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June 30 2013

‘A Dancer's Dream' Includes Orchestra in Stravinsky Ballets - NYTimes.com

‘A Dancer's Dream' Includes Orchestra in Stravinsky Ballets - NYTimes.com

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/29/arts/music/a-dancers-dream-includes-orchestra-in-stravinsky-ballets.html?nl=todayshead

In the original 1911 scenario of the ballet “Petrushka,” with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Fokine, the opening scene takes place in the bustling St. Petersburg square during the Shrovetide Fair. There are rowdy crowds, street hawkers, drunken revelers and puppet shows.

#art #musique #ballet

August 17 2012

Featured photojournalist: Pilar Olivares

Reuters photographer Pilar Olivares documents students at the Ballet Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. The school is a non-governmental organisation that gives children who live in areas with social risk, some suffering domestic violence, free ballet classes and other activities as a part of sociocultural integration project





June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK


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June 18 2012

Yinka Shonibare's ballerina twirls into action above Covent Garden

Artwork commissioned by the Royal Opera House will pirouette above crowds before opera and ballet performances

From this week, and for at least the next five years, if there is an opera or ballet on at Covent Garden, Yinka Shonibare's ballerina on the corner of the building will swirl gracefully into animation, turning slowly on one impossibly long, silk-shod foot, encased in the bubble of her own small world.

"I wanted to make a playful piece, a work that children would like, that would be somehow dreamlike, a figure of fantasy that would draw people into the building," the artist said, smiling up at her in the workshop in south London where his original sketch has been brought to life. "She's also like a lifesize version of those little dancers you get in jewellery boxes."

She may also give spectators an uneasy sense of vertigo. When she is unveiled high above one of the busiest areas of the market, the corner of Russell Street, the vertical wall will become her stage. She will pirouette parallel to the pavement below, and on her shoulders is not the typical dancer's immaculately coiffed head, but a turning Victorian globe of the world.

The Royal Opera House has wanted to commission a piece of contemporary art for the dullest corner of its building since the extension was completed in the 1990s. Shonibare first worked with the Royal Ballet on a film, Odile and Odette, the white and black swans of Swan Lake, and will return at the end of August to curate a weekend festival embracing African culture. He was invited to come up with an idea for the wall after being shown the blank space.

"I had a bit of a panic first about what I could do – and then I saw a photograph of Margot Fonteyn, in this exact pose, and that gave me my idea.

"But I wanted to make her a metaphor for humanity, for inclusiveness, not just a portrait. That is why she has a globe for a head, she is very obviously mixed race, and she wears Indonesian patterned cloth – she has become a universal figure."

Her body is fibreglass but was cast from a sculpture of a real dancer, Melissa Hamilton, a soloist who is regarded as a rising star with the Royal Ballet.

The bubble-like sphere that shelters her was made by a firm in Italy that specialises in aquariums. The company also made the gigantic bottle to hold Shonibare's scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory, which has sailed off the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and moored permanently – after a major public appeal – at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There is now a small memorial to the ship and the artist in a corner of the factory floor, his studio assistant revealed.

A lot will be going on in the streets below Shonibare's serene ballerina, particularly late on Friday and Saturday nights.

"What will she think of the people below her?" he wondered. "I think she will be thinking 'You lot stop fighting. Why can't you be magical like me – and dance?'"


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May 27 2012

My muse and me

How does an artist pick a muse? And what's it like to be one? Laura Barnett finds out from a choreographer, a novelist, a painter – and the people who inspire them

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Lauren Cuthbertson

In 2010, when choreographer Christopher Wheeldon began working on his acclaimed version of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, he had just one ballerina in mind for the lead role: Lauren Cuthbertson. "I'd worked with her a couple of times at the Royal Ballet School when she was about 16," Wheeldon says, "and again when she was in the corps de ballet. Even then I thought, 'This kid's really got something."' Wheeldon, who at 39 is 12 years older than Cuthbertson, adds: "She has an effortlessness, a way of making whatever she's doing on stage seem inevitable."

There was just one problem: Cuthbertson had been out of action for a year with glandular fever, and was having to sit out rehearsals. So Wheeldon began working with several other ballerinas, while still holding out for Cuthbertson. "There's a kind of wonderment in her performance that I thought was exactly right for Alice. I didn't want it to feel uncomfortable having an adult acting a child – it needed to be an adult who was still in touch with their inner child."

When Cuthbertson was well enough, they began creating the character. Wheeldon had a rough idea: "I wanted her to be unlike any other Alice we'd seen before, while staying true to the story." But he was keen for Cuthbertson to bring her own ideas. "There was trust there," says Cuthbertson. "I would get a feeling of what he wanted and bring something to the table he hadn't thought of. When you're creating a narrative ballet like Alice, you want even the smallest details – the moments, say, when Alice looks at the White Rabbit – to make sense. So if something didn't make sense to me, I would tell Chris, and we would work on it, over and over, until it did."

