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Mara Galeazzi ‘Dancing for the children’ gala 2011 – Review

On Sunday 3rd April the ballet world descended on Sadler’s Wells Theatre to support Royal Ballet Principal Mara Galeazzi in her quest to raise money for children’s charities in Africa and here in the UK. With six world premieres and celebrity hosts, dancers and choreographers, the evening promised to be spectacular. I was lucky enough to attend and had amazing seats right at the front which allowed me to see every detail of the performances and to get a real look at Mara’s amazing technique. Not having attended Mara’s gala last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was pleasantly surprised to see that children were involved, after all it was a gala for children.

The gala opened with a gorgeous little boy, Thomas Round, reciting ‘Where the children grow’ by Christy Dawson. He immediately melted the hearts of the audience and created a warm and happy atmosphere that continued until curtain down.

The gala was a good mix of music and dance, although the order of items was a little off in my opinion, with some musical items back to back. Never, however have I seen such a talented and varied bunch of performers come together in one show.

In the musical corner there was the incredible 11-year-old violinist, Stephanie Childress, who wowed the audience by playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs. I’m sure we will be seeing more of Stephanie in the future as she vies for her place as the next Vanessa Mae.

Stephanie Childress

Then there was, Thomas Harris, a concert pianist who played Chopin’s Ballade no.3 and Rachmaninov’s Prelude no.5 – my two favourite composers – beautifully.

In terms of dance the audience was thoroughly spoiled with a huge variety of ballet, neo-classical, tap and contemporary. I particularly enjoyed Mara’s solo that transported me to the planes of the African Savannah and also her incredibly technical pas de deux, Look West, with Gary Avis which included some amazing lifts. My only criticism would be that it didn’t last long enough!

Other favourites from the vast repertoire were The Black Swan pas de deux danced immaculately by Yuhui Choe and Nehemiah Kish. However the happy ambiance of the audience must have spread to the dancers by this point because Yuhui was far too smiley for Odile! I also really enjoyed the new company ‘Void’ created by the Ballet Boyz. They highlighted just how athletic male dancers are and alongside acts like the English National Ballet’s Men Y Men are doing wonders for male dance.

Despite short but moving videos of the work that Mara is doing for children’s charities the gala was not heavy or devoid of humour. 4 Poofs minus their piano did a comical take on Swan Lake’s cygnets and Raffaele Morra from Les Ballets Trokadero de Monte Carlo performed an impressive yet hilarious take on Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan!

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. Mara is not only an incredibly gifted dancer but a great role model for the dance world. BBC four take note – this is the sort of ecstasy that The Agony and Ecstasy failed to get across!

Dancing for the children raises money for Great Ormond Street Hospital and for children in South Africa. To donate click here

REVIEW Episode 3: Agony and the ecstasy: a year with the English National Ballet

The final episode of BBC 4’s documentary about the English National Ballet focused on their Christmas production of The Nutcracker. The company may have been bringing seasonal joy and cheer to their audiences, but backstage there was certainly nothing festive about the mood of the company.

This episode revealed a tired company who appeared to have little drive or passion and despite the much calmer Wayne Eagling choreographing the ballet rather than the bullish Derek Deane, it still made for uncomfortable viewing.

Choreographically the series has portrayed three very different styles. From the bullying tactics of Derek Deane, which it has to be said does get results, to the kind but firm approach of Patricia Ruanne and finally the eccentric, creative but completely disorganised process favoured by Wayne Eagling.

Although I’m sure for the dancers Wayne is less scary to work with than Derek, his way of choreographing has the most negative effect on the dancers out of all the three choreographers portrayed.

Wayne Eagling rehearsing and choreographing at the same time. (Image - screenshot taken from BBC iplayer 'Agony and ecstasy for review purposes)

This week’s programme leaves you feeling physically stressed as you watch the dancers attempt to cope with last minute rehearsals and the crippling knowledge that they may go on stage without knowing the steps. For a dancer it is terrifying to be waiting in the wings unsure of whether you will remember the steps in front of the audience.

Normally a dancer relies on their muscle memory which will kick in even if they experience a moment where they ‘freeze’. However in my experience it takes at least a week of rehearsals for a dancer’s body to truly commit steps to its muscle memory. For the ENB dancers who were still learning steps hours before curtain up on first night, there was obvious dismay at how they were going to cope in front of an audience.

Corps de ballet member, Kasenia Ovsyanick, who has been chosen to dance The Dance of the Mirlitons comments that the attitude of the teachers and choreographer doesn’t help and that they aren’t trying to help the dancers. Kasenia is reduced to learning steps off a mobile phone video and practising in a fire exit despite the fact that her dance is very difficult and not even finished. Similarly Senior Principal Elena Glurdjidze says that she will be the one on stage, not the choreographer and asks how can she dance something correctly when she has never tried it before.

