Sensual and silky: the Royal Ballet returns to Covent Garden

Wayne McGregor’s Morgen! and Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits are the first pieces of live dance — streamed in real time from an empty auditorium — to come out of Covent Garden since March. Unaware that recordings would be available afterwards, I clung to these fleeting displays with the panic of grandparents on a Zoom call, furiously, helplessly slapping the screen whenever it buffered. Both are quick ballet interludes to longer opera programmes — not afterthoughts, exactly, but not centrepieces either, though with two shirtless danseurs and a beloved ballerina between them, they do just fine asserting their presence. Vadim ‘the Dream’ Muntagirov tackles the Ashton work, reaffirming

Top of my must-watch mustn’t-watch: Cats revisited

At the outset of lockdown I gave you my list of top mustn’t-watch films — that is, the ones that aren’t worth the bother — with the rider that when Cats is released digitally it will, however, likely be a must-watch mustn’t-watch. ‘I absolutely must watch this mustn’t-watch,’ you may even have said to yourself, after reading some of the wonderfully terrible reviews. (The Daily Telegraph gave it zero stars. Variety said it was one of those ‘once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments’.) And it is as hoped. In fact, it is such a must-watch mustn’t-watch that I watched it twice and never stopped marvelling, even if I will be forever haunted by Ian

The genius of Martha Graham

If eight weeks in lockdown have brought out my baser impulses (biscuits by the sleeve, total renunciation of waistbands), it’s also deepened my appetite for culture at its plushest, liveliest heights. It’s not just beaches and brunches I’m craving as spring turns to summer and I round off my second month of working supine on the couch; it’s the sheen of studio lights on the Rothkos at Tate Modern, the whooshing sound when a dancer catapults herself across the Sadler’s Wells stage. Fortunately, watching the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake on Marquee TV last week — the world’s favourite ballet by the world’s foremost company — went some way in filling that

No one understood the ennui of lockdown better than Louis XIV and his courtiers

A few years ago I interviewed an eminent baroque conductor. Prickly and professorial, tired after a day of rehearsals, he batted question after question away until we landed on the subject of French baroque opera. No longer disinterested, now he was furious. He’d recently had a conversation with a major UK opera house, who had decided never again to stage anything by Lully, Rameau or Charpentier. Why? ‘It doesn’t sell.’ Since then we’ve had precisely one professional production of this repertoire in this country. It’s not the first time that English audiences have been suspicious of foreign imports. Back in the 18th century, when the cultural invasion came from Italy,

Gorgeous and electrifying: And Then We Danced reviewed

The film you want to see this week that you mightn’t have seen if you weren’t stuck at home is And Then We Danced, a gay love story set in Tbilisi, Georgia, and it is truly wonderful and gorgeous. Every cloud and all that. However, in my area the demand on broadband is so high that all I get is buffering, buffering, buffering, like it’s 1996, so the only way I could watch this in its entirety was by getting up at 5 a.m. And if it was an absolute pleasure then, it’ll be an absolute pleasure anytime. It passed the 5 a.m. test, you could say. Some scene are

Another triumph for Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young at Sadler’s Wells

It must have been hard for Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young to live up to the success of 2016’s devastating Betroffenheit. In Revisor, their imaginative retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s satirical comedy of errors The Government Inspector (Revizor in the original Russian), Pite and Young draw on familiar techniques: dancers from Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, lip-sync to actors’ voiceovers, their movements synchronising with, or playing off, the text. Ghoulish and farcical, Pite’s choreography is knife-sharp, the performers eye-wateringly good. Imagine watching a stage full of puppets, twitching without strings, sashaying between menace and campy drama. Rena Narumi, as thuggish Interrogator Klak, and Tiffany Tregarthen as the skittish Revisor (voiced by Young

Some like it hot | 14 March 2019

Blame Kenneth MacMillan. The great Royal Ballet choreographer of the 1960s, 70s and 80s was convinced that narrative dance could and should extend its reach beyond boy meets sylph and began wrestling with heavyweight essay subjects such as the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Mayerling) or the last of the Romanovs (Anastasia). And now look: Queen Victoria, the pointe shoe years, a bold, good-looking ballet that almost triumphs over the absurdity of its premise. Cathy Marston’s latest work for Northern Ballet follows the success of her 2016 Jane Eyre, a spare, clever reworking of the novel that will be danced by American Ballet Theatre in New York this June. Victoria,

