Sparkling Treacle: Two Sides of The Royal Ballet

I’m slightly to ashamed to say that Saturday was my first trip to see the Royal Ballet. Now I’m back in the UK, you can be assured it won’t be my last. Not by a long shot.

So what did I chose for my inaugural viewing of one of the world’s greatest dance companies? Well I couldn’t just see one piece, could I? So I managed to fit in one of the greatest works of the 20th Century and one of the newest creations of the 21st Century.

Jewels

 

The first piece I saw is probably the finest testament to Balanchine’s genius: his masterpiece “Jewels”. Inspired by the gemstones adorning the window of Van Cleef and Arpels, Balanchine created three very distinct bijou-Ballets inspired by Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds.

Emeralds

Initiating the piece is the viridescent-beauty of Emeralds, evoking the understated majesty of a French garden party. Selections of Fauré’s “Pélleas and Mélisande” and “Shylock” provide a luscious score for the skilled choreography, but with a slightly darker undertone than you may first expect.

Emeralds provides three very interesting matchings: two Pas de Deuxs and a Pas de Trois playing on three different themes of love (I’ll restrain from calling them ‘plots'; this is, after all, the first “full length plotless ballet”).

The first duet speaks of an unrequited love and brings to my mind lovers searching through a forest to find each other, akin to Midsummer Night’s Dream or suchlike. This was danced superbly by Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov supported by some very strong Corps. Indeed, the strength of the Corps throughout all three sections demonstrated the depth of talent at the Royal Ballet, and spoke of great things for the future of British Ballet.

Bennet Gartside and Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds (Photo Credit: classicalsource.com)

Next was the more tender side of love, with Mara Galeazzi and Bennet Gartside giving a masterclass of vulnerable, thoughtful partnering. The support Gartside gave to Galeazzi was rock strong and let her commit to every single step to such a degree that it was tangible right up in the slips.

Following this was my favourite part of Jewels – the Emeralds Pas de Trois. I am always intrigued by the dynamic of a Pas de Trois and it can be difficult for the ‘outnumbered’ dancer to remain in control. This was not the case in this performance however, with Dawid Trzensimiech showing maturity and control with his partnering of Helen Crawford and Emma Maguire. Not only did he handle these two fine women with immense skill, but also included some first-rate entrechat septs.

I’ve always enjoyed Emeralds as a stand-alone piece, and this performance did nothing but increase this opinion. I particularly enjoy it’s double finale – there is the upbeat ending with the four soloists, the trio of demi-soloists and the full corps in unison. Then “La Mort de Mélisande” strikes up and the otherwise joyful finish to the piece is replaced with a sombre tone. The corps vacate the stage to let the seven dancers finish the piece in reverence to the music.

Rubies

The intermediate piece of Jewels is the unique Rubies – it’s sharp crimson tableau and even sharper choreography hinting at the seduction of urban Manhattan – accompanied by Stravinsky’s superb Capriccio for piano and orchestra.

The Royal Ballet in Rubies (Photo Credit: Johan Persson)

If I’m honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Rubies. I certainly find it an interesting piece, but it’s jazz-like style is slightly too harsh for me – I find myself ‘analyzing’ rather than ‘enjoying’.

This performance was certainly skilled but left me slightly flat. That is not to say Yuhui Choe, Ricardo Cervera or Laura McCulloch didn’t give a polished performance. In fact, I was highly impressed with Laura McCulloch’s command of the stage, especially during the iconic section where the four corps men grab a limb each and contort her through various positions. This part could easily become an act of submission yet she retained control and dominance throughout.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever love Rubies as much as the other two Jewels but I certainly enjoyed the Royal Ballet’s interpretation. I’m impressed at how ‘Balanchine’ the dancers were – I could have just as easily been sat in the Lincoln Center as in Covent Garden.

