5 Favourites: 2017 Theatre Favs

War Horse UK Tour at the Bristol Hippodrome

War Horse may be a show about horses, but it has the most heart, the most heroism, and the most humanity of any show you’ll ever see. The tale of Joey the horse and his boy, Albert, torn apart by war and wrestling to return home together, is told in a visceral, evocative, and immensely moving way with hope and humanity at its heart.

Joey is a horse half-thoroughbred, half-draft, and it’s homogenous to the ingenious design and direction of the production. Half of the experience is pure, refined, performance that feels real, in the acting, the affect, the inhuman affliction of warfare, and the other half is creativity and craft working in front of us to make thrilling, theatrical magic.  The horses are played by three puppeteers – a head, a heart, and a hind – that stamp, snort, and stand up on their hind legs like horses, but also think and feel like humans. This is war in all its brutality, but also its overwhelming bravery: the mechanisms and machines and mercilessness are all laid bare, but so are the men and their mounts.

At its heart, War Horse is a stellar example of ensemble storytelling for a supremely talented company, where hand-puppeteered horses and humans working in harmony prove there’s hope for all humanity to imagine a world that works together.

Read the full review here!

The Royal Ballet’s Live Cinema Season

From the charm of Frederick Ashton‘s choreography, with ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, and ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting, to Woolf Works, where Wayne McGregor does with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words, to Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation, to the musical suites and magical sweets of The Nutcracker.

The depth and diversity of dance on offer is a delight, and the performances are complemented by insightful interval videos and the opportunity to be privy to the most intimate moments of a dancer’s performance, from rehearsal to retirement, as for Zenaida Yanowsky after Marguerite and Armand. After her final curtain, it was beautifully poignant to see her partners from the Royal Ballet’s roster past and present, including Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope, and Nehemiah Kish, as well as her partner in the piece, Roberto Bolle, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.

Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education

Twenty years ago, in 1997, it was a time of Take That, Tamagotchis and British teachers celebrating in the staff room after Tony Blair and the Labour party were elected with the mantra ‘education, education, education’. Wardrobe Ensemble’s eponymous play unpacks the politics of this cultural moment with wit, warmth, and winning charm, exploring the optimism of possibility, and, in turn, the realism that cuts through the 90s nostalgia with political poignancy.

Set in a well-meaning but not-quite-comprehensive comprehensive secondary school in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Ensemble create wholly believable characters, perform a script that’s so slick and so quick that it easily elicits laughs from its wit alone, and bop along to a nostalgia-fest of 90s bangers.

In Education, Education, Education, Wardrobe Ensemble capture the politics of yesteryear with the same anxieties of our present, managing to be riotously funny and quietly reflective; as head teacher Hugh says, in light of the election the teachers must remain politically impartial in all their classes, but, ‘we did win Eurovision, so talk about that as much as you wish’. The show ends blasting the election anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and there’s hope, as for the Tamagotchi and its reset button, that they can.

Read the full review here! Wardrobe Ensemble are back on tour with Education, Education, Education in the new year – buy tickets here for the ultimate 90s nostalgia fest!

Bristol-based Site-specific Theatre

Raucous‘s Ice Road at Jacob’s Wells Baths 

It’s late. We’re walking into a snow-covered scene, carrying a rose to ‘pay our respects’, and we’re greeted by rows of radios that remind us of gravestones that we pick up and put around our necks – and just like that, in walking from one room to another, Raucous’ Ice Road has taken us back in time and into a war-torn Russia. But, this impressively immersive performance really begins in the bar beforehand. With propaganda posters plastering the walls and lights flickering in their lanterns – and after a shot of vodka (when in Russia!) – three orphans, Leah, Tati, and Zoya, move amongst us, mouthing-off in Russian, attempting to find the missing Kub. After leading us by lantern into the performance space, the story follows their survival in a volatile landscape, and just what we’ll sacrifice for warmth in the winter and refuge from war, from a flute to your fellow man. 

Masters of the immersive, the emotive, and performances with a political immediacy, Raucous made use of the vast, cavernous Jacob’s Wells Baths in Bristol to tell this story of survival, and they used every inch of it: a structure of scaffolding and stepladders stretches to the ceiling, propaganda posters fall, seemingly, from the sky, there’s snow underfoot, and even the walls have a part to play.

Read the full review here!

Insane Root‘s The Tempest at St John on the Wall’s Crypt 

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,’ a muddling, older man murmurs to us, collected in a crypt beneath a Medieval church in the centre of Bristol as cars and buses and bits of lost conversation rumble along beyond the low door closed behind us. ‘The isle was full of noises,’ he amends, and with that opening amendment in tense alone, Insane Root Theatre have respectfully but perfectly repurposed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most philosophical, most reflective, and most indefinite play.

