A Weekend in the City, Part One: Out and About

As I’ve mentioned in my last couple of posts, I live in the middle of nowhere in Northern England. As such, London is a bit of a trek to get to. This weekend though I head down for three days of dance – in all forms.

The initial purpose of this trip was to watch Cloud Dance Festival: Firefly. I’ve followed CDF on twitter for a long time now and I was excited to see all of Chantal’s hard work come to fruition. Also, I’ve never seen much contemporary dance before so I was looking forward to seeing something new and exciting.

However, in planning, the weekend expanded and soon I had a weekend packed full of dance! I’m going to do a post specifically on Cloud Dance Festival, and another on my ENB Sunday, but in the meantime here’s a brief recount of my weekend.

I dashed straight from working the Friday lunch shift at the pub to catch the train down to London. Getting into King’s Cross I rushed to my hostel (the first of three over the weekend) and dropped off my bags. I then hurried off to the Pleasance Theatre in Islington for the first night of CDF.

Not arriving in London until 25 minutes after the curtain I knew I would never catch all of Friday’s performances, but I was lucky enough to catch five and a half of the nine pieces. As I said, I’ll talk more about CDF in my next post, so for now I’ll just leave it at saying it was awesome!

Heading back to the hostel, I tried to get an early night. However, when your sharing a room with 16 others, all going to bed at different times (including one at 4:30am!) my sleep was fitful to say the least. Soon enough it was 7am and my alarm went off so I could get up and get ready for some dance class.

It seems quite a few of the dance schools in London are closed for the summer, or busy doing summer intensives, but I found a couple of dance classes at Pineapple Dance Studios that I fancied taking. It also seems like adult classes in London tend to be on weekday evenings rather than weekends, but this might also have been due to it being the middle of summer.

You may have heard of Pineapple Dance Studios because of the Sky TV series based on it (which I’ve never seen) but if not, it is a pretty big studio in Covent Garden. It is mainly based in ‘commercial’ dance rather than Ballet – comparing to NYC I think it is more Broadway Dance Center than Steps on Broadway.

First up was the Pure Technique class with Karen Estabrook. I didn’t really know what to expect with this class but had been recommended it by some of my followers on twitter, and so decided to give it a shot. Based in Ballet with hints of jazz (i.e. Layouts) this was an hour class aimed to build strength, improve balance and practice turns. It was hard, sweaty work but certainly a lot of fun.

It pushed me more in terms of fitness than technique (although I still had technical corrections) but I wouldn’t recommend it for absolute beginners – there was a guy in the class who looked new to dance and seemed to find it difficult to follow. Every sequence at the Barre (75% of class) involved extensions, balances, relevés and so on, and were repeated twice on each side with no rest; by the end of which you were most certainly feeling the burn!

Next up was Keith Hodiak’s Basic Ballet class. Suddenly the room was packed, going from 6 of us in the Pure Technique class to more like 50 in Keith’s class. As with any new school I go to, I didn’t really know what level this class would be – one school’s Basic could be another’s Elementary or vice versa. This was however, very basic and although it is always good to concentrate on the fundamentals, due to the size of the class I got no feedback whatsoever which was slightly frustrating. It was good to take a Ballet class again though – two weeks of home classes just isn’t the same!

As class finished I was starting to feel rather sore and decided to alter my plans for the afternoon. The combination of coming down with a head cold and a lack of dance classes for a fortnight stopped me taking anymore classes, as I wanted to save my legs for Sunday (you’ll find out about that soon enough!). This was a real shame though, as I had planned to take Ballet at The Place and tweet-up with @ojdancingboy. Oh well, maybe next time!

That wasn’t the end of Ballet-related stuff for the day though – I headed to the National Portrait Gallery to sneak a peek at their mini Ballet exhibition. With it being open for free this weekend, the gallery was packed, but as I climbed to the second floor the crowds thinned and I got a chance to see portraits of some of the greatest dancers of the 20th Century. Highlights for me included a fantastic photo of Anna Pavlova in her garden on what seemed to be a summery afternoon. When juxtaposed with photos of her on stage in all her glory it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of her ‘normal life’ – much like twitter allows us to peek into current dancers lives.

Another highlight was a bronze bust of Margot Fonteyn. I suppose what struck me about this was that the artwork completely ignored Fonteyn’s body, which, after all, is what made her famous. Alongside full body shots of Nijinsky and his contemporaries, this omission emphasized Fonteyn’s position as more than just a dancer, but a national treasure also.

Soon enough I was dropping my bags off at the second hostel and heading back to Cloud Dance Festival for the second night. This was even more awesome than the first, I got to rewatch a couple of my favorite acts from Friday, and saw the awesome Tommy Franzén in Kristen McNally’s piece. But more about that in the next post!

Another early-ish night was needed though, and all too quickly my 7am alarm rang and I made my way across London in tights (stealthily hidden under sweatpants) towards Trafalgar Square. Why? Because I was about to dance on the London Coliseum stage. Yes. You read that right. All thanks to an awesome workshop by ENB for adult beginners – in fact, it was so awesome I’m dedicating an entire blog post to my ENB Sunday! Between class on stage (given by ENB Soloist Kerry Birkett), learning a section of the Corps part in Carmen, watching Company Class (their final one of the season) and then watching the Roland Petit triple bill, it was a Sunday I don’t think I’ll ever forget! In fact, I’m still on a high from it!