Diamonds

The finale, and centerpiece to Jewels is the resplendent Diamonds. Beginning with an opening vista of snowy tutus and sparkling tiaras, Diamonds emulates the grandeur and splendor of a Russian Ball accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s magnificent 3rd Symphony.

I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (in fact, all 9 of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies are sublime – and his first is probably my favourite classical piece of all time) and Diamonds lives up to its music. The tight Corps provided a perfect backdrop for the gorgeous Marianela Nuñez and regal Thiago Soares.

Nuñez and Soares in Diamonds (Photo Credit: John Ross)

As the recently married couple (this was their first performance as husband and wife) appeared on stage, the Royal Opera House tingled with anticipation. As their Pas de Deux to the second movement began I could instantly tell we were in for something special. As the dance unfolded, the tenderness and intimacy of their movements transcended the steps and I found myself on the verge of tears. They made the piece undeniable real and emotional, and I know I was not the only person in the Royal Opera House who was moved.

As the corps reappeared the piece shifted to a courtlike dance (with those waltzing brush-steps that seem to be a staple of class centre work) and a seemingly endless supply of couples drifted onto stage. Nuñez and Soares join and manage to make these simple steps even more fascinating and beautful. By the time the music crescendos to a climax the corps are in perfect unison framing the magnificent couple who finish the piece off in style. As soon as the curtain fell I turned to my friend and simply said “that is why I love Ballet”. Diamonds embodies everything I love about the artform, from the touching Pas de Deux to the technical Corps work and the visual sumptuousness . Bravo!

The Metamorphosis

 

Leaving this opulent extravaganza I rushed down to the basement of the Royal Opera House to see Pita’s creation “The Metamorphosis” in the Linbury Studio Theatre. This is a new production starring Royal Ballet principal Ed Watson in the lead role of Gregor Samsa.

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis (Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian)

Kafka’s novel famously starts with the line “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (or similar translation) and Pita plays on the idea of ‘uneasy dreams’ throughout the piece. As such, you were never sure what is Samsa’s dreams and what is real life – emphasised by the hypnotic and intense music provided by the fantastic Frank Moon.

After ten minutes or so of monotony, with Watson going to work and returning multiple times, there is a subtle shift and we find the alarm clock ringing unanswered. As Watson removes the bed covers he lies on his back with hands and feet aloft, fingers and toes squirming. Rocking off the bed he spews obsidian vomit on the floor, a dark pool against it’s stark white background.

Ed Watson post-transformation (Photo Credit: Alastair Muir for The Telegraph)

As the piece continues this effusion of treacle became a powerful visual representation of Watson’s transformation, to the point where his entire room is covered in the black-brown bilious fluid. This comes after a dream sequence that was, at once, powerful, uncomfortable and memorable. With the set, music and dancing all accompanying Samsa’s descent into madness, or rather his transformation, you get drawn further and further into the work.

Watson’s effect on his various family members is distinct and fantastically portrayed. His hypochondriac mother (Nina Goldman) hovers between sympathy and revulsion whilst his overly proud father (Anton Skrzypiciel) barely hides his disgust and shame. The most interesting relationship is between Watson and his naïve younger sister (played by the excellent Royal Ballet School student Laura Day). What starts in sympathy slowly descends to terror, and the final blow for Samsa is the rejection and abhorrence he receives from Greta. I was highly impressed with Day, who surely has a great career ahead of her.

Ed Watson with Laura Day (Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian)

At the end of the day though, this piece is all about the character of Gregor Samsa, and in this Watson delivers surely one of the performances of the season. His vacant proletarian gaze is perfect for the monotony of Samsa’s pre-transformtion life. Afterwards, his freakily prehensile toes are used to explore his surroundings, much in the way a reptile ‘tastes’ the air with his tongue. All of this is attached to Watson’s impeccable technique and gorgeous lines. When he takes a penchée his legs seem to extend forever, and his clambering up the walls is done with gracefulness and lightness to his movements, as if he has indeed grown wings. When he finally escapes his room you cannot help but feel sorrow for this misunderstood being, and Watson’s connection with the audience is the reason for this.