The man, aged and inelegant, is Prospero, but this is the usurped ‘prince of power’ without his power; this is Prospero at the end of the play, or rather, many-a-year after the revels of the play and the epilogue’s applause has ended. Alone in his library, a homely, hearth-like creation from Sarah Warren covered in drapes and decorated with books and bric-a-brac, Chris Donnelly’s Prospero is close to the end, and not just because he’s been placed in a crypt. Carved and cavernous, it’s the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him.

Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest balances Shakespearean tradition with exceptional adaptation, and through repurposing the text, the temporality, and the tone, the cast and creatives get closer to the heart of the play than any production of The Tempest I’ve seen, and it’s all happening right beneath the heart of Bristol.

Read the full review here!

Hamilton: An American Musical

The Room Where It Happens

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It‘ is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

What Hamilton has is a humanity, a humility, that makes it inimitable. As for Alexander in his America, being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is to be at the heart of the revolution, to see a stage that reflects real-life voices, faces, and feelings, to find not theatrical perfection, but an unforgettable phenomenon. Let’s hope, as Hamilton says, that ‘this is not a moment, it’s a movement’.

Read the full review here!

Reflection: Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Royal Ballet's Nutcracker

Musical suites and magical sweets

With musical suites and magical sweets, Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker is a festive feast for all the senses: Tchaikovsky’s score is rich with wonder, a Christmas tree grows to great heights and snow falls in an fairytale forest, and it’s performed with all the warmth and wit that’s found in the drop of whiskey that deepens the flavour of any Christmas cake; many an ingredient go into making this Nutcracker a Christmas treat to satisfy all tastes.

There’s sugary sweetness from the Royal Ballet School children at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve bash, brought back from the brink of saccharine by the Royal Ballet’s believable and oft-overlooked character artists, with Elizabeth McGorian and Christopher Saunders as the idealised Edwardian hosts and Kristen McNally making a delicious meal out of the dancing mistress. As Drosselmeyer, the magician desperate to free his Nutcracker nephew from the Mouse King, Gary Avis is the cream that melts all the magic together, introducing his mechanical dolls – Paul Kay and Meaghan Grace Hinkis’s darting soldiers are a delight for children and adults alike – with a flourish of that magnificent cloak. Continue reading “Reflection: Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker”

5 Favourites: Scary Stories

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)

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‘Nevertheless life and death are mysterious states, and we know little of either.’

The story in six words lesbian vampiric killer lusts after victim

Something wicked this way comes… Count Dracula has nothing on Carmilla. The ancestor of the innocent-victim-of-the-undead novel, Carmilla unveils its devilish desires with biting and blood in abundance.

Scare yourself silly? Other myths of those that metamorphose into more frightening forms, from vampires in Dracula and the darker, more modern-day Let The Right One In, to werewolves in the Little Red reimagining The Company of Wolves and the growing-up-meets-loup-garou film Ginger Snaps.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Rebecca

‘I could fight the living but I could not fight the dead.’

The story in six words sinister slow-burn about absent ex-wife

Something wicked this way comes… Last night you might have dreamed you went to Manderley, but after reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, you’ll be having nightmares about marital murder, obsessive maids, and burning mansions.

Scare yourself silly? Get really haunted with Hitchcock’s faithful film adaptation starring Judith Anderson as the scene-stealing, spine-tingling, ever-faithful servant, Mrs Danvers.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (1979)

Sondheim's Sweeney Todd‘There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it…’

The story in six words demon barber demands blood as retribution

Something wicked this way comes… Sondheim’s thrilling, chilling, blood-spilling musical follows the Fleet Street barber as he shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again, all framed by a baleful Brechtian ballad that chills to the bone.

Scare yourself silly? There’s many a musical nightmare out there, from the creepy-but-cute The Nightmare Before Christmas to Benjamin Britten’s darkly dramatic and dissonant opera, The Turn of the Screw. 

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)

The Woman in Black


‘I did not believe in ghosts. Or rather, until this day, I had not done so…’

The story in six words darkly dressed woman predicates children’s deaths

Something wicked this way comes… With all the tropes of true terror, this ghost story of strange-goings-on will have you on-edge for a long time, as pages filled with unexplained creaks, cracks and cries will plague even the pluckiest folk.

Scare yourself silly? Ghostly goings-on in the similarly child-centred, story-within-a-story The Turn of the Screw and the psychologically spine-chilling The Haunting of Hill House. 

Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein (2016)

‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’

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The story in six words who’s the monster, who’s the man?

Something wicked this way comes… Liam Scarlett’s scary yet lyrical choreography for Frankenstein’s Creature fuses lurid monstrosity with human longing, and this dance adaptation focuses on the loneliness at the heart of Shelley’s story, with some spectacular lightning striking the monster and the moment to life.

Scare yourself silly? The man vs the monster is the ultimate fight, so read the original in Frankenstein and find the poignant parallels in the morbidly funny Poor Things.

