Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Two very different Giselles, January 20th and 27th, 2014, ROH

I saw two performances of Giselle this season. The first, on January 20th, saw Sarah Lamb make her debut in the role, with Steven McRae (also new to the role) stepping in last minute to replace Rupert Pennefather as Albrecht. The second, on January 27th at a live cinema screening, featured the much talked about partnership of Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta. It was the first time I had the opportunity to see the same production twice in one season. The differences between the two were striking.

In Act I, Lamb danced a sweet Giselle. She is easy to like, and I'm convinced that Albrecht, like the audience, can't help falling at least little bit in love with her. She seems genuinely naive, and it is not hard to understand her complete shock when she learns of his betrayal. Osipova, on the other hand, is a more complicated Giselle. There seem to be a number of things on her mind: her passion for dancing, her weak heart, her worried mother. Her dancing is sublime, of course. However, at times it felt like these things were more important to her than Albrecht. 

Nathalia Osipova as Giselle
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
What is more, the nature of her death is unclear. There is a long standing controversy about whether Giselle commits suicide by stabbing herself, or whether she simply dies of shock (expedited by her weak heart). Peter Wright is insistent that she actually kills herself - it is ultimately the reason why she is buried on unhallowed ground where the Wilis rule. However, Osipova's repeated demonstrations of shortness of breath and faintness of heart call this into question in a way that ends up being rather confusing.

Steven McRae as Albrecht is utterly convincing. Initially, we perceive him as a young guy looking to have some fun, possibly to escape the dreariness of court life (he is engaged to the snooty Bathilde - brilliantly played both by Nathalie Harrison and Christina Arestis). However, his growing affection for Giselle is sincere, and when she dies his grief is genuine. McRae portrays the emotional complexity of this poignant moment with such subtlety that we are left reeling. 

Acosta is not so convincing. His Albrecht is more regal, arrogant, and it is harder to sympathize with him. He does not seem to genuinely fall for Giselle, his grief is not authentic.

In Act II, both Claudia Dean and Hikaru Kobayshi are impressive in the role of Queen of the Wilis. Claudia Dean, "only" an artist, already awed us earlier in the season as the Chosen Maiden in The Rite of Spring. She is definitely someone to watch!

Carlos Acosta as Albrecht
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Osipova's Giselle is a bit harsh (her muscular arms and rather big, floppy hands do not help here); Acosta's Albrecht a little self-indulgent. At one point, forced to dance by the Wilis, he collapses with exhaustion, only to rise again with a flourish of his hand and look on his face that clearly expects applause (though, I must admit, he gets it). Lamb and McRae, on the other hand, are perfect together. I greatly look forward to seeing them together again in the upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.

While the hype around Natalia Osipova is by no means unjustified, I think it a shame that Sarah Lamb is receiving so little attention for her beautiful performance (I have yet to read a review in the papers AND no one seems to have taken any photographs!). Her Giselle is the one that continues to haunt me.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A day in the life: Romany Pajdak, Royal Ballet Dancer

If you've ever wondered what the typical schedule of a ballet dancer is like, this interview with Romany Pajdak is for you! 

Hansel and Gretel, January 24th, 2014, ROH

As I make my way down the stairs into the Linbury Studio Theatre, I feel as if I am descending into another world - a much darker world. Following a path lined with bark, I make my way around the back of a creaky wooden hut, past a billboard with the ominous inscription "If you go down to the woods tonight..." and take my seat at the edge of the stage.

The stage, not so much a stage as a space either side of which the audience sit, is set to resemble a 1950s American home fully equipped with an enormous fridge and a wood-veneered television box from which are playing wholesome, black-and-white commercials about baking products. At closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that things are not as perfect as they seem. The family who live here are in the process of packing up their shabby-looking belongings, a realtor sign outside reads "For sale - desperate", trash spills across the floor, an empty bottle of beer stands in the corner.

James Hay and Leanne Cope in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
Enter Gretel (Leanne Cope) and her father (Bennet Gartside). The latter, dressed in dirty pajamas and swigging from a bottle of beer, collapses in an armchair. Gretel tries to get his attention, and although he makes an honest effort, he is too exhausted/drunk to keep up with her as she dances around the room. He passes out in the armchair. It's heartbreaking.

Enter Hansel (James Hay) and his Teddy bear. Hansel is everything you imagine a little boy to be: innocent, curious, loud and totally annoying. If he is not the center of attention, his teddy is. 

And then the stepmother arrives. We hear her before we see her, her heels crunching over broken glass. She (Laura Morera) saunters in smoking a cigarette and looking extremely pleased with herself. However, her mood quickly changes when she discovers the bills is the postbox. In a brilliantly choreographed scene, she has a violent argument with her husband, during the course of which she slams his hand in the fridge door and breaks a bottle over his head. Gretel steps in to protect her father, and the stepmother turns on her, at which point the father finally loses it and punches his wife in the face. She storms out of the house, he follows, the children run to their room crying.

