Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, and people-trafficking

Tamara Rojo was, for many years, one of the Royal Ballet’s foremost principal dancers. She has proved equally surefooted as the newly ensconced director of English National Ballet. After an initial season of smartly programmed triple bills, Le Corsaire is her first commissioned work, a way of throwing down the gauntlet, announcing that ENB is playing in the big league. This full-length work from the classical tradition showcases her new star, Alina Cojocaru, whom Rojo adeptly poached after that luminous dancer’s abrupt and messy departure from the Royal Opera House.

Rojo has said that she chose this work in part because it is not in the repertory of any other British company. It can be, as such, “owned” by ENB. And that it has three, rather than the more conventional one, virtuoso male roles was no doubt a factor too. La Bayadère, a similar choice, is regularly danced by the Royal, and has far fewer soloist parts.

The choreography is nominally by Petipa, but much of it is in reality the work of Konstantin Sergeyev, with the famous pas de trois (usually performed in galas as a pas de deux) choreographed for the virtuoso Vakhtang Chabukiani in the 1930s. Anna-Marie Holmes, who mounted this production, has smoothed out many of the bumps between styles, and the dance flows well – the romantic pas de deux for Medora (Cojocaru) and Conrad (Vadim Muntagirov) that follows the more athletic pas de trois gives Act Two, in particular, a depth and richness that are relished by Cojocaru and Muntagirov (with, in the pas de trois, the excellent Junor Souza as Ali; he is now not only stylishly virtuosic, but has an elegance and fineness of bearing that mark him out as something special). The delicate “Jardin Animé” classical scene in Act Three, when the evil pasha (the splendid Michael Coleman) dreams that his concubines have become a dancing garden, highlights the delightfully precise Shiori Kase, a perfect Petipa heroine.

Rojo has also roped in Hollywood, in the person of the designer Bob Ringwood (Empire of the Sun and the Batman franchise are among his credits). All too often at the moment, theatre or film designers are asked to produce ballet without any experience of the requirements of this different art form, and their sets and costumes impede rather than impel the evening. Ringwood has the background in performance art (Swan Lakes and a Raymonda), and his designs are accomplished, drawing on Bollywood as well as nineteenth-century pastiche Orientalism in art and architecture to create what seems an oxymoron, a coherent fantasy-land. (Special mention must be made for the zenana of Act Three, which encloses the concubines at the end of the “Jardin Animé”: both frightening and elegant, a really efficient piece of staging.)

But there are downsides to Corsaire that are difficult to overlook. Artistically, the libretto and the score are highly problematic. The title and the characters’ names are from Byron, but the plot is standard pirate abduction-rescue melodrama fodder, repeated over and over to permit lots of dancing. Meanwhile, the score is a patchwork, from good composers on a bad day (Delibes) to adequate (Adolphe Adam, Minkus), to bad-to-terrible (Cesare Pugni, Drigo, Yuli Gerber, Albert Zabel, Prince Pyotr II van Oldenburg and Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell; and, although ENB doesn’t list him, I think the work of Prince Nikita Trubetskoi also makes an appearance).

Ultimately, even the music pales into insignificance when considering the problems of the plot. For it is impossible to overlook the fact that Le Corsaire is about slavery, about selling people (mostly women) for cash. Holmes has carefully removed the anti-Semitic stereotypes that continue to linger in the Russian versions: no longer are the slavers hook-nosed, but now “merely” avaricious. But she cannot omit the selling itself: it is Corsaire’s core. Transforming the pasha from despot to comic character seems sensible, but do we really want to laugh sympathetically with a slave-owner? And while the production works hard to allow us to think the pirates are “good” while the slavers are “bad”, the plot does not really allow it. Medora begs Conrad to release the slaves his pirate band has captured, which he does, but she, and everyone else on stage, is apparently comfortable with him as the owner of the slave Ali.

How classics of previous ages are reinterpreted to meet the values of our times is always a renegotiation: we no longer watch blacked-up Othellos, and Shylock is a perennial problem. Yet somehow these questions are not being considered in dance. Is it the lack of language that makes the performances seem other-worldly, not part of our own moral universe? I don’t know what the answer is, but I am concerned that no one, ENB included, appears to think that there is a need to ask the questions.

Published in the TLS, 16 January 2014

‘Stuff vs. Theory’: Types of history-writing

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled ‘Fun Stuff I Have Found Out’. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives most women of their background and time lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser, extent focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’ ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanization, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialization of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels vs. legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place…[to one] where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, or Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoyevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the nineteenth century. Every household-management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, and so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, it was the very ephemerality of the white that was crucial. Whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about respectability. The transient nature of the white indicated to others that you had it: you had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’ second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on sixteenth-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables or even owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the sixteenth century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for verisimilitude of Dutch golden age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the heavily symbolic nature of supposedly realist works  which emerged as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularization in the nineteenth century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

First published in The Author

Don Q and Dracula, Royal Ballet and Mark Bruce Company

 

 

Double visions

Should anyone need an object lesson in archetype vs stereotype, the dip back into the nineteenth century performed by these two radically different companies could scarcely be bettered as an example.

Potential dance audiences tend to be gun-shy, skittering at unfamiliar titles or mixed bills. The old favourites – Swan Lake, Giselle – still attract the most people, to the despair of artistic directors and devotees alike. So drawing on titles familiar from other contexts is a way of making audiences feel safe when booking tickets, while allowing creativity to flourish.

With Just ten dancers, the Mark Bruce Company’s production of Dracula packs a punch far beyond its weight. Bruce’s choreography more generally could perhaps be called “psycho-dance”, exploring as it does the emotion of movement and the movement of emotion. Previously Bruce has sometimes seemed undisciplined, his work running off at tangents, but adapting Bram Stoker’s bitty, epistolary novel has allowed him to focus this tendency into a virtue.

He has chosen his collaborators wisely: Phil Eddolls’s overwrought irony of a set wittily gestures towards period without any attempt at authenticity; Guy Hoare’s almost velvet lighting is a character in its own right; and Pickled Image’s creepily effective masks provide some of the show’s highlights – the wolves baying around Dracula in the opening will long linger in my mind.

At the production’s core is the reliably wonderful Jonathan Goddard. Long a stellar dancer, he has also grown in psychological intensity with every new role. His long, lugubrious face is tailor-made for the Transylvanian, allowing him to be at once both shamelessly predatory and tormented by his animal desires.

It is this double nature that lifts Dracula above stereotype and into archetype. Stoker created an Other who walks among us, the outwardly respectable frock-coated gent who will rip out a heart and eat it as casually as he hails a cab.

In Bruce’s grey-on-black world, it is, in particular, sexual doubleness that fascinates and lures, as Kristin McGuire’s limpid Lucy Westenra trades the tame adoration of her suitors (presented in 1930s music-hall style) for Dracula’s bloody dance of death. Not for Bruce the camp accretions of a century of adaptations. This Dracula brings fresh blood to slavering audiences.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet too has returned to the nineteenth century to look for a crowd-pleaser. The decision to mount a new production of Don Quixote is at first surprising.

In the past twenty years they have staged two failed productions of what is ostensibly Petipa’s classic of 1869 (which has in reality only survived in fragments, through a heavily revised 1900 staging by Alexander Gorsky).

However Carlos Acosta, the Royal’s star of many years, cut his teeth on Don Quixote in his native Cuba, and it has been his calling card when guesting elsewhere, so it is likely that his was the guiding desire here when deciding what to stage for his first production at the Royal.

The ballet itself – a demented mash-up of Imperial Russian choreography, Austro-Hungarian oompah-fest score, and late nineteenth-century ethnic caricatures – is pure stereotype, not archetype, and as such will never fit neatly with the British passion for theatrical realism. This is surprisingly deep-rooted in the classical dance world, and British dancers can’t ever quite bring themselves to click their castanets, shout olé (and Acosta has his dancers really shouting) or even perform the famous rocking-horse jetés (back leg snapping up to the head) without adding a raised eyebrow to signal ironic distance from the piece’s sheer silliness.

The plot focuses on a tiny episode from Cervantes’ novel, about a barber and his love, while the Don and Sancho Panza merely wander through. Acosta handles the absence of motivation as well as possible, and indeed the further he gets from the traditional staging, the more assured he is. Act I, which is almost all plot set-up, only intermittently and very unevenly interrupted by dance, is a long haul, whereas in the second act, in the gypsy encampment, Acosta’s interpolations, such as the flamenco jam session, are charming.

Here he also gives Basilio (Acosta) and Kitri (Marianela Nuñez) some character development, which they clearly relish. Nuñez has long been cast as a soubrette, which is mystifying: she is, true, both small and neat, with a great bouncy jeté, all aspects of value in soubrette roles. But she is also a dancer of formidable attack and intelligence, neither of which have much place in a stamp-and-pout part. “Feisty” is a word applied usually to women – women who speak their minds are “feisty”, whereas men who speak their minds are just men. Nuñez is indeed “feisty”, in that her dancing says straightforwardly what she thinks, with no beating around the bush. Would that such straightforwardness no longer had to be wrapped up in a veneer of cuteness for it to be considered acceptable.

Other elements of the evening are similarly tame. The West End designer (Spamalot, Shrek) Tim Hatley’s first act has a muted pastel palette. The day-glo sunset of the gypsy encampment and the surreal giant flowers of the vision scene see him at his most effective, but his dance inexperience shows in the frantically bustling houses and windmills. Dance doesn’t need moving scenery; dance is moving scenery.

The Mark Bruce Company knows this in its bones. It may be that having only a tiny fraction of the resources of the Opera House forces creators like Bruce to imaginative heights they would not otherwise reach. Two scenes – Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) in the Transylvanian tavern, and Dracula’s final chase, surrounded by wolves – show how skilled Bruce is at handling larger groups of dancers. One longs to see what this company could do with a quarter of the resources spent on Don Quixote – or maybe just the budget for the castanets.

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sleeping Beauty

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Sometimes, of course, it’s even better to be both. And Birmingham Royal Ballet, in their all-too-brief London season, have been both lucky and good. Lucky, because they have Peter Wright’s little jewel of a production to dance; and good because, well, they’re good in it.

The first night cast of Jenna Roberts, now happily settled back at full health after a long injury break, and Iain Mackay is as sleek and smooth and elegant as the production. Roberts’s Aurora is gracious without being stuffy, and her long-legged, loose-extensioned movement is these days exquisitely framed by her elegant head and neck and, almost the most expressive, precise, delicate placement of her pointes.

Mackay as the Prince has less to do, but what opportunities there are he welcomes. There are also lovely turns from some of the fairies (often a dull stretch of the evening), in particular Laura-Jane Gibson and Maureya Lebowitz.

The production dates from 1984, but looks as though it came out of the workshop yesterday. Philip Prowse’s dramatic maroon, ochre and black-inflected sets and costumes still do their Gothic-Baroque mash-up thing with panache. And for the most part, Wright’s choices in terms of new choreography where necessary are excellent. His decision to ditch the panorama scene (The Prince Gets a Boat! Oh yawn) is wise; his ability to create instead a Petipa-ian extension of the lovely vision scene, patterning his tiny corps as a series of roads for the prince to follow, is a small miracle of sympathetic ventriloquism.

If the production has a drawback, it is probably the awakening pas de deux, which was originally choreographed for another production, and which uses entr’acte music that Tchaikovsky had not planned for dancing; both these caveats make the scene seem to be an add-on, an interruption into an otherwise seductively integrated whole. (Although in particular the music here gives the Royal Ballet Sinfonia a chance to shine, as does the lovely woodwinds section in the Bluebird pas de deux.)

Wright also chose to return to Petipa’s original scheme of the two fairies – Carabosse (Marion Tait) and the Lilac Fairy (Delia Mathews) – presented as equals, both mimed roles, with Prowse’s paralleled costumes shaping their narrative into one of the forces of light against the forces of dark. But while Carabosse has her terrific chewing-the-scenery solo in the Prologue, the poor Lilac Fairy’s solo is handed over to another, and she is therefore reduced to wandering in every now and again, waggling her arms about before leaving once more. She is really Glinda the Good, and let’s face it, wouldn’t we all rather be the Wicked Witch of the West?

Because, happily, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett: Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Hutchinson, 544 pp.)

A nondescript street near Regent’s Park in London bears a blue plaque. It uses the old, postwar style, with a minimum of information: ‘Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), novelist, lived here’. Whenever I pass it, I always wonder, if I only knew which corner to turn, would there be another sign that says ‘…and here’? For Collins was not merely peripatetic (Lycett lists 19 addresses in London alone), but for much of his adult life, he also maintained two families, in two houses.

Collins is less famous today than his slightly older contemporaries – Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës Major and Minor. And, despite his thirty-some novels, he is really only remembered for two – The Woman in White, a terrific potboiler of a novel, and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and the best’ detective-novel.

‘First’ and ‘best’ can both be argued, but Collins was certainly a pioneer in the new genre that was only just appearing: crime-fiction. He was also a pioneer in the depiction of women detectives – amateurs, to be sure, but independent women who do things. The Woman in White’s Marion Halcombe crawls out on a roof in the dark to obtain proof of a crime; David Copperfield’s Dora finds a cookbook too difficult for her poor little brain.

As Lycett shows in this comprehensive new biography, women were Collins’, shall we say, forte. He claimed to have lost his virginity in Italy at the age of thirteen. The death of his rigidly religious father, a society painter of some fame, who had destined his son for a career as a tea-importer, left the still-adolescent Collins with an inheritance that enabled him to choose his own path, of fiction. He also chose his own life. Outwardly he was a conventional bachelor man-about-town, the man to know when it came to exploring the dives of Paris, or finding a doctor to treat the unfortunate side-effects of those explorations.

He was even less conventional at home. Caroline Graves was a lower-middle-class widow struggling to survive when Collins first met her; Martha Rudd a barmaid at a seaside resort. Although Collins married neither, Caroline lived as the first wife in the zenana, entertaining Dickens (who disliked her) and Collins’ other literary friends; Martha lived in more obscurity, but she and Collins produced three children.

All this despite the ill-health that dogged Collins’ life, and made him an opium addict of heroic proportions. He carried a hipflask of laudanum, and when in pain drank off an entire glassful – six to eight drops in water being the usual dosage.

With a private life as complicated as this, there are many gaps in the record. Some episodes remain cloudy. Collins had an apparently facetious correspondence with an eleven-year-old, but that he addressed her as ‘Mrs Collins’ does give the modern reader pause. His own letters presented this as a joke; if there was more, it remains unknown. But, short of a major discovery of papers, Lycett knows as much as anyone. He is also excellent on Collins’ friendship with Dickens, which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.

And he answers the main question of any literary biography: why do we continue to read the novels. Neatly avoiding endless plot summaries, Lycett instead explores the themes that dominate Collins’ work: the duality of appearance and reality, the position of women, legal and medical advances.

And, finally, there is Collins’ sheer readability, his ability to make the reader turn the page, and then turn again, to long to know what it going to happen. Often derided as mere populism, story-telling and suspense are rare and precious gifts. Collins had them in spades.

