Kenneth MacMillan: Steps back in time. Viviana Durante Company

20 April 2018. The Pit,  Barbican Centre, London

Viviana Durante has just directed a short program of early works by Kenneth MacMillan, namely excerpts from House of Birds and Danses concertantes and the full Laiderette. Her dancers on this occasion came from several companies including the Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Ballet Black. I wanted more than anything to see Laiderette. Apart from anything else, the title had been a source of fascination for ages. What did it mean? Eventually I discovered that it is a contraction of ‘laideronette’, and means ‘little ugly one’.

But it was its Australian connections that interested me in particular. Originally performed at a Sadler’s Wells choreographic workshop in 1954, it was designed by Australian artist Kenneth Rowell. It was his first commission from MacMillan (he later designed MacMillan’s Le baiser de la fée), and one of his earliest works after arriving in England on a British Council scholarship. In the Durante revival the printed program did not acknowledge Rowell (although he is acknowledged elsewhere) but gave the names of two costume designers covering the evening’s works: Rossella D’Agostino and Tjasha Stroud. How closely (if at all) they had investigated Rowell’s original designs is, unfortunately, not at all clear.

Laiderette was acquired by Marie Rambert for her company in 1955 and was in the Rambert repertoire until the late 1960s. The other interesting Australian connection, resulting from the Rambert acquisition, is that well-known Melbourne-based ballet teacher, academic, and former dancer with a range of companies in England and Australia, Maggie Lorraine, danced the leading role of Laiderette when the work was filmed in 1966.

As the story goes, the leading lady, Laiderette, is a member of an itinerant group of circus performers and is left by her colleagues outside a house where a masked ball is taking place. While she is sleeping a mask-seller puts a mask on her face. She is eventually discovered by guests at the ball. The Host is called and dances with her until, when masks are removed, her wig comes off at the same time. She is discovered to be bald and is rejected by all at the masked ball, notably the Host who has shown particular interest in her.

In the performance I saw the role of Laiderette was danced by Francesca Hayward and the host by Thiago Soares, both principals with the Royal Ballet. I could not have hoped for a better pair of dancers to bring MacMillan’s story to life, and in particular to advance the somewhat dark subtext of alienation, exclusion and rejection. It was a fascinating early insight into MacMillan’s interest in examining through dance certain psychological states of mind.

Of the other two works shown, the excerpt from Danses concertantes, a duet, was over almost before it had started, so short was it, and the costumes were breathtakingly awful, especially the black, tight-fitting wigs/skull caps each surmounted by a golden ornament of dubious meaning. Choreographically it seemed quite stilted, even somewhat awkward to me, although I took this to mean that MacMillan was making an effort to reflect the sharpness of Stravinsky’s music to which it was danced, and/or it was an indication of MacMillan’s counter intuitive approach to making dance. At the performance I saw, Australian dancer Benjamin Ella, now a soloist with the Royal Ballet, partnered Akane Takada, although the shortness of the excerpt gave little opportunity to make any sensible comment on their performance.

House of Birds opened the program and perhaps the best performance in the cast I saw came from the Bird Woman, danced by Sayaka Ichikawa from Ballet Black, whose pecking head was mesmerising. Based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, also dark in its subtext, it follows the consequences that emerge when a Boy (Thiago Soares) and a Girl (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) are captured by a Bird Woman.

Bouquets to Durante for having the courage to restage these three works, thus providing an opportunity to consider how MacMillan’s later work developed from them. A video of the program in its entirety is available (with in some places a different cast from the one that I saw) at this link.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2018

Featured image: Scene from Laiderette, Viviana Durante Company, 2018

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet in Australia

30 June 2017, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

What a pleasure it was to see Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works again, and to have one’s first impression strengthened. Woolf Works remains for me one of those exceptional works that reveals new insights with every new viewing. In Brisbane, as part of the program by the Royal Ballet on its visit to Australia, it was performed with all the panache and brilliance I have come to expect from this absolutely world class company.

