Sunday, May 28, 2017

Strapless: A Failure of Narratives — Royal Opera House, 23/25 May 2017

I'm a big fan of Christopher Wheeldon's work. Which is why I'm dedicating an entire review to try and unpack why Strapless irks me so.

Strapless' Two Narratives
Strapless tells two stories — that of Sargent's repressed fantasies, and Amélie's salacious outing. The story opens on Sargent painting Pozzi, where the audience spies traces of his true sexual orientation in the tender way he positions Pozzi. Amélie enters soon after, and Pozzi is passed over to serve as her plot device, by sleeping with her and laying the groundwork for her debauchery. In the following party scene, we are introduced to Sargent's relationship with Albert, and have a fleeting development in Amélie's plot as she decides to commission a work from Sargent.

Parallel storylines for Amélie and Sargent. Source: DanceTabs
Next we come to the pivotal moment of the piece — where Sargent can only muster inspiration by imagining Albert in the place of Amélie. This presumably is what causes him to paint her strapless, his brush tinged with a lingering lust. Finally, at the piece's premiere, all goes to hell and Amélie's reputation is tarnished, while Sargent walks away unsullied. It is this contrast (I assume) that is meant to carry the emotional weight of the piece.

There are two main reasons why the narratives fall short of their emotional promise: a lack of stakes, and an absence of touchpoints between the two storylines.

Insufficient Stakes
The first error is mostly committed by Sargent's storyline — where there are never any stakes established for his potential outing. Perhaps one is to assume the backdrop that being gay was a grievous social transgression then, but the dangers of this are never made clear in the piece. Sargent flirts quite casually with both Pozzi and Albert, such that you assume his impunity from the beginning. Hence the unfolding of events in the ballet have almost no bearing for him — it becomes a terribly banal, straightforward story of Just another day in the life of John Singer Sargent.

The stakes seem clearer for Amélie, as a socialite with all her standing to lose. However, right from the get go, Wheeldon establishes her as an adulterer, indicating that she was perhaps already well on her way to becoming a pariah. The stakes of the painting itself are therefore brought lower, when her eventual outcasting appears inevitable.

Consequently, for both Amélie and Sargent, the audience is never able to truly invest in the rise to the climax and the fallout from it, as there are simply no relevant stakes at play.

Inconsequential Touchpoints
The second key way the piece suffers is that the narratives fail to effectively interweave. For two narratives to do so, they should share touchpoints that serve as a turnkey for both — such as (1) both undergoing the same initiating event but arriving at different outcomes;  or (2) both starting from different places to come to the same eventuality. Such interweaving allows two divergent stories to resonate, where the audience gains a greater appreciation for the significance of factors in one story because of the counterexample provided in the other. In the case of Strapless, the audience must ideally walk away with an understanding of what factors in Sargent's life enabled him to escape the fate of social exile that Amélie could not.

Ineffectively intertwined. Source: DanceTabs
Unfortunately, Strapless only manages a superficial tethering of the story lines — where as much as both characters appear in the same time and space, their stories fail to interweave in any way that is material to the trajectory of each.

For example, while Amélie and Sargent may begin with the same touchpoint of Pozzi, whom both use as an object of sexual desire, their interactions with him do not appear to be the reasons why Sargent's and Amélie's fates diverge, since both had illicit dalliances with him. Therefore, Pozzi serves as an effective foil to establish who the characters are, but does not serve the purpose of starting the characters on meaningfully divergent paths.

More likely, the cleaving event is meant to be the painting itself — the third scene, where Sargent substitutes Amélie with Albert for inspiration. However as much as this (supposedly) may be a pivotal moment for Sargent, where he perhaps embraces the truth and immutability of his feelings for Albert, this moment has no meaning for Amélie. She is merely a prop in this revelation for Sargent, and as such her own journey makes no progress.

I wonder if Wheeldon in fact meant this, where the weight of the story lies in how Amélie's fate was simply collateral damage in another man's selfish satisfaction. But to make this of consequence to Amélie's narrative, he has to show just how much this event matters to her — perhaps by removing her as the third wheel in the pas de trois, and elevating her half of the story with a solo, where she rejoices at the painting's completion, assuming it will only bring her greater social stature.

