reviews


Attending the Dancing Human Rights event at The Old Fire Station on 1st February, curated by Dr Dana Mills as part of Oxford Brookes University’s Think Human Festival, was a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience.  Three very different pieces were shown and brought out different responses in me as I watched.

Eliot Smith’s solo excerpt from Pitman depicted the world of the coal miner with his lamp and shovel.  We felt his sweat and labour in the oppressive and cramped working conditions.  We saw the relentless drudgery but also the sense of pride and relief when at last he found the freedom to stand tall and stretch to full height again after a hard day’s work hunched underground. (more…)

In celebration of its 25th and last season of work, the Richard Alston Dance Company is embarking on an international farewell tour. The kind of endeavour you might normally associate with the break-up of a major band, or with Cher – who is perennially on her last tour, and I think has been saying farewell since at least the beginning of the last century, as is the whim of an eternal being. The scale feels only a bit different for Alston and his dancers. Final Edition: Oxford [1] is a culmination of many lives at work together, expanding the practices of modern, postmodern, and contemporary dance in the United Kingdom.

Because of his eponymous title the Etonian has a claim to canonical status and this tour could have become an overwrought monument to privilege and ego. Instead, what we witnessed in Oxford’s New Theatre on Wednesday night was a homage to a history of dance, branded, and shaped by Alston, advanced by collaborator Martin Lawrance, and most importantly, pulled off with immense style, presence, and love by a company of extraordinary dancers. (more…)

The DANSOX event Making “The Cellist” was an exciting opportunity to watch choreographer Cathy Marston’s creative process as she rehearsed her ballet based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré.  Du Pré, who died of multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of forty-two in 1987, was an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s, and the evening began, fittingly, with a performance of Fauré’s Elegy in C Minor by St Hilda’s musicians Holly Jackson and David Palmer.  An open rehearsal, with Royal Ballet dancers Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Calvin Richardson, and discussion of Marston’s work followed.

Interviewed by her scenarist Edward Kemp, Marston eloquently described how her sister, a drama teacher, had used an old cello to stimulate improvisation, and realised that the idea held great potential for a ballet.  Marston is acutely aware of the sensitivity of her subject matter (her mother has MS), and rather than trying to reproduce the symptoms, she seeks to express what it feels like to have the disease.  She approached du Pré’s widower Daniel Barenboim at an early stage to gain his blessing, but the ballet is not an exploration of family relationships; it is about the gift and burden of talent. (more…)

Oxford’s long established butoh dance theatre group Café Reason first showed its  ecologically focused work Tipping Point at the University of Hertfordshire last year, the outcome of this collaborative company’s collective exploration and creative response to “the threats facing our fragile planet”. In January 2020 the company unveiled it in Oxford over two sold out nights, testimony to a solid and sympathetic audience support base, but also to the topical urgency of its theme, increasingly in the public eye as we followed the horrific development of Australia’s bush fires. Corpus Christi College’s Al Jaber auditorium proved an apt setting, its reuse of ancient wall providing a dramatic irregular boundary and contrast to an otherwise technologically functional modern space. (more…)

John Cranko’s Onegin draws on a Russian verse-novel, but in 1965 Cranko’s first cast was led by the Brazilian Marcia Haydée and the Spanish-American dancer Ray Barra. Yesterday, the Royal Ballet also cast two dancers of South American and Hispanic origin as Onegin and Tatiana: Thiago Soares and Itziar Mendizabal.

