The following comments are based on watching the RBS Opera House performance and the following five at the Linbury. I also saw some of the ballets run through at the White Lodge Open Day.
First some general thoughts. I prefer Holland Park for the school performances. It is less cramped, has a larger stage and the audience is at a reasonable distance from the dancers. In the Linbury the first few rows are very close and every slight wobble or awkward adjustment shows. But I suppose we will have to learn to put up with it and, of course, there wont be any problems with the weather.
Like most people I spoke to, I felt the overall standard had improved a lot, especially at the lower school. The third year students at the upper school looked very polished and professional, in fact ready to take up their careers as professional dancers. It was good to learn that most of them had been given contracts with important companies.
Like last year, we saw only short ballets but quite a number of those and, with just a few exceptions, more than one cast in each. Thus a lot of the students were given chances to shine. In fact more than ever before, I would say, which makes the criticism the school has been getting on this very point seem quite ironical to old hands like myself. For newcomers to this scene who have complained that most of the first year students in the upper school had little or nothing to do, I should point out that these are graduation performances which naturally favour the graduating class, i.e. the third year. The present first year will get their turn in 2003.
The question of favouritism has been raised and it is a pretty insidious charge because it is so difficult to refute. After all we donít see the non-favourites. All I can say is that most of the students in prominent roles looked at the least very competent and often were very talented and showed much promise for the future. At the same time, to be honest, there were one or two whom I didnít like but the school obviously did. But I put that down to difference in taste and not some ill-doing.
Although I am happy enough with the system of short ballets and lots of parts for lots of students, it does have a down side. The parts being short are soloist-type roles rather than principal roles. There is no opportunity for any student to show what she or he can do with a long sustained role where not just good technique but the ability to portray character via dancing is needed.
At the Opera House both upper school and lower school were well represented. At the Linbury, three performances were mostly the upper school and two mostly lower school. However, to describe the individual pieces on show, it is convenient to deal with the lower school and upper school separately.
Letís begin, as all the performances did, with the Polka danced by years 1 and 2 (or years 7 and 8 in the new speak which I intend to ignore) from White Lodge. Actually there wasnít much dancing to it but it did show the pupils could point their feet nicely and mostly stay in formation. What I liked is that nearly all of them seemed to thoroughly enjoy being on stage. We had the usual series of folk dances, which were performed pretty well. A friend complained of being bored with the sword dance, which comes up every year, but it was done impeccably. I have got very bored with Sabotiere, which also crops up every year and every year it gets cuter and is danced more coarsely (and it is not the individual dancers I blame for that). Some of the folk dancing involved lots of dancers and is useful in teaching the students to work together as a group as they will have to do in a corps de ballet. And we saw a real corps de ballet piece when the 4th year students (mostly) gave us the Garland dance from Act 1 of Sleeping Beauty. I enjoyed watching this in rehearsal at White Lodge and I thought it was well and competently danced on the Opera House stage. But, the Linbury stage is too small for it, so we were given a cut-down version, which was just a travesty.
We saw a longer classical piece in Dance of the Hours which is a short divertissement for corps (who had very little to do) two soloists, a ballerina and her cavalier. I admired the leading dancers in this (they were mostly from the top form at White Lodge with a boy from the upper school imported to do the partnering) but not the choreography. It is supposed to be by Petipa, adapted by one of the teachers to suit the students. I thought it very awkward and clumsy. The first solo was particularly horrible and only worked at all because of the delightful stage personality of the dancer.
Next two items, which I didnít expect to like at all but which I enjoyed enormously. Every year we see that yearís winning ballet from the school Choreographic Competition and some of them are pretty dire. But not this time. Liam Scarlett from year 4 produced a pure-dance piece called Rapturous Impulse, which was most interesting and enjoyable to watch. He used a lot of dancers, in fact about half of the 4th year pupils, for what is quite a short ballet. This could have led to a real mess but instead he kept control of his material and was able to so use his cast that they combined in a totally coherent way. He also showed some talent for finding new steps and using the standard steps in a new way. Letís hope he continues to develop. And letís hope the same for the whole of his year, which I thought contained some particularly promising dancers.
Iím not a fan of the Irish Jig but this year, as a tribute to de Valois, we had lots of them. Donna Phillips, who is a visiting teacher of Irish dancing, put together a sort of production number of Irish jigs, which did Dame Ninette proud. It started with a single girl, then three, then some boys, then more girls, then combinations of them all. They were coming on and off the stage like billyoh, dancing their little hearts out with such energy, speed, lightness of foot and enthusiasm that you couldnít help but be thrilled. I thought it was terrific.
Now for the upper school. It is kindest to draw a veil over the dancing in the pas de cinq from the Sleeping Beauty and the fact that none of the boys in the upper school seemed able to do a double tour en líair. So letís begin with the two ballets for 2nd year students. Rookie Torrent was a contemporary piece (i.e. bare feet) which had the dancers jumping about a great deal and rushing in and out. I thought it would be good practice for any of them who wanted to move down the road and join the cast of The Lion King. But it was entertaining enough and showed the dancers to be a very lively, athletic lot even if there wasnít much chance to show any artistry. I ought to praise one boy, who, in a drunken sequence, did the best (intended) stage falls since Sir Ralph Richardson in No Manís Land.
The second ballet, Snapshots, wasnít danced in bare feet and did have a sort of plot, which neednít detain us. But since it had much the same cast as Rookie Torrent, doing much the same type of dancing, I found that, coming almost immediately after the other ballet, it got a bit boring. It is true that there were some slower parts but they seemed more pretentious than moving.
The three ballets danced by the 3rd year (mostly) were all excellent. Interpretations was choreographed by Stephen Greenston (I donít know who he is either) to music by Shostakovich. It did have a theme but I found it best to ignore that and regard it as pure dance. It was for two boys and two girls, who for the most part danced as two couples and, to begin with, it looked like being one of those awful ballets full of angst and misery that bore us to death. But it didnít work like that for me; it held me throughout and I still donít know why. No doubt the choreographer deserves most credit for being so musical and finding such interesting combinations of steps and the dancers were also very fine. In fact, there were two casts, making eight dancers who were all very good. However, the two casts were quite different so it was almost like seeing two different ballets.
Everyone reading this will know who Christopher Wheeldon is. We saw excerpts from his Souvenirs, a ballet he wrote for the School of American Ballet to very tuneful music by Samuel Barber. It is very witty and clever and full of invention. Wheedonís style is said to be a mixture of Ashton and Balanchine yet I thought Souvenirs looked much more like Ashton but perhaps that was due to the English trained dancers. For a description of this ballet, I canít do better than refer you to the review by Ann Williams in these postings.
Finally to what was for many the most popular piece: Kreisler Variations, choreographed by Ricardo Bustamente to music arranged years ago by Kreisler. In fact the music is the type that used to be played by the Palm Court Orchestra. The ballet begins with an introduction for the full cast of corps plus eight soloists. It is danced to a tune which sounds very arabic and the whole episode looks very Egyptian. There are two ďgirls dancesĒ each for a soloist plus corps, and a very exciting ďboys danceĒ which uses two of the soloists, almost in competition and showing off, in a dazzling sequence using most of the male virtuoso steps. Best of all were the two pas de deux. The first was very romantic and beautiful while the second, the Minuet, mostly used the two dancers in solos, which demonstrated their virtuosity. A lively finale brought the curtain down in fine style.
Only that wasnít the finale in the Opera House. Instead we had a Grand Defile in which all the pupils in the school came on stage. The audience loved it.