The whole piece is smart, daring, intriguing and most definitely unique. At times verging on a hallucinogenic experience you cannot help but feel fully immersed (helped by the traverse seating in the Linbury). I have no doubt that The Metamorphosis will sweep the awards ceremonies this year and you really do owe yourself a trip to the Linbury to see it live. However, I was happy to see Bennet Gartside (fresh from his performance in Emeralds) filming from the corner of the stage and he assured me on Twitter he got some good footage. So fingers crossed there is a general release of this piece sometime soon! Until then, I’ve got the Bolshoi livecast of Esmerelda next weekend – I’m hoping there won’t be any black vomit there!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Second First Day of Class!

What a difference a year makes. Or then again, maybe not…

Pretty much exactly this time last year I was getting ready for my first ever Ballet class at Princeton with Douglas Martin, former principal with the Joffrey Ballet and an amazing teacher. I was rather nervous but also really excited and it went great – class was awesome and it started my whole journey.

Then this year I’ve had a second ‘first day’.

Although I’ve taken a couple of classes “up North” and the ENB Petit Workshop I haven’t really had a chance to take any classes this summer – there were no classes nearby (the nearest was 50 miles away in Newcastle/Edinburgh) and my one day off each week from the pub was spent flat-hunting, furniture-buying and PhD-preparing. So the last 2+ months have been largely Ballet class free. Bad times.

So today was my second first day – I was going to a dance school in Bath I’d never been to before. I contacted them after getting a list of nearby schools from the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and they seemed highly recommended online. I dropped them an email earlier in the summer but had a delayed reply as they’ve been undergoing renovations, and gave them a ring about a month ago. They said that I could come and take a class and after a few questions suggested I try the RAD Intermediate level class. They said to come along on a Tuesday evening, but they would kind of ‘reserve the right’ to tell me if they thought the class was too advanced for me and not to come back (in the nicest possible way). I thought this was perfectly fair – it’s not worth wasting my, the teacher’s or my classmates’ time. But at the same time it was kind of scary.

The old RAD Intermediate syllabus we'd be working on

Most of my previous classes have been Adult classes and as such have a sense of ‘freedom’ to them. We have all chosen to be there (not been ‘encouraged’ to go by our parents!) and there isn’t any pressure to do everything perfectly. That’s not to say I don’t try, but it’s not all that strict in the studio. And we don’t have exams! But I tried to calm my nerves: at least I could go and check out the school and be sure I was in the right level class.

So I called in yesterday and introduced myself to one of the ladies there. She showed me around and told me to come for 6:30 for the hour class. I checked what I should wear: just smart so my usual black tights/white shirt/black slippers would be fine. Then there was a slightly awkward minute or two when she asked “you do wear *ahem* ‘support’ don’t you?”. I assured her I would never think of dancing without a dance belt (and neither should any of my male readers!) and we swiftly changed topic!

Today I’ve been busy getting University stuff sorted (now the proud owner of a library card!) but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been nervous about class. In fact, I’ve been pretty terrified. Penguin Shuffle calls it the Bridget Jones Factor – the fear that you’re going to be “found out” as an amateur and thrown out of class. I had this fear that I would be woefully inept in class and not allowed to return. As with most things I worry about, I let it stew all day getting worse and worse. It didn’t help that I got an early bus (for fear of delays and being late) and ended up arriving at 5:30 for the 6:30 class. Oops. So there was plenty of time to worry in the lobby…

By the time 6 came around I went and introduced myself to the other ladies in the school office and went to get changed in the changing cubicle – for once no need to worry about dropping my tights down the toilet! Warming up in the corridor a couple of boys arrived and when we entered the studio we were the only ones there. Sure enough, soon six or seven girls arrived and I went to introduce myself to the teacher – Karen Paisley, former principal at the Royal Ballet.

Karen asked what Ballet I’d done previously and she explained that the class had an exam in 3 weeks so she wouldn’t be able to walk through each exercise as she needed to check the students had memorised the combinations correctly. I assured her that was fine and I’d try to follow as best as I can. I’m actually sort of proud with how I coped – I could predict some sequences and had the sequence nailed by the second side for the most part. Centre was tougher, but I managed to roughly follow along.

Karen is a great teacher too – she pinpointed almost immediately one of my main problems: sickling my foot during exercises like rondes de jambe en l’air. She also complimented me on my feet ( :) ) and spotted I’m a “leftie” when it comes to turning. I’m still not entirely sure why this is – I’m right handed for one – but I always find turning left easier. Like in the doubles en dehor tonight I was staying in my passé throughout my turns to the left, finishing en face before landing. On the right however I was dropping out of my passé midway through the second revolution. Part of this, Karen explained, was due to me sickling my right foot slightly in passé. I think it was also due to me being a little scared of pirouettes from 4th – I tend to ease off the power a little just in case it all goes wrong and so need to have a little more confidence, and impetus, next time. I’m also not used to a little fouetté to start en dedans turns (instead of straight to passé) – will have to get used to them!

And all too soon class was over. After thanking Karen and quickly getting changed I checked in with the main office. They asked how I had found the class and I was honest and said I felt it was just the right difficulty for me. That’s not to say I found it easy, but I knew all the steps and feel I could work towards getting the combinations right quite quickly. I don’t know if she had talked to Karen already but she seemed really pleased and said “great, come back next week”. :)

So all the worry was for naut in the end, I had an absolutely fantastic time and can’t wait to go back next week. I did ask about whether RAD do exams for people my age and she said they definitely do and Karen would certainly consider entering me for an exam somewhere down the line. This is really cool – as adults we rarely have a definite goal to work towards in our class, and I look forward to taking on the challenge of the exam. And hopefully passing!

So that’s one class a week. There’s also a couple of classes run by the university during term time I’m going to look at, and maybe head into London every so often to take some classes (although at £35 return that won’t be too often). Also, I’ve got a meeting with the university rowing team tomorrow morning to discuss their training plan. I don’t know yet if I will have time to do both (and get a PhD!) but I’m excited to see how my free-time is going to be filled up this year.

This happened to me on the way home. Twice.

Oh, and you know that scene in movies where a truck hits a puddle and soaks a pedestrian from head to foot? That happened to me on the way back from ballet. Twice. Back to reality I guess…

Until next time, keep dancing!

P.S. If you had a ‘first class’, a second ‘first class’ or a fiftieth ‘first class’ recently, let me know how it went!

DTB’s Guide To Seeing A Ballet

When I went to watch my first ‘proper’ Ballet last year I’m not ashamed to admit I was kind of scared. Don’t get me wrong, I was also really excited, but there was also something slightly intimidating about the whole experience.

Now one year (and many Ballets!) down the line I feel a lot more comfortable going to see a performance; I still get (very) excited but am no longer intimidated by the idea. That’s inspired me to write a short guide to going o see your first Ballet – hopefully I can make it a little less scary for you!

So where to start? Well first off, let me correct a few common misconceptions: going to see a Ballet is not only for the posh, doesn’t have to be expensive and isn’t all about fluffy pink ballerinas looking pretty! Now those are out of the way, let’s get a little more practical.

What to see?

This is probably the most important question, and so I asked my readers on Twitter and Facebook to help. Here are their answers:

My readers' suggestions (click to enlarge)

As you can see there are many differing opinions because, guess what? Different people like different things! Just like any other art form, there will be styles of Ballet you enjoys, and others you don’t but half the fun is in finding out what your personal taste is. I was lucky, the first performance I saw was a mixed bill by New York City Ballet. It started with Serenade, a piece which I still consider to this day to be the most perfect Ballet I have seen.