From the start, Mendizabal’s sincere and vulnerable Tatiana offers a touching foil to Soares’ dark, proud, and brooding Onegin; it is a clash between her naïveté, and his world-weary sophistication and sense of honour. Preferring to read her novel rather than look at new dresses, Mendizabal’s Tatiana is simply not very interested in the bourgeois society that Onegin scorns. Her mood as she writes to him is romantic and wistful, and when Soares appears in her dream, she seems a little cautious in the high lifts, as if not quite ready fully to abandon herself to passion. On the other hand, when Soares ripped up her letter, her stillness, embodying the mute pain of rejection, made me cry. (more…)

Facing a storm, be it meteorological or manmade, there are various responses, innate, considered or irrational, that people make – do nothing, batten down, evacuate, even chase, watching cloud formations or personal interactions, trying to comprehend the imminent impact. The publicity for The Storm from James Wilton Dance company asked, “In this storm can you find peace?”

Heading to Oxford Playhouse, then, a front of questions loomed. With the unavoidable political and environmental contexts, foremost was what type of storm was this? We were told only to expect seven contemporary dancers “combining acrobatics, break dancing and martial arts to specially composed thundering electro-rock”; what transpired to this viewer was a storm of human dimensions. (more…)

Nocturne, an original programme of French piano music, dance and song, was a completely absorbing aesthetic experience. We sat on chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the performance area, the grand piano to the left, the dance space alongside it, illuminated by small portable footlights. In the far corner was a Christmas tree, lit with plain white lights; overhead there were angels carved on the wooden ceiling, and behind us, Jacob Epstein’s statue of Lazarus.

Musically, the programme fell into two halves: the first half, which included the dance, being Gabriel Fauré’s 1er Nocturne in E flat minor and Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II; the second a performance of French poems in settings by Fauré, Claude Debussy, Henri Duparc and Reynaldo Hahn, elegantly sung by Rory Carver. (more…)

Vienna Festival Ballet’s production Snow White is lively, entertaining and fun. Presented in the manner of a traditional nineteenth century ballet, albeit on a small scale, the work features a ballroom scene (with show-piece tarantella), a nod towards a vision scene with a corps de ballet of nymphs and birds, and a grand pas de deux in the second act. The musical score, arranged by Alan Lisk from works by Samuel Alexander Faris and Charles-François Gounod abounds in danceable tunes, and the costumes were delightfully colourful. (more…)

Still wondering what Christmas present to get for the dance lovers or converts in your life?  Here is a reminder of some great publications that ODW has recently reviewed, including fascinating historic biographies and stunning photography, plus an extremely tempting DVD… click on the links provided for reviews and details of where to purchase.  Particular thanks to Maggie Watson for the informative and perceptive reviews she has contributed.

Nadine Meisner 2019  Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master

A major and groundbreaking volume, nominated for the Outstanding Creative Contribution in this year’s National Dance Awards (to be announced 19th February 2020). This is the first English language biography of the great ballet master behind such iconic works as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, massively influential in ballet’s development.  Full of historic detail it paints a fascinating picture of an intriguing character and the colourful world of 19th century ballet, giving tantalising glimpses of other forgotten works.  Essential reading; for further information read Maggie Watson’s review here  As an alternative to buying online, why not check it out alongside other fascinating dance publications by Oxford University Press at the OUP Bookshop, 116-117 High St, Oxford OX1 4BZ.

Michael Meylac 2018  Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: stories from a silver age

For reviewer Maggie Watson “There is never a dull moment in this collection of interviews with dancers associated in one way or another with the various companies collectively described as the ‘Ballets Russes’.” Professor Michael Meylac has tracked the historic diaspora of dancers from the Ballets Russes companies across the world, and the lively reminiscences he has elicited from a wide range of artists paint a vivid picture of often racketty professional existence, including memories of some of the great teachers bringing Russian ballet schooling to the West.  A hugely entertaining read, check out Maggie’s review here

Darcey Bussell 2018  Darcey Bussell: Evolved

An autobiography partly narrated through the lens of the professional camera; a chatty album whose portrait “snaps” of its likable protagonist happen to be by photographic luminaries including Annie Leibovitz, Arthur Elgort, John Swannell, Lord Snowdon and Richard Avedon, as well as distinguished dance photographers such as Bill Cooper, Anthony Crickmay and Chris Nash. It tracks the intriguing development of a career beyond the Royal Ballet for this beautiful ballerina as model and media personality.  Read Susie Crow’s review of this luxurious coffee table book here and read Maggie Watson’s report of Darcey Bussell interviewed by Nick Higham at the Oxford Literary Festival here

