Rothbart!

It’s all over. Last Saturday I danced Rothbart in Swan Lake for two performances and I’m still on cloud nine from it. Here’s a round up of the last few weeks:

3 weeks to go

With less than a month to go, rehearsals were in full swing. Alongside two class/rehearsals during the week, Saturdays now contained long rehearsals with the ballet school (Act I Scene I and Acts II-III) and Sundays were rehearsals with the youth ballet company (Act I Scene II). I’d finally learnt all my sections:

  • Act I Scene II (Owl Rothbart): opening variation, confrontation with Siegfried and Odette and Coda
  • Act II (Man Rothbart): Entrance with Odile, lead Spanish, a couple of bits in the Black Swan Pas de Deux, mime and exit at the end of the scene
  • Act III (Owl Rothbart): Entrance and capture of Odette, confrontation with Odette and Siegfried, final fight with Siegfried and my (delightfully dramatic) death.

I finally got my hands on my cape for Act II which turned out to be a bit more stressful than I thought. When I enter with Odile I present her to the queen and leave her to seduce Siegfried whilst I quickly whip off my cape and immediately start the Spanish dance. Unfortunately on my first attempt in a rehearsal I completely failed to undo the cape, resulting in me having to awkwardly lift it over my head and headdress/crown-thingy and run to make the start of Spanish… Oops!

We also had a photographer come to one of the youth ballet company class/rehearsals to take some promotional pictures for the show. Rather than in costume like the last ones, these were action shots during class and there were a few of me that I’ve put in the little gallery below. I’m quite pleased with them, especially my grand assemblé, but it pointed out that I’ve still got loads to work on! All the photos were taken by John Hudson LRPS (www.jahphotography.com).

1 week to go

A week before the performance was a the Easter break and I still hadn’t met the dancer playing Odette. Along with the guy playing Siegfried, she was staying in Bristol for the week leading up to the show and so my teachers suggested I come along to daily class/rehearsal with them – I jumped at the opportunity!

So every day I would turn up at a little dance studio outside Bristol for anywhere between 2 and 5 hours of rehearsals at a time. There were only 8 of us: my two teachers (both ex-principals), the two guest dancers, three pre-professional students (from Elmhurst/Royal Ballet School) and me. Needless to say I felt a little out of place but I tried to make the absolute most of it. Each class went along at blistering pace and pushed me harder than ever before: one of the most amusing moments involved my attempt at an exercise involving grand pirouettes switching from a la seconde to devant and then through to attitude derriere (I wasn’t too successful!). I could feel myself improving each day though, and it was so inspiring to take class with such amazing dancers. I think my happiest moment came on the final day of class when my teacher had the guys doing pas de bourée, chassé, tour en l’air across the floor and much to everyone’s surprise (not least of all my own!) I managed three double tours en l’air! They weren’t the cleanest tours ever, but I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, my teacher now won’t accept single tours in classes anymore!

The second part of these classes was lots of rehearsing. The guest dancers had only met once before and everyone needed to work on partnering and spacing. It was amazing the progress in just a week though – and it was such a pleasure to watch the professionals rehearsing their parts. It was good to get to grips (literally) with the partnering sections and much of the week my teacher had me working on the characterisation. Obviously Rothbart is quite a distinct character and he wanted me to make sure every movement conveyed this. I lost track of the number of times I got told I needed to stride out more, take more time, and make every movement more deliberate. It certainly helped, and I definitely felt my dancing improved hugely over the week. I alo got some great tips on partnering – shifting my hand position according to which jump I was assisting, using my plié more, etc.

1 day to go

With one day to go, my mum arrived to stay with me and watch the performance. She’s never seen me dance (or seen a ballet whatsoever) so it meant a lot to me that she came down and was really excited for to see what I’d been working on for the last few months. I left her shopping in Bath on the Friday though as I headed for the dress rehearsal.

This was our first chance to see the size of the stage, have a complete run through and space everything out. The stage was ever-so-slightly smaller than our rehearsal space so we had a few minor collisions, but otherwise things went pretty well. The only thing left to do was head home and get a good night’s sleep ready for Saturday…

The Big Day!

All of a sudden it was time. Six months of hard work was to culminate in two performances and I was a bag of nerves.

Arriving at the theatre 2 hours before curtain, we ran through a couple of the more crowded bits on stage to ensure people didn’t run into each other. My teachers reminded me to just mark everything and definitely not to jump as I needed to save my energy (by the time the day was over I’d be very grateful!).

Heading down to the changing rooms I got into my Act I/III costume. My teacher came over and worked on my stage makeup – he had danced Rothbart in Russia so was recreating what he used to have. Standing for about 15 minutes whilst he worked on it, I had no idea what it was going to look like – I got a bit of a shock! I’ve put a picture of it below along with some of the stage before the performance. Reckon I look evil enough?!