Best. Morning. Ever.

Lugging my three bags back across London (minus the tights this time!) I checked into my third hostel in as many nights and quickly grabbed dinner before heading back to Cloud Dance Festival for the final program. Even more thrilling, innovative, inspirational, powerful and awe-inspiring than the last two nights this was a perfect way to end off my trip. Saying a final goodbye and thank you to Chantal I headed back to the hostel and tried to salvage some sleep before my 6am wake-up call for my train home.

And so ended my weekend in London. It all went past in such a blur and it is kind of surreal to be traveling back to quiet Northumberland for a shift in the pub this afternoon (on my Birthday no less!). That being said, I’m absolutely knackered and can’t wait for a good night’s sleep in my own bed tonight. Oh wait; I’ve got to be up at 5:30am tomorrow to catch a plane to Bath for some flat-hunting. Let’s hope there’s plenty coffee on the plane.

Until next time, keep dancing!

Review – Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet

Alternative title: I want to be Ivan Vasiliev.

There is nothing like live Ballet. I’ve come to realise this more and more these last few weeks seeing as, unsurprisingly, rural Northumberland isn’t a hotbed of performances. Sure, there are other ways to get my Ballet fix; currently my Manon DVD and a selection of Ballets on Sky Arts (including Nureyev’s Cinderella and NYCB New York Export: Opus Jazz). But there’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing dance live.

So I was very excited to get on the train at 8 yesterday morning for a trip to London to see Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova dance in Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet. This would be the mid-week matineed in a string of 9 performances in 7 days – talk about stamina!

Getting into London three and a half hours later my first stop was to get some new Ballet slippers. So I headed to Covent Garden to check out some dance stores, and Capezio was first up. Normally I wear their Romeos (rather appropriate for this post!), but I tried on their Cobras on the recommendation of @OJDancingBoy on Twitter. I was very impressed – they fit like the Romeos but hug my arch a little more which looks nicer. I also decided to check out a couple of other stores to see what other options there were. I tried on a pair of Sancha Pro’s but really disliked them – there seemed to be so much padding on the heel and ball of the foot it just felt strange. Heading to Bloch was more successful, and I left with a pair of their Prolite II’s to try the next few weeks.

Soon enough, I was heading to the London Coliseum and taking my seat in the rear dress circle (an extravagance I justified by deeming it an early birthday present to myself!). Flicking through the programme (which cost an extortionate £10) I read through the brief synopsis to see the only difference with the Shakespeare plot was the addition of a girlfriend for Mercutio (good for him!). If you’re unfamiliar with the “greatest love story ever told”, here is my summary:

Act I: Romeo and Juliet’s families don’t really like each other. In fact, they each hate the others guts and all of Verona knows about it. Juliet’s Mom and Pop decide she’s going to marry the young eligible bachelor Paris but Juliet, a young independent woman, ain’t having none of it. At a big family romp, Romeo and his mates appear disguised and when he locks gazes with Juliet there are metaphorical fireworks, the world stops and all the other usual stuff with star-crossed lovers. After some impractical, but dramatically cool, balcony conversation they decide to get married – nothing rash about that, is there? So all is good, until a few minutes later when Romeo’s best mate Mercutio gets into a fight with Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. As young, hot-blooded, Verona men were wont to do at the time, they draw swords. Despite Romeo many attempts at peacekeeping (no job for Romeo at the UN anytime soon) Tybalt kills Mercutio, at which point Romeo flips out and skewers Tybalt, earning him banishment to the countryside.

Act II: Obviously not too upset about the deaths, Romeo and Juliet decide to, ahem… consumate their marriage and wake up all half-nekkid and touchy-feely. Juliet runs home and tells Paris she’ll marry him after all, which seems a bit mean as she’s already planned with the Friar to pretend to commit suicide so she can run away with Romeo. Talk about setting Paris up for some disappointment! Romeo turns up and after offing Paris (who seems to have all the bad luck) doesn’t realise that Juliet is only ‘fake-dead’ and so drinks a whole load of poison. He stays alive only long enough to see Juliet awaken, after which she goes a bit nuts and stabs herself to death. Happy stuff.

So what was the production like? Well I’m g0ing to summarise by saying that I’m a total #Osilev fanboy. (Thanks to The Ballet Bag ladies for the hashtag!). Seriously. They were amazing, inspirational, revelatory, and so much more.

But first, some notes about the production itself. The staging was very stark, with side neon lights and projections of black and white Italian vistas. The costumes were full period dress with Juliet in a flowing gown and Romeo in a dashing tunic. Both scenery and costumes were effective, but I’m not sure if they worked together. The relatively small cast (unlike other productions like MacMillan or Nureyev’s) struggled at times to fill the stage; yet whenever Osipova or Vasiliev took the floor they managed to fill every inch with their presence.