An Inexplicable Conclusion
Ultimately, because of these various shortcomings, the audience is never able to understand why the painting matters at all. The stakes that it is meant to be invested with are never well established, dulling the purpose of the story. Furthermore, the story is complicated by two narratives which are unable to bring each other any closer to meaning — but again, with no stakes at play, there simply is no meaning to hammer home. Consequently, Strapless really has nothing to say.

There are a couple of ways I suppose the piece might have been fixed. Certainly, the dichotomy of Sargent's and Amélie's fates... the seemingly unwarranted furore over a simple strap, etc. are fascinating raw material. If Wheeldon is still hoping to anchor the piece on why their fates diverged, he might perhaps consider the answer that Amélie's adulterous misdeeds were well known, while Sargent's were not. He might then have built the corps around them to indicate that the public was more aware of one than the other, such that the blame of the piece reflexively fell to Amélie in the end. Rather than building up Amélie's social capital (e.g. through her solo prior to the unveiling) only to artificially contrast her downfall (because the audience knows she was an adulterous pariah already), the piece might focus on how Sargent and Amélie managed the public's perceptions of them quite differently.

Or, they could have simply pulled a Symphonic Dances — and built moves that flow so seamlessly with the music, and are so intoxicating to the senses, that no one could bother any less about a story that begins with a bold overhaul of gender norms, only to end with surprising misogyny. (I shall get to you later, Liam Scarlett. Perhaps.)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Layers and Permutations of Lises and Pauls -- Les Enfants Terribles, Barbican Theatre, 27-29 Jan 2017

Source - The Arts Desk, Bill Cooper

This piece confused me.

So I would have been fine if it was meant to be an eclectic pastiche of pretty sights and sounds. But with director cum choreographer Javier de Frutos intimating that each of the 4? 5? Lises and Pauls were supposed to represent different facets of this doomed sibling duo, I kept looking for deeper meaning in the clash of identities, only to constantly come up empty.

It was fairly simple at the beginning, where the different pairings of Lises and Pauls adopted much of the same characterizations, flirting innocently and then dangerously in the bathtub together. All pairs had the same costumes, the same props, the same steps, and I could deal with this nice colouring around the edges of each character, which was quite à la Matthew Bourne's Song Without Words. (de Frutos clearly has a knack for painting a scene with movement, able to deftly control the ebb and flow of motion, and accentuate subtleties in the score.)

But the moment Jennifer Davis and Gyula Nagy come on stage, singing Philip Glass' very literal libretto, they cannot help but strike an extremely different note from the dancers around them. Their threads of the storyline are transparent and pointed in a way that the dancers' motions cannot be, and so they end up drawing much of the attention. Thus as much as the publicity posters and the order of the curtain call try to tell me otherwise, Edward Watson and Zenaida Yanowsky are not the key players of this piece.

In some ways, I can see how they were designed to be so. Though Davis and Nagy are literal and obvious, they are flatter because of it. One can suppose that in contrast, Watson and Yanowsky represent the deeper and more fascinating subconscious of the characters that are both aware of and conflicted about the true danger of their game. Davis and Nagy portray childish petulance from start to finish, but Watson and Yanowsky express delicious love, malice, regret, despair, insanity. However all of this is shunned to the sidelines, obscured behind other performers, or simply done away with too quickly. Even when they are the highlight, their choreography is far too poised and statuesque to be as earthy and real as the characters they supposedly represent. So if they are indeed meant to be the richer body of the piece, this is done quite ineffectively.

Regardless, the question of who carries the meat of the storyline is moot by the end of the piece, because as time goes on each performer acquires such different movement, props, and costumes that keeping track of what the point of it all is becomes a bit hopeless. As such, my fancy flitted to the one stable character of the piece -- that is, Jean Marc Puissant's gorgeous set. It mostly comprises a fairly minimalist set of 5 sliding walls with modular steps, but onto these are projected beautiful displays that range from a whimsical sideways Eiffel tower during Paul's sleep walk, to a trypophobia-inducing collage of eyes during the children's first game. To be fair however, it does brink on over-busyness just like the rest of the piece -- where the performers are constantly shifting set pieces, picking up errant socks, or locking down a shaky wall mid-choreography. It was even the source of a full-on interruption of the performance on premiere night, where one wall piece wouldn't budge and the scene had to be repeated from the beginning.

