Dance

There are passages of considerable eloquence in Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale

There’s no escaping Christopher Wheeldon – a modest, amiable fellow from Yeovil of whom anyone’s mum would be proud. Reaching outside the ballet bubble, his stagings of An American in Paris and the Michael Jackson musical have wowed the West End, Broadway and beyond. My guess is that his take on Oscar Wilde, to be premiered in Australia later this year, will soon travel north, too. Next season the Royal Ballet will revive his box-office smash Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well as a programme drawn from his plentiful short pieces. Two summers ago, he presented us with an adaptation of the novel Like Water for Chocolate (not so tasty).

Don’t write off Hofesh Shechter – his new work is uniquely haunting

In 2010, when his thrillingly edgy and angry Political Mother delivered modern dance a winding punch right where it hurt, I had high hopes for Hofesh Shechter. Here was an outsider with the courage to make his own rules and engage dance with real-world issues (he had served a traumatising period in the Israeli army) rather than blindly following the fashionable goddess Pina Bausch down the rabbit hole of postmodern irony. He wasn’t interested in playing games. But success has taken his edge off and what has followed has largely been disappointing. Trapped by a limited choreographic vocabulary, Shechter has repeated himself, relying too hard on the brute effect of

Choreographers! Enough with the reworkings of Carmen and Frankenstein!

Carmen and Frankenstein are without a doubt two of the most over-worked tropes in our culture, the myths of the evasively seductive gypsy and the human monster machine being lazily recycled and plundered and vulgarised in various forms to the point at which their authentic primal power has been altogether deflated. So it was with a heavy sigh that I anticipated their two latest danced iterations. No surprises were likely, and none were delivered. It’s not bad, it’s just not good enough – yet another retread of familiar material The list of choreographers – Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, John Cranko, Mats Ek, Antonio Gades, Matthew Bourne, Carlos Acosta – who

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Royal Ballet’s MacMillan triple bill reviewed

My feelings about the genius of Kenneth MacMillan have always been volatile, but in the course of the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill, they veered even more wildly than usual between uncomplicated delight, awed reverence and embarrassment. A revival of his early Danses Concertantes, firing off Stravinsky at his most effervescent and designed with exuberantly colourful Festival-of-Britain jazziness by Nicholas Georgiadis, provided half an hour of pure joy. Stylistically an exercise in the neoclassicism that dominated the postwar era, it’s witty, chic and upbeat, exploring sharp angles rather than smooth curves and lyrical lines. MacMillan’s choreographic invention is profligate, with little twists and unexpected turns, all infused with an infectious

Uninventive and far too polite: BRB’s Black Sabbath – The Ballet reviewed

Not being an aficionado of the heavy-metal genre, I snootily suspected that I would rather be standing in the rain flogging the Big Issue than suffer the racket that goes by the name of Black Sabbath. The noise, my dear, and the people! How could they? So I approached Birmingham Royal Ballet’s attempt to dance to its shenanigans armed with earplugs and gritted teeth. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected: in fact, it erred towards the polite and tasteful, and I wondered if a crowd largely consisting of hairy and leathery old rockers – some of them possibly anticipating satanic rituals or heads being bitten off chickens –

Striking but not altogether successful: ENB’s Our Voices reviewed

Aaron S. Watkin, an affable bearded Canadian, is the new artistic director of English National Ballet. He arrives from Dresden, where he ran a similarly scaled company comfortably subsidised by public funds. Doubtless, he finds what the Arts Council gives ENB meagre to the point of stingy. One may wonder, therefore, what the attraction is, but he certainly inherits from Tamara Rojo a solid organisation and a fine body of dancers, particularly strong on the male side. His inaugural piece of programming is striking but not altogether successful. It starts gloriously with Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, an essay in his grand tsarist style, set to some noble music by Tchaikovsky,

The dazzling classic The Red Shoes has several unfashionable lessons for us today

The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film about a ballet and its company, is 75 this month, and its birthday is being marked with great fanfare. From October to December, the BFI is putting on a major retrospective of the films of Powell and Pressburger, with an accompanying exhibition and nationwide screenings of The Red Shoes itself. A companion book to The Red Shoes by Pamela Hutchinson – stuffed with insight and background – is being published, as well as a lavish volume, The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger, complete with pictures and essays (almost love letters) about the late filmmakers from artists such as Tilda Swinton

