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Thursday, 26 April 2012

'Polyphonia' / 'Sweet Violets' / 'Carbon Life'

The wonderful evening of dance started off with Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. Very stripped back, danced to a solo piano, with no scenery, and dancers in simple, plain leotards that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a ballet lesson, this couldn’t have been further from last week’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The entire cast were on stage for the first and last piece, but between that the ballet was made up mainly of solos and duets. The movements quite simplistic, but put together in a series of movements that were interesting to watch. There was a real sense of unity between the various dances, and in the large group numbers, a repetition of movements by the couples, a few beats apart made for an enjoyable start to the night.

Next up was Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets. If by the title you are imagining a nice romantic ballet, with pretty tutus, and sweet pas de deux, you could not be farther from the truth. This is a gritty, violent ballet, and I thought it was fantastic. The music is quite stripped back again, the scenery and costumes are generally dark and grimy (a few of the female dancers get red costumes at points, contrasting nicely with the darkness of the rest of the production. Red being associated with prostitution, and also the colour of blood, it fits in well with the story). I have read some reviews that thought it was confusing, and thought there was too much going on. I admit I didn’t follow it the whole time, but reading the programme gave me enough information (and I thought added a lot of interesting information, making me appreciate it a lot more. I was utterly intrigued by the inspiration behind it. What fascinating characters, and brought to life wonderfully by Liam Scarlett’s choreography).

The curtains open on a dreary bedroom, an iron bedstead taking centre stage, a grimy mirror propped up behind. This is the room the first murder will take place in. There are many moments throughout this ballet that were almost uncomfortable to watch, women being flung around, overpowered by men. It was spot on in terms of the story. The scene changes many times, props being re-used. I know people like to clap in between dances, and scene changes, but for this especially, I found it particularly annoying. The ballet had sucked me into this world of murder and despair, and I didn’t want anything breaking me out of that.

One of the most unsettling characters was Jack, (presumably named after the Ripper), and something of an alter-ego to Walter Sickert, the artist in this story. In the final scene he appears from behind the mirror, dressed all in black, has quite a violent scene with Walter, and vanishes again. The closing scene is a woman dead on the bed, a blood smear across the mirror, and Walter huddled in the corner, chilling!

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic ballet, it lures you into the dark underworld of Victorian London, and doesn’t let up until the final curtain comes down. I was pretty close to giving it a standing ovation. Just brilliant, I want to see it again, really wish I’d booked to see an earlier performance of the triple bill so I could have gone again during this season, the whole evening was fantastic.

This brings me on to the final piece, Carbon Life, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, and the piece that seems to have had most coverage in the press. I’d heard great things about it, and was quite looking forward to it, despite not being the biggest fan of previous McGregor pieces I’ve seen. It starts with a screen down, dancers in nude costumes, lights on them, creating something of an ethereal vision. The screen comes up, the band is revealed, the dancers reappear with black pants on, and a group number ensues.

I loved the band being on stage, and the mix of popular music with dance. At one point there are two male dancers on stage, dancing within a circle of light, one of the singers circling. The lighting, costumes, and staging all worked wonderfully together, creating a great unity between performers, both musician and dancer alike.

The dance itself was appealing. I have always enjoyed larger group numbers (and with so many principals and soloists it was of a very high standard). The mix of this, and the more intense pas de deux made for a brilliant ballet, that went all too fast for my liking.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, a fair few audience members left, but at the end the applause was immense, I’ve not heard such an enthusiastic crowd before. Carbon Life was a very special experience, but not one I imagine will be repeated very often. How likely is it that people like Boy George and Mark Ronson will be able to give their time to such a project again? I’m so pleased I got to see it, and hope they bring out a DVD (though it’s never as good as seeing it live, it’s better than nothing!). Although I’ve always been a big fan of classical ballet, this triple bill certainly made me eager to see more modern dance, and seeing new works is always immensely exciting.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Royal Ballet's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon)

I was sad not to have managed to get to see this when it was first on, and so was delighted to be able to experience it this time, and to see Lauren Cuthbertson dance the role of Alice. It’s not often you see a new full-length ballet, so this in itself was quite special. A lot of time, love, and money must have gone into this production, and it really did show.

