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Birmingham Royal Ballet's Robert Parker in Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Bill Cooper photo courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- Like many urbanites residing in one of the world's great capitals of culture, I get so absorbed in the events and activities of London that I sometimes forget there might be high quality dance elsewhere in the regions. One Friday earlier this summer I sought to rectify this oversight, and took the train to Birmingham, England's second largest city, to watch Birmingham Royal Ballet's "On Their Toes!," a mixed bill comprising George Balanchine's masterpiece of abstract imperial classicism "Theme and Variations," Hans Van Manen's erotically modernist "Grosse Fuge," and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," which shows Balanchine's gift for comedy, theatricality, and vaudevillian japes.

The program selection seems puzzling, perhaps uncertain in its tenor, but in practice, as seen June 18, it provided an engaging, accessible, and uplifting evening of entertainment, dispelling preconceived ideas about what ballet is and surely offering a little something for dance lovers of all persuasions. It is a shame that several swathes of seats in the auditorium were empty. Could the England versus Algeria World Cup match have been to blame? Too bad. There was far more artistry, virtuosity and passion on display at the Birmingham Hippodrome than there was on the pitch in South Africa that night.

"Theme and Variations" looked and sounded luxurious. At a time of cuts to arts funding in the UK and the US, it is worth repeating how important live music is to ballet and it was wonderful to hear Tchaikovsky's score played with clarity and brio. Audiences don't just watch the dance, they hear it too. Taped orchestral music is a shabby alternative to the ineffably richer sound, and the sense of immediacy created by the playing of flesh and blood musicians. For all its grandeur and nobility, this ballet does not evade the sensual appeal that has characterized so much dance through the centuries. The women of the corps de ballet link hands with Nao Sakuma, the female principal, and their delicately jeweled pale blue tutus shimmy alluringly as they bourree through complexly entangled garland patterns. It has the odor of eroticism of a bizarrely recontextualized harem. Sakuma is assured in her adage and has a satisfying crispness in her upper body with arm lines, head and epaulement snapping cleanly into position when the tempo increases. Her partner, Chi Cao, jumps vigorously and partners with deference and yet he did not charm me. His energy seemed to falter as it made its way towards his hands, feet and face. His eyeline drooped floorwards and as a result his performance failed to get over the orchestra pit and into the audience.

"Grosse Fuge" elicited delighted murmurs of appreciation from the audience when the curtain went up. The soft brightness of white floor, white cyclorama and white diaphanous drapes at the wings dazzle with luminous austerity. Upstage, four women in pale cream leotards and tights cluster together facing downstage with heads slightly bowed. Four men stride on. They look like Ted Shawn throwbacks in attire, attitude and action. They sport bare hairless chests, big black belts with brass buckles, and long black pants that are skirted in the back. When they move it is with bold lunges, deep plies, and the scything, slashing arm movements of warriors and farm workers. Their hands are held in fists, or with flexed wrists. The vocabulary for the women, who only start to dance after the men have had ample chance to display themselves, is a less earthy version of the men's. It is apparent that this is a courtship of sorts, except the men seem more interested in their own beauty and in mutually appreciating their magnificence than in seducing the women. The men turn their heads away (aghast?) when the women, deep in plie astride them, clasp their supine partners towards their abdomens.

Van Manen handles groups in space deftly and balances restraint and simplicity with some outrageously camp invention. The men whip off their skirts and stand glistening totemically in tiny black shorts. The women are dragged along the floor, raised up, lowered down, spun around, all the while latched to the men, grasping their big buckled belts. They swoop in arcs on the floor, suspended by one arm still clinging to the shiny clasp. They end all in a group, heaped on their sides. It's not much of a resolution and I am not sure that there is anything to be read in to the coming together of the men and the women here. The entire display has been cheeky, erotic and playful, yet strangely earnest.

The sense of play and the desire to entertain are also in full evidence in the last ballet of the night. Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" might make a purist shudder, but I have always had a soft spot for the old-school musical. This ballet was originally part of the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical "On Your Toes," first presented in 1936. It always had the set up of a show within a show, in both its original context and the excerpted stand-alone ballet. The piece begins downstage in front of a curtain decorated with giant legs extending heavenward, high heels to the sky, like so many New York skyscrapers shining their lighted windows at night. A flamboyant Russian, Morosine, played with comic verve by Jonathan Payn, and a Gangster, Dominic Antonucci, are arranging a 'hit.' Morosine explains when and how the Gangster should take his shot -- just as the ballet reaches its finale and the music and the applause crescendo. Morosine strips off his lounge coat, declares "Now I will show them who is the greatest dancer," and does some hilariously unvirtuosic ballet while the Gangster takes his place in the box, and we watch him settle back to watch the ballet in which he will try to kill the lead dancer.

We watch a classic musical speakeasy number, peopled with hoochie girls, a Stripper, a Hoofer, the Boss, some Bartenders and a fabulous trio of Police Officers (James Barton, Nathaniel Skelton, Oliver Till) dancing a turn to 'Three Blind Mice.' Gaylene Cummerfield and Robert Parker have nice chemistry and some good comic vivacity as the Striptease Girl and the Hoofer. These are big dancing shoes to fill: the original Broadway production featured Tamara Geva and Ray Bolger in these roles. The ballet is gleeful and exuberant and full of the kind of movement invention, jazz eclecticism, and pinpoint musicality that characterize much of Balanchine's more abstractly formal works. The ballet combines tap dance and slapstick and a sexy pas de deux and it all gets wrapped up with a comic twist and a happy ending.

I wandered back towards the station after the show humming and happy. The trip to Birmingham had been worthwhile and I had probably enjoyed myself more on this night than on any other at the theatre in quite some time.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Dusty Button and Cesar Morales in Hans Van Manen's "Grosse Fuge." Andrew Ross photo courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Bolshoi Bash

The near month-long visit of the Bolshoi Ballet to the Royal Opera House generated a rare degree of excitement in London. There was a rare chance to see the subject of ballet featured on mainstream TV when rising star Ivan Vasiliev was interviewed on the BBC's Sunday morning political chat show. Vasiliev (no relation to Vladimir) is the very model of a Russian ballet star: smoldering animal sexuality and boyish charm exhibited in grand displays of peerless virtuosity. And the chatter amongst the balletomanes was all about Natalia Osipova -- her gleeful exuberance and astonishing ballon.

The performance of "Giselle" on July 26 certainly gave audiences here a chance to see the elan with which Osipova dances, but also revealed that she is a remarkable dramatic actress. In general I care less about these story ballets and the tiresome scenarios of doomed love, of love redeemed, of evil vanquished and so on and so on, all expressed in mime long bereft of any meaning. However, the Bolshoi production pulled this off with freshness and conviction and without any jarring self-consciousness about how stylized the emotional display is. Thereby Osipova and her Albrecht, danced by Ruslan Skvortsov, were wholly convincing. In her mad scene, while she stuck firmly to the traditional mime and choreography, I saw in Osipova the kind of emotional intensity and physical truth-telling I associate more with Pina Bausch style dance theater.

Osipova's star turn did not entirely overshadow the rest of the cast. Anastasia Stashkevich and Viacheslav Lopatin were treated to ectstatic cheers after and during the Peasant Pas De Deux. Lopatin deserves special mention because the force of his legs making contact during the batterie was audible while the landing of his jumps was not.

Before the two acts of "Giselle" the company presented Balanchine's "Serenade," as staged by Sandra Jennings. When Balanchine was alive he was pretty free and easy about giving his ballets to companies across America and around the world. Now, the Balanchine Trust guards his legacy closely and all performances must be officially sanctioned, conforming to approved standards and styles of execution. I have been looking at four different notation scores of this ballet, two in Benesh Movement Notation and two in Labanotation, each recorded at a different point in the ballet's history. In each instance, the score reflects both subtle and significant changes in the choreography. Even the most cursory historical research suggests that this is consistent with Balanchine's habit of re-working the ballet over the years, and with the influence of different stagers and different ballet companies on the process of production that gets captured by notation.