On that note, mixed bills are a great way to experience Ballet for the first time – they usually consist of three short (around 30 minutes each) pieces split up by intervals. Although there is usually an over-arching theme to the evening (it might be works by a single choreographer or relating to a certain subject) you will usually end up seeing three very different and distinct pieces. The short time length and multiple intervals let you digest what you have seen and if something wasn’t to your liking you don’t have to sit through 3 hours of it!

That being said, there is something magical about seeing full length Ballets – the music, the costumes, the sets and, of course, the dancing! Whether the classic Swan Lake, the Chrsitmas-sy Nutcracker, the mildly depressing Romeo & Juliet or the emotional roller coaster that is Giselle you cannot help but get swept up in the story and sheer spectacle.

Alina Cojocaru as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

So after all that, what should you pick? That’s completely up to you. My only rule is that you should pick something that looks interesting to you. It could be the storyline, the costumes or a dancer you’ve seen clips of on YouTube – but there is no point going to watch something you don’t really want to see!

Where to sit?

Okay, so you’ve decided what to see; now how/where do you buy tickets? Well you could just splash out and pay £101 for top price Royal Ballet seats. Or, if like me money can be a little scarce at times then there are ways to see great Ballet at cheap prices.

First, if you are a student or under 25 check whether there are any student offers running. A lot of the larger companies do student rush tickets: “day of” tickets sold to students at greatly reduced prices (between £10-20/$15-30). These are often for the best unsold seats in the house and as such it’s often luck whether you get a good seat or not. I’ve had a rush ticket at NYCB one week and been sat right at the top of the theatre, and then the next week got rush tickets for centre orchestra – the most expensive seats in the house!

What if you’re not a student? Well personally I think there is nothing wrong with sitting in the “nose-bleed” seats at the top of a theatre! You may not be close enough to see the dancers facial expressions (though opera glasses/binoculars can help) but you gain a new perspective on the piece. For a lot of non-narrative pieces this can be a boon. I have seen Balanchine’s Stars & Stripes from the 4th Ring (top) and Orchestra (bottom) seats and probably preferred the 4th ring because it let me see the intricate formations the dancers were making (I’m ever the mathematician I guess). Indeed at New York City Ballet there is a faithful “4th Ring Society” of attendees who will only watch from the highest level.

View from the back of the 4th Ring at NYCB (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Another option is sitting to the side of the auditorium. These are often “restricted view”, meaning you can’t see the far corners of the stage, but are highly discounted. Don’t be afraid to ask someone at the box office their thoughts on the seat; they probably know if the restricted view will greatly affect the piece or not.

Finally, there are often standing room tickets sold, usually on the day of the performance. Although standing for a couple of hours doesn’t sound fun, sometimes ushers let you sit in unoccupied seats after half an hour or so, but this is in no way guaranteed!

Oh, and some good news – Ballet tickets are usually priced cheaper than Opera, both for individual tickets and subscriptions (3+ performances sold in bulk at cheaper prices). And a lot of the seats aremuch cheaper than West End/Broadway shows!

What to wear?

The dress code for going to a Ballet definitely depends on where you are going, and where you will be sat. In general I would recommend “smart-casual” – with the lower in the theatre you go, the smarter you should be. Don’t feel this demands you wear black-tie whenever you are below the top tier, but if you’re sat in the Orchestra at a Met/Royal Opera House gala or suchlike you wouldn’t be out of place.

In general, I normally wear smart trousers, black shoes, a shirt (tucked in) with a jacket or waistcoat, wherever I’m sat. I’ve usually been to a Ballet class in the city during the day so have a bag with me, but I always leave this at the coat check. Maybe some of my female readers could suggest appropriate wear for the ladies reading this?

What rules of “Balletiquette” are there?