Their relationship, she says, was intense and instinctive. "I could tell what Chris wanted just by a look or a twitch. I didn't need coffee or Ribena. He feeds energy. We were just playing around with things and having a giggle." Wheeldon agrees. "It was, 'Let's play around and discover who this character is.'"

Wheeldon finds the word "muse" apt. "My definition," he says, "is somebody you work with, probably on a regular basis, who inspires you and informs the way you work in a surprising, unusual way." He draws a firm line, however, between this definition and the sexually predatory connotations that surround some of the great classical choreographers, such as George Balanchine (who married five of his ballerinas) and Frederick Ashton (who, though now widely believed to have been gay, was obsessed with his muse, Margot Fonteyn).

"Ashton said you have to be a little bit in love with your dancers to create beauty," Wheeldon says. "There's something in that, but for me it's a different kind of love: a connection on a childlike level. It's about saying, like kids on holiday, 'Let's go out and build sandcastles.' It's certainly not about sleeping together."

Wheeldon and Cuthbertson are working together again, on Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, a dance series inspired by Titian paintings – and hope their professional relationship will last a long time. "At the end of my career," says Wheeldon, "if I can look back and say Lauren was my muse, I'll consider myself very lucky."

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), from 14 July.

Writer Philip Hensher and Zaved Mahmood

Writers are often told to write what they know. But for his ninth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher turned the maxim on its head: the novel is a semi-fictionalised, first-person account not of his own childhood but of his Bangladeshi husband's, the human rights lawyer Zaved Mahmood.

From the moment they met a decade ago, Hensher has been fascinated by Mahmood's early life in Dhaka, growing up in the shadow of the 1971 war of independence that led to the formation of Bangladesh. "I was always saying, 'Go on, tell me more.' There were moments that were very much like my own childhood – we watched the same TV programmes, for instance – and other moments that were utterly different. There was also the fact that when I was a child, whenever I couldn't finish my food, my grandmother would say, 'Think of the starving children of Bangladesh.' If I'd known I was going to end up married to one, I'd have had a much snappier comeback."

Hensher began thinking that someone really ought to get Mahmood's recollections on paper. Deciding that he was just the man, he sat down with his husband for a series of formal interviews, at dinner times and during a six-hour train journey through Germany. Only when Hensher had finished the first draft did he show it to Mahmood, who couldn't believe how accurate it was. "I was so proud of him," Mahmood says. "The book actually took me back to my childhood, my old familiar life, in a very nice way. I only asked him to change a few things. I felt my family had come across a bit like royalty, when actually we were much more middle-class. But otherwise, it felt amazingly true. It was very nostalgic."

Neither think the term "muse" is quite right. "It's a sort of Alexander McQueen word," says Hensher, referring to the late fashion designer whose main muse was the stylist Isabella Blow. "It suggests you go out looking for someone to inspire you, but that's not how it is with Zav, although it's true that everything I've written has been, to some degree, for him. When I write something funny, I often think, 'Is this going to make Zav laugh?' But 'muse' seems a bit grandiose. Zav is more of a comfortable presence."

Mahmood is, however, intrigued by the parallels between their relationship and famous artist-muse married couples; Picasso and Jacqueline Roque, for instance. But he thinks the most useful definition of "muse" lies in the idea of emotional support. "Without that," he says, "it's very difficult for an artist to move forward. Philip supports my own work in the same way. He is very sympathetic about the way I'm leading my life and vice versa."

Hensher does see Mahmood as a source of wider inspiration, though. "It's interesting thinking about famous painters and the way they interacted with their muses," he says. "I did think of this book as a portrait of somebody I know really well, but with a range of ideas and a world view that isn't the same as mine. That's always a good thing as a writer – to put yourself in somebody else's shoes."

Scenes from Early Life is published by Fourth Estate.

Painter Chantal Joffe and Megan Watkins

Megan Watkins first caught painter Chantal Joffe's eye at the nursery their children were both attending. Joffe's daughter Esme had been there a few months, but Watkins's son Marcel was just starting. Joffe couldn't help staring. "Marcel was wearing a yellow raincoat," she says, "and Megan looked like a character from a book. I kept trying to smile at her, but she was completely caught up in the agony of separation. They both looked somehow naked in their grief."

Joffe was intrigued; when she saw Watkins again a few months later wearing a pair of red shoes, she decided to ask if she could paint her in them. Watkins, however, misunderstood. "Chantal said, 'Would you sit?' I thought she meant 'babysit', so I said yes straight away. Then Chantal explained that she wanted me to sit for a portrait. I still said yes, but I had some reservations. I didn't really know what sitting would involve, and I wasn't sure what it was about me that she found intriguing."

Joffe had never asked a stranger to sit for her before. Until then, she had mainly been using photographs of fashion models cut from magazines as the basis for her paintings. But her instinctive painterly attraction to Watkins has now produced 10 portraits. In several, Watkins is shown as pale and brightly blue-eyed, with an air of quiet stillness. Her capacity to be still, says Joffe, is one of Watkins's best qualities. "She drifts into her own world quite easily and, unlike some people, she doesn't care what you do with her image. She's not going, 'Oh, my nose isn't like that' or 'My hair's different'. It makes me feel very free."

