Hans Van Manen: Master of….

Dutch National Ballet
I must say that I found it intriguing that the Hans Van Manen celebration the Dutch National Ballet is currently touring was titled, ‘Master of Dance’. While I see the appeal in his choreographic style, and did enjoy the evening as a whole, I hardly left feeling that ‘Master of Dance’ was the most suitable turn of phrase to sum up Van Manen’s minimal, rather severe, highly precise, and very grounded style. Van Manen’s choreography is very often all lines and accents, cutting elegant balletic shapes with an abundance of attitudes and extensions, and breaking these lines with the shape or placement of the hand, head, or foot. In many ways the works often felt like highly sophisticated performance art, inviting audiences to observe and study the dancers’ movement, rather than pieces that give outwardly, in an attempt to communicate or convey, as we are so used to with dance.

I found it revealing that in Trois Gnossiennes, a pas de deux set to the music of Satie, Van Manen actually took the decision to include the live pianist on stage so that it became physically part of the performance. As the pianist was shuffled around the stage on her rolling platform by four bare-chested male dancers, her instrument and the music waded into the lead couple’s space, pursuing them or even encroaching on their private pas de deux to become a third partner in the dance with them.

What this selection of works seemed to reveal is Van Manen’s obsession with the music he choreographs to. His movements are often slave to musical line, each accent picked out, each change in tempi carefully observed. It is sometimes as if he is most interested in using the language and postures of dance to dissect musical structures rather than exploring movement (dance) itself.

Van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier

The one exception to this was the witty and thrilling Solo for three male dancers to Bach’s Double Partitia No1 in B Minor. With a piece of music so fast, Van Manen had to finally give in and choreograph a dance interpretation of the music, rather than a dance translation of it. It was insightful and glorious.

It’s this difference that distinguishes the most successful musically analytical choreographies for me. Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet, Siohban Davies Art of Touch, MacMillan’s Danses Concertantes, among many others. They still put the dancing first, and use the music as a source of inspiration, guidance, and structure. Unfortunately the opposite was true for much of Van Manen’s choreography in my view. A Master of Minimalism, Shape, Line, Beauty and Analysis, yes, but I would save the Master of Dance title for another choreographer’s crown.

To do:
I’d be interested to hear other’s thoughts on Van Manen’s work, as well as suggestions of other favourites pieces which explore the musical accompaniment in a similar way. Please do leave your comments below.

Aida and the House of Opera

Aida posterSo, opera…
Although it’s no secret that I tend to keep my calendar rammed full of various cultural and artistic diversions, I must admit that opera is not something I usually spend my hard-earned cash on. In fact other than a very special experience in Verona of Rigoletto, and something at Sadler’s Wells which I hardly felt comfortable fully labelling ‘opera’, I’ve never actually been.

This isn’t because I am in any way adverse to the artform, but put simply I just don’t know enough about it for a production to have any chance of vying for my attention amongst all the other events I’m already salivating at the thought of. And I suspect that in this tendency I am not alone, particularly amongst others in my age group.

So when an invitation from the Royal Opera House to be one of their guests for the dress rehearsal their current revival of Aida found its way to me, my acceptance came with a genuine sense of curiosity.

But now for the confession: despite all that, as I awoke Tuesday morning and headed to Covent Garden, my mind had practically already made itself up — I was going to appreciate and enjoy the opera, but not too much… probably. My attentions might wear thin somewhere in that 2 1/2 hours, but I’d latch back on by the end of it all and leave the theatre with a general sense of fulfilment for my experience. I’d come home and be inspired to write something about how well the whole thing was done, and how you just need to go with an open mind and allow the beauty and drama of it all to overcome you.

Note: that is (clearly) not the article I am writing now.

In reality, the only thing you need to do is get yourself inside the theatre and into a seat, because once you’re there and the curtain comes up David McVicar’s Aida grabs you by the gut and doesn’t let go. It is stormy, evocative, cruel, tender, raw, suspenseful, stunning, and entirely poignant. I’m honestly not sure I have ever in my life exited a performance in more of a thrall. What also struck me was that all the elements of this production keep the focus firmly on the heart of Verdi’s masterpiece: the helplessness and anguish of the three key characters (Radames, Amneris and Aida) amidst the cruel and overwhelming phenomenon that is war.

