Wheeldon: Winter’s Tale, ENB: Lest They Forget, BRB: Pagodas

Choreography may be the most difficult of all performing-art forms. The dance-lover is all too aware that the standard theatre or opera repertoires contain thousands of works. Dance, by contrast, has a repertoire that numbers only in the hundreds, and most companies commonly draw on only dozens of works.

For England’s three largest ballet companies to produce new pieces within months of each other, therefore, is unusual. That the works come from four of the most artistically acclaimed choreographers is exciting. That all four men (as usual, they are once again all men) have produced top-quality work is cause for celebration, and more than a little relief.

Christopher Wheeldon has seemed to be artistically stalled for some time. The abstract one-act pieces with which he first made his name two decades ago have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. His first narrative piece, Alice in Wonderland, for the Royal Ballet in 2011, fell between stools, insufficiently dramatic, and also without much choreographic invention. Three years on, however, it appears that Wheeldon has suddenly, with brio, taken a huge artistic step forward.

With the same creative team as Alice (design by Bob Crowley, music composed by Joby Talbot, lighting by Natasha Katz), Wheeldon has taken The Winter’s Tale, a story apparently as intractably word-based as Alice, and dazzlingly rendered it into movement as shape-shifting and ambiguous as Shakespeare’s original. Here the dance-language is as firmly divided as Shakespeare’s division of Sicily and Bohemia, Sicily being expressionism; Bohemia, classical joy. Leontes (the first cast’s Edward Watson, doing his Mayerling / Metamorphosis routine once too often, was surpassed by the second evening’s Bennet Gartside, in a more nuanced performance) is a creature of writhing, crawling jealousy; Paulina (the astonishing Zenaida Yanowsky in the role of her career, deftly stealing every scene in which she appears) is the rigorously upright moral centre, her duty to her queen and the truth overriding her anguish at the deceit they require. Then Wheeldon places the forthright movement of Antigonus (Bennet Gartside) to bridge the gap between this world of intense emotionality, and Bohemia’s simpler pastoral, where Florizel (Steven McRae) and Perdita (Sarah Lamb’s more contained first cast performance again surpassed by Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s charmingly seductive second night) frolic winsomely together with a lovely pair of shepherds. (The “bear” that pursues Antigonus is ingeniously incorporated into a giant wave in the storm that strands the pair on Bohemia’s shores, although on first viewing it appeared only to be visible from some parts of the house.)

Wheeldon’s choreographic division is marked well by Crowley: the Sicilian court, apart from a Caspar David Friedrich blow-up to reference Romantic angst, is white and cold, what the Renaissance would have looked like if only the Medici had had the nous to hire John Pawson; the supersaturated colours of Bohemia produce the second act’s coup de théâtre, a lushly green tree, all soaring branches and spreading roots, taking over the entire back of the stage (and summoning the audience’s first unmediated applause of the evening). The return to Sicily, then, is all the more poignant as we leave the light and sun behind, via a dramatic boat chase cunningly created by Crowley, to Paulina’s recognition of Perdita (through an emerald pendant rather than a “fardel”), which may be one of the most dramatically moving moments of narrative dance since Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.

This is not to say the piece is perfect: Wheeldon has difficulty bringing a scene to a dramatic close, and most fade away in a whimper; the balance between dance and exposition is uneven, Act I being overloaded with plot, Act II with pure dance; and there are several longueurs where earlier scenes are recapitulated dramatically or choreographically, and could effectively be cut (it’s a long evening). Joby Talbot’s score, on a single hearing, appears undistinguished and lacks the textures Wheeldon and Crowley find.

The real problem, however, is dance’s automatic acceptance of magic, which means Shakespeare’s dramatic climax, Hermione stepping down from her plinth, has little emotional impact. In an art-form jam-packed with vision scenes, this is just one more. While the first night’s Hermione, Lauren Cuthbertson, played the scene straight, the second cast’s Marianela Núñez was more profound, performing the same steps, but making clear the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s “reconciliation”, as Gartside’s Leontes, too, understood that second chances are not always what they appear.

Reality is also a starting point for English National Ballet’s contribution to the First World War centenary. In a mixed bill, Liam Scarlett has produced, to Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a meditation on the machinery of war. No Man’s Land is set in a derelict munitions factory. A zigzag ramp among the shattered windows and abandoned work surfaces creates a point of entry that echoes the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, that nineteenth-century vision of predestined death. Scarlett’s choreography frequently allows the men and women to dance side by side, equals, instead of the more fashionable partnering style where the men fold and manipulate their women, and is delicately lovely and dramatically potent at one and the same time.

There is no delicacy in the programme’s closer, Akram Khan’s new piece, Dust, a shriek of rage of horror. Dust is awkwardly shaped, ostensibly unfinished and apparently clumsy – and may be one of the best new works to have been created in decades, a work of traumatic, epic power. Beginning in silence, a single anguished figure (Khan himself) writhes and twists across the floor, while the corps, drawn up in a line, gathers ever closer until – bang – they clap, and clouds of dust arise, brilliantly lit by Fabiana Piccioli. Only then does Jocelyn Pook’s evocative vocal score begin, as the line of dancers link arms to create a wave, a machine, a piston – a beautiful, and fantastically eerie moment. As the men move back to the trench behind them, heading up and over, the women are left behind in a percussive dance, both fierce and mourning.

Tamara Rojo, the company’s director, leads the women, and she scythes through space like a blade. David Bintley, in his new version of The Prince of the Pagodas, initially created for the National Ballet of Japan in 2011, and now brought to his home company, also creates strong women. Here is no sleeping princess, waiting passively for her prince. Bintley’s Princess (the lovely Momoko Hirata), deprived of her rights by her evil stepmother (Elisha Willis, enjoying the licence to chew the scenery) takes herself off to find the Salamander Prince (Joseph Caley) she has dreamed of, before together they fight their enemies to set the kingdom to rights.

The evening is full of splendid moments: Rae Smith’s gorgeous sets, half shimmering homage to Yukio Ninagawa, half in-joke Gilbert and Sullivan; Bintley’s tightly woven filigrees of choreography, not merely for his principals, but also a sublime Act II opener for a corps of clouds scudding across the stage, as well as possibly the best dancing sea horses it has ever been my privilege to watch.

That the moments never cohere to an artistic whole is attributable to Benjamin Britten’s score, which shifts all too rapidly from sinuously beautiful to staidly stereotyped. Many choreographers have tried to harness this intermittently glorious score; all have failed. Bintley has, however, failed better than anyone else. A notable achievement.

TLS, 24 April 2014

Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

It is possible to see Gloria, Kenneth MacMillan’s howl of rage at the wanton waste of the First World War, as the final piece in a great arc of expressionist dance, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), through Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923), to Gloria (1980). The first two works portray a mythicized peasant life, where women are ritually sacrificed for the benefit of the community. The violence they depict, overt in Le Sacre, sublimated into ceremonial in Les Noces, is the violence of their century.

In Gloria, the communal violence is no longer beneficial, or ritualized, but mechanized, the slaughter of millions, so many that the living and the dead can no longer be separated. The vast armies of the dead walk (dance) as one, their numbers stretching away to the horizon. The score, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, by turns lighthearted, sorrowful and resigned, lays down a palette from which MacMillan paints a vision of both hope and despair: a trio of men find companionship even as they dance with death, before the two main soldiers and their silvery companion – the angel of death? – join the nameless millions as they quietly line up to go over the top. The last soldier looks into the trench, into the pit, before he joins them, not quietly, but leaping, arms outstretched, crucified, the final sacrifice of humanity.

MacMillan achieved the highest aim, knitting the music, sets and costumes (of dusty, brutalized grandeur from Andy Klunder) and lighting (John B. Read) so tightly with his choreography that they form a single unity of vision, as Nijinska did with Natalia Goncharova and Stravinsky in Les Noces. (Nijinsky too may have done so, but the choreography of Le Sacre, despite attempts at restoration, remains unknowable.)

This collaborative vision is what Wayne McGregor too looks for, and for his new work, Tetractys –The Art of Fugue, he has elected to work with Bach (and Michael Berkeley), Tauba Auerbach for sets and costumes, and his regular lighting designer, Lucy Carter. The most enjoyable elements are Auerbach’s neon glyphs, which are raised and lowered over each segment of dance, a beautiful, playfully engaging schematization of the music. But they stand out, and stand alone, barely integrated into a whole.

Each work begins for McGregor with a single, usually theoretical, idea. Each is then mined for half an hour of dance, before being discarded as a new idea provokes the next work. It may be why it is hard to discern any development in McGregor’s work. We’ve had the form of atoms for Atomos, the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Richard Serra’s word lists for UNDANCE, virtual reality, PTSD and controlled explosions for Live Fire Exercise, and so on. For Tetractys, it is geometry and numerology, number theory and other games that Bach may, or may not, have been playing with in his mysterious Art of Fugue.

What it isn’t is a serious engagement with the music. The more standard piano and harpsichord arrangements of this work were apparently not considered, or not considered appropriate. Nor, apparently, was the lovely string quartet arrangement (which would also have linked to the four lines of the tetractys). Instead we have Michael Berkeley’s orchestral rendering of two canons and four fugal constructions: perfectly nice, but without much colour.

And in front of this the usual McGregor vocabulary of frantic scurrying, extreme distortion and hyper-extensions plays out, much as it has in all his previous works. A second viewing might have brought a deeper reading, but it was not to be. Dance can be an extreme sport, and in the matinee Natalia Osipova hit her head hard enough (against her partner, apparently) to sustain a concussion. Although she carried on to finish the performance, the evening show had to be cancelled. (That the Royal Ballet cannot field a second cast is astonishing, but in keeping with what appear to be financial constraints elsewhere; the piece’s muddy lighting suggests that onstage technical time was limited.)

The bill opened with Frederick Ashton’s final major work, Rhapsody, choreographed in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, full of glitter and dazzle, but an odd, unbalanced piece, the male principal’s style set entirely at odds with the rest of the dancers. The Royal has regularly revived the work, although its constant redesign of sets and costumes (originally William Chappell, then Patrick Caulfield, then Jessica Curtis) suggests a level of discomfort with it.

While Valentino Zucchetti debuted admirably, at the moment the Royal does not have a virtuoso of starriest star quality, someone who gobbles up space, who brutally demands attention. Steven McRae, more experienced, led the first cast, and young James Hay, a soloist, performed nicely in a matinee. But at the moment there is a dearth of dazzle in the Royal.

First published in the TLS

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

Robert Cohan: The Last Guru, book review

Paul R. W. Jackson: The Last Guru: Robert Cohan’s life in dance, from Martha Graham to London contemporary dance theatre With commentary by Robert Cohan 380pp. Dance Books. £20 (US $33.95).

The dance world’s reach has always been tiny. Robert Cohan, the driving force in the understanding of contemporary dance in Britain in the twentieth century, grew up, like most people, in blissful ignorance of either classical dance or the burgeoning contemporary schools. Cohan was born in 1925 and raised in Brooklyn. His dance-life was, surprisingly, entirely a product of the US army.

He went to his first dance performance at the suggestion of army friends; he was wounded in Europe, and his months in hospital enabled an education through a well-stocked library. The girlfriend of an army buddy led him to Martha Graham’s classes; and his tiny war pension enabled him to give up a well-paid Job to attend fulltime. No General Patton, no London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Cohan – a lover of the mystical – would have said he was destined. And in many ways it was an astonishing ascent. Within a year of his first class, he was dancing with Graham’s company; four months later, he was teaching her technique to others and studying choreography with Louis Horst, Graham’s companion and musical director. This three-stranded enterprise – teaching, choreographing and performing – was to be his raison d’être.

Cohan’s charm and leadership, now legendary in the dance world, must have been present from the beginning, as he survived two decades in the orbit of Graham, a notoriously difficult character. A break of five years, in which he cemented his teaching reputation, choreographed and ran his own small dance company intervened, before he returned once more to the fold, in time for a tour to the UK, and a meeting with Robin Howard. Howard was a Graham fanatic, and was determined to bring contemporary dance teaching and performing to the UK. The man suggested by Graham was Cohan.

Difficult and by now alcoholic though Graham might have been, she was also right. The first performance by Cohan’s London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) took place less than a year after his arrival, and the important British dancers and choreographers – including Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston – who studied with him are legion.

Despite this astonishing success, however, much of his life was a tangle of wrangles with the Arts Council, which acted as censorious paymaster, unable ever quite to decide what it wanted. First, it wanted a company that produced artistically challenging works; then it quavered that the work was too “difficult” for “the provinces”, and what it really wanted was bigger audiences; then it withdrew support from those who produced the unchallenging work that drew in these audiences. It makes for dispiriting reading, as does the backstory of Robin Howard, who cheerfully pauperized himself to make up for the government’s lack of support, before being ousted in a boardroom coup encouraged and admired by the Council. Cohan’s later years, therefore, were spent only partly in Britain; he also worked as artistic adviser to the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv (founded by one of Graham’s very earliest supporters), and in teaching and choreographic endeavours.

Paul R. W. Jackson’s decision to tell Cohan’s story entirely chronologically provides a number of challenges. Cohan’s choreographic output was large – nearly seventy works – and at times the chapters have an “and then … and then” feel to them. A thematic approach would have allowed the author to show the development of the choreographer, from his more formal, austere earlier pieces, to his later, more lyrical period. There would also, crucially, have been space to discuss Cohan’s ideas. We are told he was attracted to the mystical, and was a reader of George Gurdjieff and Jiddu Krishnamurti among others, but we gain little understanding of how that reading translated into his work.

In fact, there is almost no attempt to get inside Cohan’s head and discover what he was thinking. His decision to work in Apartheid era South Africa, despite the cultural boycott of the country, is given exactly the same amount of space – two lines – as his “truly extraordinary” experience on a wildlife safari on his way home. His private life, too, barely rates a mention – we gather that he had a penchant for troubled, addicted men, but there is no attempt to look at what that might mean. Each chapter ends with a page or so of comment from Cohan, who read the manuscript after it was finished. At one point he says, “those ten years [with Graham] … were the happiest and most fulfilling of my life”, which comes as a surprise after Jackson’s chapter of trauma, slog and poor working conditions. But there is no way, in the structure Jackson has chosen, to address these competing stories.

Jackson’s belief in Cohan’s achievement is admirable, and, for those who have seen his work, entirely Justified. To name but a few examples: Eclipse is an extraordinary theatrical, dramatic piece that turns white-hot emotion into pure icy geometry; Cell’s universality, its theme being the mind imprisoned by the man, has been demonstrated over its nearly half-century of life; and in Class, Cohan did for contemporary dance what the défilés of the Paris Opéra do for ballet, laying bare the spatial arrangements, musical organization and formal composition that underlie Graham’s work.

It is dispiriting, therefore, that Jackson constantly reduces this genuine admiration to an aggrieved arguing back at critics long gone. Yes, it’s a shame that John Percival of The Times did not find Cohan to his taste. No, we do not need a quarter-century-old derogatory review from the Kilburn Times resuscitated so that we can be told why it is wrong. Cohan’s achievement was to enable an entire art form to flourish. That will survive. His best works will survive. That is what art is, in the end – what survives. The rest is howling into the wind.

Reviewed in the TLS, 10 January 2014

Royal Ballet, Jewels

It has been said that Mozart, so prodigiously talented so young, seemed to be merely a vessel through which God, or the music of the spheres, or whichever higher being one chooses, channelled the sounds of heaven. So, too, sometimes, does Balanchine appear to be a vessel through which music is channelled, to take solid form in front of our eyes. And never more so when the music in question is Tchaikovsky.

Jewels can be a tricky piece to get right. In less than 90 minutes, it covers 150 years of dance in three plotless acts: mid-19th century French Romanticism, via Fauré, for Emeralds; American syncopated 20th-century rhythms, courtesy of Stravinsky, for Rubies; and then, to end, the late-19th-century grand classicism of Petipa, to Tchaikovsky in Diamonds. For a single company to encompass this range is never easy.

Emeralds is almost a scent rather than a ballet, a drifting, ephemeral mood of past happiness. It floats gently by, and if you try, as a dancer, to make your mark on it, you have already stepped too heavily. Akane Takada in the pas de trois alone captured the style; Alexander Campbell danced well, although in a four-square Petipa presentation that would have been better left to Diamonds. Otherwise Emeralds was what it too often is, a sort of Presbyterian heaven, where everyone stands around looking refined, but boredom prevails.