All in all, maybe the point is to confuse. Or the point is to walk away flooded with a nice mélange of sights and sounds. But I can't help but think that with a story as poignant as Les Enfants Terribles, I should at least feel something by the end of it. And in particular, knowing what the combined dramatic prowess of Watson and Yanowsky might have done in different hands, the most coherent feeling I leave with is sadly one of disappointment.

Monday, June 13, 2016

2x3 > 6 at the Obsidian Triple, Royal Ballet, 11 June 2016

It’s not often that I’m in London long enough to enjoy two casts of the same show. So it was a delight to discover that in watching both Obsidian Triples on the Royal Ballet’s last day of the season, I got to see what felt like 6 entirely different pieces.

Image credit: Andrej Uspenski
Obsidian Tear, Wayne McGregor’s new piece, swung my opinions the most from cast to cast. In the matinee, led by Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Nicol Edmonds and Benjamin Ella, the story came across as one in which Brændsrød and Ella were lovers, torn apart by society. Their movements were complementary; their pas de deux conversational.

However in the evening’s performance, led by Matthew Ball, Calvin Richardson and Edward Watson, Ball and Richardson presented a striking similarity in physique, which suddenly implied that they were two halves of the same person – with Richardson the tender hearted core of Ball, which he eventually could not live without. Compared to the afternoon’s portrayal, their movement geometries were much more alike, and their interactions more of self-recognition than of love.

My second viewing also had the advantage of familiarity – I was able to follow more of what was happening, and soon discovered the unique characterizations of the different dancers. Some have mentioned Watson as a type of devil character encouraging Ball to abandon Richardson. However there was an interesting nuance to this, where it was Eric Underwood whom Watson first incited, in a very intimate pas de deux where he literally rubbed his influence off on the former. Underwood was then the one who marked Richardson, ultimately condemning him.

The other key revelation of the evening’s version was Calvin Richardson – an astonishing young spark who gave a remarkably honest and brave performance. He embodied McGregor’s choreography perfectly, finding its softness in a way I’ve not seen other Royal Ballet dancers able to do before, and grounding the moves in an emotional truth. I am very much looking forward to seeing him again.

Image credit: Dance Tabs
The interpretations in The Invitation were also wildly different between afternoon and evening. It surprised me how much there is to the ballet – it gets unfortunately shortchanged in summary when the description jumps to the rape scene. Ironically, it was that scene which was the least poignant for me, because of the far more engaging and intricate character developments that preceded it.

Thomas Whitehead’s Husband in the afternoon was your classic perverted sociopath – not shedding an ounce of feeling from start to finish. He only knew possessions, not emotions – and The Girl was to him like a porcelain doll to be added to his chilling basement collection. He touched her tenderly at first, careful not to damage the packaging – then finally decided To hell with it, this one I actually want to enjoy, and ripped apart the packaging like a rabid dog.

Olivia Cowley also gave a notable interpretation of the Wife in the afternoon. It could be her likeness in age and demeanour to Yasmine Naghdi, but I immediately saw The Girl buried inside her Wife. She had a strange look of recognition upon seeing her Husband’s interaction with the Girl, appearing to know from the start exactly how events would unfold. Her pas de deux with the Boy felt like a reminiscence to a time when she herself was innocent, and she was merely trying to recapture a young love that was never afforded to her. God, that hurt to watch.

Instead of reopening old wounds, the evening’s performance cut entirely new ones. Its brand of anguish was rooted in how the poison of a loveless marriage could come to destroy the innocence in its path. Gary Avis and Zenaida Yanowsky portrayed a Husband and Wife whose pursuit of an outward decorum had left all their arguments unresolved, festering into a deep mutual hatred. Their disdain for one another was apparent from the moment they entered – as Avis sauntered callously away mid-introduction, you could cut Yanowsky’s irritation with a knife. The hatred was spread thickly onto their pas de deux, as they pushed each other away as violently as propriety would allow. These two incredibly powerful dancers brought so much history and subtext to their partnership, even when standing still, that I truly felt the urge to tell them to slow down and stop yelling at each other.