With the models in magazines, Joffe had also enjoyed imagining each woman's life story. Instinctively, she did the same for Watkins, but turned out to be wrong. "I thought she looked quite unhappy. As we talked during sessions, I realised that wasn't the case at all. But then nobody is ever what you imagine them to be."

The concept of the "muse" carries some resonance for Joffe. "I don't know if I would use the word myself," she says, "but I do become fascinated by certain people: both Megan and the models in magazines. I'll paint them over and over, then get tired of them."

While Watkins enjoys the easy relationship they have developed ("We have these very emotional chats," she says), she thinks the dynamic might be different if she were to sit for a man. "The word 'muse' makes me think of a male-female relationship. I would have had more qualms if a man had asked to paint me. It's a very female relationship Chantal and I have: I trust her implicitly."

If the ultimate role of the muse, however, is to allow some essence of yourself to be transformed into art, then that's certainly what Watkins believes Joffe has done. "The first time I saw a finished painting," she says, "I recognised myself so strongly and powerfully, but not as I would ever have imagined. Chantal was able to put across something I hadn't recognised in myself – something evocative of the week when she painted me. The way I was feeling really came through. It was the most incredible thing."

The robber, the singer and the alcoholic

Laura de Noves

If the idealised young woman to whom Petrarch dedicated his Canzoniere did actually exist, evidence suggests she was Laura de Noves, a Frenchwoman six years the poet's junior. He first saw her in church in Avignon in 1327. The infatuation immortalised in his verses was unrequited; she married another and died in 1348 aged 38.

Victorine Meurent

For decades, the woman who posed for nine of Edouard Manet's paintings (including Déjeuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia, detail above, which caused a stir in 1863 for its depiction of , naked and brazenly enticing) was dismissed as an alcoholic and prostitute. But art historian Eunice Lipton now argues that Meurent was a talented artist in her own right.

Kiki de Montparnasse

With her trim dark eyebrows and moon-white skin, the singer, actor and artist Alice Prin (who preferred the moniker Kiki de Montparnasse) inspired the surrealists of 1920s Paris, from Man Ray to Jean Cocteau.

Saskia van Uylenburgh

Rembrandt married Van Uylenburgh, daughter of a Dutch mayor, in 1634. The couple had four children, only one of whom – their son, Titus – survived. She died soon after he was born, at the age of 29, but not before sitting for some of her husband's most radiant portraits.

George Dyer

According to popular legend, Francis Bacon met the man who would become his lover when Dyer attempted to rob his house in 1963. Their relationship was tempestuous, but resulted in some of Bacon's most searing portraits, painted during Dyer's life and after his death in 1971 from a drink and drugs overdose.


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April 25 2012

Jeremy Hunt: Can't stop, off to Swan Lake

What has the Leveson inquiry revealed about Jeremy Hunt's taste in art? Did he get to Take That? And how big an N-Dubz fan is he?

On Monday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (Gratiano, Merchant of Venice)", a celebratory quote for Shakespeare's birthday. On Tuesday, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" might have seemed more appropriate.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the emails released by the Leveson inquiry this week indicated that Hunt had an interest in the arts beyond the Murdochs' BSkyB takeover bid. One, from News Corp's public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to James Murdoch, reported grabbing the culture secretary "before he went in to see Swan Lake" to discuss the bid. In another, sent later that year, Michel plaintively asked Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith whether Ed Vaizey's refusal to meet News Corp while the deal was going through meant that "you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That on 4 July".

Between them, Take That and Swan Lake suggest that Hunt has fairly mainstream tastes – and in fact, according to the Royal Opera House, the ballet was an unusual outing; a spokesperson confirms that Hunt is not a regular. Did he or did he not see Take That at Wembley on 4 July? The band's press officer says he has no idea: "He didn't get tickets from us."

In the five years since he was made shadow culture secretary, and then culture secretary when the Tories won the 2010 election, Hunt has given the impression of someone who enjoys the arts without having a deep knowledge of – or passion for – them. To be fair, though, he seems more culturally immersed than his opposite number Harriet Harman, or the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis.

At a meeting of the rightwing culture thinktank New Culture Forum last year, Hunt said his major policy for the arts was to encourage philanthropy. But this approach ran into trouble earlier this month, after tax relief for philanthropists was restricted in the budget. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said the Treasury had "completely pulled the carpet from under" Hunt's attempts to encourage rich donors.

The culture secretary appears to have an interest in pop music beyond Take That: a journalist who interviewed him for the London Evening Standard last summer (shortly before the BSkyB bid failed) reported seeing a biography of N-Dubz on Hunt's desk. "Well, Tulisa is going to be gracing our screens, isn't she?" he said, of the N-Dubz member who went on to be an X Factor judge. In 2010, he revealed his classical music preferences to Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late." He also enjoys Tchaikovsky, attending Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades and ENO's Eugene Onegin, directed by Deborah Warner.