So how were the performances? Pretty amazing! The start of Act I Scene II had me crouched in a red spotlight on a dark stage, with smoke blowing across the stage – couldn’t have been more dramatic! The variation went without a hitch (even the nasty en dedan attitude derrière pirouette) and all the bits with Odette/Siegfried went well.

Then it was a run downstairs to get changed for Act II whilst the audience enjoyed wine and cake (totally unfair!). My Act II entrance was so much fun (a chance to look smug and disdainful with Odile) and this was followed immediately by Spanish. I think this was my favourite dance in the show as I knew it well enough that I could simply enjoy every second. The audiences also seemed to enjoy it as me and my partner got some nice cheers at the end of it! Then it was standing around in character during the other national dances before the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Whilst I didn’t have too much actual dancing in this (except for a couple of small segments) there was plenty of acting to remember: gestures to Odile, hiding Odette and directing Siegfried. This was followed by me tricking Siegfried into swearing his love for Odile (including a silent evil laugh!) and running off stage.

Then was my really quick change (no interval!) back into the Owl costume for Act III. After Odette tells the swans what has happened I appear and remind her who is in charge (lots of partnering) and Siegfried appears. A quick breather in the wings and then it was time for the finale: a fight to the death with Siegfried. It’s kind of strange but I can’t remember this section from either performance. I guess the music and character swept me away and it’s all a bit of a blur until I’m lying on the ground with a wing ripped off pretending to be dead!

Finally, the curtain calls were amazing – I got my own bow just before the lead couple and I got a mixture of applause and pantomime booing. Was kind of awesome just to soak in the applause. It was even more special knowing that my mum and a load of my friends were in the audience. Most of my university friends had never seen a ballet before and they all really enjoyed it. It meant a lot to me that so many of my friends had made the effort to come and watch and share my performance and even more so that my mum did. I was also lucky enough to get some wine from my Spanish partner and some flowers from a friend to say congratulations.

Here’s a few pics that my mum managed to snap during the performance:

After both performances (with only about half an hour between them!) I was absolutely shattered. Making sure I thanked my teachers just one more time and promising to keep in touch with the guest dancers, I finally drove back home to talk through the performance with my mum, get some well earned sleep and then drive her to the airport the next day.

What’s Next?

So now it’s all over. I can’t believe it to be honest! I’ve still got a few performances coming up in the next few months. Ballet Bristol (the adult group I dance with) are doing a summer gala in June which I’m dancing quite a bit in: Coppélia Wheat Pas de Deux (as Franz), Sleeping Beauty Jewels suite (as “Gold”), and another variation (either Franz Wedding Pas de Deux from Coppélia or my Rothbart opening variation). On top of this, there is a gala nearby for the Sue Ryder 60th Anniversary (a national charity) and both of the groups I dance in will be performing! I’m not sure what I’ll be dancing (I think the youth ballet company will be doing the “Danse des Forbans” from Le Corsaire).

Sorry for the long post but hope you enjoyed reading! Have you been performing recently? How did it go?

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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New Kinds of Narrative

Sat watching the live cinema relay of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I was struck by how different a piece it is compared to, say, Swan Lake or Giselle. This is not just because of the different subject matter (no-one in Alice dies for a start!) but is, I feel, due to a completely different approach to narrative.

Classical Ballet Narrative

As ballet started to take shape into the artform we know today, narrative ballet was arguably its main purpose. If ballet was to survive outside of the context of opera, it needed to not just be as beautiful but also as capable at telling a (at times rather complex) story. In an attempt to enable this depth to ballet, early choreographers started to formalise a very natural way of expressing speech through dance: mime.

If you’ve seen any classic ballet – Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia – then you will have seen ballet mime. Whilst at first it can be slightly overwhelming to fill in all the unspoken gaps, ballet mime soon becomes easy to understand and beautiful in its own right. I am relatively fluent in British Sign Language and it is quite startling how similar the syntax of ballet mime is to BSL. In both, a literal translation becomes a very direct, subject-centric form of English: “Would you like to dance?” becomes something like “You dance, yes?”. This can be seen in the following clip of Royal Ballet dancers Romany Pajdak and Erico Montes demonstrating a section of mime from Swan Lake:

This approach leads to self-contained ‘chapters’ of story interspersed with divertissments, pas de deux and so forth. The dance is not always needed for the advancement of the plot, and large sections can be easily removed without affecting the audiences understanding. Obviously that isn’t the point of these ballets, and no-one would think of removing the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, but it could be done without a fundamental change in the narrative.

Neo-Classical Ballet Narrative

The emergence of neo-classical ballet brought a new approach to displaying narrative. There was less dependence on separate mime sections and mime was instead absorbed into the choreography.