Reflection: Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

An eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation

Follow the White Rabbit – and the Royal Ballet – down the rabbit-hole into a weird and whimsical Wonderland of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley’s creation. Weaving the classical with the contemporary in his characteristically eclectic style, Wheeldon translates a Wonderland of wordplay and rhyme into one of diverse dance styles and spectacular theatricality that welcomes both the delightful and the disturbing from Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale.

Alice’s adventures follow the same style as Carroll’s story: a series of vignettes filled with curious, colourful characters, but the trial lies in how to thread these varied and vibrant scenes together into three acts with an arc to follow. Wheeldon accomplishes this with the ticking hand of time as a motif, from the White Rabbit’s pocket-watch to Joby Talbot’s percussive, characterful music, and this Wonderland is wound clockwise into a pacey, punchy performance that whirls us through in whistle-stop time, but it wouldn’t work without an Alice to hold our hand. Lauren Cuthbertson, recreating the role created for her, plays Alice free of the traditional ‘twee’, instead a curious teenager whose flat-footed tantrums and lively curiosity perfectly contrast the fluid lines and quick turns of her technical performance.

Wheeldon’s Alices have to master many a move once in Wonderland: Continue reading “Reflection: Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Reflection: Why Wayne McGregor & Virginia Woolf Work – Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works

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Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works: doing with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Wayne McGregor, as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer revives his award-winning 2015 work based on her writings. Why Virginia Woolf? McGregor argues for the way ‘she really reinvented the way you read a novel‘, and dramaturg Uzma Hameed discusses the ‘tension in Woolf between narrative and abstract‘; substitute ‘read a novel’ with ‘watch a ballet’ and ‘Woolf’ with ‘McGregor’ and its observable and wholly understandable why Virginia Woolf and Wayne McGregor work. McGregor does with movement as Woolf did with words, and his triptych Woolf Works, with acts inspired by Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves, pushes the boundaries of the balletic form beyond what is expected, taking its inspiration from the revolutionary effect Woolf’s own boundary-pushing writing had on the narrative form.

The piece opens with ‘I now, I then’, a breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful embodiment of Mrs Dalloway, and this part of the Works‘ centre, as with much of Woolf’s, is the passage of time. From Max Richter’s music with its rhythmic ticking to McGregor’s movement: a simultaneous pendulum-style swing into six o’clock penchĂ©s for Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli – faint impressionist memories of two of the novels’ protagonists, Clarissa and Peter – and the slightly-out-of-sync steps in the canon choreography with Francesca Hayward’s Sally, which after a kiss fall effortlessly in time. Following the heart-wrenching, homoerotic pas de deux between shell-shocked Septimus – a wonderful Edward Watson, the image of the walking-wounded weighed-down with gravity and grief – and Calvin Richardson’s Evans, one of the wars’ inevitable victims, Septimus’ boundary-pushing balances finally overbalance and he falls, as if into the void, as Richter’s music builds and theres bombs and blasts and then: black. This immensely haunting moment evokes the end of Mrs Dalloway, as Septimus, stricken, sterile – emotionally, artistically, and, much to his wife Rezia’s (Akane Takada) anguish, actually – and suicidal, can’t ‘assemble’ – illustrated in those beautifully bittersweet off-centre balances in the pas de deux – and falls, fatally, from the window. Only after does Richter bring in the soft sound of bells: perhaps, as in the novel, the bells of Big Ben; chiming in time to call Clarissa back from her own second of lost hope, but too late for Septimus.

As his same-sex partnered pas de deux evidence, McGregor embodies the modernist ideal, devised by poet Ezra Pound, of ‘making it new’, but it’s an ideology that he demonstrates in more than just dance. As Resident Choreographer for over ten years, there is often much talk about how crucial McGregor is to the future of the company and hand-crafting roles for new principals, but in Woolf Works, he creates the greatest role for an older one, which, in an art-form that favours the youth, is perhaps the most revolutionary act of all. Alessandra Ferri, now in her fifties, performs the dramatic role of Mrs Dalloway with the gentle fragility and decorous grace of Clarissa in the novel, but also with a poignant longing to return to her past as she watches her younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) – a wish McGregor awards her that most of us are never afforded. The seemingly impossible interweaving of past and present, the younger and older, in characters and cast – completed by Gary Avis as Mrs Dalloway’s present-day husband – is a response not only to Woolf’s writing, but to real life: as Ferri summarises, ‘Mrs Dalloway was my age […] but in her memories she was a teenager. But so am I, [and] so is everyone‘.

There’s something multi-dimensional about McGregor’s method – Ferri’s Mrs Dalloway is also a reminder of Woolf herself – and it’s no more obvious than in the second piece, ‘Becomings’. Based on Orlando, it’s a fast, flashy and technically-faultless fall through time and space from the Elizabethan to a busy, futuristic existence. Natalia Osipova appears to be the eponymous Orlando, the Elizabethan page who metamorphoses into a female body and lives for centuries, but the beauty of McGregor’s production, in a reflection of the novel’s fluidity, is that any of the dozen dancers could be Orlando, so fluid are the identities, the dance and the design. For a usually decidedly-gendered discipline, ‘Becomings’ disregards all rules of classical ballet: the male dancers wear dresses, dance with each other and execute the same elevated extensions usually reserved for women, and it proves there is nothing reserved about this piece. Even in the parts with fewer bodies on stage, especially Francesca Hayward’s impressive solo, the effect is still as viscerally powerful as the busier moments, particularly the fast-moving finale as the dancers move across spotlights on the floor as if falling, faster and faster, through the sands of time.