The character roles were a Who’s Who of past Royal Ballet principals: Stephen Jeffries, Wayne Sleep and (at other performances) Lynn Seymour, David Wall, Wayne Eagling and Marguerite Porter. Perhaps they were originally cast to bring some experience to an otherwise very young cast and, although this proved unnecessary, I’m certainly not complaining!

I must say I was slightly disappointed with the sound in the Coliseum. This wasn’t down to the Orchestra, who on the whole gave a good performance (although I do think they could have given a little more life to certain parts of the piece and maybe toned down the saxophone a little). The sound system however had small squeaks of feedback throughout the first Act and, even worse, mobile phone interference during the second Act. I have never heard the likes of it before, and I certainly didn’t want it coming over the speakers during the lovers’ death scenes. I understand the Coliseum cannot control people bringing in mobiles to the theatre, but I’ve never had an issue with it anywhere else – maybe they need to invest in a new system? Interestingly, it seems there were no sound issues at the evening performance. Then again, I wasn’t there to enjoy the music, but rather the dancing and it didn’t seem to hinder the dancers at all.

Talking of dancing, I feel Ashton’s choreography, on the whole, was great, especially the fight and bedroom scenes. It was little slow to start, and I felt for a 2 hour Ballet a little too much time was spent on mime (like the Friar spelling out what his sleeping draft would do), but Ashton was successful in condensing the play into the self-imposed time limit. There were also a couple of sections that seemed a little ‘obvious’ for want of a better word: Tybalt ‘scratching’ to indicate his position as Prince of Cats, and Romeo and Juliet’s ‘throes of passion'; but otherwise it was some very accomplished choreography.

But what is great choreography without great dancers? Luckily we had the very best here, and a fantastic complement of dancers in the soloists role too.

With their entrances, Osipova and Vasiliev immediately defined their interpretations on their classic roles: Osipova was a delightfully (and fatally) innocent, playful girl clinging to her childhood on light-footed steps whilst Vasiliev was a headstrong and proud boy trying to prove his transition into manhood with leaps and bounds. By embracing their youth, Osipova and Vasiliev managed to transcend their ages (25 and 22 respectively) and give a mature undertone to their performance that I was very impressed by.

My absolute highlight of the first Act was the trio of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio dancing together. First up was Vasiliev as Romeo showing us some Grand Allegro virtuosity. Robin Bernadet followed as Benvolio with some playful and accomplished Petit Allegro. Finally, Alban Lendorf as Mercutio showed his immense turning skills. This was a masterclass in male technique that I could have watched again and again. I have found a clip from the Royal Danish Ballet with Johan Kobborg, Thomas Lund and an unknown dancer but I feel the performance yesterday gave so much more. Every young male dancer should see it and be inspired!

Johan Christendon was suitably menacing as Tybalt, and his fights with Mercutio and Romeo were surprisingly physical to contrast the otherwise tender feel to the Ballet. The ring of steel on steel punctuated clear cut dancing and an air of tension. I also hope those stairs were padded as, in his death, he clattered down them with such force he must be battered and bruised. Talk about method acting!

The second Act is just about solely concentrated on Romeo and Juliet with only fleeting glances of other characters. It must take a lot to carry the entire Act but Osipova and Vasiliev not only stepped up to the mark, but grand jete-d right over it!

The Bedroom Scene

The first hint of how special this Act would be was Vasiliev unleashing the most astonishing string of pirouettes I have ever seen at the beginning of the bedroom Pas de Deux. Phenomenal! The Pas de Deux was certainly the most beautiful part of the whole performance; tender and passionate. There was a sense of young love, and the exploration and discovery of intimacy through small glances and touches. Mind you, I guess the newly-engaged couple didn’t have to stray too far from reality!

As the performance sped towards it’s inevitable tragic conclusion, Vasiliev and Osipova added layers to their characters (it was a shame they didn’t have a longer Ballet to do so) and I got swept up in the emotions of their fates. Paris’ death seemed a product of Romeo’s need to do something, anything, to cope with the situation. And when that wasn’t enough what else was there to do but take his own life? The twitch of Juliet’s hand as he was in the final throes of death made it all the more tragic.

As Osipova thrashed with unbridled grief I was in tears and as she crawled, mortally wounded, to her love I was gripped and in shock. Indeed, it seemed the audience took a collective deep breath as the curtain fell to try and convince themselves that it was indeed all fictional. That is just testament to the realistic and spectacular performance the pair gave, which was rewarded with multiple curtain calls and many “bravos!”.

So Osipova was divine, Vasiliev was inspirational and now the couple are engaged. Some guys have all the luck, don’t they?

Until next time, keep dancing!

P.S. Here are Osipova and Vasiliev in the Flames of Paris Pas De Deux with the Bolshoi (choreography by Ratmansky following Vaynonen) – I still get rendered speechless when I watch it! The turns! The leaps! The sheer awesomeness! In fact, after watching Romeo and Juliet I immediately went to the Royal Opera House shop to buy the Flames of Paris DVD. Can’t wait to watch it!