Theatre review: West Side Story

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.

Continue reading


Dance Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Northern Ballet

When: 21st May / Where: Milton Keynes Theatre

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.

Continue reading

Dance Review: Savion Glover – SoLe Sanctuary

When: 4th April 2014 / Where: Sadler’s Wells

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.

Continue reading

Dance Review: BalletBoyz – the TALENT 2013

Where: Milton Keynes Theatre / When: 12th November 2013

I was able to catch a performance of the BalletBoyz latest, the Talent 2013 this week. The performance consisted of two contrasting pieces with an all-male cast. Enjoyment of both pieces was increased by the inclusion of a short film before each, detailing the creative process from the choreographer’s perspective.

The first work was Liam Scarlett’s first commission for the BalletBoyz and his first to use contemporary dancers. Entitled ‘The Serpent’ and set to a haunting score by Max Richter, the piece was raw and emotional, the dancers writhing and sliding and swooping and wrapping themselves around each other, effectively evoking the titular creature. The company looked exquisite; all being at the peak of their physical prowess as dancers, they made their strength and physicality seem delicate and elegant. The set design was minimal, save for some evocative blue and white lighting, which was smartly designed. This coupled with the costumes of flesh coloured tights only, added to a sense of seeing something pure and primal.

The movement was remarkable throughout and I found the choreography very romantic, watching the dancers cling together and hold each other through some beautiful steps and there was great fluidity and languor to the movement. I did feel that it was a little overlong and found the jumps in tone musically a little disconcerting (the pace and energy of the music leapt around throughout) but it was a beautiful dance work nonetheless.

The second work of the evening was Russell Maliphant’s ‘Fallen’. It contrasted greatly in tone and design from the first, though the two definitely complemented each other. Fallen was set to a pounding, relentless soundtrack of drums and bass notes by Armand Amar which lent a tense expectancy to the work.  The lighting design evoked an underground, dank, shadowed space and the overall effect of the movement, lighting and sound was to make me feel like I was on the edge of a rumble. It had shades of West Side Story-esque gangland warfare; it felt as if the piece could explode into violence at any minute. The movements were rhythmic and wonderfully symbiotic, with great feats of strength displayed again. I think I preferred this piece to The Serpent, purely for the added energy and volatility the dancers’ brought to it.

The performance as a whole was incredibly enjoyable. It was great to see such a young, gifted group of performers really pushing themselves physically and producing some incredible effects with their bodies. Well worth seeing if you get the chance – the company continues to tour throughout November 2013.

Dance Review: Rambert Mixed Bill

Where: Sadler’s Wells / When: 25th October 2013

Rambert performed three mid-length works: Subterrain (chor. Ashley Page), A Comedy of Change (chor. Mark Baldwin) and Castaways (chor. Barak Marshall)

Together, these works seemed to be exploring our most primal instincts; our origins and our responses to stress. There was a strange, alien feeling throughout and the performances worked as the best dance should – evoking an instinctual, emotive reaction.

The first, Subterrain seemed to explore some sort of apocalyptic future. The set dressing was sparse; a grate-like image was projected onto the floor, echoing the suggestion of an underground life hinted at in the title. The opening was frenetic, full of a sense of urgency. As the piece progressed, this energy was replaced by a sense of quiet desperation and a sort of hollow seeming sadness. The dancers in the piece seemed to become more and more desperate, clinging to each other as the mood changes. The music had a spooky, edgy feel and there was a sense of unease and tension undercutting throughout. The dancers had a mesmerising fluidity and lent a good deal of longing to their movements.

A Comedy of Change is probably one of the stranger (and more pretentious) things I’ve seen in the theatre, but was strangely compelling nonetheless. While the work is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, it also reminded me of aliens discovering life on earth – there was an odd, unreal quality to the dancers’ movements, as if they’d just discovered the power of their own limbs. The uniform, unisex costumes added to the otherworldliness. Again, the music was spooky and unsettling and I felt almost afraid of these oddly bent creatures on stage. There were nice little dots of humour throughout, which were well timed, considering the bleaker tone of the bookending works.

Castaways was full of a strange, surrealist joy. It had a big brother-esque atmosphere, with 12 strangers stranded on an island against their will, with no idea of why or what was to come, always watched by an unseen force. The work combined speech with movement, which I enjoyed. It was interesting to see the dancers able to mix it up, performance wise. The work was full of vibrancy and colour and was utterly compelling to watch. The clashing styles of music added to the sense of rising panic and the dancers’ movements felt like they were beyond their control – as if they were puppets under someone else’s direction. There was also a sense of familiarity or repetition; as if they had done this a million times before, and would do so a million times after. I liked the decision to break the fourth wall and turn the lights on the audience towards the end. .

The Rambert dancers were spectacular throughout and I felt moved and thought provoked. Well worth a watch.

Disclaimer: All reviews are my personal opinions and are in no way intended as a professional critique of the performances

Dance Review: English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire

Where:  Milton Keynes Theatre / When: 18th October 2013

I was lucky enough to see Le Corsaire on only its second night. The ballet opened in Milton Keynes and we were thrilled to be able to watch Tamara Rojo dance the lead female role of Medora. The basic plot was: Pirate Conrad falls in love with the beautiful dancer Medora, a prisoner of slave owner Lankedum. Conrad resolves to rescue her, and is almost successful. However, The Pasha, a very wealthy local dignitary, spies Medora dancing as they try to escape and is immediately enraptured. He buys her from Lankedum and takes her to be part of his harem. Conrad and his crew set off to rescue Medora once again, but all does not go to plan…

The set and costume design for the ballet was incredible. The colours were full and vibrant, and the ballet felt luxurious, seen in both in the sumptuousness of the sets and in the huge variety of costumes worn by the company. A far off, exotic landscape was evoked and greatly added to the adventurous tone of the work. Rojo and Fernando Bufala, who performed the role of Conrad, danced a beautiful pas de deux in the second act and the group scenes early on between the pirates and their slave women were a joy to watch. The action definitely picked up in the latter half of the ballet and seemed to be paced far better than the earlier scenes. The score was well suited, if not especially memorable.

Of the supporting roles, I particularly enjoyed Michael Coleman’s bumbling, Bacchus-like Pasha and Joan Zamora as Ali, Conrad’s assistant. Coleman filled his role with joy and humour, adding a lightness to a potentially very sinister part and Zamora performed Ali with grace and gentleness, creating a genuinely affecting connection with the audience.

Personally, I found Le Corsaire beautiful to look at, but felt it was a little muddled in plot. It took a long time to get going and then, when it did pick up, all the action happened at breakneck pace. The background of sexual slavery, along with all the female dancers being rather scantily clad felt to me to be a little…out-dated. While many more traditional ballets do have misogynistic undertones, it was strange to watch such a female dominated company perform what felt like a rather sexist ballet.

The company’s performance last time I saw them, in Sleeping Beauty felt rather stiff and restrained. It was a treat, therefore, to see Rojo and the company as a whole evidently far more relaxed and enjoying the performance. ENB has gone through a sustained period of change in the last 18 months and it seems to be coping with and embracing that change admirably. I can’t wait to see them in a more modern performance in Lest We Forget at the Barbican next year.

Disclaimer: All reviews are my personal opinions and are in no way intended as a professional critique of the performances.