Thursday, 28 February 2013

Royal Ballet mixed bills, and being ill

It occurs to me I never did a review for the ballet mixed bill I saw two weeks ago – which is shameful when I consider how terrific it was.  It was a perfectly balanced tasting menu for all that is loveliest about Ashton.  Tragically (well, perhaps it isn’t really a tragedy in the bigger scheme of things – but tragic for a balletomane) I don’t think it was filmed.  And I’ve been to another one since then.  I am getting lamentably lax over this reviewing lark... 

The Ashton bill, the first one, wasn’t really a taster menu; that’s a rotten metaphor, shame on me.  It was a feast of an evening.  

It started off with “La Valse” and a couple of marvellous party-pieces, the “Thaïs Meditation” pas de deux and “Voices of Spring”.  Then “Monotones” 1 and 2.  Then “Marguerite and Armand.”  So we had subtlety, passion, happiness, gorgeous abstract grace and finally a great tear-stained howl of extra-super-duper further passion.  Literally my only issue was with the fact that for “Monotones” the cast is dressed in what appears to be a hybrid of low-budget ‘60’s SF movie costumes and Victorian gents underwear; long-sleeved skin-tight monochrome body suits with spangled belts, and bathing hats.  If any outfit can look unflattering even on the body of a dancer (which is to say, even on some of the finest bodies around) then it’s this.

I’ve written about “La Valse” before; it’s a haunted piece, ostensibly “about” pure dance yet full of undercurrents – as if the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo had been an Ashton work.  One fears for these frenetically leaping young men, and their tense, beautiful women.  Something’s not quite right in the atmosphere, and he captures it so subtly that you could miss it if you wanted, and just see great dance - and everything was right in the dancing.  But that aura of discomfiture and tension is what lifts it from “good” to “great”; the knowledge that there is something more, something unspoken-of and tragic, still to come as the curtain falls.

The “Thaïs” pas de deux was exquisite (& Vasko Vasiliev was playing his heart out in the pit – by damn, that melody is a gift to a fiddle player). I’m not sure what’s actually going on here – it doesn’t seem to bear much relation to “Thaïs the Opera” – so I made my own interpretation based purely on what I saw.  Which was, a handsome oriental chap (well, actually Rupert Pennefather with oriental eye-make-up) dreaming of his lost love and being visited by a vision of her; a vision which slowly seemed to become more corporeal, more powerfully there, as his memories intensified, only to slip away at the last, leaving him bereft once again.  Sarah Lamb’s coolness - slowly, slowly warming into a vision of loving grace, and then vanishing again - suited the vision-figure beautifully, and Pennefather’s characteristic look of puzzled decency is a good fit for a man dreaming of the past (indeed his expression may have provided a large element of my story-construction here). 

To jump – almost literally, of course – straight into “Voices of Spring” from this mood of melancholic evocation was delicious.  “Voices of Spring” casts its two dancers almost literally as spring personified – spring both in the sense of springiness, in the sense of the season, and in the sense of youth and freshness.  Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell bounded through it with a lovely combination of flawless polish and an air of unrehearsed youthful bounce.  She has wonderful feet and arms – I wish I knew the technical term for the way she carries her arms, so soft and yet perfectly framed, never unstructured, so that the line is always clean and pure and firm, yet completely relaxed right across the shoulders and body and all the way down to the fingertips.  And he – well, one of the newspaper critics recently called Campbell Tiggerish, and I couldn’t agree more.  

As for “Marguerite and Armand”; well, I howled my eyes out.  If that’s good, then it was good.  And that is good, in case you’re wondering.  Making me cry at the theatre is definitely good.