Russian literature seems to resonate with Hunt, too. He admires the poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were dissidents during the Soviet regime, and quoted a poem by Mandelstam in his first speech as culture secretary. Then there's his passion for Japanese culture; Hunt speaks the language after teaching English there.

Like other Tories, Hunt has spoken warmly about their star signing, Tracey Emin. He attended the private view of her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and in his first keynote speech on the arts, cited her grafitto "I need art like I need God", sprayed on the sea wall at Margate. "Sometimes graffiti – however objectionable and anti-social it is in principle – can be very thought-provoking," he noted.

But it was culture minister Ed Vaizey rather than Hunt who schmoozed Emin. In 2009, the Guido Fawkes website reported that the pair enjoyed a three-hour lunch at Scott's of Mayfair, and she has also dined with David Cameron at No 10. All this paid off when Emin declared her support for the Tories last year: "At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."

Hunt is an admirer of Grayson Perry, too. He went to Perry's recent exhibition at the British Museum, and has a print by the artist on his office wall – alongside a photograph of him meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. He picked another contemporary work from the Government Art Collection for his office in 2010: a Mark Wallinger painting from a 1990s series called Brown's (42 sets of silks worn by jockeys riding for racehorse owners called Brown). Alerted to this by the Guardian, the Labour-supporting Wallinger groaned: "That is a shocker. As an artist, it's very hard to vet your patrons – they generally drift rightwards as they get older anyway."

Hunt's trips to the theatre point to a taste divided between blockbusters and political theatre. He saw David Hare's indictment of New Labour, Gethsemane, as well as Lucy Prebble's Enron; the latter might have proved an uncomfortable night for a Tory, though Hunt told New Culture Forum he considered it a prime example of why theatre should keep its subsidy. He has also seen hits such as War Horse, at the National Theatre, and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which he attended on its West End transfer in the run-up to the election.

Hunt's most recent direct intervention in the arts world was his decision to fire Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, saying that a new appointment was necessary in order to encourage greater private giving to the arts, and to help the arts sector "make the most of technological changes". John Tusa, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette have been mooted as possible successors. Whether Hunt will still be around to appoint one of them seems doubtful – unless, in the words of Take That, everything changes.

Correction 26/4/12. The article suggested that Hunt's opposite number is Labour's Dan Jarvis. In fact Jarvis is shadow culture minister. The shadow culture secretary is Harriet Harman. This has been corrected.


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March 25 2012

This week's cultural highlights: Roberto Fonseca and Laura

Our critics' picks of this week's openings, plus your last chance to see and what to book now

• Which cultural events are in your diary this week? Tell us in the comments below

Opening this week

Theatre

I Dreamed a Dream
SuBo is played by Elaine C Smith in this new musical based on the life of the Britain's Got Talent sensation, who has given her personal endorsement to this money-spinner – sorry, show. Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0844 811 2121), until 31 March, then touring.

Fierce festival
Birmingham gets ready for boundary-busting performances from UK and international performers, including Ann Liv Young, Playgroup and Graeme Miller. The festival takes place in unusual spaces all across the city, including the soon to be demolished library and under Spaghetti Junction. Various locations, Birmingham, Thursday to 8 April.

Film

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross)
Suzanne Collins's teen bestseller is turned into an exciting dystopian thriller. Jennifer Lawrence stars.

Dance

English National Ballet: Beyond Ballets Russes
The second programme of this ambitious mix of revivals and reinventions from the great Diaghilev legend. Coliseum London WC2 (0871-911 0200), 28 March to 1 April.

New Dance Commissions
Enterprising selection of new work commissioned by ROH2 from Sarah Dowling, Laila Diallo and Freddie Opoku-Addaie. Linbury Studio Theatre, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), 29-31 March.

Classical

Parsifal
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera give concert performances of Wagner's final stage work, followed in Cardiff the next day by Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and in London by Verdi's Requiem. Millennium Centre, Cardiff (029 2063 6464), Saturday. Then touring to London and Birmingham until 6 April.

Pacifica Quartet
The US group return to complete their Shostakovich cycle with the Ninth to the 15th Quartets. Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141), 26 and 28-29 March.

Jazz

Roberto Fonseca
The piano star and Buena Vista sideman takes Cuban jazz and dance traditions and wrenches them into new identities – mixing in electronica with familiar guitar and percussion sounds, reconnecting Cuban music to traditional and contemporary Africa, and leading a thrilling band promoting his new Yo album. Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) Monday, then touring to 1 April.

Pop

Odd Future
Overhyped or hip-hop's big hope? Perhaps the response to the controversial LA rappers' first major label album, The OF Tape 2, will decide it. Tour begins at O2 Academy, Birmingham (0121-622 8250), 28 March.

Pulp
One-off Teenage Cancer Trust gig by beloved, reconstituted national treasures. Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 4015034), 31 March.

Visual art

Gillian Wearing
Private lives and public personas, false identities and intimate confessions are at the heart of Wearing's humane and humorous art. This major survey of the Turner-prize winning artist also includes new films and sculptures. Whitechapel gallery, London E1 (020-7522 7888), 28 March to 17 June.

