Tag Archives: English National Ballet

Looking Backwards And Forwards

2012 was truly a year of plenty. The Olympic and Paralympic Games, and to a somewhat lesser extent the Queen’s Jubilee seemed to rouse everyone into action and were undoubtedly the inspiration for most cultural events on the calendar. This was certainly true in the dance world, with Dance GB and Titian:Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House being the most celebrated collaborative dance events of the year. While they garnered a lot of publicity, and were commercially successful, they were artistically forgettable for the most part.

Arguably the most important events in 2012, for dance-folk at any rate, happened off-stage. We bade farewell to Dame Monica Mason, Wayne Eagling and Ashley Page as Kevin O’Hare (Royal Ballet), Tamara Rojo (Engligh National Ballet) and Christopher Hampson (Scottish Ballet) acceded three of the most prominent artistic directorships in the country. Although yet to affect any real changes, something tells me that a sea-change is afoot, with Rojo having the most to prove, given her status as an international star.

Regarding what happened on stage during the year, two highlights stick out in the memory. Marking the 20th anniversary of his death, Kenneth MacMillan’s triple bill at the ROH in the autumn was outstanding and a huge tribute to his genius (http://wp.me/p20ZbZ-37). Up at Sadler’s Wells Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet made a welcome return with a huge programme of various short ballets proving a wonderful showcase for the company, right across the ranks – they provided us with a surge of inspiration as we headed into the long winter with endless Nutcrackers.

As the rest of world goes into a post-2012 slump, given the changes at the top in the dance community, there should be enough to keep us excited – different repertoire, fresh faces and new creations. Among the highlights are sure to be Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet (National Ballet of Canada, Sadler’s Wells), Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby, Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl (Royal Ballet) and to stop any local complacency setting in, Boston Ballet’s trip to the Coliseum in the Summer, overflowing with neoclassical treats from Balanchine and Forsythe. As always, the year will throw up surprises and disappointments, forgotten treasures and new stars – please 2013, give us your best!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Will Fortune Favour The Bold?

English National Ballet gave the ballet world a jolt last week with the announcement that Royal Ballet principal dancer Tamara Rojo would take over as Artistic Director from Wayne Eagling when he steps down in the autumn of this year. However, at 37 and at the height of her dancing powers, she will be a director who still performs with the company. This has been done in the past successfully – Vladimir Malakhov, for example, is at the helm of Staats Oper Berlin and still performing; that?s not to say that it is always a winning formula. English National Ballet is a company that is fighting for survival as it is, with a dedicated and experienced director – how they will fare with a leader who needs time to do class, rehearse and sew her pointe shoes, remains to be seen.
It is no surprise that Ms. Rojo ended up as a company director. A few years ago she shadowed Karen Kain, Director of National Ballet of Canada and she has been very vocal in the past about her leadership ambitions. Indeed she has admitted that she applied for Monica Mason’s job as director of The Royal Ballet, so not only is she ambitious, those ambitions are lofty ones.
A director who is still dancing brings a lot to the table: they are in touch with the needs of dancers on a daily basis and have a full appreciation of training needs, the rigours of performing and the emotional investment it takes. So, for the dancers, having a director who is also a sympathetic colleague will be a boon. But a ballet company is far more than its dancers, and a director who is spreading herself thinly might not be the salvation a company like this need.
From watching Ms. Rojo performing over the years, and from what I have gleaned from interviews she has given, she is an intelligent, ambitious and fearless woman with a deep understanding of her artform: all attributes that go towards making her an ideal candidate for artistic director of a ballet company. However, I cannot shake the feeling that it is too much, too soon. Delegation will be the name of the game here, as the artistic staff of English National Ballet will have to take more responsibility than before, to cover the shortfall that Ms. Rojo’s own dancing career must surely result in. I’m not saying that she’s being selfish in taking this job and still wanting to dance, but merely that her ambitions may be tripping her up; her dream of leading a company from the wings being realised before she’s ready to relinquish her role of leading it from the stage.
Undoubtedly, Rojo’s international reputation as a dancer will open more doors for English National Ballet and hopefully it will attract new audiences and sponsors. It is a bold move on the part of the board and also Rojo herself, but we know what they say about those who are bold, so hopefully fortune will be on their side.  Here is a case of a series of events happening at just the right time; we just don’t know if all the elements will work until it hits the ground. I sincerely hope it does, because it could be spectacular.

Tagged , , , , , ,

ENB Emerging Dancer: What Is It Really About?

Having attended English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition earlier this week, I’ve been mulling over the role of competitions within companies, and more importantly the implications of the results.

In-house competitions between dancers isn’t a new phenomenon: Paris Ópera Ballet have used this method as a means for promotion longer than most other companies have been in existence. When there’s no such prize at stake, a competition just for the sake of it seems pointless. It could be argued that it is a showcase of the young talent within the company ranks, or that it is a safe forum for the dancers to gain experience dancing solos. If the company is willing to have their dancers perform in front of a paying audience, dancing principal and soloist variations, surely they should just use them in actual ballet performances – where they have the support of the rest of the company, and they are delivering a variation in the context it was intended to be delivered, not just against a black back-drop. Many of the dancers that were taking part here have already been exposed to big occasions; Ksenia Ovsyanick and Junor de Souza having made their Giselle debuts 2 years ago.

The fact that the purpose of the competition is a mystery to me isn’t the nagging issue: choosing a winner is a huge endorsement of the victorious dancer, and no matter how many times the judges mention how difficult it was to come to a consensus, singleing a dancer out as the best is a strong statement of how people will look at the company and ballet as a whole.

Yonah Acosta was announced the winner on this occasion (he also won the audience award) for his renditions of Basilio’s variation from Don Quixote and the variation from Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. Not to take anything away from this extremely talented young man – his dancing was exciting and technically proficient – but given that one of the judges, David Wall, prefaced the announcement of the result by saying that dancing isn’t about pyrotechnics, but about baring your soul on stage, completely went against their decision. I’m sure Acosta is no one-trick-pony, but both his solos are famous for their pyrotechnics.

Other dancers gave a much broader account of themselves – showing both classical and contemporary technique. Nancy Osbaldeston stood out for me: although in her Paquita variation she had a slight technical hitch, she exuded regality and a reverence for classicism – this was then balanced out by a jazzy solo, choreographed by herself, which had every step in the book in it, but which didn’t get in the way of it being a vehicle for her ebullient personality. Ovsyanick and Barry Drummond both showed diverse repertoire, delivered with assurance and moments of brilliance.

As an evening of dance, I enjoyed seeing some dancers I hadn’t seen much of previously, and some repertoire which is hard to come by. I did leave feeling short-changed though, as I felt the work of the other dancers went under-credited. Explosive performers like Acosta will always have their place on the stage, but I think if ballet is to avoid going further down the road of the circus act, companies like English National Ballet don’t need to stop endorsing the pyrotechnical dancer, but start embracing those with other talents too.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

It’s Tough At The Top

The majority of dance company directors have served their time as senior dancers, whether in the company they now head, or another. If history has taught us anything it’s us that being a good dancer has little bearing on one’s capacity as an effective director. There is no well-worn track to such a position; most directors take their own route, but the most successful ones are those that strike the right balance between being responsible, savvy, sensitive and knowledgeable.