The Bolshoi's version was lush and lyrical and abundant, with all the paradoxes Balanchine crafted into this perfect little ballet. I noted with interest how different the company's execution of that iconic opening gesture is, so unlike all other versions I have seen and read from score, in terms of dynamics and phrasing. It was no less Balanchine than any other version, but still distinctive. Rather than accenting the initial flexion of the wrist and floating the gesture to settle at the temple, it began imperceptibly slowly and the energy condensed as the back of the hand was sucked in towards the head. I overheard a coterie of elderly establishment critics chattering during the intermission. An august figure interjected repeatedly how much better this was than City Ballet's current rendition, as though there were a single authoritative "Serenade," an instance of the work that might be thought of as definitive and that City Ballet's was somehow lacking. Absurd. Of course, the gentlemen probably only meant that he preferred this version to the one by NYCB but it serves to illustrate my point about notation here. Ballets are wonderful for the way they elude full capture. The multiple notation scores of this one ballet make that more evident but not for the reasons notation's opponents might suggest. It is not that the notation cannot handle the fullness of the dance and its dynamic nuance, but rather the notation shows that the dance itself is never fully fixed.

If the Bolshoi had a staff notator it would be easy to know whether this ballet has changed since it came into the repertory in 2007 in much the same way that the addenda for Faith Worth's score of "Serenade" at the Royal Ballet show how and where each new production alters. An authority from the Balanchine Trust supervises each time the work is mounted and inevitably coaches the dancers slightly differently on each occassion. Without notation each new production erases those prior except in the fading fallible memories of audiences and dancers. With notation, each iteration is recuperable so that when we talk about "Serenade," for example, we can identify which version of the ballet we mean.

Bernard Taper, the Balanchine biographer, reports that Balanchine was wont to comment: "When you have a garden full of pretty flowers, you don't demand of them, 'What do you mean? What is your significance?' You just enjoy them." On July 29, my second night viewing the Bolshoi Ballet that week, I heeded Balanchine's advice and just enjoyed the spectacle, the kinetic tug of the dancing, and the escapist grandeur of it all.

The program combined early dance modernism in the form of Fokine's 1911 sensation "Petrushka," paradigmatic Imperial classicism in the Grand Pas from Petipa's "Paquita," and a taste of contemporary Russia in Alexei Ratmansky's "Russian Seasons." These were exemplary performances. In "Petrushka," the company demonstrated perfectly attuned dramatic expression, and it was possible to appreciate to the fullest each of Fokine's five principles of choreography just as he articulated them in his letter to the Times in 1914. First, he urged choreographers to develop a new form of movement appropriate to the subject of each new ballet rather than clinging to well-worn sequences of familiar balletic vocabulary. He proposed that neither dance nor mime have any meaning unless they spring from a dramatic situation. Consequently, conventional gestures should be permitted in dance only so far as the dramatic context allows. Otherwise, all expression should be achieved through movements for the whole body. Fokine proposed that the corps de ballet should do more than decorate the stage. They too were to be part of the expressive whole of the dance. Finally, the new ballet should strive to be more than a slave to music and decor. It should exist on equal footing with all the other arts.

I think the title role of "Petrushka" has been performed with more technical dash than Mikhail Lobukhin displayed but the restraint in his dancing seemed consonant with the poor puppet's plight. "Paquita" was predictably exquisite. Petipa's choreography sparkles still and there were plenty of moments for an eager audience to interject their applause and hearty bravas during the many variations. Natalia Osipova was again a crowd favorite, but I don't think she overshadowed the dauntingly grand performance of Maria Alexandrova as Paquita. Alexandrova has an antique neck and shoulder line and dances with an imperious firmness of purpose. I enjoyed that she seemed giant and majestic downstage of the waify ensemble of soloists.

The item I had been awaiting with the least anticipation turned out to be the one in which I took greatest pleasure. "Russian Seasons," previously reviewed on the Dance Insider, is an episodic ballet performed on a bare stage with a highly saturated colored cyclorama that changes hue from section to section. Six couples are costumed in pairs of jewel-bright silks: calf-length flared dresses for the women, loose pants and buttoned shirts for the men. Beyond that, I cannot tell you so much what the dance looked like. The choreography was unremarkable visually. Instead I felt it tugging at my body, felt it turning me around, felt it catching my breath as I paused with the dancers on a cadence in the music, and I would have been happy for this dance to last all night. Ratmansky works with an effortless, intuitive musicality here and provides his dancers with mellifluous movement. From a clearly established center the dancers threw their energy out through space and just as easily caught it back on the rebound. He gave them little jokes, and big jumps, and moderate amounts of dramatic expression -- enough to see these dancers as more than just bodies in space. Having been so wholly seduced into corporeal submission to the choreography I want very much to see this work again, to strive a little harder to keep some viewing distance and see/feel what else is there beyond the call to run back into the studio and rediscover the joy of dancing.

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