Wednesday 30 November 2016

Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The story opens with aggression - Papa throwing a book across a room and smashing Mama's figurines, the importance of which will become apparent later. This reaction to his son Jaja's disobedience throws the reader straight into the claustrophobic, violent family life of Kambili, our narrator, and Jaja's younger sister.

They are both intelligent, high-achieving teens, but their father demands perfection and they are punished if they ever fall below his impossibly high standards. He minutely controls their lives, keeping them on strict schedules which exclude them from their peers. He also enforces separation from his own father who he sees as a heathen for not following the same religious practices. Papa's fierce dominance is in stark contrast to the image he portrays outside the family, where he is highly respected. Despite the obvious negative impact the oppressive atmosphere at home has had on Kambili, she takes pride in others' good opinion of her Papa.

There are some haunting scenes of domestic violence - Papa carrying Mama down a flight of stairs, dripping blood after he has beaten her to the point of miscarriage. The image of Kambili and Jaja cleaning her blood is poignant, and one that will stay with both Kambili and the reader. The children do not avoid the physical abuse - on discovering that they have spent time with their grandfather without his permission he pours boiling water on their feet. It is in this moment, amid the horror of his actions, that we are given a glimpse into his motives. He reveals that similar was done to him as punishment in his youth. This continuation of abuse combined with his moral absolutism adds to the sense of hopelessness.

Their Papa reluctantly allows his children to stay with his sister, Aunty Ifeoma, in the University town  of Nsukka, and this proves to be something of a turning point for their family. Not only does the experience show them that family life does not have to be so restrictive but opens their eyes to the suffering that they have been protected from. Nsukka is something of a microcosm of Nigeria, a single powerful figure whose actions lead to the suffering of the people as jobs are lost and resources are scarce.

Witnessing this first-hand allows Kambili and Jaja to mature as their understanding grows. This, combined with the freedom to flourish and express their own opinions, enables them to begin to form their own identities. This is both heartening and distressing for the reader as it is clear independent thought will never be agreeable to their Papa.

By this point the reader is desperate for Kambili, Jaja, and Mama to find a way out, while despairing at the seeming impossibility of this. The conclusion suggests that escaping their Papa’s influence will be even harder than imagined and can leave you feeling a little bleak.

A well written, evocative novel that easily draws the reader into the world of the characters, feeling their frustrations and fears.

Thursday 10 November 2016

George Balanchine – Mozartiana/Brahms-Schönberg Quartet/Violin Concerto – Paris Opera Ballet, 25 October 2016

Brahms-Schönberg Quartet
© ZsaZsa Bellagio
This autumn, the Paris Opera Ballet pay tribute to Balanchine, as well as his muse Violette Verdy, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The three abstract ballets - Mozartiana, Brahms-Schönberg Quartet and Violin Concerto demonstrate the diversity of his choreography.

Mozartiana is a pleasant, pretty start to the evening. Students of the Ballet School join the principals on stage seamlessly - a sure sign that they're not short of future talent. Probably the most traditional of the night's ballets, it is not without its Balanchine signatures. A beautiful, clean piece.

The curtain fell and rose again on an empty stage, a screen suspended above. A video tribute to Violette Verdy was shown - her energy and bright spirit clear. Mathias Heyman and Myriam Ould Braham then danced Sonatine, a treat for the first five performances of the run, and a piece that was danced by Verdy at its premiere in 1975. Two dancers and a pianist on stage create an enchanting trio. Balanchine always placed emphasis on the important relationship between music and dance, and the presence of the piano on stage makes this explicitly a conversation between the two dancers and the music. They dance as though responding to each other's movements rather than following strict choreography. It feels a connected, intimate piece.

Following the interval we were treated to the Brahms-Schönberg Quartet, an addition to Paris Opera Ballet's repertoire earlier this year. Designs by Karl Lagerfeld evoke the grandeur of historic royalty, an impressive achievement without a heavy set - a simple backdrop and gorgeous costumes more than fulfilling the brief. The four movements are distinct yet all fit together with their romance, lyricism, and clean lines. It exudes the rosy, carefree lifestyle of the privileged in ages past and has a celebratory air to it. A joy to behold.

The final piece of the evening, Violin Concerto, is a stark contrast - gone are the flowing romantic tutus, replaced by plain leotards that would not look out of place in an RAD exam. The movement however, is the most experimental of the night. It is symmetrical and at times almost acrobatic, and once again Balanchine's focus on the music is apparent - his choreography clearly showing his personal response.

All in all a stunningly beautiful evening that pays homage to the diversity and skill of a truly great choreographer. 

Thursday 3 November 2016

Anastasia, The Royal Ballet, 29th October 2016

Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia started life as a one Act ballet. Several years later he expanded it to three acts, the original becoming the final section – Anna Anderson (a real person who believed herself to be Grand Duchess Anastasia) in an asylum, haunted by Rasputin’s menacing figure, constantly bothered by visitors either accepting her or rejecting her. The two preceeding acts are in stark contrast to this sparse, claustrophobic scene. They attempt to give context to the final act – portraying the hazy constructed memories of Anderson as Anastasia. The fact these are meant to be recollections is not immediately obvious, only subtle design choices hint at their fabrication.

Act one shows the happy royals enjoying a picnic on their yacht, oblivious to the bloody fate that awaits them. From the marketing of the piece it was something of a surprise that it opened with such a bright, light-hearted feel. It closes with the news of the outbreak of war – a fact the audience could be forgiven for missing due to the underwhelming response of the Tsar. Not quite the gritty, psychological drama at this point, but nonetheless a really rather enjoyable start to the evening.

Act two is again seemingly about the royal family enjoying their wealth, holding a ball at the palace, and very little to do with Anastasia who is supposedly the crux of the ballet. It is only when you realise that these scenes are constructions of her imagination that she seems present beyond the third Act. The lavishness of the ball is interspersed with revolutionaries planning their attack and the curtain falls after the death of the royal family. The characters fail to have distinct personalities and although the typical flag waving revolutionaries make a dramatic sight there is not much depth.

Act three is drastically different in design and choreography. Cuthbertson plays the tormented Anderson with great energy and emotion as she dashes around the stage, desperately trying to regain some sense of her own identity. The repeated appearance of silent, gun wielding revolutionaries and the seemingly endless stream of characters clearly disturb her and it is difficult to watch the fracturing of a mind. The closing Act is by far the most powerful, let down somewhat by her final, strange, procession around the stage on an unfortunately noisy motorized bed.

MacMillan’s fascination with the real Anderson does not translate into his best work but it is an enjoyable, occasionally dramatic few hours of dance. The desire to add context to the third Act is understandable but for a first time viewer does not aid comprehension and can feel frustrating when such an intriguing story is promised. Nonetheless, the range of style means audiences who have a soft spot either for pretty, more regal narrative ballets, or those who prefer something more modern and dark can both find something of pleasure within. Flawed but undeniably enjoyable, I for one am glad that the Royal Ballet decided to revive this lesser known of MacMillan’s ballets.