McGregor’s work is often collaborative in influence and creation, and, like Woolf, he works with and around creative groups that are growing ballet, and his body of work, in new and innovative ways. Woolf was a figure in the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of creatives – from artists to intellectuals – whose influence, intelligence and innovation united by the arts shaped and evolved the forms each worked in. Later embodied in his 2016 work Multiverse, ‘a landmark collaboration between leading innovators from three disciplines of contemporary art‘, ‘Becomings’ is a collaboration that uses dance, music, and design as counterparts, not competition. The beats, beeps, static, and razor-sharp strings of Richter’s score complement lighting designer Lucy Carter’s laser beams of light, and Moritz Junge’s ever-changing costumes, deconstructing and reconstructing versions of ostentatious Elizabethan dress – from black ruffs to fitted bodices to full skirts – reinforce the gender-and-genre-less form.

And, finally, we wash up on ‘Tuesday’, the closing piece of the triptych which returns to Ferri’s character, now more Woolf than Dalloway, and floats on the influence of Woolf’s The Waves. As the voices in The Waves, the large company of dancers are distinct individuals, but they unite as a central consciousness in the complex port de bras, moving like crashing waves at first in sync before falling out of line, like the stream of consciousness of Woolf’s writing style. Yet, ‘Tuesday’ doesn’t just stream, it pours: the dancers empty themselves into an emotionally moving sea of movement, and Richter’s music ebbs and flows and falls and grows until it feels almost overwhelming; almost as if we’re drowning.

This feeling is layered with further poignancy as the piece opens with a reading of Woolf’s own suicide note, addressed and left to her husband, Leonard, before her untimely demise, dying by drowning herself in the River Ouse. For all Woolf’s novel and experimental style, her suicide note is exposed, stripped of pretence, and sincere, and it feels like Ferri is also stepping back from ballet’s formalities towards pure emotion as she steps out of her pointe shoes and is left barefoot, perhaps the most exposed a ballerina can be. Bonelli returns, now, like Ferri, more likely a real life iteration of her husband than a fictional one, and lifts Ferri above the waves as the music builds, reflecting the love the Woolfs had for one another in the note: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier […] if anybody could have saved me it would have been you‘. ‘Tuesday’ is so moving that, like most of Woolf’s works, you have to stop looking for meaning, and just let it wash over you.

Woolf Works’ three acts are a balanced marriage of everything Wayne McGregor brings to the Royal Ballet, and everything they bring to him: ‘I now, I then’ is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful ballet, ‘Becomings’, with its collaborative cleverness, is a spectacle as cerebral as it is visceral, and ‘Tuesday’ is achingly haunting, hugely affecting, and a fitting finale to a piece that, like Woolf’s works, explores and pushes on the boundaries of its form. The work opens with the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf as she muses how ‘words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations […] so stored with meanings‘, and it’s a sentiment McGregor seems to share. Despite earning acclaim as a more abstract choreographer, his belief is that ‘all dance is narrative’, imbued, like Woolf’s words, with meanings and memories; the pas de deux, pointe shoes, and port de bras from classical ballet are still there, but, like Woolf’s words, they are revitalised by a new visionary. 

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 8th February 2017, broadcast on BBC4 9th July 2017, cast includes Alessandra Ferri, Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Federico Bonelli, Steven McRae & Edward Watson, picture by Tristram Kenton, click for link to Woolf Works at roh.org.uk

Reflection: Royal Ballet’s Ashton Triple Bill

ashton triple

The charm of Ashton’s choreography: ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting

The Royal Ballet bring clarity and refined classicism to Frederick Ashton’s charming choreography in a beautiful Triple Bill that encapsulates the versatility, vitality, and affectiveness of their founder choreographer’s wonderful work. Dancers past and present – from the original Oberon in The Dream, Anthony Dowell, to Henry Danton, one of the original six in Symphonic Variations – provide invaluable insights into Ashton’s timeless style and expectations of his dancers: impeccable musicality with fast footwork and expressive épaulement, performed purely, effortlessly, and with emotional intensity – it’s a lot to ask, but when mastered, as it is here, the effect is magical.