The curtains open on a garden party scene. The scenery is beautifully idyllic, but it’s not long before Alice is plummeting down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Throughout the entire production there will be a number of impressive uses of technology helping to bring this most eccentric story to life. A screen comes down, and there, seemingly floating in the middle of it, is Alice. She lands in a room of doors, none of which she can get through. A small door appears on stage at this point, and Alice tries to squeeze through to no avail. A range of visual tricks are used throughout this scene to allow for the series of size changes in the main character, which must have been something of a logistical nightmare. Cuthbertson plays the part spectacularly, trying to fit through the tiny door, and then jumping up to reach the door which is suddenly far too large for her to reach the handle (and sulking when she realises there’s just no way of reaching it). The picture that I saw several times previous to seeing the show of her  hunched up in a corridor that is obviously too small for her was not in fact just part of a photo shoot, but part of the ballet, Cuthbertson climbing up into the scenery. It’s just fantastic the ways they came up with to deal with the various challenges that arise from the complexity of the story.

Act two leads us on to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I managed to catch the rehearsal for this during Royal Ballet Live, and it was quite magnificent in real life. The costumes and props were wonderful. Steven McRae made a wonderful Mad Hatter, my only complaint is that we didn’t see much of him! Although in saying that, some productions linger far too long on this scene, I’d much rather be left wanting more than become bored.

Until the final act we have only seen the queen of hearts being wheeled around in a large red contraption, and I was pleased that she didn’t remain in it throughout. Her piece was a particularly humourous part of the evening (and there were several, not something you often expect to find in a ballet). The dancers acted brilliantly, terrified of this bloodthirsty queen, and there was an amusing parody of the rose adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Although only a minor part, I thought the young hedgehog was just fantastic.

There is so much to be said about this ballet; a brilliantly weird construction of the Cheshire cat, endless brilliant visual effects, and utterly wonderful dancing. Lauren Cuthbertson must have been utterly exhausted by the end, having been on stage for pretty much the entirety of the three acts, but didn’t let it show. This ballet would make a wonderful introduction to ballet, but also one not to be missed by long term ballet fans. Playful, funny, clever, eccentric, and wonderfully choreographed and produced, I’ll certainly jump at any chance I get to see it again (and in the meantime might just have to buy the DVD…)

Sunday, 15 April 2012

'The Mousetrap'

Last week I was lucky enough to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London. Approaching it’s sixtieth anniversary (quite an achievement I think you’ll agree), and about to embark on its first national tour, this seemed like the right time to finally find out what all the fuss is about!

The theatre itself is quite small, which was actually really rather nice for this kind of production. There was a board telling you what number performance you were at (I wish I’d made a note of what it was, but alas, did not). They were clearly proud to be housing the world’s longest running play, and rightly so.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the play itself. I’ve only ever read one Agatha Christie novel, and knew little about the plot, so beyond it being a murder mystery, all was to be revealed. The initial murder happens with the curtains down, you hear the drama, and the curtain rises on a guest house reception room. There will be no scene changes (something that is quite unfamiliar to me, being used to large, dramatic ballets and musicals with impressive, ever-changing sets), but it really worked. The fact that it remains in the one room helps draw you in, and creates a real sense of suspense. The characters are trapped at the guest house, a snow blizzard occurring outside (illustrated nicely with snow building on the window ledges, and a wind that blows the window around whilst open, the latch tapping eerily against the pane). In a world where we all carry mobiles on our person most of the time, and feel constantly connected it gives you a real sense of how isolated and cut-off you could become. Imagine being in that situation knowing a murderer was amongst you, terrifying!

The audience is introduced to an eclectic array of characters, all seemingly with a secret to hide. By the interval myself and my friends were all completely bamboozled as to who the murderer was. Agatha Christie lays out the plot fantastically; any of them have the potential to be the murderer. It was fantastic hearing the rest of the audience happily trying to work it out, just what you want from a murder mystery.

There was a fantastic subtlety about the play. When a second murder occurs, the lights go down, and you merely see a silhouette rush across the stage. Suspense is built with a slow opening of a side door, and an eerie whistling, truly creepy, and wonderfully done. I think often with modern works a lot of this subtlety is lost, and this, to me, is a real shame. The audience let out a gasp when the murderer was revealed (proof that we were all kept guessing right up until the very last moment).