The Boy and Girl then entered into this mire, and the resulting interplay was remarkably rich. Vadim Muntagirov soaked up Yanowsky’s predation with such painful innocence; and Yanowsky’s pride was palpable as she lured him in. Hayward flitted haplessly from Muntagirov’s clumsy affection to Avis’ serene gravity; and Avis became increasingly amused by her flirtations, repeatedly shaking his head subtly to both chide her and express his disbelief about his growing power over her. It was a treatment so disturbingly gratifying that despite the occasion, I began to grin widely, suddenly beside myself with admiration for this magnificent company.

With Yanowsky, Avis and Hayward in particular adding so much texture to their interpretations, there was simply too much to take in. At some point, after trying desperately to watch the Wife watching the Husband watching the Girl watching the Boy, I had to give up. What I can capture within my limits as an audience member is far smaller than what these artists give on stage; and what I can put into words, even less.

Image credit: Royal Opera House
I lie – I actually only saw 5 ballets, because Within the Golden Hour was so surprisingly soporific that I tuned out equally in the afternoon and evening performances. Both casts were stellar of course in their execution, but something just didn’t hit home with Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography. It could be the God-awful costumes, as has been commented – but for me it was largely the lack of an underlying movement theme. Nothing keeps the piece together – it is simply a series of charming, but underwhelming, vignettes.

Anyhow. Dear Royal Ballet: I will miss you sorely this summer, even more than I already miss you from living oceans away. But come hell or highwater, I will always find my way to Covent Garden.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fascinating New Feelings at The Winter's Tale, Royal Ballet, 10 June 2016

Image credit: DanceTabs
At about 30 odd viewings and counting, this ballet really should not surprise me. Yet it not only did; it recaptured me wholeheartedly and brought me to the edge of my seat, wringing my hands until they paled.

Back in its 2014 premiere, I was already won over -- in fact, it was that very ballet that reawakened this blog, to give words to the many emotions that were overflowing from me, out of the theatre, and onto Bow Street. But since then, The Winter's Tale has been doing some very interesting evolution -- bringing out more of the emotional complexity that I loved in the original, resulting in an interpretation that is now far more human, far richer and beautifully uncomfortable.

The thing most clear now is how flawed Leontes is. Before, he came across as simply mad, which, to be honest, was a characterization almost too vanilla for Edward Watson. His anger and jealousy were unwavering, but because of that, uninteresting. In this new run, however, these emotions slowly grow on him. Watson doesn't rise straight to a gut-clenching, arm-twisting fervour in his solo -- instead, he is visibly cautious, confused as much as he is angered by the possibility of Hermoine's infidelity running through his mind. Even as he accuses Polixenes and Hermoine, he backs off every few steps to tease that perhaps he has calmed himself and is thinking clearly once more. He keeps vacillating in the conclusion he has drawn -- such than when he finally reaches for the knife, his murderous intent feels like a clear choice, not something he was driven to in a frenzy.

Consequently, Leontes becomes highly unlikeable. Before, he was just plain mad, to an almost forgivable degree. I mean, it happens to us all the time -- something snaps, everything becomes a blurry red haze, and we emerge on the other side friendless, childless, wifeless (or something to that effect). But for him to actually have a moment where he considers the baby, stirring hopeful excitement from Paulina; or for him to stare long, hard and almost gentle at Hermoine during her plea -- well then it makes me hate him to the core when he finally condemns his wife regardless. He is weak and unkind -- his actions resulting from a shallow need to preserve his pride.

Not only do I despise Leontes, it appears none of the other characters can stand him either. No one can bring themselves to smile at him throughout the ballet. Paulina turns her head away in disgust as he walks past her during the trial; Polixenes leans reflexively to run away when their paths cross again. Mamillius too (played again by the increasingly mature Joe Parker) clearly knows which parent to sidle up to.