Opening this Ashton triptych is The Dream, a sharply streamlined adaptation of Shakespeare’s sprawling play that story-tells much more efficiently than its source. Ashton’s movement creates character as clearly as Mendelssohn’s magnificent music: the fairies flit and suddenly freeze in the moonlit forest to a flurry of fluttering strings and choral singing; Bottom – a brilliant Bennet Gartside – and his rustics move in earthy bounds to a braying march, and the height of playful Puck’s – a blossoming Valentino Zucchetti – bravura and ballon find reflection in high-pitched flutes. The lovers are also full of character, especially Matthew Ball’s funny, foppish Lysander and Itziar Mendizabal’s hopelessly bewildered Helena. Steven McRae’s leaps and pirouettes as the oppressive Oberon are superb, and he seems to embody Dowell in his fine performance alongside Akane Takada as his Titania, who really relaxed once in the romance of the last pas de deux, its final sliding splits and dĂ©veloppĂ©s as smooth as silk and iconic mirrored penchĂ©s as impressive as ever.

Following this are twenty minutes of technical mastery, a harmonious marriage of Franck’s music, mastered by pianist Paul Stobart, with Fred’s movement. Wearing little more than white leotards and tights and staying onstage the whole time, the six-strong cast of Symphonic Variations are exposed, exhausted, but unequivocally excellent. The piece is led by Vadim Muntagirov, who’s really matured and developed as a dancer at the Royal, no doubt aided by his partnership with the unparalleled Marianela Nuñez, and it’s on fine form here: the crystalline, canon choreography is practiced, precise, and almost perfectly synchronised, with only a few instances where the otherwise faultless Yasmine Naghdi’s enviable extensions strayed slightly out of line. Naghdi’s partner, James Hay, has the most expressive hands and exquisite line, and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer complete a consummate sextet.

Closing out the program was the most emotionally charged – in more ways than one – and challenging partnering piece, Marguerite and Armand. La Dame aux CamĂ©lias distilled into a series of passionate pas de deux and set to Liszt’s piano sonata – played by Robert Clark – the staging leaves a little to be desired, but the dance is all desire, caught between the coughs of Marguerite’s consumption. This performance was also a triumphant swan song for one of the Royal’s finest and most respected – see this post from fellow company member Olivia Cowley – principals, Zenaida Yanowsky. With Guest Artist Roberto Bolle as an arresting Armand, Yanowsky gives Marguerite grit and a tragic emotional resonance, her long extensions exquisite in the romantic lifts and freely expressive pas de deux. After her final curtain, it was beautifully poignant to see her partners from the Royal Ballet’s roster past and present, including Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope, and Nehemiah Kish, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 7th April 2017, cast includes Akane Takada, Steven McRae, Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Zenaida Yanowsky & Roberto Bolle, picture by Tristram Kenton, see details at ROH.org.uk

Breaking Ballet: An Interview with Olivia Cowley

olivia-cowley-interview-2The worlds of ballet and blogging seem to orbit in separate galaxies. Writing is little like dancing, and the tulle and toe shoes of ballet belong to a different century to the digital age of online blogging. Yet, balancing them both is British-born Royal Ballet soloist Olivia Cowley. Writing on her blog, ballet.style she aims to ‘show all sides of the industry’, from studio warm-up clothes, to stage costumes, to a dancer’s street-style at stage door. Inspiring us all to find time for the things we love, here she is talking dancing, dress sense, and what a day in her life is like as a ballet dancer and a blogger.

Olivia’s grace and elegance onstage is equalled by her graciousness and eloquence on the page, so it’s surprising to learn she started ballet because of a speech impediment. ‘It made me incredibly shy at school. My mum thought it would be a great idea to take me to ballet lessons where I didn’t need to talk. I loved it and it was the first time I was equal to my peers.’ Proving far superior to her peers in her dancing, she went on to take a place at the prestigious Royal Ballet Upper School at sixteen, after she’d grown in confidence and found her love for ballet. Olivia didn’t follow the usual path through the Royal Ballet Lower School; instead, she ‘carried on going to a comprehensive school with a special department for speech therapy’, going to ballet lessons in the evening until she was accepted into the Royal Ballet Upper School: the ultimate finishing school for those with the skill, physique, and sheer determination it takes to pursue a career in classical dance.

Situated in London’s Covent Garden, the Upper School is connected to the Royal Opera House, the home of the Royal Ballet, by the Bridge of Aspiration, an aptly named concertina architectural structure that you’ve most likely unknowingly walked under if you’re a West-Ender. Olivia wasn’t. ‘Living in London was a huge change to my life’, and it wasn’t the only change either: ‘it was the first time I had trained for the whole day! It was incredibly exciting, having full days of doing something I loved made me love ballet even more!’ Sadly, love is rarely ever enough, especially at this level. ‘The training was intense’, and, like most teenagers, Olivia had a growth spurt to adjust to; although, for most teenagers it’s unlikely to jeopardise a career. Olivia’s career was only just beginning though, and upon graduation she was accepted into the Royal Ballet Company, rising up the ranks from an artist in the corps de ballet to a soloist in 2013.

