Category Archives: Ballet & dance

The Nutcracker

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 24 November)

Productions of The Nutcracker cam be a little like a fancy bun – when you’ve savoured the fondant icing and the glacé cherries, you’r3 left with what can be a boring sponge cake; lots of action followed by a formality of divertissements. Northern Ballet with David Nixon’s staging avoids most of the traps.

There’s a lot going on in the first act, some of it being quite unusual in its emphases. The transition to the snow fairyland and thence to the second act and its array of set-piece dances is less fractured than can be the case through having Clara (Rachael Gillespie), dancing on full point, and her Nutcracker Prince (Ashley Dixon) as young people just awakening to romantic love. Sister Louise (Lucia Solari) and her suitor James (Javier Torres) are just that bit older and more sexually aware.

We’re in late Regency London at the house of Mr and Mrs Edwards (Sean Bates and Hannah Bateman). Also in residence are his doddery parents (Pippa Moore and Filippo DiVilio). When Uncle Drossmeyer (Matthew Topliss) arrives, he is a much younger, more flamboyant character than we’re accustomed to seeing – nearer to a stage magician than a sinister neighbour. Clara and Louise’s obstreperous brother Frederick (Matthew Koon) and his school-friends have a distinct ability to wreck any would-be polite social gathering.

Out of an elaborate oversized box Drossmeyer produces his French dolls (straight from the Sevrès factory) and a loose-limbed lanky Chinese one, like a stringless puppet in Sebastian Loe’s performance. The Mouse King looms out of an enormous hole in the skirting-board, far more fully realised in Isaac Lee-Baker’s characterisation as a full-blown villain, one of the “enter stage left” variety. Solari and Torres are the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, both showing controlled footwork as well as a partnership affinity in the lifts and jumps.

Nixon’s choreography blends the familiarly classical with neat demi-charactère sequences which show off his young dancers’ strengths as well as having audience appeal. Set designer Charles Cusick Smith blends the realistic with the disproportionate characteristic of dream locations. John Pryce-Jones conducts the Northern Ballet Sinfonia with respect to Tchaikovsky’s score (the orchestral reduction is by John Longstaff) and sympathy for the dancers.

The Nutcracker (casts may differ) is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 November.

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The Last Tango

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 2 November)

You know what they say – third time lucky! That’s certainly true of the third dance drama starring award-winning and television stars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone. The Last Tango has a strong, deceptively simple plot and showcases a range of 1930s dances, not just the tango variations for which Cacace and Simone are renowned.

Into an attic-room crammed with discarded bits of furniture – including a piano much in need of some TLC – as well as boxes and suitcases crammed full of memorabilia crawls old George. His son and daughter call to him from below from time to time, worried for him as each item brings back memories. Teddy Kempner has the audience on his side from the beginning as he unfolds his life for us on the stage below.

We see him first as a young man (Simone) chatting up and then dating a girl he fancies (Cacace). There follows a beach party and a whole range of social encounters offering the other dancers the opportunity to display their considerable dance skills in Karen Bruce’s inventive choreography. The well-designed costumes (Vicky Gill) range from the carefree early 30s to wartime and post-war.

Cacane herself has a razor-bright sharpness to her foot work, a lithe body, gamine hairstyle and a graceful extension. Simone partners her securely and acts the part of the carefree youth changed by combat and later maturing into an acceptance of loss with conviction. Singers Rebecca Lisewski and Matthew Gent underline the passage of time under the musical direction of Steve Geere. The overture, incidentally, sounded over-amplified at the first Norwich performance.

The Last Tango runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 7 November and is also at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 26 and 30 January.

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Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 1 June)

Lost Dog bills Ben Duke’s show as based on Milton’s epic poem. You can add a brisk canter through both the Old and New Testaments to that, though owing more to Monty Python than to Wycliffe or Thomas Cranmer. Duke begins with the sort of faux-naïf introduction which always sets my teeth on edge; there’s an art to pretend bumbling which he hasn’t yet quite mastered.

It all takes a long time to get going with musical snatches of everything from Handel to Philip Glass via Richard Strauss and Janis Joplin played at a near-ear splitting volume. The water deluge is effective (one feels heartily relieved not to be on the stage management team for this show) and so is some of the subversion of received texts.

Unfortunately it’s not always clear just what the individual mime sequences are meant to represent. The running time is something over an hour; someone needs to cast a cold directorial eye on the piece – and then wield a sharp pair of scissors.

Pulse continues in Ipswich at various venues until 6 June.

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Idiot-Syncrasy

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 1 June)

It’s all enagingly apparently so simple. Two young men, wearing tank-tops, jeans and trainers stand side by side in front of three stepped white curtains. Their eyes keep contact with those of their audience; they sing a short phrase then, after a pause, another. And another. Very very slowly a foot rhythm accompaniment develops.