Even the end is discomforting in this respect because it is clearly not a redemption for Leontes. It's been 16 years already but Hermoine is still disdainful of him -- she repeats her pleading arabesques almost to test if he is still the same insecure bastard inside. It is so much to Lauren Cuthbertson's credit that this scene sits as unsatisfyingly as it does -- she is now the one to vacillate whether she will hate him or tolerate him for the sake of their daughter. Zenaida Yanowsky (of course, that magical creature) likewise imbues Paulina with that uncomfortable tension, where it is clear that at not one moment does she forgive Leontes, nor is she trying to help him through a difficult time. There is no care in her embrace or her cradling of his head -- there is only a deeply buried rage that she has turned into resignation, to do a great duty of love for Hermoine, and transform him as much as possible into a better man while she waits in hiding.

Thus tonight, I am left full of angst. And I absolutely love it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Every time I leave a ballet, I marvel at what it has done to me. Some do a little, the worst do almost nothing at all, but the best -- the very best -- render an undeniable transformation. I write reviews as some attempt to capture this change; it is a desperate compulsion I feel after each piece to explain what I have experienced, that I might process why it engaged me so, and perhaps even pen it in a way that someone else might engage vicariously. But in many ways there is a necessary structure to this, a manner of informative exposition that pithily captures what occurred on stage, but so poorly captures what occurred inside me.

As such, this review, I write for myself. But perhaps, it is written for you too. Here is what it feels like to watch Elizabeth.

The quiet before a performance is one of my most favourite parts. Almost anything can happen. And even if you know what's supposed to happen -- who enters when and what the choreography is -- this is the point at which you surrender judgment, logic, thought, experience. In the social contract of the theatre, you give yourself to the performers, and enter the unknown. Raphael Wallfisch takes his place in the darkness on stage right, and Zenaida Yanowsky, Sonya Cullingford, Laura Caldow, Julia Righton and David Kempster arrive at their opening positions centerstage. Then, just before the first word is spoken, the first note struck or the first movement made -- in Wallfisch's poised bow and Yanowsky's parting hands -- I see a glimpse of where they will take me and the thrill of it is nearly giddying.

The story quickly unfolds, and I take in everything that Will Tuckett is saying to me. The language is foreign and fast but I grow to decipher it. I learn to toggle my attention between dancer and actor; I learn to connect them with the ticks he has given both, where Cullingford and Yanowsky wring their hands in the same way; I learn his syncopation of the movement between Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta, where in solos and even in pas de deux, they always mirror or wait on the other's move -- discovering this means that Elizabeth and her lovers are always out of phase.

I learn it sooner than I realize, suddenly able to translate his movement into not only thought, but feeling. I'm grinning the way Yanowsky is as she coyly references her bedroom affairs, or frowning the way Acosta is as his proposal is rebutted. My whole body tenses as Yanowsky watches the she-wolf Lettice Knollys, relaxes as she finds a nook in Acosta's neck to rest in, then soars as he lifts her in a pas de chat across the stage. My body has found an empathy with the movement -- and with that comes a power which is no longer in the hands of the choreographer or performers. Empathy is the point at which the audience takes over to multiply every emotion seen on stage by a hundredfold, with the joy and pain we have had in our own lives.

It is the authenticity of the performer that can bring the audience here -- one who is selfless enough in their performance to give everything to a character, and in so doing, give it away. Some dancers take the journey alone, creating a vision that the audience can find beautiful and admirable, but cannot live. But that is not the case with these performers, and especially, especially, not with Yanowsky. They bring the entirety and gravity of the characters' intentions into every part of their body as they move. Merely a glimpse in their direction and I cannot tear away, caught in the wellspring of emotion they have triggered.

And just when I am most deeply in their hold, Tuckett brings the piece around full circle. This point exists in almost every piece -- a special juncture at which it turns around and reflects upon itself, ready to unravel its true meaning and bring the weight of its message down upon the audience. As Acosta and Yanowsky dance their last two pas de deux, they replay much of the same movements from their scenes before. Elizabeth tries to revive Devereux's limp body to hold her the way others had; Acosta kisses a dying Elizabeth's hand as Dudley did, bringing a final rejuvenation that gives her the peace to let go. The symmetry of these scenes are their source of amplification, echoing the depths of what Elizabeth has lost and learnt to live with. There is far too much to speak about in these final moments of the ballet, as the volume of emotion I have built up through its course collapses in on itself.

