“Making Television Dance”
British Film Institute, London
5 to 25 June

“Ballet for the People”
Ballet Boyz Gala
Royal Festival Hall, London
14 and 15 July

“The Sleeping Beauty”
Ballet of La Scala, Milan
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
25 to 29 July

by John Percival
copyright © 2007 by John Percival

The most enjoyable series of performances I have seen for quite a time was the British Film Institute's presentation entitled Making Television Dance. As long ago as the 1930s BBC television was offering its then modest audiences programmes by the Vic-Wells Ballet and specially made works by Antony Tudor which proved highly popular. Two decades on, when Margaret Dale decided (at only about thirty!) that her days as a dancer with Sadler's Wells Ballet were numbered, she first turned briefly to choreography with just one ballet that flopped, then began as an assistant on television programmes, saw the opportunities for developing the medium, and joined the BBC in 1954.

The productions chosen for the four programmes given covered a decade of Dale's BBC work from 1956. They chronicled visits to London by the Bolshoi and Kirov companies from Russia, they introduced special adaptations of classic ballets, they revealed the qualities of British dancers and choreographers, and they showed wide audiences the power of truly dramatic dance theatre. From the Bolshoi Ballet's first visit to Covent Garden in 1956 came an historic performance: Galina Ulanova as Odette (a role she was no longer playing on stage) in “Swan Lake” Act 2, partnered by the splendid Nicolai Fadeyechev. Fadeyechev returned to London two years later to play Albrecht in a company specially assembled for Dale's version of “Giselle” with Nadia Nerina in the title role, and although only part of that was shown this time, it was enough to demonstrate, through a mixture of distant shots and close-up, that he was not only a noble dancer but a good actor too. That was true also of the Kirov Ballet's Yuri Soloviev in Act 1 of “The Stone Flower” (1961), triumphing over Yuri Grigorovich's mediocre choreography, as also did Alla Sizova as the heroine Katerina, Alla Osipenko, virtuosic and dramatic as the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, and Anatoli Gridin as the overseer Severin.

Among two groups of short works or extracts given by Bolshoi casts in 1960 and 1963, I will unfairly single out the virtuosity of Georgiy Farmanyants in the “Taras Bulba” Gopak and Gleb Yevdokimov in “Giselle” peasant pas de deux, besides the amusing characterisation of Fadeyechev in “Gayane” and the brilliance of a cast headed by Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev in extracts from “Don Quixote”. I wish I had space to mention all the other works and dancers, but then what about Dale's very characterful treatment of “Coppelia” starring Nerina and the lively Donald Britton, or her recording of the Royal Ballet in Ashton's “Les Rendezvous” headed by Doreen Wells and Brian Shaw. And I haven't yet mentioned the digest version of John Cranko's “Onegin” focussed upon Desmond Doyle as the hero remembering his relationships with the other characters played by Marcia Haydee, Egon Madsen and Lynn Seymour. That was actually directed, in 1966, by Peter Wright with Dale as co-producer.

One night was devoted to Western Theatre Ballet which has just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Most of this consisted of two works by choreographers wickedly neglected today. Walter Gore's “Street Games” was a light hearted divertissement but highly entertaining, and I wish you could see how well it was danced, especially by the dazzling young Brenda Last — who today has such speed, lightness and gaiety? Quite different was “Houseparty”, conceived by Peter Darrell and John Hopkins as a cruel modern treatment of Poulenc's “Les Biches”: it was wholly a work for dancers, but using manners and morals rather than steps to show a really nasty weekend. Sharply realistic in style, its originality and dramatic effect were impressive and have never been excelled. If Margaret Dale had done nothing else (and we have seen how much more she did), her contribution to television dance would still have been a proud achievement.

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There were specially made films, too, and live video, linking the items in the gala celebrating the past, present and future of “Ballet for the People” as part of the reopening of London's refurbished Royal Festival Hall. Way back in 1951 the Festival of Britain was intended to cheer us up from the aftermath of World War Two; the new concert hall on the South Bank of the River Thames was its greatest manifestation — and I bet not many people remember that year's dance season by International Ballet (it wasn't very good). Anyway, over the years there has been a lot of ballet there and we are told that one way or another the Southbank Centre's new artistic director Jude Kelly wants to continue this. The new stage is better and bigger, the acoustics improved, and seats more comfortable.

Difficult to think of anyone better than the Ballet Boyz, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (former Royal Ballet dancers now directing their own company, George Piper Dances) to run this gala. They chose ten greatly varied items, half of them premieres. What attracted special attention was their getting Christopher Wheeldon back on stage, his first performance for six years since turning full-time choreographer (and, he says, his last). “Riapertura”, to double bass and piano music by Ezio Bosso, began with Wheeldon in a solo by Trevitt — elegant arms but more limited lower movement; then Nunn and Oxana Panchenko did a duet, and all three dancers combined for the ending. Other people, I hope, enjoyed new pieces by Rafael Bonachela, Wayne Eagling and William Tuckett more than I did. The best new choreography was a tango duet “Yumba vs Nonino” by Craig Revel Horwood for Nunn and Trevitt to music by Pugliese and Piazolla; very competitive, calling for tough partnering, and very funny too.

Outstanding among the established dances given were Ashton's “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” danced by Belinda Hatley (Mrs Nunn, as it happens) who has just left the Royal Ballet — especially expressive in the solos with scarf — and English National Ballet principal Sarah McIlroy who had learned the Black Queen's aggressive solo from “Checkmate” as a special tribute to former principal dancer and director Beryl Grey celebrating her 80th birthday. Best of all was the showpiece “Diana and Acteon” pas de deux danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao: the latter even excelled recent memories of Carlos Acosta for brilliance and elegance.

* * * * * *

I cannot understand why Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, experienced impesarios, brought the Ballet of La Scala, Milan, for a week at Covent Garden in a messy version of Rudolf Nureyev's “Sleeping Beauty”. At La Scala in 1966, when he first mounted it, he was especially proud of that among all his classical productions. But the version given now is very different and disappointingly inferior. Some of the alterations were his own, but the most disastrous change (made by the Paris Opera Ballet since Nureyev's death) is abandoning the designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, who had worked closely with him, in favour of new settings and costumes by Franca Squarciapino which omit some of the intended effects, are distractingly fussy, and moreover prove too big for the Opera House stage.

Also, the ballet was not well enough danced to explain bringing it to London. Marta Romagna, the opening night Aurora, proved coldly inexpressive and seemed over-stretched technically, several times looking almost off balance. Her Prince, Guillaume Cote, is a guest from the Canadian National Ballet; decently trained but sometimes a bit too fancy in manner. He partnered Romagna well even though she is somewhat tall for him.

Unfortunately, the supporting roles ranged in quality from dull to mediocre. The best among them were in minor parts; did you ever imagine the King as excelling among the cast, even if he does lead a formal sarabande in this staging? In the ensembles, the men tended to be more lively than the women. The mimed episodes mostly lacked conviction; in particular, neither the wicked Carabosse nor her blessed opponent, the Lilac Fairy, came anywhere near the dominance that Nureyev intended for them. It's always good to have Birmingham's Royal Ballet Sinfonia in the orchestra pit but I wouldn't say that David Garforth's conducting showed them at their finest. What a waste.

Photos for "Making Television Dance" courtesy of the Britisih Film institute.
First: Yuri Soloviev of the Kirov Ballet in "The Stoneflower."
Second: Western Ballet Theatre in "Houseparty."

Photo of the Ballet Boyz — Michael Nunn and William Trevitt — by Hugo Glendinning

Volume 5, No. 30
July 30, 2007

copyright ©2007 by John Percival

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