Letters from London by Graham Watts. Three cities, three consecutive nights and three world premieres

My tri-city tour of London, Glasgow and Nottingham on three consecutive evenings (23 to 25 September) took in three ballet world premieres: Creature, Starstruck and Merlin

by Graham Watts
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After the drought of new work over the past 20 months it was like waiting an age for a bus and then three came at once!   While two premieres had been postponed by the pandemic, Scottish Ballet’s one-act Starstruck was brought forward by more than a year to provide a season-opener that conformed to the Scottish Government’s tough coronavirus restrictions.

This unique triumvirate started at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre with the twice-postponed premiere of Akram Khan’s Creature, his third creation for English National Ballet and a work that continued Khan’s hybridization of contemporary ballet by drawing in aspects of his roots in traditional kathak, most notably in the regular motifs of intricate hand gestures and chakkars (fast spins).

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The first premiere was Sadler’s Wells Theatre twice-postponed piece of Akram Khan’s Creature

Creature is loosely based upon Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, although the action has been transferred from a provincial German town to a dilapidated Arctic research station and is set after an unspecified catastrophic environmental collapse.  The character named Creature has been conscripted into a brigade’s programme to test his endurance in tolerating extreme cold and isolation.

Photo: Ambra Vernuccio, English National Ballet

The work opened with a repetitive looped sample of President Nixon’s telephone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after the first moon landing, a portend of the brigade’s plan to escape Earth and colonize space. Khan’s ballet is unremittingly dark and dismal; ending with Creature’s abandonment in the deserted and decaying station as the wooden walls of Tim Yip’s set gradually disintegrate around him.  Vincenzo Lamagna’s ominous score mixes new electronic music with more familiar themes, including a modern arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero.

Jeffrey Cirio was magnificent in the title role: convincing as the repressed subject of the brigade’s experiments; touching in his brief interludes of tender happiness with his lover Marie (a poignant performance by Erina Takahashi); and dynamic in his diverse dance skills, characterized by sinuous, shape-shifting, swift movements.  Marie is a downtrodden mix of carer and cleaner and her love for Creature is offset by an ultimately tragic vulnerability to the abusive brigade major (played with comic-book nastiness by Fabian Reimair).


Starstruck, the second premiere, opened at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, was a reconstruction of the only ballet made for stage by Gene Kelly

On the following evening and almost 700 kilometers to the north of London, Starstruck opened at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.  This was a reconstruction of the only ballet made for stage by the Hollywood legend, Gene Kelly, created as Pas de Dieux for Paris Opera Ballet in 1960.   His widow, Patricia, had been searching for two decades to find a company to take her husband’s ballet about bored Greek gods (Zeus, Aphrodite and Eros) taking a vacation on earth and causing mayhem with the love life of locals on a Mediterranean beach.

Photo: Andy Ross, Scottish Ballet

It was a chance encounter with Scottish Ballet’s director, Christopher Hampson, on the stairs of the Palais Garnier at a Crystal Pite premier that led to their collaboration on Starstruck.  Originally scheduled for the 2022/23 season, tough Covid restrictions in Scotland meant that the current season needed to be opened by a new one-act ballet and Starstruck was fast-forwarded to fill the vacant slot.

Incidentally, this premiere – on 24 September – ended the longest absence from live performance for any British company with Scottish Ballet having not appeared on stage since their New York performances were aborted due to Covid, back in March 2020.

The change of name from Pas de Dieux to Starstruck signified a different structure to the production, which now follows the Hollywood musical tradition of a ballet within a ballet with each performer playing both the character and the dancer performing the role.  Although Kelly’s choreography is largely unaltered it is now encased in a prologue and postscript that have been choreographed by Hampson to introduce the new show-within-a-show context.