The time here is both incredibly cacophonous and incredibly quiet. In the intensity of the emotion I find a space I rarely have the chance to visit. Not in the daily goings on that move too fast for emotions to be had let alone understood, nor even in the times of reflection where trying to understand an emotion somehow distorts it. Here, in the darkness of the audience and the light of the stage, I feel like someone has shaken me by the shoulders and told me who I am. I feel like I have been asked many deep and piercing questions that I haven't had the time to process, and I have answered as viscerally as I can through emotions I did not know I possessed. I feel like my mind has connected to my heart through a path I never knew existed, sending a shock through the rest of my body. I feel I've been helped to finish a sentence I never thought I had to say.

And then the moment ends, the lights raise, and the magic is broken. Yet it is somehow even more magical to realize it was made by the human hands that take their curtain call in front of you. I am exhausted, content, exuberant, refreshed, and I leave the theatre somehow more certain of who I am.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Elizabeth, Will Tuckett, Linbury Studio Theatre, 8/9 Jan 2016

Zenaida Yanowsky in Will Tuckett's Elizabeth © ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
This winter, the dark and austere Linbury Studio Theatre is an unlikely window into a beautifully painted picture of the life of Queen Elizabeth. With a small but powerful team, Will Tuckett brings Elizabeth to life through a stunning trifecta of movement, music and text. 

Zenaida Yanowsky fills the room with Elizabeth's regality from the moment the piece begins, pacing hastily onstage with her posse in tow. In her posture, expression and intricate regalia, she is an immediate queen. Yet this is swiftly undone as we dive straight into Elizabeth's last days. Laura Caldow, Sonya Cullingford and Julia Righton provide a powerful narration of Elizabeth's failing health and final lamentations of loves lost, which Yanowsky visualizes with desperate reaches, empty gazes and aching backbends. The portrait of a proud but exhausted and lovelorn queen emerges, as Tuckett lays the foundation to tell her story through the relationships that have tried her so. 

Scene by scene, we are taken through each affair -- from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to Duc D'Anjou of France, to Sir Walter Raleigh, to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Carlos Acosta dances all of these in turn, instinctively infusing every character with a unique presence and style of movement. Dudley is warm and gentle towards Elizabeth, D'Anjou is foolish, Raleigh is pompous and Devereux severe. Acosta transitions effortlessly through this gamut of personalities, and whether he is curving his body with a shy and sheepish grin, or beating his chest with a rallying cry for rebellion, he is a consummate entertainer.

Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta in Will Tuckett's Elizabeth © ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Each of these men captures and breaks Elizabeth's heart in increasingly deeper ways. It is ever captivating to watch Yanowsky as she transforms Elizabeth through each transgression. At first she is young and love is trivial, shrugging off the notion of marriage and letting Dudley's betrayal slide off her back. She is above love -- wedded to her kingdom, as Cullingford narrates so, and Yanowsky casts an imposing silhouette caressing her coronation ring. But she soon succumbs deeply to love upon meeting D'anjou, whose charming and ingenue ways soften her heart, only to cripple it when he dies in battle. A beautiful change in the architecture of the piece happens here -- the older Righton takes over from Cullingford as Elizabeth's voice, the choreography loses all of its cheekiness, and Yanowsky becomes cold, serene and hardened. Elizabeth ages greatly with this loss.

Then, despite initial skepticism, she lets her guard down and welcomes Walter Raleigh into her life, who turns and betrays her through affairs yet again. And finally Devereux betrayes her through rebellion, forcing her to order his execution. This final loss fills her with regret, which we see embodied in a stunning pas de deux between Yanowsky and Acosta. Elizabeth revives Devereux's body, hoping wistfully to have compromised that she might have enjoyed love. Yanowsky's dancing is beautifully and painfully contradictory, filled with anger at both Devereux and herself, as she leans into Acosta then furiously pushes away. She ends with desperate kisses onto his body, only to have him die once more. The piece then bookends with the repetition of Elizabeth's own death scene.

The whole affair is a complete symphony for the senses. The actors narrate almost every move, such that the audience both sees and hears directly of D'anjou's innocence as Acosta leaps jovially, or is provided the voiceover for Elizabeth's thoughts as she rages at Raleigh's betrayal. Oftentimes it is extremely direct, with both actor and dancer standing side by side, delivering dialogue through both word and gesture. There is even the occasional interaction between actors and dancers, where Acosta and Yanowsky respond defiantly to information from the actors that both Dudley and Raleigh are married. Through this all, the music provides yet another level of narration, where the masterful Raphael Wallfisch on the cello raises the tension, or baritone David Kempster eases with his voice.