Review first appeared in The Times

The Colourist of the Future: The van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh at Work: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Marije Vellekoop, with Nienke Bakker; translated by Ted Alkins, Michael Hoyle and Beverley Jackson (304pp. Brussels: Mercatorfonds. £40)

On May Day, thousands of Amsterdammers queued in the spring sunshine as the Van Gogh Museum formally reopened its doors after a seven-month refit, for the kind of invisible but essential works art requires: lighting, humidity-control and so on. What the museum made triumphantly visible, however, was the public face of their eight-year research project into Vincent Van Gogh’s studio practice, both on the walls and in an excellent catalogue. To stress how research, exhibition and publication are a continuous process, the exhibition and publication were all designed, impeccably, by Pièce Montée.

The museum’s first room, and the first pages of the catalogue, set out their stall. The catalogue shows a series of sensually close-up images of nineteenth-century artists’ materials – paints, charcoal, pencils – as well as some of Van Gogh’s surviving sketchbooks, and his palette, loaded with paints and seemingly ready and waiting. The exhibition begins with two self-portraits only a couple of years apart. But while the one from 1886 is a traditionally hued conventional image, the one dated 1888 is in the vivid, slashing palette we know so well.

And that is, in miniature, what the exhibition so ably explores. Van Gogh decided to become an artist aged twenty-seven, after eleven years working for an art dealer and as a teacher/missionary. He painted for a mere ten years, less than half his working life, and his start was unpromising, as the early apprentice copying from “how-to” manuals shows. Watching Van Gogh develop into “Van Gogh” is like one of those speeded-up films of a flower unfolding. In his early years, he studied books, and for a few weeks at a time, here and there, with various teachers – possibly for eight months altogether. His application of what he read and learned, therefore, was idiosyncratic. He read about colour theory, or examined the techniques of painters of the past, but in his early years had to find ways to apply them himself. For example, while many artists used perspective frames, Van Gogh was the only one we know of who physically drew the frame and the threads onto his canvases – there was no one to tell him differently.

Once in Paris, in 1886, he found friendship and shared working practices with other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard. Here too he tried out different techniques, keeping the elements that worked for him, and discarding the rest. Toulouse-Lautrec was a proponent of peinture à l’essence, using a very thinned paint on unprimed canvas; Signac was at the height of his pointilliste style; Adolphe Monticelli was painting still lives in a heavy, dark impasto. From one Van Gogh took the heightened colours; from the next the staccato, discrete brushstrokes; from the third, the heavy applications of paint and worked surface. From Japanese prints he assimilated cropped compositions, slashing diagonals and broad, flat areas of colour. Later, the simplifications and flat patterns of Paul Gauguin were developed into the stylized, rolling lines and rhythmic patterns that could never be anything but the distinct handwriting of Van Gogh.

And this is the key to the exhibition. This Van Gogh is not the solitary genius, appearing out of nowhere, flourishing in isolation and producing an art that was born fully formed. Instead, through Van Gogh at Work we discover how he studied, and with whom, what his influences were, who were his friends, and how his art developed, as all art does, in conjunction with, as well as in opposition to, ideas of the day. This is backed up not merely by words, but in images: around a quarter of the paintings on display are by Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues, permitting us to see at first hand this artistic give-and-take.

There are also loans from other institutions, chosen and hung to display Van Gogh’s integration into the art world of his day. London’s National Gallery has lent its “Sunflowers”, which now hangs together with the Van Gogh Museum’s own “Sunflowers”, both flanking the Stedelijk Museum’s “La Berceuse (Portrait of Mme Roulin)”, a triptych – the “Sunflowers” “like candles” lighting the centrepiece, the artist wrote – planned as a gift to Gauguin.

The catalogue and the exhibition both stress, too, how the extraordinary nature of many of Van Gogh’s works would have been less extraordinary at the time. Van Gogh was using new synthetic colours, which had been developed only in the previous few decades. Because of his colour choices, many of his works have altered in ways we are no longer aware of. “Gauguin’s Chair” now has a blue background; when it was painted, it was purple.

