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

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!

Some thoughts on Mariinsky Triple Bill

– The Firebird – Marguerite et Armande – Concerto DSCH –

It was a real treat to see the Mariinsky at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday night. I’d not been able to get tickets for any of their full-length ballets whilst they’re here, but I do love a good triple bill too.

I find it quite useful to record my thoughts about watching ballet – and theatre – as soon as I can, and without any of the research and reading that a traditional reviewer or critic will access during their writing process. So I won’t necessarily read the programme, or research story or performance history for example. On the one hand I find this a pleasurable process, to receive impressions from the performance itself in the first instance, and on the other I think it is quite a useful record of the experience of performance with the minimum of “other stuff” in the way. So seeing all three pieces on Tuesday night for the first time and with extremely minimal prior knowledge was really interesting!

Although The Firebird was visually stunning – think the absolute height of turn-of-the-century Ballets Russes stylised glamour – it did present quite a number of problems for me. I think it was danced beautifully, but these issues of presentation did rather distract me from the patent skill of the dancers on stage. I think in many ways it encapsulated a great deal of the problems I find in traditional story ballets in one neat 45-minute package!

The ballet is divided into three sections – the Firebird appears to a hunter in a gated demesne, then a princess and her maids appear and she and the hunter fall in love, then for no apparent reason (have they stayed in the garden too long?? not sure) an army of scary monsters appears. The princess seems to be able to combat them by just being too beautiful and pure, but in the end the Firebird vanquishes them. Then some of them seem to turn into handsome courtiers who marry the maidens and the hunter and the princess marry of course too. Don’t know what the Firebird thinks to all this. There’s also been a golden tree that bears golden fruit throughout, for the life of me I don’t know what it signifies, but it does provide opportunity for some messing around with flowers and leaves and apples.

So yes, it’s one of those ridiculous ballet stories that you kind of have to accept. What I found problematic was the representation of the Firebird – who as the only character en pointe and in a platter tutu looks HUGE and supernatural and strong – as being caught. Admittedly there is some interesting choreography where she struggles against the hunter and the classical lines of a hold are broken. However the story of the dance seems to be that she’s a beautiful wild thing who struggles against entrapment but then ends up liking it. Similarly the beautiful princess (who’s clad in a lot of white along with her maidens) is extremely shy and retiring until she too is “caught”. It just seemed like two really backwards representations of women – the fiery but tamed woman and the modest virgin. And choreographically the hunter didn’t have a right lot to do – another representational problem for me that seems to obsess over women’s bodies.

And you know, the prince/hunter jumping off a stage rock and banging to the floor, the Firebird kind of galumphing across the stage a few times on her own at the beginning, and then when she bites off a bit of the golden tree….I kind of found it unintentionally funny. I sniggered a bit. Ditto for the score at some points – the orchestra winding up for the fireworks on stage, for example. Should I stop being such a snob? The dancer who played the monster king was obviously having a ball staggering about as a scary villain – but I felt like I couldn’t join in the fun.

Is this because the ballet has aged badly, maybe? We as an audience don’t find the same pleasure in the spectacle as perhaps the audience of 1901 did? I’m not sure how far this argument can go, as many ballets and other theatrical events are re-presented successfully. However this does bring to the fore arguments about keeping ballets intact, and the value of preserving a historically “authentic” piece. Personally I’m all for re-interpretation and re-presentation. However I wonder if maybe there are audiences who simply revel in the pantomimic fanfare of the piece and love it for what it is – absurdities and all?

I was on more solid ground with Marguerite et Armande, as I vaguely knew the story – she’s a consumptive demimondaine, they’re in love etc. I have to admit I was very excited to see Uliana Lopatkina, and she was just beautiful – I wish I’d been able to see her dance a full-length role. The ballet is such a mid-century British piece – made on Fonteyn and Nureyev by Frederick Ashton, designed by Cecil Beaton – and it did look stunning with its pared-back set and exquisite late-Victorian costume. The acting from Lopatkina and Askerov as Marguerite and Armande was really very good. However the switch from fairytale pantomime to this quite intricate and subtly played out tragedy I found very jarring.

This feeling continued with the final piece, Concerto DSCH, a thoroughly modern piece which premiered in 2008. Although choreographed by a Russian, it did feel very American to me, and seemed in many places to pastiche American popular culture – quite unusual when I remembered it was being performed by a Russian company. Again the switch of the quality of attention I need to pay to the different modes of performance felt unsettling.

I’ve attended a couple of Royal Ballet triple-bills before, and although the pieces performed were in some ways divergent, nevertheless there did seem to be a through-line that connected up all three. This left me wondering what the rationale might be behind the Mariinsky’s programming decision. On the one hand as a bill in a visiting company’s tour, it might seem to showcase the variety of styles that the Mariinsky can master. However as a well-recognised, world-renowned company, I’m not quite sure that we need this to be proved to us. In another sense the programme seemed to have quite a didactic tone – as if we were being shown ballet through the ages. That’s what I read ballet history for – not what I want out of an evening at the Royal Opera House.

I’m sure some audience members will have enjoyed the variety of styles on offer, maybe in a similar manner to a platter of different delicious treats, savouring each flavour. For me however, I felt as though I couldn’t quite get my teeth in to any of them, as they were whipped away and replaced by something new and completely different.

A lucky opportunity to see a talented company and an evening full of dazzle, I was far from completely disappointed. But a reminder how the kinds of decisions made beyond the dancing bodies on stage can really impact the audience’s experience at the ballet.

Daria at the Stage Door

I’m just settling in at home after the ENB’s Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ll reflect more thoughtfully on the production later but I’d just like to say that Daria Klimentova is incredibly gracious to fans at the stage door, after dancing miles around that huge arena of a stage and obviously wanting to get home with her husband. She had her pointe shoes for a particular fan, and a smile and a good word for everyone. It was quite a heart-hammering moment for me to have her make eye contact with me and quite genuinely and interestedly listen whilst I thanked her for her performance and got her autograph. Her Juliet was complex, and moved me to tears.

Ballet Black

So you remember how Ballet Black are on my wish list for companies I want to see?

They’re actually performing soon at my university!

:O:O:O Excite!

They’ll be performing extracts from their new production War Stories, and then there’ll be a discussion afterwards. I’m sure I’ll be brimming full of questions, which I’ll definitely write up. If you’re in London and would like to register for a (free) place, get in touch!