I didn’t see the first cast; I couldn’t get a ticket for any of Tamara Rojo’s farewell performances for love or money (okay, I didn’t actually offer my love to the nice woman at the box office, but you know what I mean).  So I had wound up being just forced to see Zenaida Yanowsky and Federico Bonelli.  He’s coming into his own as an acting dancer of late; and she, in my opinion at least, already is - one of their finest.  The ballet is a masterpiece and Ms Yanowsky, for the third time in recent months, was shatteringly good.  Happy Ims (only it was the blowing-nose and wiping-eyes-furiously kind of happiness).

Then there was another mixed bill last weekend.  A magisterial “Apollo” from Carlos Acosta, absolutely living every tiny shade of the divinity and simply being Apollo.  A delicious new piece from Alexei Ratmansky, costumed in fairy-tale silvered tulle and danced to orchestrated Chopin, like a tribute to everything that is loveliest in Jerome Robbins; and a really powerful, dark, haunted and haunting new piece by Christopher Wheeldon.  Oh, I could go on and on about these last two.  I really could.  Superb; and wonderful casts all round.  I think pretty much every one of my favourite dancers got something really shiny to do.  And every one of them shone.

I do wonder sometimes if I am turning into a burbling machine, though.  Making unstinting and enthusiastic praise sound anything other than bumptiously naieve isn’t easy.  But, oh God, I have had two great evenings at the ballet lately!

The rest of the time, I’ve been writing.

But then I woke up on Monday morning with a nasty tickly throat.  It lurked uncomfortably for two days, gradually growing until by Tuesday evening I felt as if I’d swallowed a cricket ball with bristles.  Then I started to ache, and my head began to hurt, and I started to feel sweaty and cold at the same time; and I’m now off work sick.  I’m not so ill that I can’t move about the flat, for which I'm grateful - real 'flu is almost paralysing - but I feel absolutely rotten.  Sitting up at the laptop for half an hour is about as strenuous as I’m up to.  So I’ve amended the text of this massive post, which has been growing and getting tweaked to update it for almost a fortnight.  Now I’m going to post it and then I think I'll just give up and go back to bed again.  Hope all is well with anyone who reads this, and you are not germ-ridden and miserable like me.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Immies for last year

I realise with embarrassment that I never got round to doing my personal arts awards for last year.  Oops.  Not as though anyone is likely to have been waiting for them, but still!  It's the awards time of year, and here are mine.  I can't give you a parade of evening-dressed stars shivering in the rain, but that's probably just as well, for them if not for me.

So: here are the winners of the Immies for 2012.

Performances of the year:

Concert: Britten “War Requiem”; Philharmonia Orchestra under Lorin Maazel, in the Festival Hall back in March.  I don’t always like Maazel’s conducting, he often strikes me as terribly cool and measured, but with the War Requiem to play with, and my favourite orchestra and chorus, and a top-notch trio of soloists, he really got fired up and let rip, and the result was a truly fabulous performance.  Especial honours to brilliant Mark Padmore (still having trouble believing this chap was at school with my brother Steve), the heart-rending tenor soloist.  

Operas:  “Der Rosenkavalier”, ENO at the Coliseum.  “Peter Grimes”, ENO at the Proms.  Impossible to slip a sheet of paper between these two for quality of performance; conducting, playing and cast were all first class.  It was fascinating to see how the ENO “Peter Grimes” actually got even better when done as a concert performance rather than a fully-staged production – a real indicator of the strength of the performances and the commitment of all concerned.

Stage play: Nick Payne “Constellations” at the Duke of York’s Theatre.  An extraordinary piece of work; funny, moving and deeply thought-provoking – and a tour de force for the cast.

Exhibition: David Hockney at the Royal Academy.  Marvellous, inspirational stuff.

Dance: The Royal Ballet revivals of Ashton’s “The Dream” and “A Month in the Country” and Wayne McGregor’s “Infra”.  Such a total contrast that I cannot pick between them.

Performers of the year:

Opera: Stuart Skelton in the ENO “Peter Grimes” prom, see above; Otto Maidi in the Cape Town Opera production of “Porgy and Bess”.