A self-portrait of 1887 was photographed in 1903. Even in the black-and-white photograph, it is clear how the cochineal then linked colours and brushstrokes that, as the colour has faded to merely pink, now stand starkly separate.

For colour is, of course, at the core of Van Gogh’s work. He began to read about complementary colours in 1884, only four years into his studies. Being able to use a dark colour for something light, as long as the colours around it were darker still, he realized, gave the artist true freedom, leaving “the painter free to seek colours that form a whole. . . COLOUR EXPRESSES SOMETHING IN ITSELF”, he wrote with wonder. And at the end of his life, in 1890 in Auvers, in “Wheatfield with Crows” he made the contrasts of blue sky, with its pure and broken hues, the yellow-orange of wheat surrounding a red path lined with green (today the red has turned brown), into an expression of reality, not a replication of reality. In 1888, he wrote, “the painter of the future [will be] a colourist such as there hasn’t been before”. What he didn’t realize then, in fact never knew, was that he was that colourist.

The Van Gogh Museum, however, knows it, and allows us to relearn it too, in a hang that is triumphant, not merely for allowing a popular artist to shine out once more, but for reminding us, in a measured, thoughtful and intelligent manner, what museums, and what scholarship, are for.

For those who cannot get to Amsterdam, and for whom the catalogue is out of reach, the museum plans to produce apps, the first of which, covering some of the letters, is already available for download. A second, which allows viewers to leaf through the sketchbooks page by page, will follow shortly. For those who can’t wait, the Folio Society has produced a facsimile of the four surviving sketchbooks in the Van Gogh Museum, for a mere £445.

—TLS, 7 June 2013

Don Quixote, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum

If you want virtuosity, there’s only one place to be in London right now, and that’s watching the Mikhailovsky’s fine production of that demented old warhorse, Don Quixote, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the leads.

Don Quixote is one of the 19th-century’s pastiche pleasures, half-pantomime, half-burlesque, all razzmatazz. Choreographed by a Russian (actually, over time, six Russians), set in a Spain that never was, with music by an Austro-Hungarian, the last thing the ballet is is coherent. Instead one tiny episode from the original Cervantes novel, the story of a barber and his love, is blown up to take over the evening, and every now and again, seemingly on a whim, the Don and Sancho Panza wander through.

The famous pas de deux, often danced as a gala piece on its own, is from the last act, and is the culmination of a series of virtuosic show-stoppers, each more staggering than the next. Vasiliev’s macho little bantam-rooster of a performance makes short work of some amazing leaps; Osipova, a famous turner, brings the house down with an equally astonishing series of fouettés. But what makes them artists, rather than merely gymnasts, is that every linking section was taken equally seriously. The blistering ferocity of Vasiliev’s jetés, the dazzling light speed of Osipova’s chainé turns – the bits where they could have taken a breather, but didn’t – are what make them special.

Mikhail Messerer, the company’s ballet master, is also a master of revival, and has sympathetically staged several of the classics for this company. Don Q is not easy to get right. Treat it as opera buffo without the singing, and you’ve killed the humour; concentrate too much on the dance episodes and the story fragments. Messerer has judged the tempo to perfection, allowing us a bit of a romp here, a taste of character-dancing there, and showcased the company’s superstars without allowing their virtuosity to overshadow the other company members’ very real talents.

For equally delightful is Alexander Omar’s gypsy king, Veronica Ignatyeva’s Cupid, and, especially, Ekaterina Borchenko’s Queen of the Dryads, her long, elegant legs and beautiful line a perfect foil for the bouncy little Osipova. The company moved smoothly between the demi-charactère of the Spanish acts, the classical rigour of the vision scene, and the courtly world of the last act, no easy transitions to make. In this they were aided by Pavel Bubelnikov, the conductor and musical director, who oversaw a committed performance of what is, it must be confessed, a pretty ropey score.