The main rules of etiquette at the Ballet are the same as any other theatre. Checking with my readers we agreed on some major pet peeves: be on time (or you might have to wait until the first interval to be seated), turn off your mobile (silent mode can still interfere with sound equipment), don’t take photos, save lengthy discussions with your neighbour for the interval, don’t eat in the auditorium, be quiet as soon as the orchestra starts playing (don’t keep talking until the curtain raises) and don’t leave as soon as the dancing finishes. This last one was one of the most common responses on Twitter, and for good reason: I find it disrespectful to the dancers when people shoot out of their seat and up the aisle as soon as the curtain falls – I always wait until the dancers have taken their bows before I leave, even if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere else. These dancers have just given their absolute all just for your pleasure, so the least you can do is show your appreciation. Okay, rant over.

Darcey Bussell giving a curtain call

If there is a live orchestra you should applaud when the conductor appears. When else should you applaud? That’s a tricky question and I got differing opinions when I asked people their thoughts. You should definitely clap anytime a dancer bows but you can also clap at the end of a particularly impressive sequence of steps, or when a principal appears for the first time. If in doubt, you can always just follow what everyone else is doing!

You’ll probably also hear shouts of “Bravo”, “Brava”, or “Bravi” during the applause. These are Italian words to show appreciation for a dancer’s performance. Technically Bravo is for male performers, Brava is for female performers and Bravi is for more than one performer. However, you’ll probably hear Bravo more than anything else, regardless of the dancers gender. I’ve got to admit that I’m still not brave enough to “Bravo” (no pun intended!), it’s completely optional.

Just go for it!

So that’s pretty much it for my guide to seeing a Ballet except to say “just go for it!”. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you see, what you wear or where you sit. Just go, enjoy the dancing and bask in the experience. It’s great!

Oh, and if you’re still intimidated by the idea of going to see a full Ballet – watch some DVD’s first! There are some excellent recordings of the world’s best dancers dancing the great Ballets: Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dancing Giselle with the Royal Ballet, Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella dancing Swan Lake with ABT, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta dancing Manon with the Royal Ballet, and so many more.

If you’re a Ballet regular then please share any tips you have in the comments, or let us know what your first Ballet was and how you found it. And if you are going to see a Ballet for the first time, please let me know what it was like!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Ballet DIY: Make your own shorts!

I’ve had a pair of tights on my Ballet shelf for ages that I’ve only worn a couple of times and don’t particularly like. I think they are Sanchas (the label has been cut off) and they’re a bit thicker than I like (I normally use Capezios). So I had a brainwave – let’s make some shorts!

Now I don’t know anything about altering clothes, and I can’t stitch to save my life (my ballet slippers tend to resemble Frankenstein’s monster) but I thought I’d give this a go anyways, and here’s my step-by-step guide!

Step One:

Get an old pair of tights, preferably thick ones (I don’t know how well this would work with thin tights). You’ll also need a needle, some thread, masking tape and a pair of scissors.

Step Two:

Mark on the tights with some masking tape where you want the shorts to end – I used the upper edge of the tape so I could cut below the tape for a hem. As for how long you should make the shorts? Completely up to you! I already had a really short pair so decided to make these just shy of knee-length.

Step Three:

Cut off the legs! This was a little scary, but take a deep breath, be brave and let the cutting commence! But make sure the legs match – wonky shorts are not a good look.

Step Four:

Sew! Now I know nothing about sewing so I just completely made it up. I turned my tights inside out to make it easier to sew and turned up the hem about the same width as the masking tape.

I don’t know the name of the stitch I used, but I would do a stitch, then start the next stitch halfway along the stitch I had just done. Not the neatest of stitching, but my hope is that this will last a little longer than plain stitching.

Step Five:

After finishing the stitching turn the shorts back rightside out and try them on – hopefully they’ll look something like this (or better!).

And as a bonus, you get a pair of feet warmers too (supposedly they are all the rage in the dance world!?!).

Finished!

So that’s my guide to converting tights into shorts – hopefully I’ve inspired you to give it a go! Let me know how you get on, and please help me with some ideas for future projects – maybe Ballet DIY could become a regular feature…

Until next time, keep dancing!