Last chance to see

Theatre

Democracy
Cold war politics and flawed West German chancellor Willy Brandt are examined in Michael Frayn's intelligent 2003 play, which gets a masterly revival from Paul Miller. Crucible, Sheffield (0114-249 6000), until 31 March.

Uncle Vanya
Roger Allam, Dervla Kirwan and Timothy West lead the cast in the first production of the 50th Chichester festival season. With so many West End transfers (Sweeney Tood, Singing in the Rain and The Browning Version/South Downs), Jonathan Church's outfit should be enjoying a golden 50th birthday. Minerva, Chichester (01243 781312), 30 March to 28 April.

Film

Laura (dir. Otto Preminger)
This rereleased 1940s noir classic of obsession is a must-see. A cop becomes obsessed with the memory of Laura (Gene Tierney), a murdered ad executive.

Classical

The Rake's Progress
A brief run for David McVicar's coolly stylish new production for Scottish Opera, with Edgaras Montvidas as Tom Rakewell and Steven Page as Nick Shadow. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000), on 27, 29 and 31 March.

Jazz

Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet
Young American trumpeter Akinmusire made waves in 2011 for the remarkable purity of his tone, coupled with a punchy American postbop feel laid down by a powerful band of long-time friends. Another original, UK pianist Robert Mitchell, shares this tour. Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (020-7439 0747), 26 March, then touring until 29 March.

Pop

Feist
Canadian singer-songwriter is fantastic live, exploring darker, bleaker waters on recent album Metals. Tour ends 27 March at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (0844 847 2487).

Pokey LaFarge
Acclaimed St Louis country-blues and string-band revivalists do not exactly reinvent the wheel, but are a treat on stage. Tour ends at Concorde 2, Brighton (01273 673311), 28 March.

Book now

Theatre

What the Butler Saw
Sean Foley directs a revival of Joe Orton's dark farce, a Freudian nightmare involving cross-dressing, perversion and Sir Winston Churchill's penis. Omid Djalili plays Dr Rance, the government official sent to investigate dodgy dealings at a private psychiatric clinic. Vaudeville, London WC2 (0844 412 4663), 4 May to 25 August.

2008: Macbeth
Grzegorz Jarzyna's version of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis was a wonder, and now he and Poland's TR Warszawa return to the Edinburgh international festival with a contemporary take on Shakespeare's play set in the Middle East. Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston (0131-473 2000), 11-18 August.

Gulliver's Travels
Romanian director Silviu Purcarete's production of Faust was quite something, certainly memorable for its excesses if not its content. Now EIF gets the premiere of his new version of Jonathan Swift's savage political satire. King's Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000), 17-20 August.

Film

Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog probes the dark heart of humanity and society with his death-row interviews. Why do people kill?

Dance

Royal Ballet of Flanders: Artifact
A rare UK showing for the first work created by William Forsythe when he was appointed director of the Frankfurt Ballet. Back in 1984, it set down a clear marker of Forsythe's postmodern ambitions, and it still looks subversive today. Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300), from 19 April.

Classical

Bow Down
The Opera Group and London Sinfonietta combine for Frederic Wake-Walker's new production of Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison's hauntingly unclassifiable 1980s theatre piece. Brighton festival, (01273 709709), 17-18 May; Norfolk and Norwich festival (01603 766400), 20-21 May.

Jazz

Cheltenham jazz festival
Guest director Jamie Cullum curates an all-star international jazz lineup, with artists including former Miles Davis producer/bassist Marcus Miller, guitarist Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers trio, a new Radio 3 commission for UK piano giant John Taylor, cutting-edge US pianist Vijay Iyer with radical saxophonist Steve Lehman, a showcase for new musicians from Norway and much more. Montpellier Gardens, Gloucestershire (0844 880 8094), 2-7 May.

Pop

The Charlatans
Tim Burgess's Lambchop-assisted second solo album is more hotly anticipated than you might expect, but at these gigs the Charlatans play their Britpop-era hit album Tellin' Stories. Tour begins 8 June at Hammersmith Apollo, London (0844 844 4748).

Visual art

Hans-Peter Feldmann
Feldmann is a collector of everything from the contents of women's handbags to the views from hotel rooms, seascapes and snatched moments. The Dusseldorf-born artist is part installationist, part joker, part archaeologist of the fleeting moment. Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075), 11 April to 3 June.


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November 15 2011

John Berger: the dark side of Degas's ballet dancers

Can limbs get lonely in a dance? The famous art critic thinks this could explain the dark patches in Degas's paintings of ballerinas

What lies in the folds? The folds of the classical ballet dancers' costumes and bodies as drawn and painted by Degas, that is. The question is prompted by Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, the exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The sumptuous catalogue contains a quotation from Baudelaire: "Dance is poetry with arms and legs; it is matter, gracious and terrible, animated, embellished by movement."