This is turn enlarges itself into a toe-heel stomp; Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas remaining all the time side by side. The stomping continues as they begin to shift position – behind each other, behind the curtains, into the auditorium. Tops and jeans, socks and shoes are neatly discarded (the rhythm never falters) to reveal tee-shirts and beach shorts.

Finally the performers engage face to face, embrace and ride piggyback. The influences are apparently Basque and Sardinian folk traditions; I sensed also something of native Latin American and African tribal dance and can’t be the only audience members forcibly reminded of the ritual elements in Le sacré du printemps.

The show’s title – Idiot-Syncrasy – sums it up with self-deprecatingly charm.if it steps into a theatre near you, it’s worth your while to catch it.

The Pulse Festival continues in Ipswich until 6 June.

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Betrayal

(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 20 May)

Something billed as a polyphonic crime drama is bound to be somewhat out of the mainstream. if we had been back in the late 1960s or in the 70s, you might have felt tempted to classify it as a happening. There were a lot of these around then, usually in non-theatre venues, and the experience tended to be immersive.That holds true for this I Fagiolini production.

Betrayal retells the horrific climax to the murder of his faithless wife and her lover by the Prince of Venosa (Carlo Gesualdo) in 1590. Gesualdo had previously experimented with harmonies and polyphony in madrigal format; later he turned amost exclusively to religious music.

Shepherded into a dim, black-floored and -ceilinged space by quasi police officers, we are allowed to wander round the chalk outlines of the victims and examine, without touching anything, pin-boards and some artefacts. Then the a cappella singing from the six singers – who have been mingling with the audience – breaks in.

Each singer is partnered with a dancer; the soprano and two mezzos do not always enact the female roles; the same is true of the tenor, the baritone and the bass. John La Bouchardière’s choreography is expansive as it melds lyricism with violence (the actual killing seems to have been a messy, not to say downright sadistic, affair).

Those chalk outlines and artefacts now begin to make sense, even if you’re not familiar with the background story. We in the audience wander between the performing couples with increasing wonder at musical director Robert Hollingworth’s long-distance control of his singers, who at times are prone on the ground or active in the dance element.

In his 1976 play Music to Murder By, David Pownall wrote a drama about Gesualdo and his tortured, fractured personal, spiritual and creative life. If the title hadn’t already been used, I Fagiolini might have selected it, having rejected Guilt as too specific and somewhat misleading.

Anyone who has read any Italian history of the period, let alone watched Jacobean drama, will know that Gesualdo was not unique in his revenge, including the mutilation of his wife’s body. He is, however, unique in his compositions. Though we should never forget that Monteverdi was contemporarily working his own magic with harmony and structure.

Betrayal is at the Cambridge Junction as part of the Cambridge Early Music Festival until 24 May.

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Aladdin

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 14 May)

No, Christmas hasn’t suddedly arrived in the springtime. Christopher Moore’s dance version of the Arabian fable of Aladdin has been created for his own Ballet Theatre UK. We all know the story, that of a poor but carefree lad who falls for a princess, is bamboozled by a magician but finds help partly through his own unexpected resources and partly through the aid of two genii trapped respectively in a ring and a lamp.

Moore puts the story firmly in its original Levant setting – no China, no fall-about comics and definitely no widowed mother. The market-place setting for most of the early scenes is colourful, with whirling, rainbow-hued costumes for the girls and voluminous dark breeches allied to short jackets for the boys. Pivoting triangular structures indicate the changes of scene.

The choreography is suited to the abilities of the company.For the most part, the girls of the corps dance on demi-pointe, with full en-pointe reserved for the spirits until the second part – Jessica Hill is a particularly strong Slave of the Ring – and Ines Ferrira’s winsome Princess. Vincent Cabot’s smiling villain of a sorcerer swirls folds of black cloak as he grasps for domination.

David Brewer makes a likeable hero, somewhat akin to Ashton’s Colas from La fille mal gardée. It’s one of those stories where the second part requires quite a bit of padding, which we receive in the form of a sequence of duets and trios interspersed by full corps numbers.

Ballet Theatre UK is one of the few companies which genuinely try to reach places and audiences which other classical ensembles cannot or will not attempt. As an introduction to classical ballet, the majority of the company’s own creations (not to mention its versions of established repertoire pieces) usually work very well. Aladdin, however, somehow doesn’t quite pull it off.

I’m fully aware that the production of fully-illustrated programmes is an expensive operation, especially when advertising revenues for printed matter seem to be on the decline. But – especially for a new work such as Aladdin – a simple two-page A4 cast and creatives list with a plot summary could surely pay for itself. I overheard many foyer grumbles about this.

Aladdin can be seen at the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 6 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 15 and 16 June

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