Aida production photo

Shortly before Radames is sentenced to death for treason (image © Bill Cooper)

This was a a fantastic opera for a newbie such as myself, and I would highly, highly recommend the production to anyone opera-curious. Firstly, (as I’ve come to learn through my experiences of the Royal Ballet in the past year) the sophistication and artistry of a ROH production are simply in another league and well-worth experiencing, particularly if you’re taking a chance on something unfamiliar. Secondly, McVicar and his team have created an Aida which feels very contemporary and accessible. Though reviews during last year’s premiere were mixed, I adored most the elements which so many others criticised, and felt the sparse industrial-style sets and ambiguous egyptian/samurai/old world setting were highly evocative and actually made the story feel more timeless.

Amneres in Aida

Amneres (Marianne Cornetti) during the triumphal march (image © Bill Cooper)

Of course the production was not also without its flaws. Most of the second Act offered too much of a spectacle for my taste, and failed to give real weight to the story. All of the pomp, celebrations and in-your-face orgies that accompanied Radames’ defeat of the Ethiopians in the act simply felt hollow and distracting when compared, for example, to the breathtakingly intense bloody sacrificial ritual in Act 1 or the sparse character-driven latter half.

But overall, did I enjoy it? I did, and fantastically at that. But that’s not (I think), necessarily the crux of point I was invited for. Our guides at the ROH made it quite clear that they were interested in how ‘non-opera people’ would react to Aida. Well, I think you can judge that from the above, but with that question in mind what I left the theatre mulling over was whether now, after enjoying a single production so much, would opera truly have more of a standing chance on this 20-something’s cultural radar?

The answer is yes, but only just.

I’ll be writing more on that topic later, so check back soon…

Aida runs at the Royal Opera House from March 11 – 15 April.

Note that Aida’s original leading lady, Micaela Carosi (who performed during this dress rehearsal), has recently withdrawn from the run due to pregnancy and is being replaced by Liudmyla Monastyrska.

Ways of Seeing

an old painting I have yet to finish...

It’s an interesting thing painting from life. Painting, more so than drawing because with it you must find the ability to observe far beyond line, shape and tone in order to really breathe life into your subject. It requires the ability to immerse yourself in the flesh of another, peering deeply into shadows or patches of light to decide… is that area right there more violet? green? orange? It can be uncomfortable at first— whacking a patch of thoroughly sage paint onto say, the temple of your subject matter. Unblended green? To create the illusion of flesh? Your instincts cry out no, skin is beige, pink, olive, or yellowish, but surely not green! (It’s absurd how our subconscious can rule over us like a power-hungy dictator sometimes) But once you have the daring to slap paint to canvas and step back to take a look, trust me, you’ll realise that that area really was green after all. And once you open up to that and abandon yourself to the possibility that things are often more accurately described entirely different to how you usually perceive them to be you’ll really take off.

Over the course of two sessions in my painting class I had been staring at this fellow intently (our model thank you very much, tsk), mentally processing and translating to canvas the shape of his head, curvature of his nose… and then suddenly about 1 1/2 hours into the second session last night all at once I could see that the lips were in fact made up of about five distinct planes of colour, each one different and seemingly unrelated to the next. And miraculously, when I put them all together side by side, something much more life-like than those upper and lower smudges and lines I had in earlier, began to emerge. Amazing. It is at about this point where I find observational painting truly gets intoxicating. You’ve in essence stumbled onto a different way of seeing, which is as novel the 236th time as it is the first.

Gauguin self portrait

detail from Self Portrait by Paul Gauguin

It’s about looking at the everyday with fresh eyes, finding interpretations within yourself or indeed through others that ring beautifully true in possibly inexplicable ways. True novelty and discovery. These are some of the most joyous fruits life, and especially Art of all kinds, offers – seek them, and indulge!

Ever tried a life painting or drawing class?
In London at least there’s an abundance so there’s no excuse. I highly recommend The Art Academy‘s courses, but you can also try sessions with London Drawing, the Drawing Club.

A little Christmas tonic

So its t minus 9 days and counting until Christmas is upon us. How many of you are feeling overspent, overworked, over-xfactored, and generally just in need of some sort of diversion that doesn’t involve ‘festive’ mulled wine and mince pies? I know I am.

It’s times like this that I go searching for a bit of art to blow the wind back into my sails. And while there are numerous fantastic exhibitions on in London at the moment (Diaghilev & the Ballet Russe, Glasgow Boys, and Gauguin to name a few), right now if you’re anything like me you need something a) more bite-sized and b) free. Luckily, the V&A’s got something that’ll do the trick.

Isotype exhibition at the V&A

It’s a small exhibition in rooms 17a and 18a (right by the Buddhas) entitled Isotype: International Picture Language, and it’s delightful. Isotype, a system of graphical representation of data, was intended to create a ‘world language without words’ and was pioneered by Austrians Otto and Marie Neurath in the 1920s and 30s. It stands for the International System of TYpographic Picture Education, and became a movement that completely revolutionised the way we view and communicate information to this day. You’ll recognise this language, often now referred to as pictograms or infographics, from the pages of major newspapers, public signage and maps, business presentations, its icons all over modern technology, and style used extensively in almost any popular magazine (Good in particular having practically built their reputation on their innovative usage). But did you ever stop to think how it all came about?

New York and London: Isotypes

Isotypes showing population growth and distribution in New York and London

'Numbers of motor vehicles in the world' (USA and rest of the world)

Occasionally my day job has its perks, and one of these was to be invited to the private view opening of the exhibition last Friday as a guest of Reading University’s department of Typography and Graphic Communication. Reading, with collaboration from the V&A, has curated this show from their exceptional collection of original isotypes that Marie Neurath donated to the university after her retirement in 1971 from the Isotype Institute. The exhibition is a priceless opportunity to see some of those original pieces up close and marvel in their craft, done far before the dawn of the digital age.


Assistant Skuravy cutting out linocut-printed symbols for assembly in a chart

To wander through two rooms full of these pieces, be so completely absorbed by their effectiveness and modernism, and in the process reconsider the thinking behind and production of something you take so for granted every day… well it’s an absolute joy. Especially for graphic design geeks like me, taking in all the bits like the inkwells and woodcut blocks used for drawing and printing the icons, and details of handcraft and style all makes you feel a bit like a wide eyed child again.

…and tell me, what’s a more appropriately Christmasy feeling than that?

Isotype: International Picture Language, runs until 13 March 2011 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The display is a collaboration between the V&A and the University of Reading’s Isotype revisited project.

In Praise Of: Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop conducting the BSO

Marin Alsop conducting the BSO, photo by Grant Leighton

In Sunday night’s programme notes for the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert, Marin Alsop penned a piece offering some insight into the evening’s programme of Mahler-orchestrated Beethoven works: “Spending time with Mahler’s ‘retuschens’… has been a revelation for me, albeit an unexpected one,” she wrote. As she took to the Barbican Hall stage sans sheet music to conduct both the Leonore No 3 Overture and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with just the right amount of vigor, it became clear that spending time with them she had certainly done.

This closeness with her material and her performers is typical Alsop. The woman pours herself into her endeavours, and most importantly into engaging and educating audiences as she goes. To me, her passion, enthusiasm and respect for the work she presents is always evident, and it amplifies the quality of the concerts she conducts. If nothing else, I know that whenever I go to an Alsop concert I am going to be absolutely engaged with the programme — I haven’t quite yet come across anyone else that does that for me as consistently well.

“For me, [to be a music director is] a balancing of all the things you mention mixed with a healthy dose of intuition and curiosity. I try never to underestimate my listeners, but still try to program with them in mind.”

— Alsop on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra website

Last night’s Mahler-saturated programme was one of many similarly themed ones orchestras around the world have been putting on this year to mark the anniversaries of the composer’s birth and death. I’ve been to quite a few just in London, and I have to say I found Marin’s bill, though completely void of any of Mahler’s own compositions (the other part of the evening was filled with some beautifully sung lieder composed by his wife Alma), perhaps my most insightful experience into the man and his workings.

And what about the performance itself? Well, lets put it this way: I have listened to recordings of Beethoven 7 already FOUR times today (and I’m considering a fifth go right now to compare the Barenboim/Berliner Staatskapelle reading… oh, there I went and pressed play!) Not even a listen to Andre Previn’s West Side Story jazz album has been able to shake the themes of the 7th from my head. I spent my normally sleepy-eyed morning commute scribbling in my Moleskin about my reactions, and my lunch hour looking for anything I could find online offering more detail about Mahler’s various Beethoven orchestrations (this and this were somewhat helpful). When a concert has that sort of effect on me, I’m counting it most definitely as a success. I was offered some mixed reactions immediately after the performance from concert-goers and players alike… some (like me) responded with gusto to the darker depths and seemingly more Dionysian intoxication that Mahler and Marin pushed from Beethoven’s score, while others found them more difficult to digest, preferring Beethoven’s brilliance to be left well enough alone.

However I feel that misses the point a bit. The question is not a matter of preference to Mahler’s or Beethoven’s original orchestration, but of whether the slight difference in the revised version can allow you to re-experience the symphony in a new light. And can it also make you more attuned to the importance of perceptive orchestration, in this case Mahler’s. These are the questions Alsop was asking last night, and under her expert guidance and the LSO’s superlative playing, I can most confidently answer yes to both.

Last night’s concert was actually the UK premiere of Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I’m not aware of any recordings of this version in existence, so instead have been biding my time with Haitink, Bernstein and Barenboim. I’ve got last night’s performance still in my head, in particular the wonderfully heavy bass in the allegretto. Perhaps unsurprisingly Bernstein’s allegretto is doing it for me at the moment, while Barenboim’s final movement seems suitably frenzied for my liking today (perhaps a bit too much on any other day, but hey). If you have any other recommendations for me of this recording or others please share them in the comments below!

On Winter, Jazz and Peanuts

Charlie Brown and Linus in snow
So, did you catch this gem of an article in the Guardian last week? If you haven’t already, please take the time to read it—it’s lovely. I found it rather poignant that it appeared out of the blue at the time that it did too, because just days earlier I had been caught up in thought about Charlie Brown as well. Let me explain…

I’m not sure where you might be reading this from as we find ourselves nearing the end of October (*waves hello to family in Florida!*), but here in London, winter is upon us. Now for others that might signal mulled wine and hot cocoa drinking, cozy socks in bed, or warm nights by the fire, but for me it means jazz. No, I’m not talking razzle dazzle Fosse hands and a cardio-tastic class at Danceworks, but sultry, smooth, syncopated, bebopping, bass thumping, brass heavy, ivory trickling, dusting of the drums or crooningly-sung… jazz. ahhh.

Duke Jordan – No Problem (from Flight into Denmark)

Mornings are another matter, but by the time the sun dips down out of sight and I step out from the office into the crisp night air, there’s simply no other soundtrack for my evening. Bill Evans, Sinatra, Chet Baker, Blossom Dearie, Duke Jordan and Joe Henderson have been just a few of my companions over the past weeks. Is there any more perfect variety of sound for these short days and dark nights? For me there’s not anyway.

Which got me thinking, why??

…and then it dawned on me. My whole initiation into the world of jazz happened rather subconsciously at a very young and impressionable age by way of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Every year without fail, as far back as my memory stretches, it wasn’t properly Christmas until we had cozied up with our favourite Charlie Brown. By the time I got to my late teens, just the first strains of Guaraldi’s Greensleeves would trigger my Pavlov’s dog reflex and warm fuzzy thoughts of the season, family, togetherness were just a few bars away. It would seem that this reflex of mine has now transmuted into some sort of reverse, and as the first chilling breezes of winter conjure thoughts of slower, cozy nights in with loved ones, a switch inside me is triggered and a deep and insatiable craving for jazz takes over. Which I am, of course, more than happy to indulge. :-)

So thank heavens that the London Jazz Festival kicks of in just over two weeks! This has got to be one of the most amazingly rich and diverse productions London has to offer, and it’s definitely my constant favourite festival of the year (well, excluding maybe this one). With a range of between 15 and 40 concerts and events happening PER DAY of the ten day feast and many of those being free or ridiculously cheap, there’s simply no excuse not to take part. And by all means, don’t be intimidated by the scale of it. Sure there will always be the heavy-hitters like (this year) Herbie Hancock and Paolo Conte but the real joy of this festival is in taking a chance on some of the smaller acts that you’ve perhaps heard little or nothing of before. Last year I caught both the fantastic super gig of Chick Corea with Bela Fleck at the Barbican and the opening night of the as-yet unfamiliar (to me) Stefano Bollani residency at Kings Place. I had a bloody great time at them both, but the one that blew open my thoughts and joys and is forever imprinted on my mind is the latter, without a doubt. (hint, hint: you’re going to want to spend some time with this beauty or better yet, catch Bollani live).

Still need some guidance though you say? Perhaps you might consider starting with Soweto Kinch’s free and excellent-looking exploration into the history of jazz on day 2 of the festival, Sat 13th November at the Royal Festival Hall: Way In To the Way Out.

To do:
Put the albums I’ve recommended at right into your playlist, pronto! And do I have to remind you again to read this article?

Review: ‘Entangled’ at the Actor’s Church, Covent Garden (dance)

So what happens when you take away the smoke and mirrors? When you view that bright and shiny something you adored under a new light? Do the cracks suddenly become visible? The gloss lose its sheen?

These were questions I asked myself as I sat down at the Actor’s Church in Covent Garden last Thursday night, primarily to take in for the second time threshold, Joss Arnott Dance’s stunning piece that I enjoyed so much during July’s Cloud Dance Festival. The church setting was gorgeous, but as the visible violet spotlights lit up from atop the sanctuary’s grand doric columns and a thin mist of dry ice wafted in, I couldn’t help but think that this might not work quite as well as it did on the Cochrane’s intimate, dramatically lit stage…

Joss Arnott Dance performing theshold at Cloud Dance Festival

Joss Arnott Dance performing theshold at Cloud Dance Festival by Jui-Wei Hung

Happily, I was wrong.

Opening the evening’s bill of performances, threshold actually took on a whole new dimension in this space. The sharp, incredibly dynamic movements were still there, but under the harsh new light articulation became more apparent, intricacies more eloquent, and the fantastic strength of the dancers more exposed. Where Joss excels is in utilising pace, tempo and staging to ensure his choreography remains gripping throughout the duration of the performance. Bursts of great physicality are tempered by more quiet, introspective flashes of personal exploration and no detail is left undirected: ripples running through the torso, the turn of a head, slow rotation of a wrist and glances between dancers are delicious touches that give viewers (and the dancers) so much to explore. A moment of hunched over heartbeats that swept past at CDF was eerily affecting in this performance. I’m excited to see what this incredibly promising young company does next, and hope that Joss’ next choreographic outing will continue to build on the principles that make threshold so strong.

Entangled was a mixed bill event showcasing five up and coming companies, and I was able to take in two more on the evening I attended: Collisions Dance Company and Big Beef Dance Theatre. Collisions, a contemporary ballet repertoire company, presented a work entitled Inertia, discussing this namesake in both the physical and social sense. The piece progressed from a range of more melancholy, meditative explorations to a latter half in which movement seemed to have won out and completely possessed the performers, thrilling and then exhausting them. Perhaps it was the challenge of addressing this topic after so dynamic a preceding performance, but Inertia, while thoughtfully danced, failed to make much of an impact. It also unfortunately held up a spotlight to one of my pet peeves in young companies: building a performance with dancers of unequal technical ability. The too-common practice is distracting and regrettably detracts from the choreographic vision.

Big Beef Dance Theatre proceeded to offer up a completely different flavour quite unlike anything I’ve recently seen with gaME+YOU. Reading in the programme notes that music would be provided by Vanessa Carlton, Kenny Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus, B*witched, and John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (just to name a few), I was notably sceptic. And while the structure of the piece—a sort of comedic improvisation to flash cards and music cues—wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, it would be unfair to say that it was performed with anything less than absolute conviction. The cheeky girls could break out a smile on even the most fervent of cynics and I certainly found myself sporting more than one or two. What I did take issue with (and have seen similarly in other companies’ programme notes) is the need to justify a work like this with the aim of ‘making dance more accessible for all to understand and enjoy’. If technically dumbing something down to its most basic incarnation is the way to make it more accessible these days then the future of dance is dire indeed…

Which brings me onto pet peeve #2: choreographers please release yourselves of the need to explain your work quite so much. Trust your audiences more and if the choreography is really up to scratch they will find meaning. And similarly if your piece is so complex that it requires a deep explanation then you are the only ones to blame for any lack of accessibility.

And that goes for you too Joss. Reading and re-reading the threshold programme notes for the nth time while waiting on the evening to begin I came to realise that all this ‘dynamic physicality’ and ‘extremities of body mechanics’ speak is really just code for ‘we’ve put together a crackingly well thought out dance to a cracking soundtrack using extremely talented dancers- enjoy!’ Perhaps you might try that one next time. I’m sure your audiences would eat up the work equally as much…