For Daria Klimentova, who admitted in the first episode that at the age of 38 she was dancing for the love and fun of it, rehearsing The Nutcracker certainly didn’t fit into this ideal. During the dress rehearsal, which was watched by a paying audience, Daria had to stop several times, both during her pas de deux and her solo. This highlights just how unprepared the company was feeling, as dancers rarely give up in front of an audience, especially a prima ballerina with years of experience like Daria.

Daria distressed after stopping during dress rehearsal. (Image - screenshot taken from BBC iplayer 'Agony and Ecstasy' for review purposes)

This last episode really highlighted an issue that has become more and more obvious as the series continued – The English National Ballet doesn’t appear to be a very happy company at the moment. The BBC has presented them as a downtrodden company with little artistic zeal. The dancers have come across as very passive with both Patricia Ruanne and Wayne Eagling making comments about their lack of participation.

Eagling remarked, ”The worst feeling in the world is to face a room full of people just looking at you going ok genius do something.” Maybe he should thank Derek Deane for making his dancers submissive! Rather than working with their choreographers and suggesting other ways of doing things the dancers simply wait to be told what to do. They are then shown shaking their heads between them incredulously at how long Eagling is taking to come up with steps. The company seems to be in dire need of more artistic injection from the dancers as well as the choreographers!

Perhaps the financial pressures of the company are weighing heavy on the dancers and impacting on their love of ballet. Fortunately when they are on stage none of this is evident and it will come as a surprise to the company’s followers that the company is so different off stage to on.

Another issue that the BBC concentrates on is the lack of cohesion between the dance side of the company and the supporting elements of the company such as the stage managers, the costume designers and the set designers. All too often in the ballet world these important supporting elements are taken for granted and the dancers and choreographers assume a superior role. This is clearly the case during this production and is exaggerated due to the time constraints experienced.

The costume designers who have obviously worked extremely hard under a lot of pressure are not given a voice and are visibly stressed at the lack of gratitude from Wayne. The shoe designer is left flabbergasted when Wayne decides that the rat king will wear ballet shoes and not the boots she has spent hours making. They are also brushed aside when they ask for a full rehearsal for the costume changes. In a similar vein the set designers are blamed for all manner of problems despite the fact that Britain has been hit by heavy snowfall which makes their job harder and the fact that they have not had time to rehearse the technical stunts.

The dancers put on an excellent first performance. (Image- screenshot from BBC iplayer for review purposes)

Fortunately the end result as always is beautiful. The dancers manage to put on a top class performance despite moments where they just have to improvise! There are stills of the dancers in the wings smiling but these little moments of happiness certainly don’t equate to ecstasy and don’t do much to outweigh the agony of rehearsing the ballet. When the dancers are taking their curtain call everyone is pleased except for Wayne Eagling who rather than praising the excellent work of his dancers, is obsessed with the fact that his hot air balloon trick didn’t work properly. No wonder the dancers look disillusioned when that is the response they get from their choreographer.

The programme is called Agony and the ecstasy but there is far more agony footage shown than ecstasy, possibly leaving viewers with a negative opinion of the ballet world. As ballet is in somewhat of a precarious situation with arts council cuts and new generations not attending theatre productions, shedding a negative light on the ballet world is not helpful. In my opinion the programme needed to highlight the joy of dancing and ask the dancers more about why they choose ballet as a career.

Watch episode 3 on BBC iplayer here

Cardiff arts funding cuts: Survival of the fittest

Community arts groups have to prove their worth or risk becoming the next victim of the budget cuts

Christmas is fast approaching. Every afternoon lines of giggling children spill out of Cardiff’s theatres waving wands and re-enacting their favourite moments of the pantomime. In the evening lines of animated adults spill out of the theatre discussing the best bits of the ballet or play they have just seen. This scene is not unique to Christmas however. It is becoming a more and more frequent scenario throughout the whole year. People are increasingly going to the theatre and indulging in dance, drama and music.

The Welsh Arts Council are 'delighted' to only have a 4% budget cut given the economic situation

It is strange then that since 2008 all we’ve heard is doom and gloom about the economic downturn. It has been a hard couple of years with many people losing their jobs, their savings and having to significantly tighten their purse strings. Some industries however have turned the recession to their benefit and made profits out of it. It may come as a surprise to learn that the arts industry has become a most unlikely member of this lucky club. It appears from a recent survey conducted by the Arts Council Wales (ACW) that far from saving money many people have decided to entertain away their financial woes and as a consequence more and more people have turned to the arts for some light relief.

Wales Millennium Centre has a constant stream of theatregoers

In Cardiff you only have to walk past New Theatre or The Millennium Centre at the end of a show to realise that this is true.

A survey recently published by the Arts Council Wales (ACW) reveals that the arts in Wales are more popular than ever. The survey states, “Overall, the amount of people attending arts events at least once a year has increased from 76% in 2005 to 86% in 2010.”

Not only has the appreciation of the Welsh public increased towards the arts but the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) has shown that it too understands the importance of the arts for society. In spite of the financial downturn the WAG announced on 17 November this year that the Arts Council’s Budget would only reduce by 4% over a three-year period starting 2011/12.

ACW were extremely pleased considering the budget cuts of October had been so severe in other sectors. ACW responded,

“In this straitened time we are delighted that a distinctive policy towards the arts has been understood and followed by the Welsh Assembly Government. We will make every pound entrusted to us work all the harder for the people of Wales, across Wales and in all our communities, to the benefit of the nation.”

Bittersweet news

For eight Cardiff community arts groups this obvious delight may sting a little. Despite the survey also revealing that participation in the arts has grown to record levels over the past few years, rising from 20% in 2005 to 39% in 2010, the ACW has cut funding to eight community arts groups in Cardiff. Some of these extremely valuable community groups have had to shut down due to the cuts after failing to prove their worth to the ACW. In explanation, Sian James of ACW said, “We will recognise, and back, artistic quality.” This will be of little comfort to the organisations already irreversibly damaged by their funding cuts.

Larger professional companies such as The Welsh National Opera have seen a rise in funding which has caused outrage among the smaller companies

One of the casualities of these cuts is the Women’s Art Association based in Cardiff Bay. Their office full of packed up boxes cut a stark contrast this week to the busy offices just around the corner of the ACW. The women who run the association said it was a very sad time for them and in the future their association would have to rely on volunteers to survive. For Spectacle Theatre in Tonypandy the repercussions are even worse as the company will close from 31 March 2011. Artistic Director, Steve Davis said,

“ACW has abandoned their strategy for funding theatre in education. The decision jeopardises the future of our work with young people and communities. A generation of young people will be disenfranchised from their entitlement to access the arts in their community.”

In 2009 – 2010 Spectacle held 273 workshops involving a total of 12,378 young participants. With Gwent Theatre being another casualty of the cuts, involvement in theatre for the South Wales community looks set to dry up.

Welsh Independent Dance can no longer support community involvement in dance.

Welsh Independent Dance, which has provided support for Welsh student and professional dancers is another Cardiff-based company that has no choice but to close following the announcement of the cuts in June 2010. Chair, Kate Long spoke of the difficult decision to wind up WID when the company had always supported and developed excellence in dance and dance artists based in Wales. Furthermore Hijinx Theatre Company, which aims to provide accessible high quality theatre to small communities in Wales, is calling an end to its annual community theatre tour.

Hijinx are having to stop their community tour because of the funding cuts

Cardiff’s increasingly enthusiastic arts based community might have to content themselves with watching rather than taking part in their chosen art from now on. The crowds of theatregoers in Cardiff may not diminish but in several previously vibrant and creative corners of Cardiff there will no longer be the sight and sound of communities creating dance, drama, art and music, but the complete silence of empty studios.

Findings of the Arts Council Survey

  • Arts in Wales are more popular than ever before.
  • Access to the arts has broadened irrespective of a person’s social background or where they live.
  • The amount of people attending arts events at least once a year has increased from 76% in 2005 to 86% in 2010.
  • The number of people taking part in arts activity has risen from 20% in 2005 to 39% in 2010.
  • More people are watching films, going to live gigs, art galleries, exhibitions, plays, musicals, and taking part in visual arts, crafts, music and dance than five years ago.
  • Arts attendance and participation levels are generally highest among those who have a comfortable lifestyle, have received higher education or young people between 16-24 years.
  • However people in the lowest social groups are now twice as likely as they were five years ago to take part in the arts.
  • People who are from a black or minority ethnic background and people living in the most disadvantaged ‘Communities First’ areas now have attendance and participation levels that are either the same as the general population or higher.

Article: How dance benefits society.

Map of six of the Cardiff based arts organisations that are suffering because of cuts to their funding.

A number of people in Cardiff were asked the question: The Arts Council Wales has only had its budget cut by 4%. Do you think it is fair that the arts have retained so much funding when major budget cuts have been made to frontline services such as social care and child protection?

  • This is that they thought:

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