Chilling: Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at Sadler’s Wells reviewed

Did your feet twitch? That’s the test of The Red Shoes. Did your toes point? Your ankles flex? Your arches ache to dance all night? I defy you to watch Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948), inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, and not feel the sinister magic right down to your last metatarsal. First staged in 2016, Matthew Bourne’s riff on The Red Shoes is a show about show business. In spirit it is closer to Singin’ in the Rain than the weird Technicolor glamour of Powell and Pressburger. This is a fairy tale about stage flats and spotlights, cigarettes and fur coats, about ballet

Unsettlingly faithful to the spirit of Schiele: Staging Schiele reviewed

‘Come up and see my Schieles.’ Those were the words that ended a friend’s fledgling relationship with an art collector. One evening looking at Egon Schiele’s skinny naked scarecrows was enough. Staging Schiele, a one-act dance piece by choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, is unsettlingly faithful to the spirit of Schiele’s art. If the skin creeps, if the stalls recoil, then the dancers — one man and three women — have done their job. The opening solo is danced by Dane Hurst stripped to his pants in a powerful display of athletic narcissism. His only partner is a small hand mirror at which he lunges and thrusts. Hurst sprawls and crawls and

A last dose of vitamin D before the clocks go back: Royal Ballet’s triple bill reviewed

Were those gerberas in Francesca Hayward’s bouquet on opening night? Gentlemen admirers take note: no woman, ballerina or otherwise, has ever welcomed a bunch of gerberas. Hayward deserved better for her adorable Dorabella in Enigma Variations. In white flounces and gathered bloomers she lighted the stage with sprightly sweetness in Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet set to music by Edward Elgar. The moment: Edwardian. The mood: lamentation in the drawing room. The look: tweed, knickerbockers, pipes, monocles, moustaches held on with glue. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs set us at a country-house party — William Morris wallpaper, parlour games, cold tea — in a palette of somnolent drabness. There was handsome dancing

Manon can be magnificent, this one was merely meh

Manon: minx or martyr? There are two ways to play Kenneth MacMillan’s courtesan. Is Manon an ingénue, a guileless country girl, pimped by her own brother and corrupted by Monsieur G.M.? Or is she a pleasure hunter, a man-manipulator, a schemer out for all she can get? In the Royal Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, Sarah Lamb is somewhere in the unsatisfactory middle. Primrose innocence in the first act, half-hearted harlot in the second, shorn urchin in the third. Ryoichi Hirano, as Manon’s brother Lescaut, knows what he’s about. Hirano has a nice line in matadors and caped scoundrels. Every duplicitous turn, every dismissive flick of the wrist, speaks

Nothing sings and shimmies like Alvin Ailey

Hit them with your best shot? Or save the best till last? Almost 30 years after Alvin Ailey’s death in 1989, his dance company still ends every night with Revelations, an autobiography in ballet and gospel music.  First danced in 1960, and presented at Olympic opening ceremonies and presidential inaugurations, Revelations remains an electrifying piece. Ailey’s gift was to borrow elements of African, Asian and Native American dance and set them to a score of traditional spirituals and gospel rock. On the strength of this bill — the second of three programmes the troupe is performing at Sadler’s Wells — his successors have yet to make anything that sings and

Bright, and batty

The Bright Stream is a ballet about a collective farm. Forget everything you know about collectivism — the failed harvests, the famines — this is Soviet agriculture without mud or hunger. The Bright Stream, which opened in Leningrad in 1935, was Dmitri Shostakovich’s attempt to write a ‘socialist realist’ ballet. Our heroine is Zina (Daria Khoklova), the Bright Stream Collective’s Morale Officer. The curtain rises on a scene of sunny, saturated bounty: hay stooks, horns of plenty, pumpkins as big as cartwheels. Tractors soar across the backcloth like three flying ducks. This is collectivism in white tights and Liberty print. The plot is batty. Ekaterina Krysanova and Ruslan Skvortsov are