In Degas's compositions with several dancers, their steps, postures and gestures often resemble the almost geometric, formal letters of an alphabet, whereas their bodies and heads are recalcitrant, sinuous and individual. "Dance is poetry with arms and legs …"

Degas was obsessed by the art of classical ballet, because to him it said something about the human condition. He was not a balletomane looking for an alternative world to escape into. Dance offered him a display in which he could find, after much searching, certain human secrets. The exhibition tellingly demonstrates the parallels between Degas's highly original work and the development of photography and the invention of the movie camera. These technological advances both led to discoveries about how human and animal bodies move and operate: a horse galloping, a bird flying, etc.

Without doubt, Degas was intrigued by these innovations and made use of them, but I believe that what obsessed him was closer to what obsessed Michelangelo and Mantegna. All three were fascinated by the human capacity for martyrdom. All three wondered if it wasn't this that defined mankind. The human quality Degas most admired was endurance.

Let's go closer. In drawing after drawing, pastel after pastel, painting after painting, the contours of Degas's dancing figures become, at a certain point, darkly insistent, tangled and dusky. It may be around an elbow, a heel, an armpit, a calf muscle, the nape of a neck. The image goes dark – and this darkness has nothing to do with any logical shadow.

In the first place, it's the result of the artist correcting, changing and re-correcting the precise placing of the limb, hand or ear in question. His pencil or pastel notes, readjusts, notes again with more emphasis the advancing or receding edge of a continually moving body. Speed is crucial. Yet these "darknesses" also suggest the darkness of folds or fissures: they acquire an expressive function of their own. Which is what?

Go closer still. A classical ballet dancer controls and moves her entire indivisible body, but her most dramatic movements concern her two legs and two arms, which we can think of as pairs: two couples sharing the same torso. In everyday life, the two couples and torso live and operate side by side, compliant, contiguous, united by a centripetal energy, directed inwards. Yet, by contrast, in classical dance the pairs are separated, the body's energy is often centrifugal, thrown outwards – and every square centimetre of flesh becomes taut with a kind of solitude.

The dark folds or fissures in these images express the solitude being felt by a part of a limb or torso, which is accustomed to company, to being touched by fellow parts, but which when dancing has to go it alone. The darknesses express the pain of such a disconjuncture and the endurance necessary for bridging it imaginatively. Hence the grace and the starkness to which Baudelaire referred when he said "gracious and terrible".

Now look at Degas's studies of dancers who are taking a brief rest, particularly those he made towards the end of his life. They are among the most paradisiacal images I know, yet they are far from the Garden of Eden. While resting, the dancers' limbs are reunited. An arm reposes along the whole length of a leg. A hand refinds a foot to touch it, the fingers matching each toe. Their multiple solitudes are for a moment over. A chin rests on a knee. Contiguity is blissfully re-established. Often their eyes are half-closed and their faces look bland, as if recalling a transcendence.

The transcendence they are remembering is the aim of the art of dancing: the aim of a dancer's entire wracked body to become one with the music. What is astounding is that Degas's images capture this experience silently. With folds but without sound.


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November 01 2011

Dancers can tell us little about Picasso's dance art

English National Ballet's rehearsals alongside the Tate's Picasso show will be fun – but they cannot illuminate his complex attitudes to dance

English National Ballet are to take up residence at Tate Britain next spring, holding rehearsals in the long classical Duveen Gallery that cuts the building in two. Dancers will lead classes at the gallery and their presence will tie together the Picasso show with English National Ballet's Beyond Ballets Russes season.

But Picasso was deeply ambivalent about dance – as is obvious from one of the greatest works in the Tate collection. His 1925 painting Three Dancers is one of the most violent and unsettling works he ever created. It may strike some people that Picasso's cubist paintings are inherently "violent" in the way they take apart faces and rearrange the human form. When the first world war broke out, the dislocated perceptions that Picasso and his close collaborator Georges Braque brought to painting in their cubist revolution offered a way for artists to see the brutal conflict.

But the cubism of Picasso's art before the first world war is not intended to be violent or brutal: it is a scientific analysis of reality. It was when he returned to a jarring cubistic style in works like Three Dancers that his convolutions of face and body became images of psychic tension and crisis – observe the blue hole in a chest that reveals blue sky beyond, the faces reduced to savage cartoons.

What changed? Some of Picasso's anger was, as it happens, the result of dance and dancers. As soon as he became famous, he had been drawn by the impresarios Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev into the world of ballet, where high art and high society entwined. Picasso worked intensively with the renowned Ballets Russes. It was his doorway to a new upper-class international set – and one result was that he married the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova. Another result, narrated along with this catastrophic marriage in the third volume of John Richardson's biography, was Picasso's first visit to London to design the Ballets Russes production Le Tricorne. Presumably this is why Tate Britain has invited in the English National Ballet to celebrate its exhibition about Picasso's influence in Britain.

But Picasso was no Matisse, whose art praises dance so ecstatically and calmly, and he was no multimedia postmodernist, either. When you look at his painting Three Dancers you are looking in part at his disillusionment with the classicism and theatricality that he brought to his work with the Ballets Russes.

Picasso's work in ballet was an important part of his biography and he created some powerful stage images, especially in Parade. But how much does it help, in trying to understand his paintings, to have ballet dancers in the gallery? Not a lot, because Picasso on canvas is Picasso on canvas, and his art demands direct engagement with the powerful and complex ideas within it. Nothing can ever turn his art into entertainment. If it is popular, it is because we crave real radicalism of mind and heart, and respond to the power of a truly original imagination if we do not immediately comprehend it. Dancers at the Tate will be fun. But they will not have much to tell us about Three Dancers.


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October 12 2011

Young arts critics competition 2011: the winning entries

Read our top-rated entries to the Guardian's annual competition to find the best young talent in arts writing

OVERALL WINNER

Visual art, under 14

Freddie Holker, 12 – Homage to Lucian Freud, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Disgusting. That's what I'm thinking; that's my gut instinct. It's reminiscent of the swimming-pool changing rooms back at school, where I'm scared to look at anything in case it offends someone. This is the Homage to Lucian Freud, one of Britain's best modern artists, who died on 20 July 2011. Seventeen paintings by Freud are displayed. I'm standing in an eerily plain room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 3,000 miles away from where I'm comfortable.

The only painting I can easily look at is, funnily enough, Naked Man, Back View. The only one that doesn't contain full-frontal nudity offers full dorsal nudity. It shows a fat man plonked on a footstool. His sitting position pushing out roll after roll of grey white fat, meshed together, leading down to his small feet which are holding up all this blubber. When you look at his head, you can see very little of his face, his one dark eye patrolling the floor. His joined hands give me the impression he is contemplating. He has nothing to hold, nothing to cherish, he doesn't even have any hair. He is simply being.

I realise that there's more to these paintings than nudity; these pictures are giving off emotions. Despair, joy, isolation, shame and most of all secrecy. The one that catches my eye is And the Bridegroom. It is the same fat man as before, but he has a partner, a tiny little creature, half the size of the man: she's pale against his reddish tanned skin. Beauty and the beast. They look like a pair of puppies sleeping in odd positions, one stretching and one curled up. This time it is nude but I'm not surprised or disturbed, because I finally understand what Freud's thinking, what his "vibe" is. He creates paintings of love and despair, a rainbow of feelings, but he tries to explain that the greatest gift of life is living, and that you need nothing to decorate yourself. There should be no shame in being bare, because when you think about it, everyone is equal.

CATEGORY WINNERS

Visual art, 14-18

Angelica Gottlieb, 14 – Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty exhibition fills New York's Metropolitan Museum with the rapture and allure of his art, muted by the grief and tragedy of his death. A buzz of anticipation reverberates through the queue that seems to stretch round the block. However, fashion that was once famed for its exclusivity is now fully accessible, and it's an experience no one would want to miss.

The curator, Andrew Bolton, has clearly embraced the gothic romanticism of McQueen's fashion by incorporating dark and bright lighting with futuristic music that reprises the music played at many of his fashion shows.

Each room becomes more and more intriguing despite becoming increasingly congested. For instance, the Cabinet of Curiosities is the concrete manifestation of McQueen's notable description of himself as a "romantic schizophrenic". The curiosities include a marvelous skeleton-like back brace and antelope ears crafted from gleaming twigs, reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Contrasts are everywhere – the exhibition is so public yet the proliferation of gilded mirrors throughout reflects the intimacy of the dressing room. The clothes seem vibrant and vigorous, yet hauntingly, the mannequins themselves are faceless and appear to be wearing death masks.

The precision and perfection of the designs on display contrasts starkly with the uncertainty of McQueen's personal life. The clothes are spine-tingling, as McQueen evokes a cocktail of emotions, visible on people's faces. You may ask: "How could such an icon, a man feted for his brilliance, become so tormented?" Aristotle explains: "No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness." On that basis, McQueen's intensely creative designs seem like vivid scars covering his emotional wounds.

New York is undoubtedly a city "fit for McQueen", yet his Britishness shines through. A room full of tartan dresses pays homage to his Scottish roots and he invites the viewer to revel in his uniquely British eccentricity. Quite rightly, there is an online petition to bring Savage Beauty to the UK. I fervently hope it succeeds so that McQueen's legion of British admirers can share in the awe-inspiring experience of his very grand finale.

Pop, 14-18

Julia Smith, 18 – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Whether it's a lengthy examination of Justin Vernon himself or a brief review of their eponymously named new album, it seems the oft-uttered phrase (now revered indie legend) "lonely cabin in Wisconsin" is impossible to disentangle from the myth surrounding Bon Iver.

New album Bon Iver, Bon Iver – so good they named it twice? – is a marginal departure from the sound that made this modest band, then merely a solo music project, beloved by the media and the masses. Though For Emma, Forever Ago was by no means a flawless record, will the meaty auto-tune of this release ever replace the softly strummed guitars and breathy silences of the album produced in the little cabin in the woods?