After all that hard work, what is a dancers’ day like at the heart of a world-renowned company? Often after a show the night before, Olivia arrives at work at 9.30am to do 30-45 minutes of power plate work; preparation is key to a job that requires peak physical fitness in order to avoid injury, something else that jeopardises careers. Then, at 10.30, along with the rest of the company, she does a 1 hour 15 minute ballet class. ‘It’s to warm our muscles for the day ahead and work on our technique. I do this everyday before work like every other ballet dancer.’ Rehearsals for productions currently in the repertoire start at 12. ‘Our daily schedule depends on what productions we are working on but I usually finish at 6.30 if I don’t have a show, or 5.30 if I do.’ The dancers have a two-hour break between rehearsals and curtain up, ‘to grab some food and to get ready before the performance.’ There’s more preparation to do before then, as sometimes Olivia will ‘do another ballet barre before the show to be extra warm and to get “on my leg” for a role.’ With so many parts, productions and people to rehearse with everyday, most would need another pair of legs to prepare for an occupation so trying and tiring.

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So, how does blogging fit in to Olivia’s lifestyle? ‘Fitting my blog around my schedule can be quite tricky at times’. This isn’t surprising, but what makes a busy ballerina want to start a blog in the first place? ‘I’ve always thought that the lifestyle of a ballerina is incredibly interesting. I thought, “who better to highlight this life than an actual ballerina herself?”, so I took the courage and started it.’ Perhaps we could all do with some of her courage. Despite its challenges, Olivia ‘really enjoys putting on a business head for a part of my day, rather than concentrating on my ballet. It’s keeping me sane!’

Olivia’s blog, ballet.style, looks at a ballerina’s life with a fashion focus, both on and off the stage. From costumes-up-close to travel style whilst touring in Tokyo, the costumes, clothes and photographs – all taken by Olivia herself – that she showcases are skilfully crafted. As a performer and fashionista, stepping into costume, especially ones inspired by the style of a particular time period, person or setting, help Olivia to find the character after the steps are in place. ‘Costumes are very important to a dancer; they are the last step to creating that role for you on stage. When the costume is on the next step is performing, be it a harlot in Manon, a fairy in Sleeping Beauty or an Arabian princess in Nutcracker! Very important for an artist.’

And with that word, ‘artist’, it suddenly dawns: ballet and blogging are not orbiting in spheres as separate as they first seem. There are parallels in the preparation, counterparts in the creativity needed for each, and a certain skill in presenting something to be proud of. Although one seems only to exercise the mind, and the other everything from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, both require you to pour it all – the mind, body, and soul – into the process to produce something exceptional.

Olivia has recently been exercising her mind, body and soul in the Royal Ballet’s revival of Anastasia – a ballet by British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan about the Romanov family, memory and the Russian Revolution – as Olga, one of the Romanov sisters. As a dancer, her lines are long and lithe, every movement fluid and effortless and perfectly poised, but, as an actress, a craft dancers rarely formally undertake, she excels. A bright smile slides into despair as she learns her father is off to war, a coquettish glance at her suitors crumbles into a giggle amongst her sisters, and a longing look as she desperately reaches out for Anastasia in the asylum inspires the deepest pathos in the audience: it is a performance alive with character.

It may look like an effortless performance, but Olivia assures me that rehearsing for such a dramatically demanding show is not easy, although it has been ‘wonderful to work on’, and her role, ‘Olga, is a great character.’ As for any professional actor, there is another layer of preparation required when performing as a historical figure: ‘there is always huge pressure [that] you put on yourself to get the role right when the story is based on real life events. You don’t want to be upsetting any historians in your portrayal!’

From recreating roles to creating them, Olivia has worked with Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet Wayne McGregor several times, as well as created roles in his works; a high honour for a dancer. ‘To go back to a role that has been created on you is like nothing else. It’s hugely satisfying’. As a modern choreographer, McGregor’s works are often sharply stylised, extending the balletic line beyond what is expected. As such, he expects a lot of hisolivia-cowley-interview dancers: ‘Wayne is a fantastic choreographer to work with, when you think you have pushed your balletic boundaries he pushes you another 20% – it’s crazy! Working with Wayne for 45 minutes on a solo is the equivalent of doing a marathon in metal armour while counting to music trying to look human in the face. It’s so physically demanding.’

Much of McGregor’s work is collaborative. One of his pieces, Carbon Life, returns to the repertoire this season as a fusion of contemporary forces in dance, music and fashion. With compositions from music producers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt and costumes by fashion designer Gareth Pugh, there’s extra excitement for Olivia as the costumes, angular black pieces with razor sharp edges, play their own part, being acquired throughout the performance to alter the look and line of the choreography, and she’s ‘really looking forward to going back on stage’ with it.

Such is the life of a busy ballerina, always existing in that space between on-and-offstage, but somewhere amongst the pointe shoes, preparation and performances, Olivia still manages to find time backstage to work on her blog. Being an avid follower, I had to ask a few questions about her favourites on-and-offstage: ‘favourite roles or production is too hard to answer!’ she says, but her ‘favourite high street store is Zara’, and the place to find a perfect pair of mid-high heels? ‘Asos!’ If Olivia can balance ballet and blogging and still have time to find a pair of shoes that fit into a lifestyle notoriously unforgiving for the feet, what more inspiration do we need to find the time for the things we love?