Stage: Rafe Spall in “Constellations” – an object lesson in how to make a thoroughly ordinary guy into a credible romantic hero.

Dance: Zenaida Yanowsky in “A Month in the Country”.  Luxuriously gorgeous in her abandonment, in duets with first Gary Avis and then Rupert Pennefather, and heart-breaking in her final moments of desolation.  She was also a superb Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” in the autumn; no mere princess here but a true Swan Queen, regal, mythic and tragic.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

"Onegin"s and observations

I saw the ballet "Onegin" last week, and the opera “Eugene Onegin” last night.  What a joy the first was; and sadly, what a muddle the second...

It's one of my favourite ballets, and I've burbled about it before.  This was one of those performances when the principals are hugging one another by the end, with that air that suggests they know this was a good 'un.  They were simply out of their skins (and I was crying into my binoculars).  

Well, and it’s also one of my favourite operas; after all, this is such a classic story of unrequited love, loss and regret – things most of us have experienced at some point in our lives; and then, in the opera you get some of Tchaikovsky’s most fabulously rich and heartfelt music. But where Cranko’s ballet is a perfect distillation of a perfect story (and was perfectly performed by a perfect cast), this new production of the opera just couldn’t seem to find its balance.  It was as if the director just couldn't make his mind up: Straightforward realism, or wholehearted expressionism? - oh, f*ck it, I can't decide; I'll bodge the two together and see what I get...

The answer, of course, is that, rather as in carpentry, bodging the two together produces a mismatched piece of furniture that won't stand up straight and collapses when you put any weight on it.

I went, because my Favourite Baritone was singing Onegin and it’s a role I’ve wanted to hear him in for some time.  He was, as I had hoped, excellent.  More of this anon (to my delight he made it worth going to, all on his own.  Top bloke).  I had heard of the Tatyana, Krassimira Stoyanova (I think I’ve spelled that right), and she was okay, though not great; Amanda Echalaz could give her a run for her money, and is better-looking and a better actress, too (though I have a feeling she may be a bit on the tall side for Mr Keenlyside, who is after all only my height!).   I had also heard of the Lensky, Pavol Breslik, who was excellent, and rather ornamental in a baby-faced way.  

I had heard of the director, Kasper Holten, because he’s the new director of the Royal Opera as a whole.  On the evidence of this, that’s a bit of an oh-dear...

The production had some strengths; it looked good and the crowd scenes were well-shaped (there was no milling about on group exits, something which always gets my goat, and the formal dances in the penultimate scene looked good and were cleverly used to emphasise Onegin’s sense of disconnection from his surroundings).  On balance I felt the use of stage doubles for the young Tatyana and Onegin was a booboo, as it was terribly distracting and got in the way more often than not; but it did have a few benefits.   It emphasised their sense of grief and regret, and in particular Tatyana’s compassion for her idiotic younger self.  And, by setting the bulk of the story firmly as memories rather than “now”, it served to bring out the way that for each of the two principal characters, the memories are different.  For Tatyana, the crucial moments of that summer were her falling in love with, and being rejected by, Onegin, and for him the crucial moments were his argument and subsequent duel with Lensky, and the latter’s death.  

If you think about your own "lost love and regret" type stories, and imagine a situation where you could find out how the other party or parties involved viewed them, there's a pretty good chance the results would be similar; that something absolutely central to you would be tangential to them, and vice versa.  It was effective, and psychologically acute.

The tiny touch of having Onegin try to screw up the courage to kill himself after the duel and not having the nerve was brilliant, too.  It served beautifully to illuminate the very unusual way that Onegin himself had been directed as an essentially sympathetic character.  Think about it.  Have you ever seen a Eugene Onegin you actually felt for?  Usually he's either a cold bastard, or a bit of a cypher.  This one was credibly foolish, and a coward, but not such a crud as all that; and it was made quietly but effectively clear that his rejection of Tatyana was due not to dislike or even indifference, but to panic; a knee-jerk reaction to her having forced his hand by writing to him. 

