stay perpendicular”. However at the same time they curiously enact a potent seduction upon Nola. In her imagination they become transformed into the Voodoo King and Queen and her childhood toy, brought with her to the big city, becomes a voodoo doll as she is played with, tossed about and stuck with pins. White and Mack give her beautiful jewellery, a diamond bracelet and choker which become symbolic of the life she is becoming entrapped by. She’s hypnotised by the jewels, but some jealous dancers and club patrons make her drunk and steal them from her. One year later we find her hooked on booze, a kind of Billie Holliday figure who is supremely talented yet addicted. Drunk and stumbling, she’s seen desperately clawing at what remains of her talent and love for dancing, in a really touching moment from Cira Robinson. Nola’s sailor lover, who she has spurned, appears once more to try to save her, but the Voodoo King and Queen have other plans and she design his arms.

The performance and the quality of acting from the dancers was really superb; Cira Robinson as Nola really stood out in particular for with her range of expression. If I had one criticism it would be that I wanted more from the piece in certain moments – just slightly more time to really dance out, for example, Nola’s broken stumbling dreams, and maybe more in the way of costuming perhaps to really underline the razzle-dazzle of the time and place.

Ballet Black are at the Barbican tonight, 19th March, then touring. Learn more about the company at balletblack.co.uk

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Olivia Cowley’s Ballet Style

Absolutely loving Royal Ballet Soloist Olivia Cowley’s BalletStyle blog. She’s so right, the costumes on stage are absolute works of art and it is a shame that we don’t often get the chance to appreciate the craft and beauty of them up close. But it’s not just stage costumes! We get to see snaps of dancers during their work day and what they wear in class- as well as Olivia’s fab street style.

Here she is as Raven Wife –  a role I really enjoyed seeing her in recently. The costume fascinated me when I saw in on stage. The mask appeared opaque which was so striking and almost quite disturbing. It’s a real pleasure to see the headpiece up close and all the intricate folded ribbons on the tunic.

Source: ballet costumes — Ballet Style

Dance and Wellbeing with Parkinson’s and Mobility Challenges

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I had a great time helping out at the Move into Wellbeing class with Ballet4Life in West London this weekend. The class is aimed at people living with Parkinson’s, and I had found out about it after doing a bit of research stemming from the World Ballet Day segment featuring Dance for Parkinson’s classes.

Dance for Parkinson’s supports classes and learners and is a research-based approach to developing high quality dance experiences for people living with Parkinson’s. Their website lists classes all around the country.

Ballet4Life’s class in Turnham Green is a lovely welcoming group, it was really easy for me to slot in and start taking part. We started off with saying our names around the seated circle with an accompanying movement, which is a really nice way of making eye contact around the group and getting a taste of everyone’s personality with their choice of movement!

Class leader Beatrice then led us through the seated section, beginning with roll-down warm-ups and moving on to an increasing range of movement, incorporating some different rhythms and targeting different areas like mobilising the fingers. Ballet4Life founder and teacher Donna and volunteer assistants take part around the circle too, so that movements can be followed without having to strain to see just one demonstrator.

I recognised a lot of ballet movements that had been adapted to the seated position and made use of a strong stacked parallel posture. There was lots for me to think about in terms of keeping my weight placed and engaging good placement. One of the things that Beatrice is really good at is encouraging little bits of performance, for example one movement became the “Marilyn” like the famous skirts gusting up to the sky, and a shaking our fists became a Popeye-like “Youuu!!”. It’s another way of getting involved in the movement and creating fun moments shared between the group.

We then moved on to the barre, although participants can choose to remain seated if that’s more comfortable, with some plié combinations in parallel and turned out, rond des jambes and port des bras. Although we were doing exercises from ballet practice, this wasn’t overstated – instead the focus is much more on engaging with your own movement range.

Centre practice was a brilliant Charleston-inspired routine, with rhythmically-moving feet and the option to freestyle some jazz hands!

The class always ends on coming back into a circle with the group, which I think is a brilliant idea. We continued with some Charleston feet in the circle and then in place of a traditional revérence we bowed to each other in sequence around the circle, to the right and then left. It’s a great way to all come back together at the end of class and re-establish the energy

If you want more info about getting involved, get in touch with Ballet4Life or comment below!

 

Creativity and Depression

Source: Creativity and depression… do they bother you? — SewCanShe | Free Daily Sewing Tutorials

SewCanShe is a great blog and tutorial site that I follow and would totally recommend for any sewists! But this post was a bit more personal and one that I really appreciated. I suffer from Clinical Depression and creativity (of lack of) is something that I spend quite a lot of time thinking about.

The post above and its comments mention sewing projects as a source of creativity and a bit of everyday hopefulness for people suffering through depressive times. I can definitely relate to this. Sometimes, just picking up a simple bit of hand-sewing and completing just *something* for the day can mean the difference between writing-off the day and salvaging something positive and hopeful. I think as well that the attention demanded of making something can be so helpful in re-focussing thoughts away from sorrowful or anxiety-inducing spirals.

Ballet, as well, has been and continues to be an absolute life-line for me. Again, for me, it is the quality of attention that must be paid in class that brings relief for me. If I can find the heart to just get there, to turn up and turn out, I know that for the next hour and half I won’t be at war with myself.

However going through depression and related issues can often mean that creativity grinds to a halt. I often feel overwhelmed by the thought of beginning any kind of project and a profound lack of creative energy and imagination. It is a real problem for me as my occupation as a graduate student means that writing is central to what I do – and I often feel absolutely unable to write.

I think there’s a bit  of a culturally-imagined image of the depressed or “mad” person somehow harbouring a special kind of creative energy or the ability to  create wonderful things out of darkness. No doubt many celebrated creative people have had mental health issues. But I find this assumption quite damaging. For me, depression is a very barren place and I really do feel the pressure of not being able to function or create.

I would love to hear people about their own creative lives. Have you found any ways to access your own creative energy through the dark times?

Dancing in the Dark. (photo: Erwin Olaf)

Dancing in the Dark.
(photo: Erwin Olaf)

Talking about Examinations

I posted here a while ago about thinking about taking ballet exams.

Well, I’ve been taking the RAD Intermediate Foundation syllabus class for a couple of terms now, and I’m just getting ready to step it up to twice a week to start prepping in anticipation of taking the exam in the near future.

I totally love it, but here are a few things to think about if you’re considering syllabus work.

First of all, time commitment. What’s your week like? How often can you dance? If you’ve got a steady one-class-a-week habit, I would consider sticking to non-syllabus class. It totally depends on what kind of learner you are and what you enjoy, of course, but I think I would go a bit mad if I was only taking syllabus class and no others. Plus, I do think taking an exam-focussed class alongside a much more free form, creative class that is not end-goal orientated is the perfect complement to one another. In exam class the whole point is that this is stuff you can do, and the challenge is to memorise it and perform it to a high standard. And performance is key here – you are expected to present and communicate to an audience. In general class, the constant and unexpected challenge, and the fact that you are doing it for yourself with no other expectations, is what it’s all about. I definitely think that my work in both types of class have improved what I do in the other.

Another thing to think about is financial commitment. Of course, it’s taking on a new class, and as you become a bit more proficient and start thinking about the exam, it’s pretty much essential that you pick up two classes a week. There’s also private lessons to think about, for focussed attention that you can’t get in class. There’s ways to lessen the cost here – taking privates shared between two or three students to a teacher is a good option, and some schools offer student-teacher (as opposed to fully-qualified teacher) rates. When you’re getting ready for the exam there’s the exam uniform to consider too, which depending on your school and exam level might involve specialist kit like a tutu.

Of course I want to do the variation that means I have to wear this.

Of course I want to do the variation that means I have to wear this.

Then there’s homework! Again, it helps to think about what kind of learner you are as the syllabus textbooks and DVDs are of more use to some than others. However, I am such a verbal – and above all text-based – learner that being able to read and write my own notes in the textbook is incredibly helpful. I also have the RAD videos on my phone to watch when I have moment on the bus or the tube. I really enjoy giving myself a little bit of structured time to revise like this, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea!

The kids in the learning materials are SO CUTE.

The kids in the learning materials are SO CUTE.

But here’s what I love about syllabus class. It’s so clear to self-assess how you’re progressing, which is really satisfying. Going from having difficulty doing barre without being led by the teacher, for example, to fully memorising all the barre exercises feels really great. I’ve just had a bit of a confidence boost recently because I feel I’ve got our 3rd allegro under my belt – which when I was first taught, seemed like such a far off prospect! My absolute favourite aspect of exam class, however, is performance and musicality. These are criteria in the exam so they are something you have to pay critical attention to, and I find it really rewarding. It is like rehearsing a part for performance, especially in the solo sections like the variation. It’s so nice to have your expression and performance quality recognised and developed like this. Our teacher often tells us that performing out to a big audience (which we should feel our audience is, even if it’s just the examiner!) is like projecting outwards from the heart. I think that captures something of the special and rewarding nature of working like this. I have to add that my teacher is great too and makes class so pleasurable!

I think ultimately, although taking ballet exams as an adult isn’t necessary at all, it’s really satisfying to work towards a recognised level, and I will be so proud if/when I eventually reach it!

Dancing and Sewing

So it’s not a great photo but here’s my SAB skirt, made from the super fab tutorial from Adult Beginner!

Ballet selfie/belfie!

Ballet selfie/belfie!

It’s such a good tutorial, really easy to follow. The skirt makes you feel like your legs are a zillion miles long!

I’ve made a couple of longer ones in different fabrics for a friend, and have plans to make a mid thigh/knee-length one for twirly twirly purposes. I totally love this super short one for ballet though, the way it hangs feels so flattering.

Things Dance Teachers Say

My teachers are being hilarious at the moment.

(After grand allegro on the left side)

Joel: Let’s do it again on the right, so we can all feel better about ourselves.

(Practising glissades)

Kate: (showing a plié in fifth, demonstrating the diamond shape the legs make) Remember we’ve got to see those fairy windows!

FAIRY WINDOWS!!

Treating the dancer in your life.

It’s that  time of year again isn’t it, when you have to start thinking of yuletide gifts.

Ok so I’m totally writing this because these are things which *I* would like for Christmas and also my birthday is the week before Christmas which you know is difficult and people don’t have time to think of all these gifts so really I’m doing everyone a big favour…

But seriously, don’t buy your ballerina bestie something lame.

What is this even?

What is this even?

Good lord no.

Good lord no.

Here are things the dancer in your life will deffo appreciate…

(**Heads up – my list is London-centric and assumes mostly female dancers, but does work for other regions and all genders too! Comment if you have even better ideas for your region and the danseurs in your life.**)

Dance Direct Vouchers
We all have our eye on our next leotard. Even though we have more leotards than clean knickers. Don’t risk sizing and style nightmares, get a voucher for dancedirect.com which stocks loads of brands and normally at a bit of a discount. If you’re just looking for a small gift, even a fiver will be appreciated – trust me.

ROH Vouchers
Yes, the Royal Opera House does vouchers! It’s really not very obvious at all from their website or actual box office but is true!
Again, just a fiver or whatevs would be appreciated towards their next tickets, or if you’ve got the spends give them enough for a box. Luxury.
If you’re not near or in London, a special overnight trip to the Royal Opera House would blow their minds and would be the most incredible friend date / romantic actual date eveerrr (you’re welcome).
And if you want to treat them to tickets for a different ballet company, theatre vouchers can be used almost anywhere.

RAD Vouchers
This one’s specific to dancers who are taking exams, but kitting up with the right exam uniform is a bit of an investment. Honestly, we need the right colour leotard, tutu, even hair ribbons.

The DVDs and Syllabus outline textbooks are super useful too, if you know which grade they’re taking.

If your fancy dancer has passed, then you can get them the corresponding silver pendant woooo.

This is the pendant for the exam I'm taking jus sayinnnn

This is the pendant for the exam I’m taking jus sayinnnn

Tights

I’m not joking here. Buy me tights. I ladder them all the bloody time and the cost mounts. And even washing on delicate, the gorgeous matchy matchy shade you’ve carefully chosen does fade. The cost and frustration can be especially true if your dancing wellbeloved likes to match their skintone, and their skintone doesn’t fit into the massively circumscribed spectrum of most widely available tights.

One great company is NudeBarre with a fabulous selection of products and colours. You can even order a colour swatch to get the matchy matchy absolutely perfect. (I so want some nude fishnets yesss.)
Revolutions Colour Flow tights are brilliant value for money and offer a better than usual selection of colours, in full foot, stirrup and convertible. I’m crazy about Prima Pink which matches the pink of my satin slippers perfectly.

A personalised sewing kit

You can get such cute little tins and one filled up with the essentials is a super-cute stocking filler. You’ll need: some ribbons and elastics, some ballet-pink Nymo, a card of needles, a stitch-ripper, a thimble. I also love my fold-up scissors, so useful. And a fancy little mini lighter for sealing your ribbon ends would be the cherry on top.

Here's mine. Cute tins! Cute cheap tins!

Here’s mine. Cute tins! Cute cheap tins!

Ballet DVDs

We all love watching dance. We just do. Maybe your prima bestie has a favourite company or is a mega fan of a particular dancer? If you’re not sure, it’s safe to say that the Royal Ballet DVDs are consistently top quality and they have a really good library of performances, from classic Royal Ballet primas like Fonteyn and Bussell, right up to brand new productions.

Ballets are increasingly being live-broadcast to cinemas too, so check out what’s on near you.

Pop this on and get ready to DIE OF WEEPING.

Pop this on and get ready to DIE OF WEEPING.

Ballet wear, clothes and jewellery

Everyone’s tastes here are different I know, but I have to shout out some excellent companies…

Cloud and Victory – are hilarious and oh so stylish. A little pricey, and shipping from Singapore, a special delivery from them would be absolutely delightful.

Yass kwene

Yass kwene

Designed by Alice – I own two of her gorgeous skirts already and the quality is so good. The elasticated waist ribbon makes such a difference, the cut is lovely and she always stocks an ever-changing selection of gorgeously patterned fabric.

Les Nereides – just. these. yes.

Classes

The absolute best things all dancers love is to dance! Gifting a class or a set of classes is the most wonderful gift I can think of. Studios like Danceworks offer different gift card options, others like The Place offer carnets of 6 or 12 classes, or even for a terms-worth of classes. If you’re feeling generous you could offer to pay their invoices for their  pre-booked classes? Another special treat would be book a private lesson for them – ask their usual ballet teacher, a lot of teachers will offer privates.

I know some people don’t like to give money as it isn’t gift-wrapped and special like a present, but honestly anything at all towards class fees would delight any dancer – and you could even dress it up in a lovely card.

Odile's costume. Drool.

Odile’s costume. Drool.

I’d love to know what your best-ever fancy-dancy present was. And you have to promise to tell me if you get a special something for your special dancer!