A brilliant play that completely sucks you in. I am always in awe of the minds that can come up with such clever plots, and I can certainly see why this play has kept going so long. With twists at every turn, and an interesting back story that is revealed in stages, this is certainly not one to miss. Suspenseful, exciting, and actually very humourous, an utterly fantastic play that I hope will continue for many more years to come.

Monday, 9 April 2012

'When God Was a Rabbit' by Sarah Winman

I didn’t know a lot about this book before starting to read it, just that it had been recommended by several friends. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was going to be a cheerful book, I was wrong. It has got moments of humour within it however, and the overall message is hopeful. It follows the story of Elly (the narrator) from childhood through to her adult life. The sections of her youth were well described, things seen as they would have been from a child’s point of view, which can seem humourous to an adult reader. There are a few moments that I felt were somewhat unrealistic however, that you just wouldn’t expect a child to have any interest in, or understanding of.

One of the main themes of the book is relationships. Elly’s relationship with her brother, her best friend Jenny Penny, and also with the various adult members of her family. It examines the importance of such relationships, and how they change and develop as people grow. It made me appreciate how important the relationship with siblings is for those who have them; whether you get on well with them or not, they have an understanding of your life that nobody else shares, growing up with you, sharing experiences, and making sense of the world together. We see Elly grow, and have to deal with her brother growing into a young adult, wanting relationships (something which I think can be quite hard for many siblings; suddenly there is someone else taking their attention, someone who could hurt them that you want to protect them from), and having to help him through heartbreak, and the pain of growing up.

We also see her relationship with Jenny change over the years, as they learn things about each other’s childhoods that they couldn’t have understood as children. Although their lives pan out so very differently they retain a bond that never leaves them. This sense of understanding with age also comes with her parents. There comes a time in everyone’s life where they start thinking about the people their parents were before they existed, that they had their own lives, that they have their own secrets and worries, and all this is brought out wonderfully in this novel.

There were moments where I thought it felt as though all these different things wouldn’t happen in an average person’s life, but then realised that actually they weren’t that extraordinary, and that we all go through a lot of similar events that bring us into adulthood (though I don’t imagine people all have the same important events throughout life, everybody has their own history, their own particular story that shapes the adult they become). I liked the fact the author brings in real life news stories and links them into the story, whether they be central to the story or not. We know what year we are in throughout, and so it seems right that they are mentioned, and woven into the fabric of the story.

All in all a great debut novel, although I found my attention wavering at points it generally kept me hooked with a wide range of interesting characters, a story most people can relate to in some way, a series of quite remarkable events that keep you wanting to turn the page, and a rather lovely writing style, I look forward to seeing what Sarah Winman comes up with next.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Out and about in Salisbury

I was recently lucky enough to visit Salisbury for the first time. I was immediately struck by how beautiful a city it is, and that all the surrounding area seemed really very picturesque. Naturally, I headed towards the cathedral (with its spire reaching high into the sky it was a good way of keeping my bearings whilst navigating the rest of the city). Unlike some cathedrals which don't let you walk around the grounds without paying, Salisbury cathedral is surrounded by large areas of grass which can be enjoyed by everyone.



 As I'm sure is the case with most visitors I was struck by the spire (the tallest in Britain), and was intrigued to get inside this stunning building and explore. The interior doesn't disappoint, large arches looming on either side of the main aisle, quite awe-inspiring. The only downside was that there was no crypt, a part of cathedrals that I particularly like (and which people find a little odd). There was plenty of fascinating objects to see whilst there though; they have a copy of Magna Carta, and also the oldest working mechanical clock in Britain. I was intrigued by this clock which looks nothing like a modern clock - there is no face, just a complicated series of cogs, and a connection to a bell that chimes on the hour.

There were plenty of other exciting places to visit in close proximity to the cathedral, but I didn't get the chance to visit them (perhaps an excuse for another trip to Salisbury...)



The clock



If history isn't really your thing there's plenty of independent shops to entertain, as well as the usual chains. For food and drink I'd recommend the Boston Tea Party. Service with a smile, tasty food and drink, and the decor upstairs was really quite special.

I also happened upon a lovely little bookshop (I think it was called The Last Bookshop), which was cheap, had a good range, and again very friendly staff. Even though I was purchasing my books not long before they were closing the bookseller still engaged me in conversation about them. If you're like me and have no willpower when it comes to buying books I'd stay away though, you'll end up with armfuls of new books.