I have to say, though, Mr Holten was very lucky in his Onegin.  I can't think of many baritones who could have pulled it off.  But Simon Keenlyside, with his nervous intensity and battered good looks, and huge, quiet stage presence, could and did.  I have no idea if his Russian was remotely idiomatic, but that husky catch in his voice, that I have always loved, served him well, too, and at one point he hit a high pianissimo that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  

I just wish he'd had a more coherant production around him.  It didn't seem fair.  The last production I saw, at ENO, was also a mixture of "That idea worked" and "That idea didn't", and had a cracking good Tatyana in Amanda Echalaz and a bland, blank Onegin whose name I can't even remember.  This one had a cracking good Onegin and a fair Tatyana, and was a similar curate's egg as a production.   Grr.

Now, a fusion of the two, that might have been interesting.  But that sort of thing doesn't happen. So I'm glad I saw the ballet again, and done so superbly, too.  The two final pas de deux - between Tatyana and her husband, gravely loving and trusting of one another, a distillation of everything one would hope married love could be for a lass with such a rocky start to her emotional life; and the frenzy of the farewell between her and Onegin, hurling themselves into one another's arms and tearing themselves apart repeatedly - were both absolutely mind-blowing.  Hurrahs, deservedly, at the curtain call, for Gary Avis's gentlemanly, strong Prince Gremin, Federico Bonelli's powerful and sexy Onegin, and above all for Laura Morera who, for me, simply is Tatyana.

Meanwhile and moving laterally and onto other things entirely, I have some observations on the 5:2 diet, which I have been following since the autumn.  It's the longest I've ever kept on a diet, and it's proving an interesting experience.

It’s surprisingly easy to keep to, and if I slip (or have a week’s holiday) I find it’s easy to get back into.  It doesn’t seem to have, for me at least, the guilt issues associated with most diets and most attempts to reform one’s eating habits.  And it seems to be working; albeit not quite as I had anticipated.

I feel great.  I feel healthier and more active, and more energetic.  I am walking more briskly, running up stairs, hurrying across the Gardens running errands. I'm coming home and getting stuck into some writing, or some typing up, or a bit of each, instead of slummocking in front of the tele.  I feel physically and mentally good.

At the end of each fast day my body feels light and clear, as though I’ve cleansed myself inside.  I don’t feel hungry, except for perhaps the last half hour before my plate of salad in the evening.  I don’t feel deprived, unless I watch a particularly popcorn-y movie in the evening.  I sleep well and I don’t wake up hungry, either.

My “skinny” jeans are now comfortable jeans, my “comfortable” jeans now need a belt; and the belt I use with them now needs to be done up on the third hole instead of the first one.  A blouse I couldn’t get buttoned over my bosom last summer is now wearable again; close-fitting tee shirts look okay on me instead of showing off my bra bulges; and I can wear all my rings a finger along from where I could wear them five months ago.

But - according to the scales I’ve only lost five pounds. 

I find this very odd indeed, but I’m not complaining.  Feeling healthier and changing shape mean a lot more to me than the number on the dial.  And yes, I did check the scales; they’re working fine.  It’s not them, it’s me. 

I’m still no sylph, nor am I likely ever to be one.  But it’s good to feel energetic and ready for spring, instead of wanting to crawl under a stone and hibernate. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Simple pleasures of this February

Sunshine on a winter day.
Getting shot by a tangerine and smelling of citrus for the rest of the day.
Owning Frankentop.
Discovering Tumblr (even if I am a bit foxed by it)
Doing some drawing again.
Knowing I am partway through chapter nine of "Gold Hawk" and the revisions are flowing well.
Meeting new interesting people.
Being able to walk home in daylight.
Remembering crying into my binoculars at “Onegin” last week.
“The Golden Cat” – finally!
Eviscerating lychees with my tongue.
Getting busier again at work.
Trade Fairs!

I love my life.