In creating Pas de Dieux, Kelly gave his unique American style to ballet, which many choreographers have subsequently embraced and developed, bringing accents of jazz, Lindy Hop, the Suzy Q and Charleston to gel admirably with the music of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.  Incidentally, Hampson’s additional choreography is set to Chopin’s Les Sylphides, a historical reference to Kelly being enchanted by a performance of Fokine’s Ballet Blanc by Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in his native Pittsburgh.  Kelly auditioned for the company and was offered a contract in the corps de ballet but turned it down and, eventually, headed for Broadway instead.

The original Parisian stage designs by the late André François were destroyed long ago and Lez Brotherston has brought his unique style into creating an approximation of the original concepts enclosed within the new envelope of the ballet company and its performance.  This ballet company setting could easily have been derivative of the similar concept Brotherston designed for Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes but it stayed refreshingly distinctive throughout.

Sophie Martin was both Aphrodite and the principal ballerina, stirring a strong assimilation of Kelly’s jazz accents into her delicate classical technique.  Evan Loudon was a commanding presence as both Zeus and the choreographer, which, by implication, must have meant a reference to Gene Kelly himself.   Martin and Loudon were outstanding as the petulant Gods, particularly in their reunion pas de deux at the ballet’s conclusion, which was full of passion and big presage lifts.   Bruno Micchiardi was appropriately mischievous as both the company pianist and Eros and the corps de ballet absorbed Kelly’s American style with panache.


Northern Ballet’s world premiere of Merlin by Drew McOnie to an excellent original score by Grant Olding, was then the third event

Back into England on the following day and to another Theatre Royal, this time in the East Midlands party city of Nottingham, for Northern Ballet’s world premiere of Merlin by Drew McOnie to an excellent original score by Grant Olding.   McOnie has developed a significant reputation for choreographing award-winning musical theatre productions and it is to Northern Ballet’s great credit that they have brought him across to ballet.  His journey from ballet training to musical theatre and then to ballet choreography reflects that of Gene Kelly and McOnie has also brought a strong sense of theatre and a visually appealing style to his ballet about the mysterious wizard who is central to the Arthurian legend.

Photo: Emma Kauldhar, Northern Ballet

Colin Richmond’s set and costume designs have a rich colour palette of gold and ochre, which naturally evoked the imagery of a pre-medieval court replete with illusions of folklore and legend, including a magical proscenium-filling tree, a golden orb which transports the baby Merlin to earth and a suitably-enchanted Excalibur, which glowed as red-hot metal whenever Merlin’s anger was aroused.  This theatrical magic was enhanced by Rachael Canning’s puppetry of a pair of snarling dogs and a realistic dragon complete with smoke-emitting nostrils.

McOnie’s direction gave the work a fast-paced momentum helped by swift scene transitions in both acts (the dancers unobtrusively acting as stagehands) and he blended a rich cocktail of dances, from intricate patterns of movement for the corps de ballet to passionate pas de deux.  His choreography for the several fight scenes was especially dramatic and more realistic than is the norm in ballet.

Kevin Poeung performed the title role with a strong range of emotions, from the shy young man who is ashamed of his magical powers to the fearsome warrior who unifies the warring kingdoms.  Antoinette Brooks-Daw projected a magnetic presence as the warrior General, Morgan; and the lovers who eventually defeat the evil King Vortigern (Javier Torres) to unite their two kingdoms are Uther (Lorenzo Trossello) and Ygraine (Rachael Gillespie).  When the latter discovers that she is pregnant it is, of course, the future King Arthurthat has been conceived.  Merlin drives Excalibur into the ground and as one story ends, another is about to begin.

Each of these three new ballets had much to commend but they also shared the same fault of confused dramaturgy and it was impossible to follow over-complicated narratives without prior reference to the programme notes. The identity and motivation of some characters and plot lines was unclear.  Ballet needs to be able to convince in a story through movement, musicality, gesture and mime but in each production these traditional methods were not sufficient to provide the necessary clarity.

The overall message to dramaturgs and directors is that less is invariably more!

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