Rick Guest 2019  Edward Watson: Portrait of a Dancer

You would need a substantial Christmas shopping budget to be able to afford this portfolio of Rick Guest’s stunning large format photographs of a particular muse, the remarkable and individual Royal Ballet star Edward Watson.  Maggie and Susie went to hear Guest and Watson in entertaining and thought-provoking conversation about their work together earlier this year at the National Portrait Gallery; read Maggie’s account here.  There are other volumes of Guest’s extraordinary portraits of dancers available at more affordable prices; read Maggie’s account here of his exhibition What Lies Beneath which is now available as a book.  Check this out along with examples of the Watson portraits here

Richard Allen Cave & Anna Meadmore eds. 2018  Robert Helpmann: the many faces of a theatrical dynamo

This collection of articles by dance academics and practitioners on the charismatic and multifaceted dancer and actor Robert Helpmann is a timely and valuable addition: as Maggie says, “enlightening, entertaining and scholarly”.  Emerging from the research leading to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2014 restaging of Helpmann’s powerful ballet Miracle in the Gorbals, it brings this major figure back into the limelight; including some of his own writings and a DVD with fascinating interviews and documentary footage.  Essential reading for those interested in the development of British Ballet during and after WW2.  Read Maggie’s review here

And finally…

Queen + Béjart: Ballet for Life

Available on DVD or Blu-ray this double bill includes not only historic live action capture of Queen and the Béjart Ballet in Ballet for Life, but also the fascinating recent documentary about the work by director Lynne Wake and producer Simon Lupton.  Edited by Emmy Award winner Christopher Bird, it tells the story of Ballet for Life and its success, featuring the great and the good of both rock and dance, including: Brian May, Roger Taylor, Gil Roman, Wayne Sleep and Arlene Phillips. The full performance at Théâtre Métropole, Lausanne in June 1997 was captured and directed by David Mallet, known specifically for directing live performance concerts of such megastars as Tina Turner, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and numerous Queen videos including Bicycle Race, Radio Ga Ga, I Want to Break Free and Freddie’s classic The Great Pretender video.  It includes incredible archive footage of Freddie Mercury, Maurice Béjart, and Queen, as well as Gianni Versace and his stunning costume designs. This release also includes a substantial segment of John Deacon’s final performance with Queen, taken from Ballet for Life international premiere with Elton John in Paris.

Ballet for Life was a unique collaboration between three cultural brands: Queen, Versace and the late visionary choreographer Maurice Béjart, celebrating the life and talents of legendary performers, Freddie Mercury and Béjart Ballet Lausanne’s former principal dancer, Jorge Donn, both of whom died of AIDS in the nineties. For Maurice Béjart, choreography was about the cycle of life, youth and hope, as well as life triumphing over death.  Already presented over 350 times around the world, this ballet continues to tour widely.  Those of us attending the DANSOX summer school in July were lucky enough to see a showing of Lynne Wake’s excellent documentary, which incorporates live footage of a new generation of stunning dancers rehearsing this powerful work.  A real Christmas treat; you can buy the double bill online here

Happy Christmas!

Acosta Danza presented four works to a large and enthusiastic audience at Sadler’s Wells last night. The evening opened with Raúl Reinoso’s Satori, a piece that brought together movement, music, costumes and lighting with strong dramatic effect, unifying them in the dance. The visual impact was powerful right from the start, as spotlights picked out dancers, male and female, surrounded by huge circular skirts that spread around them on the stage. Billowing cloth created the illusion of a mountainous landscape viewed from above, as a dancer bourréed on pointe from side to side, facing the audience, her arms extended, like a hovering bird. (more…)

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