Consider Cranko or MacMillan’s narrative works (Onegin, Romeo & Juliet, Mayerling…) and we see that the story is told through every movement and therefore mime becomes unnecessary. Little gestures that would have been resigned to mime take a role in the choreography. There is certainly no distinctive breaks between dance and story. Partly I think this is due to the subject matter: it would be a very brave (or foolhardy) choreographer who attempted to explain the subtle intricate emotions of Onegin or the all-consuming grief of Romeo & Juliet solely through mime.

Mime is still present in neo-classical ballet but in an altered, and perhaps enhanced, form. In Ashton’s La Fille mal Gardée, there is a famous scene in the second act where Lise daydreams about “When I Am Married”. Here Ashton takes classical mime and expands it, resulting in a section that could almost be a variation in itself. Certainly it takes skill to perform – here is a video of Mathilde Froustey of POB performing the mime:

Balanchine seems to take a different approach to other neo-classical choreographers. Rather than absorb mime into his choreography, Balanchine seems to let his choreography inhabit the mime. In his masterpiece Apollo, simple movements evolve into sections of dance. Apollo strums his lyre in a classical gesture which morphs into a striking moment, revealing an inner rebellion. Polyhymnia, the muse of mime, dances her variation one-handed whilst in the classical mime pose of a single finger on her lips to indicate silence resulting in a fantastic transformation of familiar steps. I also love the subtle way that Balanchine incorporates poetry into Calliope’s variation: taking direct inspiration from a line of poetry to choreograph in Iambic Hexameter. This way of deconstructing mime into movement is just one more demonstration of Balanchine’s genius.

Contemporary-Classical Ballet Narrative

The current crop of choreographers (which I have deemed “contemporary-classical” for lack of a better term) are forging their own approaches to narrative.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Wheeldon abstracts the story away from the dancers. Instead, much of the narrative is given through projections, puppets and set design. The segments of dance allow us to see into the characters rather than the plot – a sensible idea for Alice, where the characters are the essence of the magic.

Thanks to modern stage technology (both digital and physical) pieces like Alice can have many more scene changes than Petipa could have dreamed of. This facilitates the shifting of narrative: instead of having to spell out Alice’s growing/shrinking through mime, we can demonstrate it through a change of set (helped along with projections). Wheeldon is also unafraid of immersive theatre techniques: when Alice pops her head through a knee-high door, her view is materialised with dancers in the aisles of the stalls and confetti cascading over the audience. I’m not sure what Ivanov would have made of that! Next season, Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet is based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – he will need to delve deeply into the characters and relationships in a more serious manner than Alice, and I am intrigued to see what he produces.

Liam Scarlett seems at times to be a neo-classical rather than contemporary-classical choreographer and his Sweet Violets certainly had obvious inspiration from MacMillan. However, with his new full-length piece Hansel & Gretel, he has spoken of drawing inspiration and using the space it will be performed in for the piece. The Linbury Studio Theatre is an underground space in the Royal Opera House with large metal doors and exposed steelwork: Scarlett wants to use this prison-like atmosphere to help his audience relate to the main characters.

This site-specific viewpoint has been used elsewhere: Robbins’ “ballet in sneakers”, NY Export: Opus Jazz, was filmed recently in various locations across New York with NYCB dancers, working so brilliantly it is as if Robbins had planned it. The following is a clip of Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall dancing a segment on the High Line:

Within Ratmansky we have a first-rate classic storyteller: his reinterpretations of classics such as Flames of Paris and The Bright Stream feel fresh yet authentic. Although initially exclusive to the Bolshoi, his narrative works have recently expanded to ABT (The Bright Stream and The Firebird), Royal Dutch Ballet (The Golden Cockerel) and National Ballet of Canada (Romeo & Juliet) amongst others. I have a feeling that in years to come Ratmansky will be considered one of the greatest narrative choreographers of ballet and I’m excited to see what he will come up with next.

So what is the future of narrative ballet? We may catch a glimpse of it here in the UK with the premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl. McGregor’s distinctive style seems dependent on taking familiar movements and reinventing them, so I am highly intrigued to see what he might do with narrative. Working with Audrey Niffenegger on a modern narrative this promises to be a memorable production and perhaps a pioneering one.

With so many ways of expressing narrative, the future is certainly bright for ballet. There are a wealth of choreographers creating narrative works and I have only touched upon those I have direct experience of. Choreographers are tackling new subject matters (for example Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby) and with international co-productions companies are more willing to take a risk on full-length narratives (Birmingham Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Japan co-produced Aladdin and Wheeldon’s Alice and The Winter’s Tale are co-productions between the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada). I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds!

What are your thoughts on narrative ballet? Let me know in the comments section below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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