Where: Milton Keynes Theatre / When: 14th June 2014
First up, a confession: I’m not a huge fan of the central plot of West Side Story. Nor am I particularly fond of Romeo and Juliet, on which it’s based. The older I become, the less patience I have for the story of two teenagers who fall in love in like, a second, and then wreak havoc, bringing peace only through untimely demises. The violence and waste of life in both stories feels more senseless and frustrating to me as the years go by. The violence and gang warfare seems to stay especially potent, as gang violence remains a persistent and deadly problem.
However exasperated I get with the story though, you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by this wonderful production. High class from start to finish, this was an exuberent, emotive and visually striking production of West Side Story, with a young and impressive cast.
I’m going to start off by saying that I think Northern Ballet are fast becoming my favourite dance company. They manage to be entertaining, inventive and visually dynamic all at once. The range of work they take on tour is impressive and being a relatively small company, you get the sense that there is more room for the dancers to spread their wings a little. I unfortunately missed their recent performances at the Linbury, but was delighted to be able to see their balletic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this week.
For those unfamiliar with the original play, see a plot summary here or read Northern Ballet’s own summary here. NB had reimagined the play through the lens of a 1940s ballet company, giving us an unusual narrative: ballet dancers playing ballet dancers. The stage was set up to resemble a studio, with the company arranged as if warming up as the audience walked into the theatre. Once the curtain was officially up, we observed the company drifting about, preparing for rehearsals. Through interactions, we were able to identify out Hermia, our Lysander, our Helena and our Demetrius. The artistic director (our Theseus, Tobias Batley) strode in all in white, sharply reprimanding his dancers and pushing one ballerina aside (our Hippolyta, Martha Leebolt) in favour of another, their disagreement over his rejection of her as Juliet informing us of their romantic connection (and disagreement over her career). All of these small interactions mirrored the play perfectly, setting us up for the confusion that follows. I had trouble spotting Bottom and Puck in the scenes in the studio and at the station, although I had no trouble identifying them in the dream.
I grew up on old school Hollywood musicals, watching Gene Kelly leap across the screen, and Fred Astaire glide around. As far back as I could remember I wanted to be able to tap dance, watching performers like Sammy Davis Junior, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Gregory Hines as I got older. Savion Glover was a name I first heard in 2007, when I came across a video of him talking about tap on the Happy Feet DVD (look, that film is awesome and you know it). I looked him up straight after and discovered that Savion Glover is the modern tap guy, reinventing and reinvigorating the art form for new generations. So when I heard he would be performing at Sadler’s Wells, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to watch my first tap show and see a master at work at the same time.
First things first: even to an untrained eye like mine, it was clear to see that both Glover and his co-star Marshall Davis Jr were ridiculously talented. The multitude of sounds they were able to produce with the slightest movements was nothing short of astounding. The wonderment of the audience in general was easy to feel. The stage was very sparse – just floating pictures of Glover’s tap heroes, boards for dancing on and…a guy all in white meditating (and possible praying) in the corner. I mean, that’s all he did. The whole time. I think the idea was to liken the experience to a religious one; that this was a sort of church for Glover, a place where he got to do what he loved most while paying respect and homage to those that had gone before him and influenced his work. But still, the guy just sat on stage was a little odd. His presence was unobtrusive but it was hard to see how it fit with the rest of the show.
Glover started off alone, hardly moving yet producing this complicated rhythm. It is remarkable to watch someone produce so much by seeming to do so little and Glover really showcased the subtlety and complexity of tap. After Davis Jr joined him on stage, each standing on their own square of staging, between them they produced a cacophony of beats and sounds. If you closed your eyes, you would be hard pushed not to believe that there was a percussionist orchestra on stage. The speed at which they moved and the pure energy emitted was exhilarating. During one solo, Davis Jr seemed almost possessed; his movements so rapid that was as if he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. Glover and Davis Jr stepped back at different times, allowing the other to perform singly, both seeming to absorb the other’s energy and gaining inspiration and excitement from sharing the stage. Though it was undoubtedly Glover’s show, there is no questioning the additional fire brought by Davis Jr.