Tag Archives: Christopher Wheeldon

Choreographer’s Conundrum

Of all the new works of dance being produced around the world, surely the percentage of those falling into the category of ballet (whatever that means to you) is ever decreasing. Here in London there are several platforms for presenting new contemporary dance, and a huge number of independent choreographers and small companies working in that hemisphere of the dance world, generating innumerable exciting works. In the classical domain, there are but two companies of note in the city – English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet, which present an embarrasingly small number of new works each year, especially given the latter’s government subsidy.

Ballet has faced an uncertain future for a while now. At various points in the past it has looked extinction in the eye, but thanks to timely and innovative choreographers and directors, Balanchine and McMillan to name but two, it has lived to tell the tale. Once again it finds itself at a fork in the road, one branch veering towards the past, the other rolling towards and exciting, if uncertain, future.

Ballet companies have always depended heavily on a roster of established classical ballets, those ones that represent almost guaranteed ticket sales, and that for some reason most are keen to  disassociate themselves with as the 21st century ploughs ahead. Choreographers like Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon, prolific and talented though they are, create work that keeps the classicists happy, but only because it’s almost all been seen before – and while a certain demographic is politely pleased by these kind of works, it’s not going to be enough to get any new faces in the audience or send sparks flying in the arts pages.

On the other hand, the works of Wayne McGregor et al represent a new approach and forward-thinking physicality that has gotten people talking – but for most of us, it has little enough link to the classical heritage that it doesn’t warrant the ballet seal of approval. Monica Mason showed a lot of gumption when giving McGregor the coveted role of Choreographer – in – residence at the Royal Opera House, and it’s easy to see that she was trying to inject some pace into the institution. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that he was not the right choice for the job, as a company with a long heritage such as the Royal Ballet needs a sense of continuity to tie it’s present to it’s established past.

Once hives of bold creativity and invention, our extant ballet companies find themselves in a rough position. Spend their money on something safe and derivative, or splash the cash on something that will cause as many sneers as grins. Both approaches will have their detractors – that’s just what happens when you’re spending public money – but sadly it’s not just a question of numbers. The decisions choreographers and artistic directors make are driving forces not just in the survival of individual companies, but of the artform in its own creative ecosystem.

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Ballet in 2012

Unquestionably, the main event on the sporting and cultural horizon in 2012 is the Olympic Games. Dancers, wide-ranging in abilities, are reported to number over 10,000 for the opening and closing ceremonies. There’s plenty of dancing going on outside the Olympic stadium too, unfortunately to much smaller audiences.

As part of an initiative called Dance GB, three companies – English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet and National Dance Company Wales – are each presenting specially commissioned works on the Olympic theme to commemorate the occasion: it will be interesting to see what the three companies come up with. Birmingham Royal Ballet will use the same team that created the very impressive E = mc2 to give us Higher, Faster, Stronger, a ballet taking inspiration from the Olympic ideals.

Not on the same competitive theme, but none the less challenging, The Royal Ballet has teamed up with The National Gallery to create Metamorphosis: TITIAN 2012. This work will take three of Titian’s masterpieces – Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and Diana and Callisto – as the starting points for three ballets. Each ballet will have a choreographic team: Christopher Wheeldon and Alastair Marriott; Wayne McGregor and Kim Brandstrup; Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. With such a huge wealth of talent and experience, this could be the highlight of the year. On the other hand, with so many different voices it could end up being a confused mess.

While all that is going on over at Covent Garden, Sadlers Wells is buzzing at the prospect of Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion. We’ve all seen this type of show before – a group of dancers brought together under a certain theme (here that seems to be that they are all male), to dance some fairly unrelated choreography – and we know that they can be somewhat shallow affairs. This one I have a good feeling about. Putrov will be performing Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, taught to him by Anthony Dowell who last danced it over 30 years ago; Daniel Proietto will wow audiences in Russell Maliphant’s Afterlight, just like he did 2 years ago on the same stage; Putrov will be joined by the Maryinsky’s Igor Kolb and Royal Ballet’s Sergei Polunin in Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which is a beautiful celebration of the man in motion.

On the topic of men in motion, one man that will be making his movements felt this year is choreographer George Williamson. A graduate of English National Ballet School, Williamson has said that he wants to make “fresh work in the classical language”. His language is right on the pulse – it is wildly athletic. This year will see him create on New English Ballet Theatre and re-imagining The Firebird for English National Ballet’s Beyond Ballet Russes programme. With such illustrious credits to his name so early on in his career it will be interesting to see where Williamson goes in the next few years.

Aside from choreographic debuts, and Dance GB, there’s more afoot at English National Ballet in the guise of My First Sleeping Beauty. Like Angelina Ballerina, this is billed as a children’s ballet and is part of the company’s drive to generate family audiences. Matthew Hart is the choreographer here and I am a fan of his work – he is passionate about narrative ballet and telling a story through steps. Another new Beauty that will be touring UK and Ireland is that of Ballet Theatre UK. This will be artistic director Chris Moore’s fourth full-length ballet for the troupe and the quality of work belies the size of the company.

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Pointe: From Trick To Trade

The pointe shoe, along with the tutu, has its place firmly in ballet iconography. One of the most common questions posed to ballet dancers, male or female, must be “do you dance on your toes?” While dancing en pointe is required of every female classical dancer, if it is to avoid becoming an artefact, new ways of employing the technique will have to be introduced.