Taking on the role of director means both taking care of  and carrying forward the vision of those that have gone before; every decision must be made with the interests of the former directors in mind, while keeping an eye on the current artistic climate and taking informed steps towards the future. This is the reason so many companies have former dancers at the helm; they grew up with the repertoire and have a thorough knowledge of it in its context: As well as knowing the ballets in the company history, for more established companies there will be a certain style that is inherent – this will always be evolving and for someone that has come of age alongside that style, there will be an innate knowledge of what direction in which to take it, keeping an eye on the training and coaching the dancers receive. Suitable casting and promotion will also be informed by this knowledge. Two examples of this type of journey to artistic direction are Peter Martins of New York City Ballet and Monica Mason of the Royal Ballet – both were dancers in their respective companies for their entire careers, and then worked their way through the ballet staff ranks, taking with them a lifetime of knowledge. Wayne Eagling, director of English National Ballet, came from outside the organisation, but his experience as a dancer in the Royal Ballet and as director of Het Nationale Ballet would have given him a broader frame of reference. Either way, a thorough understanding of the art form, and to an extent the heritage of the company, is of paramount importance if the director is to take it on an appropriate trajectory.

Dancers are sensitive creatures; although they can be tough when it comes to their work, long days looking in the mirror means a soft-touch can go a long way. A career as a dancer will, hopefully, leave one with a lasting memory of the daily anguish that tends to go hand in hand with being under constant scrutiny. Once a dancer retires, their dancing life remains imprinted on their mind and body – for a dancer that goes on to direct, this imprint will inform their every decision. They will have peoples careers in their hands, and will have to remember what it is like to be in such a precarious position. They are also in the important position of being responsible for giving generously of their knowledge, passing on what they have learned to another generation; this is most important for those directors involved in coaching roles they themselves have danced. The director is someone to whom every member of the company looks for leadership – they should never forget what it is to be a dancer, or they run the risk of being unable to communicate sympathetically with their dancers.

Aside from the human and artistic understanding that is demanded for such a position to be effective, the role of director is also one of management. Knowledge of the organisation is required; in bigger companies there is a specific hierarchy, among both dancers and administration. While some of the more prominent organisations will have dedicated staff for the purpose, the areas of funding, philanthropy, outreach, development and marketing need to be  considerations in taking a company forward in the competitive world of the arts. With dance companies being such public entities, the director is the one that will take the backlash of any failures: the position requires someone decisive, resolute and at ease with the fact that every decision made will have its detractors.

It’s hard to imagine a recruitment advertisement reading: “Wanted: Artistic Director. Must have in depth knowledge of company heritage, repertoire, coaching and arts administration. Parental warmth and clinical decisiveness needed on an ad hoc basis”, but this might just sum up what is needed.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Retrospection

Forgive me while I don’t compile a list of the year’s successes and failures. Once again the time is upon us for the critics to look back on what has happened over the last twelve months, and give claps on the back to those who triumphed and look witheringly upon those who floundered. With most of what happens on stage being somewhere in between these two extremes and eliciting nothing more than indifference, these yearly reports might be the stand out memories of one but are far from representative of the year’s activity. Surely a 500 word (if you’re lucky) snippet detailing the good and the bad is of very little constructive use. I could tell you that I adored English National Ballet’s Suite en Blanc (which I did), but that’s just like sharing the fact that I love blue cheese – it’s immaterial.

Many people look on critics with scorn, thinking “why should we be subjected to the opinion of one person?” Critics realise that they are just one person, and one opinion. What is expected of them is that they know their subject well enough to be able to assess whether it is worthy of people’s time and effort. Ismene Brown recently said that critics are essentially sales people; their job is to get people into the theatre, deftly adjusting their expectations along the way.

In this way, it is nice for a critic to be able to refresh people’s memories of what their highlights and dark spots were in a year of performances. Such an article is limited in its usefulness, what with the events being in the past. In its stead, perhaps a more detailed report would be appropriate; one showing trends – what worked, what didn’t. The critics aren’t by any means influential in decision making when it comes to casting, programming or funding; but they are a voice with numerous listeners.

Whether critics are agreed with is entirely out of their hands. Anyone who does read their thoughts, whether they concur with what is on the page/screen in front of them, must care what their sentiments are – on some level. Perceived as being a public voice of specific knowledge, the critic should give information that can be used to advance; there’s no good in being told how wonderful, or awful, you or your production was, unless you’re also given an insight into why – only then can we move forward and keep dance relevant.

Tagged , , ,