Casting for the Brisbane opening was, with the major exception of Sarah Lamb who did not appear due to injury, largely the same as that which British audiences would know as ‘first cast’ with Alessandra Ferri in the lead as Clarissa Dalloway. Looking back at my review from earlier this year, at this link, I stand by what I wrote then. But below are some aspects of the work that I loved this time, which I didn’t notice to the same extent earlier.

Act I: ‘I now/I then’ (based on Mrs Dalloway)

  • Sitting much closer to the action on this occasion, I admired the complexity of Wayne McGregor’s choreography. There were fascinating small movements of the hands and fingers, for example, and the dancers showed every tiny movement with great clarity and with a real sense of pleasure in performing them.
  • Truly satisfying was the way in which the ending of this first act returned to, but reversed the sequence of and brought new understanding to the opening moments. As ‘I now/I then’ begins Clarissa Dalloway stands on stage, a solitary, reflective figure. She is then joined by the main characters we will see interacting with her throughout the act, in particular the young Clarissa (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) and a close friend (Francesca Hayward), and her two male love interests (Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis). They all dance with a carefree demeanour, and engage in a youthful manner with each other. But as we approach the end of this act, those characters return and dance together in a kind of pas de cinq, weaving in and out amongst each other, joining hands at times, seemingly more closely connected to each other than in the opening moments. Then, one by one they leave the stage and Clarissa is left alone, still reflective, still solitary. But we now understand her thoughts.

Act II: Becomings (based on Orlando)

  • While I was previously full of admiration for the dancing of Steven McRae, this time I was overwhelmed by his astounding abilities. Again there were some small choreographic complexities that I didn’t notice before, the suggestion of shaking legs was one, and McRae made those movements very clear. But this time I especially admired his spectacularly fluid upper body, his exceptionally flexible limbs, and the way he powered down the stage at one point to begin the next section. And his first pas de deux with Natalia Osipova was a sensational performance (from both of them).

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo Darren Thomas

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II (Becomings). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

  • I was struck this time too by the way in which the passing of time—the novel Orlando moves across some five centuries—was handled in the ballet. Time moved along as a result of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design, but also in part with costuming. When the curtain went up all characters were wearing Elizabethan costume, but as the act developed elements of the Elizabethan attire were progressively lost. Slowly a more contemporary look became obvious. But it was a beautifully slow and changing progression so that even at the end there were still small traces of earlier times—the hint of a ruff at the neckline for example. Some things never change.
  • In a similar vein, I was surprised by the way the gender changes that Orlando undergoes in the novel were addressed in the ballet. They were suggested again by costuming when small black tutu-like additions to plain contemporary costumes were worn by both male and female dancers, for example. But most startling for me was the fact that there were moments when Steven McRae seemed to take on a female role in a pas de deux. His partner was male but McRae was lifted as he had previously lifted Osipova. It was simply spectacular dancing from McRae, but my mind kept turning back to Osipova’s movements. It was a brilliant moment in the choreography.

ACT III: ‘Tuesday’ (based on The Waves)

  • Again with ‘Tuesday’ I saw much more in the choreography than I had previously. This time I especially loved the opening pas de deux between Ferri and Bonelli. I watched with pleasure as he held her in his outstretched arms, carried her on his back and supported her as she lay along  the side of his body. Then, in the same pas de deux, there were those captivating variations on what we have come to regard as the end pose of a regular fish dive. McGregor seems to have a mind that never sees a pose as final: there are always variations to be had.

Woolf Works is a breathtaking work of art, fabulously danced by a great company. I hope I get to see it again because I know I will continue to find  more and more to ponder over, wonder at, and be moved by.

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Woolf Works' Act III. Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

 

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in Woolf Works Act III (Tuesday). Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Michelle Potter, 2 July 2017

Featured image: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in Woolf Works Act I (I now/I then). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton