Review: Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2018

A Feast for the Senses

From toddlers to teenagers, the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival offers a world class programme of theatre and dance, finds Mark Brown

 

Stick by me 4 c. Mihaela Bodlovic_preview
Andy Manley in Stick By Me. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

To attend the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is not only to join audiences of youngsters from throughout Edinburgh and beyond, it is also to take one’s place alongside international delegates (children’s performing arts creators and producers) from around the world.

There’s a good reason why the Festival attracts such global interest. It is not only the largest festival of its kind in the UK, it is also, to my mind, the highest quality, most carefully curated performing arts showcase in Scotland.

This year’s Festival (which ends today) has boasted work for all age groups (from babies and toddlers to teenagers), from countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Festival director Noel Jordan can be proud of a world class programme which has impressed immensely, both in its imaginative scope and its splendid production values.

A very definite case in point is A Feast Of Bones by Irish company Theatre Lovett. Designed for kids aged nine to 15, the piece is a beautifully radical reworking of the fable of Henny Penny, the paranoiac chicken who inadvertently led her friends to destruction at the jaws of Foxy Loxy.

This might sound a little basic for its target audience, but consider that writer Frances Kay and director Muireann Ahern have relocated the tale to a French restaurant in Dublin named Le Monde Bouleverse (The World Turned Upside-down). Consider, too, that we find ourselves in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

The restaurant is, as its name suggests, a decidedly odd one. The eatery boasts a knife-sharp waitress (Lisa Lambe), a pair of French musicians who are refugees from the War (composer Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden) and a single customer (an energetically eccentric, somewhat foxy gastronome by the name of Rennard).

The restaurant’s menu seems to have been inspired by the story of Henny Penny. However, at Le Monde Bouleverse, we are dealing, not with paranoia, but with a world in which the sky did fall in for four terrible years.

Superbly inventive though the storytelling is, it is the exquisite theatricality of the show that makes it a genuinely great piece of live drama. Every aspect of the work, from the clever stage and lighting design to the memorably marvellous music, is gorgeously stylish.

Smartly acted throughout, the show’s piece de resistance is the playing of Rennard by Louis Lovett. A cleverly complex character, Lovett’s Rennard is a likeable, if egotistical, clown. Snobbish, self-important and less educated than he supposes, he has, despite his apparent cheerfulness, a dark war story of his own.

Lambe gives a perfectly pitched performance as the waitress, simultaneously engaging, mysterious and just a little sinister. As she turns the tables, she also turns the famous fable into a moving tale of revenge and redemption.

Theatre Lovett describes itself, not as a children’s theatre company, but as a creator of “works for all”. A Feast Of Bones bears brilliant testimony to its skill in making cross-generational theatre.

A very different highlight of the Festival was Stick By Me, a work for three to six-year-olds by Scotland’s own Andy Manley and Red Bridge Arts. Performed by the always brilliant Manley, the piece is the deliciously off-centre story of the friendship between a man and a small stick (which looks suspiciously like a coffee stirrer).

Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape meets One Man And His Dog, but with a wee stick standing in for the dog, and you’re (possibly) getting somewhere close to the concept of this delightful little piece. Sitting behind a Victorian-style school desk, Manley’s lone character is confined by reproving voices from leaving the square space in which he lives.

Only through the playful imagination, and with the help of his wee wooden friend and some adhesive tape (of which, luckily enough, there is an abundance), can Manley finally escape a decidedly sticky situation. It’s bonkers, of course, but delightfully funny and utterly charming.

There’s charm, too, in Toddler Room, a beautifully gentle, enchantingly designed dance piece for babies and toddlers by Dybwikdans of Norway. The show is presented in a lovely, little white pod in which dancer Marie Ronold Mathisen interacts wordlessly with her very young audience using nicely choreographed movement, big red balloons and a large, but appealingly benign, bird puppet.

Mbuzeni 2_preview
The cast of Mbuzeni

I was intrigued to see Mbuzeni, a play for kids aged 12 and over by the South African company Koleka Putuma. The piece tells the story of four homeless orphan girls who are separated from the nearby community, not only by their marginal status, but also by their fixation with playing burial games in the town cemetery.

This is a traditional society, and the girls’ seeming disregard for the rituals of death sets them further apart. The story, which deals with death boldly and is unafraid of a sad ending, is a powerful one.

The singing and dancing are engaging, as is the combination of the Xhosa language with English. However, the piece relies too heavily on the easy humour of adult actors playing child characters.

As the Festival goes into its final day, I can recommend the outstandingly brilliant Baba Yaga (for children aged 7-12) and Ogo, a delightful puppet play for kids aged two-and-a-half to six, which I was fortunate to catch in Quebec last summer.

Details of the programme for the final day of the Festival can be found at: imaginate.org.uk

This reviews feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 3, 2018

© Mark Brown

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Review: Highland Fling (2018), Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)

DANCE REVIEW

 

Highland Fling

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

Touring Scotland until May 4

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Highland Fling 2018 #2
Sophie Martin and Christopher Harrison in Highland Fling. Photo: Scottish Ballet

Five years ago Scottish Ballet pulled off a notable coup when Matthew Bourne directed the Caledonian premiere of his own 1994 piece Highland Fling. A radical re-envisioning of La Sylphide, the famous Romantic ballet from 1832 by Danish choreographer August Bournonville, Bourne’s work relocated the action from a Brigadoon-style rural Scotland to a garish, hyper-real vision of modern day Glasgow.

Now, under the steady hand of director Etta Murfitt (who has revived Bourne’s 2013 production with laser-like precision), our national ballet company is taking this celebrated show, not only to Edinburgh, but also to Shetland, Orkney, Oban and Stornoway. As Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson commented at the interval function during the opening performance on Wednesday night, the logistical challenge of taking a large scale ballet to the Highlands and Islands is at least as great as that involved in the company’s expeditions to Asia or North America.

What the ballet’s new audiences, from Lerwick to Argyll, will encounter is an Irvine Welsh-style reimagining of Bournonville’s Romantic tale of James, the young farmhand who falls in love with a fairy on the eve of his wedding to peasant lass Effie. In this version, our protagonist is an unemployed welder, laid off from a Clydeside shipyard, and his beloved sylph (a winged siren), not so much a metaphysical presence as a drug-induced illusion.

James first sees the enticing fairy (a mud-spattered, punky apparition who is reminiscent of Toyah Willcox circa 1978) while he’s slumped, in a chemical haze, in the urinal of the Highland Fling social club. Meanwhile his friends are boozing and fornicating in a manner which would, in reality, lead to the club losing its licence.

From there, the party shifts to a council flat which is decked out in hilarious tartanalia and an ecumenical array of both Celtic and Rangers football regalia (although the Celtic scarf, emblazoned with the words “There’s only one Neil Lennon” suggests a little updating is required, even if it will delight fans of Hibernian FC). Designer Lez Brotherston excels himself here, with a delightfully exaggerated vision of working-class Scottishness that could have been inspired by Ron O’Donnell’s photo-sculpture The Scotsman (the one in which we see a male manikin in a kilt, with a football for a head, sitting in a tartan-walled room decorated with the kind of objects you can only buy in Scotland’s most garish tourist shops).

As James, still out of his skull on hallucinogenic substances, continues to be seduced by the sylph, the action shifts to a forest clearing outside the city. There, in the presence of an abandoned, old Volkswagen Beetle, the welder dances with, not one siren, but an entire flutter of fairies.

As in 2013, Christopher Harrison (James) and Sophie Martin (The Sylph) dance the leads with a perfect, if unlikely, combination of audacious physical comedy, balletic poise and, ultimately, agonising brutality. Indeed, the dancing and performing is superb across a revival which replicates flawlessly the past glories of this deservedly acclaimed production.

For tour dates, visit: scottishballet.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 8, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Highland Fling (2018), Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

DANCE

HIGHLAND FLING

THEATRE ROYAL, GLASGOW

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Highland Fling 2018
Christopher Harrison and Sophie Martin in Highland Fling. Photo: Scottish Ballet

It is, remarkably, five years since Matthew Bourne directed his extraordinary 1994 work Highland Fling for Scottish Ballet. It seems like only yesterday that this daring, imaginative and comic version of La Sylphide (the 1832 ballet by Danish choreographer August Bournonville) premiered on the Scottish stage, so vivid and memorable is its imagery.

Imagine a head-on collision between Brigadoon and Trainspotting, and you have something approximating Bourne’s ballet. The pastoralism of Bournonville’s Scottish love story makes way for the decidedly urban hedonism that precedes the planned wedding of James (an unemployed welder) and Effie.

In the men’s toilet of the Highland Fling social club in Glasgow, a drug-addled James is slumped in a urinal. There he is beguiled by a decidedly punkish and ragged sylph (a winged siren) who, he believes, loves him more than Effie ever can. As James sinks ever deeper into his hallucination, the party descends into audacious comic excesses of the Bacchanalian, chemical and sexual varieties.

Events move on to a council flat which is (thanks to Lez Brotherston’s wonderfully outrageous designs) a garish vision in tartan and football paraphernalia. There we are treated to Bourne’s delightful choreography of drink-induced bonhomie, casual affection,  jealous conflict and a gin-swilling granny in a wheelchair.

In the midst of this chaos, James continues to see the vision of the sylph. This leads him (in Act 2) to a woodland glade outside the city where a legion of fairies surround his beloved siren.

Now, as in 2013, the shift in visual tone and choreographic energy between the two acts feels like a shift down in balletic gears, so immense is the impact of the opening scenes. That said, there is also pleasure in the contrast.

Bourne and Brotherston’s vision is one of urban hyperrealism giving way to mud-spattered punk fairies. There is an amusing and deliberate incongruity between that and the carefully wrought Romanticism of the original musical score by Herman Severin Løvenskjold.

Christopher Harrison (James) and Sophie Martin (The Sylph) lead the universally excellent company, as they did five years ago, with an unlikely and brilliant combination of slapstick humour and elegance. Indeed, it is testament to both Bourne and the dancers that such an over-the-top, comic ballet should achieve such a genuinely horrifying and moving conclusion.

 At Theatre Royal, Glasgow until Saturday, April 7, then touring Scotland until May 4. For details, visit: scottishballet.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 5, 2018

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/highland-fling-theatre-royal-glasgow-review-like-head-on-collision/

©Mark Brown

 

Reviews: The Lover & Achilles (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

The Lover

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until February 3

 

Achilles

Seen at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 30

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Lover #2
Yosuke Kusano and Amy Hollinshed in The Lover. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

A dance-theatre piece based upon Marguerite Duras’s acclaimed, autobiographical novel The Lover was a tantalising prospect. Sad to say, however, this co-production (by the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines) is dreadfully misconceived.

There are, in general, too many adaptations of famous novels on the stage. That said, some prose fictions contain more theatrical possibilities than others.

The Lover, published in 1984, would seem to offer much to the stage. In the novel, Duras recounts a love affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man in French colonial Indochina. The affair at the heart of the book (which is illicit both racially and due to the girl’s age) is charged with the kind of psychological and erotic possibilities that often make for great theatre.

The trick with any successful stage adaptation of a novel is to find the right theatrical form in which to express the depths and nuances of the fiction. Adapters and co-directors Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick have come up with a central, interpretative idea which misfires badly.

Fine actor Susan Vidler appears on-stage as The Woman, the narrator of her own story, remembering, many decades later, both a tumultuous love affair and the extraordinary city (Saigon) in which it occurred. However, her live speech is intercut, in fact overwhelmed, by recorded narration and dialogue.

Four actor-dancers represent The Girl, The Man and The Girl’s brothers (who are spoiled brat products of colonial entitlement). When they speak, they mime to a recorded female voice.

This makes a certain, conceptual sense. It reminds us that the story is being told from the perspective of The Woman later in her life, and, therefore, carries with it all of the potential embellishments, omissions and other creative alterations that come with memory.

However, in performative terms, it is nothing short of disastrous. It is truly amazing that Darkin and Levick did not realise that having dancers mime to recorded speech, not occasionally, but continuously, would be ridiculous, in visual terms, and absolutely distracting to the audience.

The choreography itself is a mixed bag. Although occasionally evocative and executed with technical accomplishment by the dancers, it is often too literal in its visual metaphors.

In an evening of mangled opportunities, the central sex scene is particularly silly. Playing in mock naked costumes (or fake nudes, if you will), Amy Hollinshead (The Girl) and Yosuke Kusano (The Man) are fighting a losing battle as they attempt to evoke the powerful erotic connection between the lovers.

Vidler’s almost heroic performance aside, the production’s only other saving grace is Leila Kalbassi’s set design. Exhibiting a subtlety which is otherwise entirely absent in the show, it takes its inspiration from the famously delicate visual arts of East Asia.

Dance-theatre is a genre (exemplified by the great London-based company DV8 Physical Theatre) which makes a seamless connection between choreography and live drama. Frustratingly, this staging of The Lover is all seam and very little connection.

Achilles
Ewan Downie performing Achilles. Photo: Company of Wolves

Achilles, a new, solo work from Glasgow-based physical theatre group Company of Wolves is no less ambitious than Darkin and Levick’s offering, and considerably more successful. Performed by the Wolves’ co-director Ewan Downie, the piece is an example of a theatrical form which is familiar to some in the Scottish audience, but rarely practised by Scotland-based artists themselves.

Downie and his co-director Anna Porubcansky (who is dramaturge and composer on this piece) stand in a rich, Polish tradition (developed most famously by the great theatre master Jerzy Grotowski). Downie is a former member of the acclaimed Polish ensemble Song of the Goat, which has illuminated the Edinburgh Fringe with such great shows as Chronicles: A Lamentation and Songs Of Lear.

Company of Wolves is a welcome attempt to bring this profound artistic form into Scottish theatre practice. Achilles is an admirable step on that journey.

Downie is simultaneously the expressive, Homeric narrator of the piece, and also the performer of its drama. At the outset, he paints for us a colourful word picture of Troy, a functioning city living in dread of its siege.

Then, he turns to the story of Achilles’s and his vengeful anguish when his beloved friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector.

Lying on his back on the floor, Downie begins to sing a Greek song of lamentation, his limbs moving slowly in an affecting expression of Achilles’s insufferable moral pain. Then, as anguish turns to rage, we hear of the Greek hero’s preparations for war.

Achilles’s ensuing bloodlust is, first, recounted in unsparing, gruesomely poetic detail, and, then, re-enacted, with muscular, visual eloquence. The spasmodic death agonies of a Trojan soldier, whose spine has been skewered by the Greek warrior, carry an unflinching truth.

The three songs in the show (two, like the music at the heart of Song of the Goat’s Chronicles, from the folk traditions of the Epirus region of Greece, the other from the Byzantine Christian liturgy) carry a powerful spiritual resonance, and are performed by Downie with real depth of expression. The simple designs (set and costume by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, lighting by Alberto Santos-Bellido) are tailor-made.

The shifts in tone required of Downie, between narration, stylised physical performance and emotive song are not easy to sustain across the work’s 45 minutes, and the piece does lose its rhythm from time to time. However, there is much to admire in the attempt.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 28, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: The Lover, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

THE LOVER

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Lover
The Lover. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Since he took the reins as artistic director at the Lyceum in 2016, renowned dramatist David Greig has received merited plaudits for the boldness of his programming. However, brave and ambitious though it is, it seems unlikely that The Lover, a dance-theatre adaptation of Marguerite Duras‘s award-winning, autobiographical novel, will go down as a high point of his tenure.

The piece is a co-production between the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines. It is adapted jointly by its co-directors, choreographer Fleur Darkin and theatre director Jemima Levick.

Stage adaptations of famous novels are much too common in British theatre. That said Duras’s story of a love affair in French colonial Indochina, which is illicit on grounds of both age (the girl is just 15) and ethnicity (she is white French, he is Chinese), should offer more to the stage than most prose fictions. After all, there is in the novel the atmosphere of colonial Saigon, and the powerful psychological and erotic dimensions of the affair, as seen by the girl later in her life.

Between them, however, Darkin and Levick (and Greig, who is credited with “dramaturgy”) have conspired to squander the dramatic possibilities Duras offers them. The piece is not so much a combination of dance and theatre as an unholy collision.

The delicate beauty of designer Leila Kalbassi’s set, which is inspired by the calligraphies and pastoralism of East Asian art, stands in embarrassing contrast with the clunking dreadfulness of the co-directors’ decisions. As the ever-impressive Susan Vidler takes her place on-stage as The Woman (the narrative voice of The Girl later in life), her live narration is intercut, irritatingly and distractingly, with recorded narrative.

Worse-still, the actor-dancers who perform the various roles (including The Girl and The Man), mime their dialogue to exclusively female recorded speech. The intention, no doubt, is to emphasise both the female perspective of the story and its status as memory. The effect, however, is to bury the narrative under the agonising awfulness of the mime.

The dance itself is variable, but too often literal in its metaphors. The crucial sex scene is rendered unintentionally comic by its decidedly unerotic, faux-naked costumes.

Poorly conceived, and even more badly executed, this deeply disappointing offering does no favours to a classic of 20th-century French literature.

Until February 3. Details: lyceum.org.uk

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 24, 2018

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/affair-forget-lover-royal-lyceum-edinburgh/

©Mark Brown

 

Reviews: Richard Alston Dance Company & Rambert

DANCE REVIEWS

 

Richard Alston Dance Company

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh;

Playing Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

November 23

 

Rambert

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh;

Playing His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen

February 15-17, 2018

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Richard Alston - Chacony
Chacony by Richard Alston Dance Company. Photo: Chris Nash

Richard Alston, acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of his own celebrated dance company, is one of the true gentlemen of the dance world. A fact that was further attested to in Edinburgh, where his company played on September 22.

A long-time patron of youth dance in the UK, Alston invited the Re:Volution Youth Dance Company from Inverurie to raise the curtain, not only on the Edinburgh show, but on the entire autumn tour. Before the youngsters’ performance, Alston came on-stage to praise the energy and invention of their piece, which is entitled Into The Shadows.

He was entirely justified in doing so. The Aberdeenshire youth company showed tremendous technical ability in presenting an exciting, sharp work which bristles with  tension and cooperative ingenuity.

The London-based Richard Alston Dance Company (RADC) itself tends to stand at the gentler, more balletic end of the contemporary dance spectrum. There are no pointes and no tutus, but nor is there much of the high modernist experimentalism of the likes of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal or (stars of August’s Edinburgh International Festival) Nederlands Dans Theater.

There is no value judgment contained within this observation. In fact, there is something rather charming in what one might call the quasi-balletic contemplation in Alston’s work.

The reflections in the programme presented in Edinburgh were primarily musical in nature. The opening piece, a world premiere entitled Carnaval, is danced to Robert Schumann’s lovely piano composition of the same name (which is played dexterously, live on stage, by Jason Ridgway).

In the midst of the splendour of an early-19th century ball, the young Schumann exposes his beloved, young wife Clara to the two sides of his personality; which he named Eusebius (his cool, centred self) and Florestan (the wilder, uneasy aspect of his character). On a stylishly minimalist set, which is lent a period grandeur by five chandeliers, Clara (danced beautifully by Elly Braund) is charmed by Eusebius (the excellent Liam Riddick) and, quite literally, swept off her feet by Nicholas Bodych’s wonderfully combustible Florestan.

From a polarised human personality to the contrasting and pleasingly compatible musical styles of Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten in Chacony. Purcell’s very English rendering of the baroque musical form known as “chaconne” is followed by Britten’s equally English, yet strikingly modern, composition, which references the work by Purcell.

The starkly colourful, impressively simple sets and costumes combine perfectly with a choreography that (like the music to which it is danced) emphasises contrast, continuity and control. It is performed (and, notably, concludes) with an understated sense of drama.

The most explosively dramatic work of the evening, however, was Alston’s Gypsy Mixture (a 2004 piece restaged here by RADC’s associate choreographer Martin Lawrance). A celebration of the effervescent and diverse cultural life of the many communities of travelling and Romany peoples, it is made of high-octane dances to six pieces of fast-paced dance music from the extraordinary album Electric Gypsyland.

Gloriously informal and celebratory, breaking suddenly from precision to freedom, Alston’s diverse choreography will, surely, delight its Glasgow audience as thoroughly as it did dance lovers in Edinburgh.

Rambert - A Linha Curva
A Linha Curva by Rambert. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Broad though his choreographic palette is, Alston has nothing on contemporary dance company Rambert (which is also based in London). Styling itself “Britain’s national dance company”, the group offered the Festival Theatre audience an extraordinarily varied programme.

The first piece, A Linha Curva (The Curved Line), is a fantastically bold, dynamic, carnivalesque homage to the music and dance of Brazil.

The Dutch percussion quartet Percossa sit in an elevated box at the back of the stage. They perform an original score developed with choreographer Itzik Galili in Sao Paulo.

The music, played on a startling array of instruments and objects (and upon the bodies and faces of the musicians), is a brilliant artwork in its own right. Echoing not only Brazilian carnival but the many cultural influences in Brazil and South America, its subtleties and explosions are perfectly in tune with Galili’s choreography.

The dance itself is quite unlike anything I have seen on a theatre stage. The vivacity, colour and humorous competitiveness of carnival are evoked by dance which is so celebratory that it sometimes seems almost instinctive.

However, that sense of spontaneity is reined in by the piece’s extraordinary discipline and control. The tension between these elements creates of truly immense energy and sensuality (indeed, the work is equally homosexy and heterosexy).

Symbiosis (choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis, with music by Ilan Eshkeri) contrasts radically with the warmth and heat of A Linha Curva. There is a cool, almost sci-fi aspect to the piece, visually, musically and choreographically.

Dancers dressed in neutral-coloured costumes that might have been inspired by fish move in a beautiful, almost mechanical harmony, whether as a corps or in duet. However, in other moments, individual variations suggest a jazz-like improvisation, which suits Eshkeri’s classical, jazz-inflected score perfectly.

“What a waste of great dancers”, exclaimed the disgusted man sitting behind me at the close of Goat, the third and final piece on the Edinburgh bill. It wasn’t difficult to understand his disgruntlement.

Choreographer Ben Duke’s piece, set in a mocked up community hall, belongs to the modish, postmodern strand in contemporary dance in which dancers talk into microphones and the ugly “movement” seems hostile to the entire history of dance. A reflection on the performing arts as therapy (or something), it is self-conscious navel gazing of the worst and most alienating kind.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 12, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Royal Ballet gala, Hull New Theatre

DANCE

 

ROYAL BALLET GALA PERFORMANCE

HULL NEW THEATRE

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Royal Ballet in Hull
Steven McRae and Elizabeth Harrod perform The Two Pigeons. Photo: Coris/Getty Images

With Hull’s successful UK City of Culture 2017 programme in full swing, how better to herald the reopening of the New Theatre (following a splendid, £16 million refurbishment) than with a star-studded gala performance by the Royal Ballet? A packed house of 1,200 people inside the theatre were joined by another 5,000 watching a relayed film screening in Hull’s Queens Gardens, making the performance a genuinely historic cultural event for the city.

In a nice touch, the organisers arranged for the film relay to be put on a 30-minute delay. This gave the dancers time after the show to make their way to the Gardens and take their bows before the audience watching on the big screen.

The match-up between the world-renowned ballet company and Hull’s year-long celebration of the arts is rooted in the city’s considerable contribution to dance. Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, was born in Hull and made a number of his early performances, as a young boy, on the New Theatre stage.

Early in this incredibly diverse programme of 17 short pieces, O’Hare came on stage to speak about the importance of the city to him, to his company and to the world of dance. Not only did the director’s offering include three Royal Ballet dancers past and present (namely, Elizabeth Harrod, Demelza Parish and, her brother, Xander Parish) who are from Humberside, it also starred guest artist Joseph Caley (currently principal dancer with English National Ballet) who was born in Hull.

Indeed, Caley’s performance of David Bintley’s Hamlet solo from The Shakespeare Suite was one of the highlights of the evening. A jazzy choreography, mixing playfulness and melancholy, danced to music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, it was executed with a delightfully paradoxical combination of expressive individualism and faithful exactitude.

The mixed programme presented perfectly pitched tasters from such choreographic greats as Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, William Forsythe, and Kenneth MacMillan. The audience very much appreciated the inclusion in the show of the dancers (some of them very young indeed) of the Hull-based Northern Academy of Performing Arts and two other local dance schools.

If there was a stand out among this startlingly varied programme it was, surely, the pas de deux from Wayne McGregor‘s Qualia. A modernist piece, danced to intense music by experimental composer Robin David Rimbaud (aka Scanner), it was performed with extraordinary muscularity and eroticism by Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson.

By the time the show closed, with a gorgeous Petipa pas de deux by local hero Caley and the immense Akane Takada, the audience were out of their beautifully re-upholstered seats and cheering this memorable gala to the rafters.

For details of the Hull City of Culture programme, visit: hull2017.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 17, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/royal-ballet-reopens-hull-new-theatre-gala-performance-remember/

© Mark Brown