Happily, once past that, as Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra sounded (played with good pace by Robert Clark, under Valery Ovsyanikov), one could feel the audience relax into enjoyment with Rubies. Sarah Lamb is probably at her best in Balanchine, and Steven McRae has syncopation in his bones. But the audience’s heart was, rightly, with Zenaida Yanowsky’s slick showgirl. On the outside she’s smooth and sophisticated, inside all bump-and-grind: fur coat and no knickers, as she picks up Stravinsky’s dirty little shimmies.

And then on to the grandeur that is Diamonds, Balanchine’s distillation of Tchaikovsky in dance (it is his Symphony no. 3 in D major, minus the first movement). So rich, so multi-faceted is this piece that some performances light on the references to Swan Lake, others to Sleeping Beauty. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares shimmered glacially, and Nutcracker was never far from the surface (especially with the four excellent soloists – Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Hikaru Kobayashi and Itziar Mendizabal – whose delicate precision deserves a review all of its own).

On some evenings Nuñez, with her rock solid technique, almost seems to find things too easy, and just skates along the surface. Not tonight. Her technique was no less rock solid – indeed, her balances were little short of astonishing – but it was her embodiment of the deeper grief that always underlies Tchaikovsky’s sweetness, his eternal yearning, that gave her performance not merely beauty, but weight. Soares too imbued his scant few moments (this is, emphatically, a ballet for women) with more than pyrotechnics: his fouettés, precise and admirable though they were, had also that despair that is never far from the surface in Tchaikovsky.

And throughout the movement Ovsyanikov drove the orchestra brilliantly, allowing the reeds and winds to predominate. The scherzo, with its pas de quatre of soloists, was haunting, its tragic waltz never quite overcome, even in the grand polonaise of the finale which Nuñez and Soares blazed through.

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, Bintley Triple Bill

Is David Bintley the one that got away, the wrong turning the Royal Ballet took in the early 1990s? I have long thought so, and watching their current triple bill, the feeling only grows. Bintley trained at the Royal Ballet School, graduated into Sadler’s Wells (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), and became house choreographer for the Royal in 1985.

Then, in 1993, he fled. Two years later he took over at BRB, and the man who should, probably, have steered Britain’s premiere classical company for the next quarter-century has instead quietly, and productively, guided their second, sister company in the Midlands.

All well and good, but Bintley could – should – have been a contender. His work for BRB has been sterling, some brilliant. But tucked away in Birmingham, he has had neither the resources that London would have given, nor, sadly, the wider critical esteem, the recognition that is due to this major talent from those outside his own art-form.

And certainly this triple reinforces that view. E=mc2 tops the bill, and remains on repeated viewings a work of dazzling originality. Based on an examination of Einstein’s theory of relativity (no, really, stick with me, it’s great), Bintley breaks the equation down into its three component parts, “Energy”, “Mass” and “Celeritas (speed of light)”. The first movement, all pounding percussion and sharp angles, is Balanchinean in its attack and ferocity, but shattered into sweetness by the recurrence of petite batterie, an English, Ashtonian lightness; “Mass” is a heavy, lyrical interlude of triplets before the perpetuum mobile that is “Celeritas” is unleashed upon us. (There is a solo break, before “Celeritas”, entitled “Manhattan Project”, an attempt to show the devastation caused by the practical application of the theory, in the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan. It is best overlooked as quickly as possible.)

Tombeaux, the central work, was the final, unhappy ballet Bintley created for the Royal, and its elegiac, backwards-looking sense of ending is a personal as well as an artistic one. The music was conceived by William Walton as a homage to Hindemith; in turn, Bintley looks back to Ashton, and Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley make the most of its romantic, drifting sense of regret.

Still Life at the Penguin Café too is a monument to regret, to backwards-looking: to say it is the world’s only climate-change ballet is perhaps not to identify a very broad category, but it is an indication of Bintley’s breadth that these vignettes of doomed, extinct animals dancing at, in effect, the last-chance café, can flick in a moment from giddy charm to hopeless loss.

There were technical hitches on the first night (caused by not one, but two small fires in the rigging earlier in the day). But belatedly the show went on, and BRB’s dancers were looking particularly good: Joseph Caley in both E=mc2 and Tombeaux was in excellent form, as was Maureya Lebowitz in Celeritas, and Angela Paul in Penguin Café.

But to name specific dancers is invidious: the company, especially the corps in E=mc2, are at their best, and the programming is ideal – a quickfire shift between entertainment and intelligence, intellect and art. Lucky Birmingham.