Zenaida Yanowsky and members of The Royal Ballet in Will Tuckett's Elizabeth © ROH, 2016. Photographed by Andrej Uspenski
Yet because of how complete it is, it is also lacking. Almost every thought and emotion is told to the audience, such that there is little left to infer, and because of that, little room through which one can dive deeper into the piece and have it engage deeply with one's soul. Dance, in particular, is something that typically leaves a huge space between then performer and the audience -- and the entire art form is then about the interpretation that is built therein. Even the performers themselves seem somewhat stunted, robbed of the ability to interpret a story in their own way, now that they are given a play by play of which expression to deliver. The most engaging were the pas de deux -- protected islands of just music and movement, that were prefaced by a concept in the text, but then richly interpreted in infinitely more dimensions through Acosta's and Yanowsky's powerful pairing.

Most of all, though appealing to the senses, there is no overwhelming reason in the piece to separate the dancers and actors so. If one was Elizabeth's inner voice and the other her outward personality, it may have made sense; if one the voice of reason and the other the voice of passion, that would have worked as well. Yet the decision of when to speak or dance each phrase seemed driven sadly arbitrarily, or worse, by whenever a water break or costume change was required.

As such, the piece is a beautiful one, but one that lives only in the space of 90 minutes, and leaves me quickly thereafter -- a hopeless contrast to my last visit to Covent Garden, which a year later, still resonates more strongly then the piece I left last night.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center, 29 Dec 2015

You can tell the quality of a Nutcracker by its snowblowers. In the Lincoln Center, snow doesn't just fall straight down from the rafters -- instead, it is blown gently by fans in the wings, that mix the snowfall into a beautiful flurry. As the corp de ballet posé pirouette and coupé jeté en tournant, so do the bits of snow spin in turbulence. A thick sheet eventually covers the whole stage, capturing Marie and her prince's footprints as they journey toward the land of sweets.

It's perhaps an odd and superficial way to judge a ballet, yet this level of care and detail is entirely telling of the New York City Ballet's magical production of the Nutcracker. In everything from the staging, to the acting, to the dancing, it is clear that no stone has been left unturned. While I usually can't wait for the festivities of Act I to be done with, I found myself unexpectedly enraptured in the childrens' interactions. Every child had such different ways of teasing one another and reacting with their parents. Some were naughty, some were shy, and you could even see a mini-story unfold as children learnt their lessons over the course of the party. Come the battle between rank and rodent, I was again delightfully entertained. Groups of each broke off into complex tactics, leaping over and pouncing at one another, to the point that I actually began to fret for the Nutcracker prince.

Once the snowflakes came on stage, the richness of acting gave way to a richness of choreography. Balanchine's gift of visualizing music brings Tchaikovsky's grand score to life, lending a unique emotional quality of mystique and treachery that a winter journey for a small child dressed in a nightgown really should have. As the key changed from minor to major, so did the corps' movements change from frantic to languid. It is stunning choreography that had me at the edge of my seat, straining my eyes to soak in as much of it as possible.

With its short vignettes and lack of a story, Act II didn't have as much of a chance to set itself apart from other Nutcrackers. The Spanish had flair; the Chinese were sharp and cheerful; Mother Ginger was as horrifying as the day I ran out from under her skirt many lifetimes ago. There were some unique touches however, the most charming of which being the addition of a small flock of confused sheep to the Mirlitons; and the most mind-bending of which being the Sugar Plum Fairy's slide across the stage in an arabesque on pointe. My jaw literally dropped as Gonzalo Garcia, holding Tiler Peck steady in an arabesque, began to drag her slowly across the stage. Her arabesque remained completely steady as her whole body was displaced. It is difficult to describe because it is simply beyond ballet's vocabulary.

With its debut in 1954, this production of the Nutcracker is said to have sparked off the worldwide trend of staging it as a Christmas tradition, and it is not difficult to see why. Joy flows off the stage with every leap and bound, filling the audience with the spirit of the season.