For a limited time, Olivia is running a pointe shoe shop – all shoes once belonged to a Royal Ballet dancer! – on her blog to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society; a perfect Christmas present for a ballet lover.
Images: top, photographed by Rick Guest for What Lies Beneath; middle, from Royal Ballet’s Draft Works; last, photographed by Bill Cooper in Carbon Life. Click photographs for link to ROH site.

Reflection: Royal Ballet’s Anastasia

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Masterfully-acted MacMillan choreography reflects on a revolution of the mind and memory: the danger of modern-day certainties in a story of uncertainty

In the tradition of technically and emotionally exhausting MacMillan three-acters – Manon, Mayerling, and his magnum opus, Romeo and Juliet – the Royal Ballet have revived his reflection on Russian Imperialism and memory, Anastasia, and relayed it live to cinemas worldwide as part of their Autumn 2016 season. Like memory, the past is impossible to repeat, and this is the crux of the crisis for both show and story. The story of the delusional Anna Anderson and her belief that she was the Grand Duchess hadn’t been disproved by DNA evidence when it was originally staged in the seventies, and the ambiguity of MacMillan’s ballet is obvious: dramatically, he refuses us anything definitive, just as the fragments of Anna’s remembrances in Act III deny her an identity. Similarly, the act of reviving a show is in itself an exercise in repetition, albeit an uncertain one. Steps may be notated, scores noted, but performance, like memory, is ephemeral, existing only for that moment and specific to each performer; an uncertainty fitting for the story of Anna. So where does that leave the show and story in a modern-day context so dissimilar and so much more certain, with live cinema relays, DNA testing, and interval videos that can turn the ephemeral into the ever-lasting?

In pursuit of revival, the Royal Ballet has employed the minds – and memories, imperfect though they are – of dancer and ex-Anastasia Viviana Durante and stager Gary Harris to coach the casts and recreate the production. From someone who was not alive to see the original, but who appreciates the style and lore of his work, MacMillan’s choreography seems lovingly acted and reconstructed. The complex partnering for the principals throughout the piece, characteristic of MacMillan and exemplifying the marriage of technical command and emotive performance, moves from the playful in Act I, as the sisters slide along the floor supported by their soldierly suitors, to the materially and emotionally tangled in the Act II pas de cinq between the Tsar, the Tsarina, Rasputin, the Ballerina and her partner, to the almost acrobatic in the tumult of Act III.

From the lightness of Act I, with its lively canon compositions and sugar-sweet sisters (the exceptional Yasmine Naghdi, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and Olivia Cowley) to the shaking, screaming, and kicking of Natalia Osipova’s stripped and shorn Anderson with her short hair and grey shift in Act III, the dancers fearlessly plumb the emotional depths that a MacMillan work of such drama demands, without drowning in melodrama. Marianela Nuñez’s Ballerina is so sensual you absolutely see what the Tsar saw when he took her as his mistress – although the pas de deux between her and her Partner (Federico Bonelli) is little more than a divertissement – and why Christina Arestis’s Tsarina is so icily cold in Act II. Thiago Soares’s Rasputin is a sinister shadow, shading the Tsarina’s dances with her husband with an outstretched hand for her to hold and an almost supernatural ever-presence onstage. The acting ability of the whole corps is something to celebrate, and the close-up camera work in the cinema screening really showcases their creativity, believability, and authenticity.

In a wonderfully candid interview screened during the interval, Viviana Durante and Darcey Bussell discuss how dancers draw on the score and each other to develop as actors. In Osipova’s playful but apart Anastasia and powerfully expressive Anna, it seems that relationships with her fellow Romanovs, Edward Watson’s charming suitor and Soares’s intimidating Rasputin inform her acting as the former, and, despite the dissonance in MartinĆŻ’s score – especially compared to the Tchaikovsky classicism in the opening two – a surprising musicality shapes her despairing Anna in the third act. The beat pulses through Osipova’s body, bridging the space between stage and screen in the cinema broadcast with her emotionally impressive performance. In the close-ups of Anna as she watches black and white recordings of the real-life Romanovs, the camera captures a myriad of almost imperceptible expressions moving across her face, where the Opera House auditorium sees only the back of her head, and it feels a privilege to be privy to her performance.

It is in these moments in Act III that the cinematic form seems to work well: the long, lingering close-ups not only catch these quiet subtleties but accentuate the creeping discomfort of Anna’s identity crisis, an effectiveness not there in the distracting cutaway close-ups of Osipova in the first two acts. Perhaps the variance in effectiveness of one form is reflective of the dramatic variance across the acts in Anastasia, with such difference in the dance, the music and the drama between Acts I & II and Act III.