A vanity exercise: Carlos at 50, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

In 2015 Carlos Acosta announced his retirement from the Royal Ballet and the classical repertory. It seemed like the right moment; he was 42 and, truth to tell, some of us could detect a slight waning of his prowess and physique. Time to move on: since then, he has done great work in his native Cuba and is currently a venturesome artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. He is a rather wonderful person. Eight years after his withdrawal from Covent Garden, however, he has made a brief return – addressing an itch, he says, that had to be scratched. The house sold out for five nights running and the reception

Can ballet survive the culture wars?

Through several phases of the culture wars, ballet has served as a canary in the coal mine, its intense and exposed physicality highlighting all the issues surrounding sexuality, gender and power that have currently become our unhealthily narcissistic preoccupation. Perhaps the warnings started with the phenomenon of Vaslav Nijinsky. Against the defined masculinity and femininity of the Edwardian era, he stood out as seductively androgynous and effeminate as well as staggeringly charismatic – a godlike hero unashamed to represent le spectre de la rose. Bloomsbury ogled, and rumours about his pederastic relationship with his patron Serge Diaghilev circulated scandalously. Fonteyn said that if people knew what she endured only those

Is Scottish reeling the route to romance?

‘Remember to flirt outrageously.’ This essential piece of advice is imparted courtesy of Country and Town House magazine for its readers curious about Scottish reeling. The reel, a social folk dance, dates back to 16th-century Scotland and has remained popular for all this time, notwithstanding a brief hiatus in the 17th century when the Scots Covenanters assumed the stance (rightfully, some might say) that such amusement leads to mischief leads to sin. Less curious about the dancing than the flirtation, I joined some friends for the final, sweaty session of the season at London Reels. The group meets in St Columba’s church in Knightsbridge on the second Tuesday of each

Same old, same old: Wayne McGregor’s Untitled, 2023, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

My witty friend whispered that Wayne McGregor’s new ballet Untitled, 2023 put her in mind of Google HQ – it’s certainly a mint-cool, squeaky-clean, future-perfect affair. The set by Carmen Herrera, subtly lit by Lucy Carter, suggests infinite space and distant horizons. The costumes by Burberry are streamlined and sexless. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s vaporous score hovers over it all in a meditative trance. Ordinary human emotions struggle to express themselves in this brave new world: we have left planet Earth. McGregor’s strengths and weaknesses are highlighted: on the credit side, there’s his energy and intelligence, his sophisticated visual taste, his empowering of young talent, his open questioning of boundaries, and readiness

Stunts, gimmicks, tricks, hot air: snapshots from the edge of modern dance

This month I’ve been venturing into the further reaches of modern dance – obscure territory where I don’t feel particularly comfortable. In its hinterland is the Judson Church in New York: it was here, during the early 1960s, that young Turks such as Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton began investigating the idea that dance need not involve formalised gestures or what primary school teachers call ‘movement to music’, but could grow instead out of quotidian activities such as running, jumping and walking. From that point of departure, the journey has become ever more extreme and contorted, traversing the realms of performance art and installation, often politicised and sometimes pornographic. I

One long moan of woe: Crystal Pite’s Light of Passage, at the Royal Opera, reviewed

I was moved and shaken by Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern when I first saw it in 2017. In richly visualised imagery, it proposed two ways of interpreting the horrific footage of the refugee crisis of 2016: either as a matter of anonymous, voiceless masses, portrayed as a body of dancers moving across the stage like a skein of migrating swallows beyond reason or control; or as a ragtag of desperate, furious individuals with every dignity and possession taken from them – somebody’s husband or wife, somebody’s daughter or son, fighting for survival – a plight conveyed in the impassioned dancing of Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally. Five years on, Pite

A solid evening’s entertainment: Rambert’s Peaky Blinders ballet reviewed

Being of a squeamish sensibility and prejudiced by a low opinion of recent BBC drama, I can claim only a superficial acquaintance with Peaky Blinders. So my response to The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, a new ballet drawing on the popular television series about gangland Birmingham during the 1920s, is that of a rank outsider. Produced by Rambert (in association with Birmingham Hippodrome), it represents the company’s admirable attempt to find a broader audience and move out of the modern dance ghetto – hence presenting the show at the new Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park rather than Sadler’s Wells. A spot check on the demographic suggests that it succeeded: but