Steven McRae as The Sandman in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
If the audience thought this was dark, it was about to get a whole lot more disturbing. Back in the now abandoned living room the fridge door slowly creaks open, and out crawls a character from your most terrifying nightmares. Doll-like (the creepy kind with the wooden jaw and the angry eyebrows), he slinks around the room, stiff in the limbs, soft in the bodyFrom the program notes the audience knows that this is the sandman - a character not featured in the original Grimm's fairy tale. We do not know yet what his role is, but it is clearly not to solve everyone's problems. 

Hansel, hearing sounds, goes into the kitchen to find the sandman there. He approaches him with naive curiosity and tries to get him to join in a game with his teddy bear. The sandman lures him outside and into the woods. Gretel, realizing her brother is missing, runs after him. She finds him in the woods, alone. They get into an argument that ends in the teddy's head being ripped from his body. And then the children realize they are lost. In a twisted reference to the Grimm's fairy tail, they use stuffing from the teddy's body to mark their path. And so they reach the wooden hut and go inside. The sandman, emerging from the darkness follows them inside.

Brian Maloney as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
In a brilliant feat of stage design, the hut rises to reveal below it the lair of the witch. It is a terrifying scene to behold. The "witch" is a meticulously dressed platinum blond man, who is hunched in a child-size chair hosting a tea party for his dolls. Behind him lies the dead body of a woman, her head in the oven, her red high-heels sticking out behind her. The witch proceeds to put on her heels and dance with his favorite doll - a doll which happens to look a lot like the sandman. 

When Hansel and Gretel burst into the room, the witch initially reacts with trepidation. However, encouraged by the sandman's whispers in his ear, he soon takes a liking towards Hansel, a liking he expresses in an alarmingly suggestive dance with him. Realization dawns on the children, but of course it is too late. What follows are disturbing scenes of violence and abuse. A particularly wicked scene has Hansel tied to a chair, while the witch pours a bin load of teddies over his head. 

Eventually, however, the children do manage to escape. But there is no happily ever after, for they return home only to find that the house has been sold and the parents have left. In a final sinister twist, we see the children, left to their own devices, become their parents. It is a dark reminder that what we have just witnessed might be more than just fairy tale. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Productions I want the Royal Ballet to bring back!

I had a think, and it turns out they're all choreographed by Wayne McGregor and they all feature Eric Underwood...

Eric Underwood and Melissa Hamilton in Infra 
© ROH / Bill Cooper 2010

Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Music by Max Richter

First performed in 2008
Because of Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood's pas de deux!

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in Limen 
© ROH / Bill Cooper 

Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Music by Kaija Saariaho

First performed in 2009
Because I only saw this beautiful picture and now I want to see the rest!

Eric Underwood dancing in Carbon Life 
© ROH / Bill Cooper 2012

Carbon Life
Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Music by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt
First performed in 2012

Because of the costumes by Gareth Pugh!

Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl 
© ROH / Johan Persson 2013

Raven Girl
Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Music by Audrey Niffenegger
First performed in 2013
Because of the wings!

Insights: Ballet Evolved

Ballet Evolved is a feature by the Royal Ballet, which gives insights into the evolution of ballet over the last four centuries. It's split into seven parts:

Part 1 - The first four centuries
Part 2 - Marie Taglioni 1804-1884
Part 3 - Fanny Elssler 1810-1884
Part 4 - Anna Pavlova 1881-1931
Part 5 - Alicia Markova 1910-2004
Part 6 - Pierina Legnani 1863-1923
Part 7 - August Bournonville 1805-1879 

You can watch all parts here:

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Sarah Lamb in Giselle

I'm so excited to see Sarah Lamb make her debut in Giselle at the Royal Opera House on January 20th! Here is an article the Guardian ran about her last weekend.

My top five dance moments of 2013

1. Discovering that the Royal Opera House has 'day seats' opened up a whole new world of possibilities!

2. Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg's farewell performance for the Royal Ballet. The most intense ballet performance I have ever seen. I feel so lucky to have been there!

Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru at their farewell curtain calls.
© Ellen West, courtesy the Royal Opera House.

3. Wayne McGregor's new ballet "Raven Girl". I especially loved the final pas de deux with Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood.

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in Raven Girl
© ROH / Johan Persson 2013

4. The Stuttgart Ballet's "Made in Germany" mixed bill at Sadler's Wells.  

Especially "Le Grand Pas de Deux"...

...and "Mona Lisa".

Jean Abreu's "Blood" at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre. The bit where he drinks his own urine was definitely the most shocking thing I saw all year! But even without this shock effect it would have made my top five. The visuals were fantastic!

Jean Abreu in BLOOD with designs by Gilbert & George.© Dave Morgan