Spartacus in spandex

It’s togas-a-go-go as the Bolshoi bring Yuri Grigorovich’s 1956 ballet Spartacus to the Royal Opera House. Oh dear, I did giggle. This is Spartacus in spandex with gladiatorial G-strings and slave girls dressed for Thracian strip shows. On comes Crassus (Artemy Belyakov) in the Roman empire’s tiniest tunic with a legion of soldiers swinging their shields like Gucci manbags. But what dancing: disciplined, muscular, nakedly heroic. Very Soviet. Denis Rodkin is a mighty Spartacus, all vengeful savagery and outraged buttocks. There isn’t a dancer in the Royal Ballet to match his stamina, his power, his splits and leaps, his reckless stretching beyond possible endurance. True, there is more gurning than

She hasn’t stopped dancing yet

It’s not often you hear the voice of a 104-year-old on the radio. You’re even less likely to hear one so clear in thought, so spirited and full of enthusiasm for life. Eileen Kramer’s voice crackles with age, with the years she has lived, but from what she says, and the energetic way she says it, she could be at least 30 years younger. ‘I don’t know how long I will go on living,’ she says, but she’s still excited by the present: ‘There’s so much going on. I’m living in that period when a lot is being discovered about everything.’ Kramer is a dancer, artist, performer, famed in Australia

Poetry in motion | 30 May 2019

T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is full of music and movement. The players, such as they are, slip, slide, shake, tumble, wrestle, leap, kick, whirl, fold and kneel. There are lines like stage directions: ‘stillness’, ‘quick now’, ‘the dancers are all gone under the hill’. In her rendering of Four Quartets, the American choreographer Pam Tanowitz has denied reviewers the satisfaction of ‘Eliot in leotards’ jokes. Her dancers wear diaphanous ruched onesies. No Cats spandex here. In collaboration with the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and the New York artist Brice Marsden, Tanowitz’s Four Quartets is a remarkable recasting of Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’ —

#MeToo Medusa

Medusa is the bad hair day from Hades. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s retelling of the Greek myth is frizzy, tangled and splitting at the ends. The premise is promising. This Medusa story is a Perseus prequel: the girl who became a gorgon. The young Medusa (Natalia Osipova) is a priestess at the temple of Athena (Olivia Cowley). Her beauty is legend and the sea god Poseidon (Ryoichi Hirano) is keen to get his webs on her. Poseidon rapes Medusa and angers the virgin goddess Athena. But it is Medusa, not Poseidon, who is punished. Athena makes Medusa a monster. Then along comes Perseus (Matthew Ball), no hero he, to cut Medusa

Capturing a moment | 11 April 2019

On Tuesday, thousands of miles apart, in three great cities, London, New York and Los Angeles, 75 dancers will dance 100 solos in each venue in honour of the late iconoclastic choreographer Merce Cunningham, who would have turned 100 that day. It is a spectacularly ambitious wake for the choreographer who for 70 years denied dance a dramatic or expressive face, and threw all norms of beginnings, middles and ends, of meaningful sequence or physical logic, into a bonfire of expectations. This fabulous celebration, involving dancers of the whole spectrum from contemporary to the Royal Ballet, is a declaration of intent for posterity by the Cunningham Trust, established since his

Laura Freeman

Electrifying and strange

‘Where was the Kahlo brow?’ asked my guest in the first interval of English National Ballet’s She Persisted, a triple bill celebrating female choreographers. She was right: Frida had been plucked. It was an odd decision for a production that does not otherwise shy from ugliness. Broken Wings, a ballet inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo by Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was first performed in 2016 and is revived here in a carnival of Tehuana skirts, antler bonnets and capering day-of-the-dead skeletons. The surrealist André Breton likened Kahlo’s art to ‘a ribbon around a bomb’ and that is Katja Khaniukova’s Kahlo: silken and explosive. We see her first

Menace and magnificence

Two households, both alike in dignity. Capulets in red tights, Montagues in green. Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet opens in a piazza where the clash of swords makes a fifth section of the orchestra. Strings, woodwind, brass, percussion… and steel. If Shakespeare’s young bloods and blades once seemed remotely Renaissance, made romantic by distance, Verona’s knife-crime crisis is now horribly real and present. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio (Matthew Ball, Valentino Zucchetti and James Hay) make a convincing gang: pumped-up, freewheeling, anarchic. They goose the harlots, twit the nurse and goad each other in reckless acts of lads, lads, lads bravado. Their bragging, ragging gatecrashers’ dance is a tour de force.