What is now a finely-honed technique began life as a gimmick. After Charles Didelot’s contraption that allowed dancers, suspended on wires, to stand on tip-toe, choreographers began experimenting with ways of recreating the illusion in different ways. Marie Taglioni first danced on a prototype pointe show in the opera Robert Le Diable – it was no more than a satin ballet shoe, heavily darned at the tip. Today pointe shoes offer much more support, which in turn allows more freedom and variety in the choreography that can be performed in them.

Technique has always been the servant of repertoire. The technical feats and impressive control we associate with pointe work today were arrived at through ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle and the works of Marius Petipa: the requirements of the choreography dictating the rigours of the training.

The training of pointe work is an integral part of classical ballet training, and the two have developed simultaneously. From the romantic and classical to the neo-classical of Balanchine and the de-constructionist of Forsythe, pointe work progressed in tandem with the choreographic demands.

While the pointe shoe is being largely left behind by modern ballet choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson, many choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon, continue to employ it in a traditional way. Given the fragile nature of ballets, those which feature the point shoe most prominently are the classics, those ballets where the pointe technique came of age. If the technique is to continue to grow and to be artistically relevant, we need to look outside the classical tradition.

Wayne McGregor, the controversial resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, is very much from outside the classical tradition. His schooling and influences are free from the shackles of the Royal Ballet heritage; his works show little deference to the resident choreographers who have gone before him. The result of the meeting of his background and the pointe shoe-clad dancers is an entirely new movement vocabulary and the pointe show has been given a new lease of life. After looking back to move forward for so long, if we want to keep the pointe shoe from the museum shelf, we need to start looking elsewhere.

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Battle of the Sexes. Or Should That Be Ballet of the Sexes?

Is it any wonder that ballet is seen as a predominantly female pursuit? Still represented in the collective imagination as a flurry of girls in tutus, it is easy to forget that a stereotype takes a moment to establish and generations to allay. Take Black Swan for instance: the film has probably been seen by more people than the entire choreographic output of the last year, so a straw-poll on the street would indicate that ballet in 2011 is more closely associated with this film, than with, let’s say, the premier of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, a major event, and what’s more, an actual one; the public perception doesn’t always match up with the reality.

I digress; the point I’m trying to get to is that the role of the male dancer in the classical ballets of centuries past still affects the perception of men in ballet today.

Balanchine proclaimed “ballet is woman”: he was moulded in the Imperial Theatre tradition of St. Petersburg, a child of Theatre Street, where the ladies were top bill; Aurora, Odette/Odile, Giselle, Raymonda and the Sugar Plum fairy. Yes, they all had their cavaliers, but in comparison, the were always playing second fiddle.

Take Raymonda for instance: she has a whopping six solos, Jean de Brienne has one. While Aurora and Odette/Odile enchant and seduce, Princes Florimund and Siegfried mope. Admittedly Albrecht is the meatiest role here, but he’s portrayed as a fickle infidel. As for our man in The Nutcracker, he doesn’t even have a real name – how’s that for equality? In comparison to the exhibition the ladies are giving, the gentlemen really are upstaged: it’s hardly an endorsement of manhood, even if they’re given the lavish title of danseur noble.

Since these ballets were choreographed the male in ballet has been better represented: mainly through personalities such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov, but also thanks to the works of choreographers like Kenneth McMillan who wasn’t afraid to employ strong male leads with depth of character. Regardless, people like to cling on to stereotypes, and once established, they’re tough to deconstruct.

Ballet has been called misogynistic, owing to its objectifying of the female. Never has it been called philogynistic for its portrayal of proud women nor misandristic for its portrayal of insipid men. (Indeed those two words are bandied about so little compared to their more common antonym that I hardly even know of their existence).

Men have always danced ballet; men danced ballet before women did. Somewhere along the timeline from Louis XIV to now, people became of the opinion that it is the preserve of the fairer sex. The men-folk will continue dancing, and hopefully someday the public opinion will catch up with what actually goes on.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Homage à Mr. Balanchine

Next season, The Royal Ballet will once again dance Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, an 18-minute whirlwind of virtuosity. The ballerina role is probably one of the hardest in the entire repertoire, and to be approached with grit and determination. The steps for the rest of the ensemble aren’t the easiest either. The score is a divertimento from Verdi’s Don Carlo – this exemplifies one of Balanchine’s talents; mining the classical repertoire for passages that spoke to him, that he could assemble dances to.

Since Balanchine’s demise in 1983, his works have been carefully looked after by the Balanchine Trust. Merrill Ashley has looked after Ballo; apt, as the ballerina role was created on her, and she has overseen its various stagings. The Balanchine bloodline is transmitted through her to the dancers she teaches, every nuance being generously handed down. His ballets are notoriously difficult; they are, for the most part, purely steps, and their impact depends on the choreography being performed with precision and clarity. They are the archetypal abstract ballets and represent a hugely important gateway from his classical past.

In and of themselves, the Balanchine repertoire is one of the most important bodies of 20th century choreography; it represents the birth of neoclassical ballet and it’s resultant development and his work was the launching pad for most ballet choreographers since. The direct effect of his work is obvious in those who worked directly with him or his company (New York City Ballet), for example Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied. Looking further afield, his work is felt in the more contemporary ballets of Jorma Elo and Alexei Ratmansky. Even in those choreographers where there is no discernible link to Balanchine’s work, we can thank him for setting the journey of ballet on a new course, opening up a mine of opportunity for those wishing to express their choreographic identities through non-narrative work.

So the next time you see a ballet that has been choreographed sometime since the middle of the last century, give a nod to Mr. Balanchine, somewhere along the line he probably had something to do with it.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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