Why the Arts Council should kill off ENO and ENB

Pity Arts Council England, least loved of our NGOs, understaffed and under-resourced, its arm’s-length status gnawed to the shoulder by DCMS ukases, the stinginess of the Treasury and the government’s (in some respects, welcome) indifference to our higher culture. In return for its annual grant-in-aid (currently £336 million), it is obliged to cheer-lead policies of inclusivity and diversity and step gingerly over the eggshells of elitism, racism, gender politics and decolonisation. Its hands are further tied by the requirement to operate as extensions of the social services. The diktats of Levelling Up have to be honoured. The disabled and the disadvantaged, the young and the old are all crying out

Exhilarating, frightening and hilarious: Made in Leeds – Three Short Ballets reviewed

Good, better, best was the satisfying trajectory of Northern Ballet’s terrific programme of three original short works, which moves south to the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House at the beginning of November. The company has a new director in the amiable Federico Bonelli, formerly a principal with the Royal Ballet, and he has several problems to address, not least the shortage of richly characterful dancers among the senior ranks. But this triple bill should boost everyone’s morale, and the audience at the Leeds Playhouse was enthralled. First up was Wailers, Mthuthuzeli November’s elegiac return to the world of his childhood in a parched South African township. Bourréeing on

Ballet comes of age with Sergei Diaghilev

‘What exactly is it you do?’ asked a bamboozled King Alfonso XIII of Spain upon meeting Sergei Diaghilev at a reception in Madrid, while the Great War raged on in Europe. ‘Your Majesty, I am like you,’ came the impresario’s quick-witted reply. ‘I don’t work, I do nothing. But I am indispensable.’ At first glance, the Russian expatriate’s estimation of his own worth may seem theatrically grandiose, but as the dance critic Rupert Christiansen shows in Diaghilev’s Empire, his new history of the Ballets Russes and their buccaneering onlie begetter, ‘indispensable’ was really no overstatement. Now, 150 years after Diaghilev’s birth, the story of the Ballets Russes, its temperamental director

The company has a hit on their hands: Scottish Ballet’s Coppélia reviewed

With the major companies largely on their summer breaks, the Edinburgh International Festival struggles to programme a high standard of dance (though, having said that, I have memories of being taken in short trousers to the 1967 festival and seeing New York City Ballet during its glorious prime). The dearth tends to be masked by falling back on what used to be called ‘ethnic’ product and that peculiarly French phenomenon, the multimedia event spanning circus, mime, video and spoken text, usually sewn up with some thread of an over-arching theme thrown in. This year it’s the turn of something called Room, presented by La Compagnie du Hanneton, whose chief cook

The magic of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Drag isn’t what it was. Pantomime dames, character actors and any number of sketch-show comedians had fun dressing up as harridans or movie stars (check out Benny Hill’s unforgettable Elizabeth Taylor) but those old-school travesti turns have been out-camped by a more unsettling performance style that women are finding increasingly hard to take. Directors and commissioning editors tread very carefully when it comes to ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability but women, it seems, are still fair game. The trampy excesses of the modern drag wardrobe, the cartoonish, almost spiteful exaggeration of female features – haystack wigs, F-cup prosthetics, the whole ‘womanface’ box of tricks – doesn’t feel like an homage

Leave Bizet’s Carmen alone

I’ve always felt uncomfortably ambivalent about the work of Matthew Bourne. Of course, there is no disputing its infectious exuberance or its enormous appeal to a broad public beyond the ballet club. I suppose its eclectic mix of Ashton and MacMillan, camp jokiness, Hollywood movies and Broadway razzmatazz is quirkily unique too – at least sui generis, inasmuch as nobody seems to imitate it with his degree of commercial success. And Bourne’s house designer Lez Brotherston always gets it just right: the shows invariably look great. Yet there’s also a relentless brashness to them, an absence of psychological nuance and aesthetic restraint. I take a deep breath and try to