Messerer has also added some original and interesting elements, such as the children’s puppet show that mimes the story of the Don’s quest for Dulcinea, in brusque marionette tempo and silvery-white costume, an appropriately ghostly moment among the teeth, eyebrows and tambourines that flash and dazzle for the rest of the evening.

Giselle, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum

When the Bolshoi’s wunderkinder, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, suddenly left the company two years ago, the dance world played endless guessing-games as to where they would end up. It was like Claude Rains in Casablanca: round up the usual suspects. The last company anyone expected, however, was the Mikhailovsky, St Petersburg’s junior company to its senior world-class sister, the Mariinsky.

What drew them? Well, the company has an extraordinary Soviet heritage, playing host to some of the great names of 1930s experimental dance. It probably helps, too, that it is now funded by an oligarch, and, with the appointment of the Spaniard Nacho Duato, he provided that greatest of rarities in Russia, a non-Russian artistic director, who brought with him some of his own choreography and the possibility of a varied repertoire.

This two-week London season starts more traditionally, with Nikita Dolgushin’s straight-down-the-line production of Giselle. Osipova and Vasiliev were both straitjacketed at the Bolshoi, she guided entirely into soubrette roles, he limited to the gaudy delights of Grigorovich’s Spartacus and other pieces of heroic Soviet posturing. So Giselle is a defiant gesture of the breadth of their ambition.

The evening is Osipova’s (no-one ever staged Giselle because they had a damn fine Albrecht any more than Hamlet is produced because the director has the perfect Gertrude.) Her first act is well thought through, with some lovely moments – when she plays “He loves me, he loves me not” with a daisy, and finds that it comes out to “not”, she steps back, flat-footed, prefiguring her mad scene later. In the mad scene itself, after she chases the invisible something in the air, her arms end crossed in the Wilis’ stance – the ghosts are already calling to her. And her fluttering, spidery hands clutch desperation from the air, even as she automatically bobs a curtsey to Berthe as she passes.

But it is Act II where her performance deepens, from one of fleet technique and carefully considered acting, to mine the real emotional core of this piece. Giselle has survived for so long because it is multi-layered, yet it is too often played flatly: Giselle is a loving girl, she is betrayed, she dies, she returns to rescue her lover. That’s nice, and sweetly sentimental, but it is not Théophile Gautier’s really quite creepy story. In the original, Giselle dies and she returns, but only part of her wants to save her lover; the other part is already a Wili, and it wants to lure her betrayer to his death.

A couple of pieces of overhanging ivy spent much of Act II going up and down like a bride’s nightie

Osipova conveys that dichotomy with eerie ferocity. Her first entry is breathtaking in its virtuosity – rarely have I seen turns of such speed, jumps of such height. Yet it is subordinate to, and in the service of, the drama. When she circles Albrecht, who is not yet aware of her, she is not protecting him, she is marking her territory. The unvarying monotonous perfection of her (enormous) entrechats makes her a puppet of her masters, the Wilis. And as she beckons him, and makes him dance once more, she is loving and caring – and she is carrion, hovering over his doomed body.

Vasiliev was a willing partner, playing an Albrecht of youthful impetuosity and foolishness, rather than of devious betrayal. The Act II partnering could have been smoother, more invisible, but his solos were remarkable yet never broke the spell of the drama to become virtuoso turns, to the detriment of the story.

Myrtha (Ekaterina Borchenko), too, was a steely dramatic foil, and the corps of 24 all they should have been. Olga Semyonova played Bertha with camp vigour, a red-headed Mae West with a riding-crop.

A few bits of clunk will no doubt shortly be ironed out – technical stutters meant a couple of pieces of overhanging ivy spent much of Act II going up and down like a bride’s nightie, and it would be nice if Hilarion (the touching Vladimir Tsal) and Albrecht found somewhere other than Giselle’s grave to abandon their coats and hats: it began to feel like the foyer cloakroom. But on the whole this was a good basic production fronted by two stellar performers.