Diverse roles in ballet, especially for the leading ballerina, are nothing new – from the duality of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, to the move from earthly to otherworldly for Giselle, to the riches to rags tale of another MacMillan piece, Manon – but never before have the stories, and their shifts, seemed so driven by character. Without reflection, Act I seems to have no real dramatic arc; the war might arrive with a woefully-received letter and lines of saluting soldiers, but its drive is Anastasia – or Anna’s – character. The shouting, screaming and imagined Romanov shooting in the asylum in Act III is the most somatic drama we see, and even then we’re not sure if it’s dreamed or remembered. The real drama in Anastasia is psychological; the Russian Revolution is only a backdrop, the real revolution is a crisis of identity.

At times, it seems as though the staging itself is in the midst of an identity crisis. With the other aforementioned shows, it’s clear where one facet of character transforms into another, and this is often driven by the drama – Prince Siegfried makes a promise and picks the wrong swan, Giselle is betrayed and dies of a broken heart, Manon’s prostituting forces her into poverty – and separated by an act or scene change. As such, at times it feels Anastasia should be a two-acter to fit this structure; Acts I & II are rooted in the past, in memory, in imagination, whereas Act III is very much present, a struggle wholly real and recognisable. But, of course, real life is rarely that unambiguous. There is nothing definitive about the story of Anna or the staging of Anastasia, about memory or identity, about what is past, present, real or imagined, and the structure reflects this: it strips away the certainty and breaks up the action of the opening two acts like blips in memory as we move from the boat to the ball to bedlam, so we’re never sure what is real. It is as unbalanced and broken as Anna herself by the time we find her in the asylum in Act III.

That is not to say that all narrative discords are necessary, especially those that add nothing to Anna’s character arc: there seem to be simpler ways of showing the revolutionaries arriving than a curtain-down scene change near the close of Act II. It could be argued it’s even already there in the choreography. Their jumps, spins, stamps and claps are enough of a stylistic change from the classical Tchaikovsky-style of the ball in the same scene to suggest that a revolution – in society and style – is in the air. Additionally, staging it this way loses Anna’s perspective and moves it away from memory; it’s presented as a certainty, more analepsis than imperfect memory. Yet, in suggesting change and discord, these details in the choreography challenge us to question the authenticity and certainty of every action, step, and act.

Acts I & II certainly feel authentic, with Russian character in the clipped heels and mazurka hops woven into the choreography and the impressive period costumes; from the stiff-collared soldiers to the ragged revolutionaries to the royal sashes on the perfectly pretty dresses of the sisters at Anastasia’s coming-out party, the details are astounding (see them close up on soloist and Romanov sister Olivia Cowley’s ballet.style blog). Yet, in the details of Bob Crowley’s sets in Acts I & II, it’s deception, not authenticity we see: there’s something steampunk about the ship’s deck in Act I, and the chandeliers of Act II seem all askew. Only the asylum of Act III looks ‘real’, and the mixed-media video projections and recorded voices make this a recognisable place to a twenty-first century viewer, especially one sat in a cinema experiencing the whole performance as a mix of these very mediums.

In the age of modern-day certainties like DNA testing and cinema screenings, the programme for the latter provides a wealth of paratextual material to make meaning certain: Crowley explains in an interval video how the sets’ angles mimic Anastasia’s childlike – or poor Anna’s imagined – perspective. The sets in Acts I & II are a representation of a long-ago reality, mirroring the fragility of memory itself, and are themselves set in the empty expanse of Act III’s asylum. This suggests that the sumptuousness of the earlier acts is imagined, existing only within the starkness and sterility of the asylum and Anna’s mind. DNA evidence validates this in the age of the revival, but MacMillan didn’t know this, and in moments of his Act III choreography echoing the earlier acts, the uncertainty seeps through. Anna’s leap backwards into the arms of Rasputin mirrors the sisters and their suitors at the ball in Act II, only this time it is helpless rather than hopeful, jarring rather than joyous, and crazed rather than courtly. It asks the question, if MacMillan and his choreography work to dispel certainty, is the essence of uncertainty so central to the story lost in screening the reveal-all interval video before we’ve seen the final act? The sets give us Anna’s skewed perspective, lets keep the uncertainty until the curtain comes down.

Ruminating as it does on memory and identity, the story of Anna Anderson is deeply suited to the ephemeral medium of theatre, and doubt rests on its role in the cinema. Nevertheless, other than a few superfluous close-ups and unfavourably-placed insights, the Royal Ballet’s revival of MacMillan’s Anastasia is a masterfully-acted, fearlessly-danced, powerfully dramatic performance, and if cinema screenings mean a wider audience than ever before can see it, then who am I – that question it asks of us all – to wonder if it works?

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 2nd November 2016, directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon, cast includes Natalia Osipova, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli, Edward Watson & Thiago Soares, picture by Tristram Kenton, click for link to page on Anastasia at roh.org.uk