Like For Emma, the lyrics this time around aren't particularly descriptive, but I feel that's where this band really shines. Rather than crafting four minutes of disco pop around a questionable refrain about not answering a telephone call in a club because you're "k-kinda busy", Vernon et al manage to pick lyrics out of the guitar reverb and spin them into allusive poetry. Something about the arrangement of chords and the swirling rawness of Vernon's voice has made For Emma stand out in the minds of millions, I'm sure, as an album that hits you right there. You know, there, that space between your head and your heart where the child of logic and emotion rests only to create total loneliness and insecurity. There.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver may not be as isolated as the last record was, but I can safely say that I see myself enjoying this album, synthesizers and all, in the months to come. Tracks like Holocene are a slight throwback to the echoing Bon Iver of old, but there's something in the masterful composition of the likes of Perth that comforts the insecurity that has waited, bated, in the three years since Vernon left that cabin in the woods. Even without an alternative indie fairytale story behind it, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is sure to be a magical chapter in the evolution of this band.

Pop, under 14

Holly MacHenry, 13 – Gogol Bordello, Womad festival

It was only my second Womad festival, the most amazing place I've been in my life – all the different smells, rhythms, cultures and stalls selling exotic treasures. We'd had a pretty mellow weekend, but all that was about to change …

On Sunday night we went early to get a good spot at the open-air stage where Gogol Bordello were the closing act of the festival. For those of you who don't know, Gogol Bordello are a gypsy punk band from New York, consisting of nine members from all over the globe. The charismatic Ukrainian lead singer, Eugene Hutz, fronts an eccentric bunch of skilful musicians, with a reputation for starting parties wherever they set foot.

They started with Pala Tute from the latest album. At first I wasn't sure what to do, so just clapped in time to the song and raised my arms now and then for good measure. About halfway through the second song I decided being cool wasn't important and I started jumping about as the band worked the crowd, beckoning them with their hands as if to say "Come on, is that all you've got?".

Suddenly, everyone was airborne. I started getting bashed about like a pinball and before I knew it I was in the midst of my first – and quite possibly Womad's first – mosh pit! I was boiling and could feel the heat of all the people around me, but every time I jumped I could feel the cool night air before disappearing back into the crowd. By the time the band played Immigrandia (We Comin' Rougher) most people seemed to have lost their inhibitions.

For Gogol Bordello, it's not the fame or money that matters, it's the music, the crowd and their message of unity between people. They're not content until everyone's up on their feet having a good time. The blend of the frantic fiddle-playing and the manic energy of the band is infectious and before you know it you're part of the act.

Film, 14-18

Kiera McIntosh-Michaelis, 16 – Life in a Day

Over 4,500 hours of footage. 493 countries. More than 80,000 entries. All of this edited into a poignant 90-minute film about what it means to be human. The incredible medium of YouTube and director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) called to the world to submit a short film of their daily lives on 24 August 2010. The result? Mass montages of the sun rising, getting up, washing serve to show that all across the world the same things happen and that folk aren't so different. Immediately this connects the watcher to the film – relating their life to those of thousands. Each scene is linked together by a similar theme, perhaps of time or through the soundtrack of one leaking into the next, giving the film an unstilted flow and maintaining audience interest. Although at times some of the editing feels slightly manipulative, it is outweighed by the genuine honesty and emotion of the subjects. There is no hiding from the pain of life – a young mother's tale of living with cancer or the graphic slaughter of a cow demonstrating this. However, the tone of the film is overwhelmingly joyful and hopeful. The moment when an older couple renew their vows in a rather saucy manner, a wife laughing at a husband's failed attempt to look strong, women singing as they go about their work – all gave me joy, laughter and hope. Life in a Day is a masterpiece; its creation shows the beauty and mundanity of life as a human being.

Film, under 14

Francesco Dernie, 13 – Project Nim

I recently went to see Project Nim, a film-documentary recounting the experiences of a unique chimpanzee that was selected for an experiment and went by the name of Nim.

It progressed chronologically through key events in Nim's life, starting with the time when he was placed with a foster family where he grew close to his human foster mother. Unusually, the film focused on the emotional consequences of science – a plot that centred on teaching Nim to communicate through sign language. Why would anyone do this, you might ask? "It was the hippy mentality," remarks the woman's daughter.

During the experimental phase, live interviews with key players in the experiment proved fascinating – their own characters came through as they recounted their personal experiences with the chimp. The combination of footage and still photographs from that era helped the audience take their own view of this diverse group of people, as well as understand the tensions within it and those surrounding animal experimentation in general.

As the story continues, the tempo slows as it charts the fall of the experiment and Nim's subsequent experiences in terrible laboratories and cruel institutions. How could they do this to such an adorable animal?

The final part details the time when his human foster mother visits him in Texas, where he has grown unhappy and solitary. Taking it for granted that his feelings towards her are unchanged from when he was living with her, she enters his cage without heeding the warnings of his aggressive behaviour. He attacks her (but does not kill her) as if genuinely angry that she let him be taken away from her to be put through terrifying laboratory experiences.

Perhaps the experiment to teach him language could never have worked, because for him it would have been just a communication device (like say an email is for us today), not like language that's part of human culture. But I do think he did achieve some humanity – more perhaps, than the experiment could hope to give him and more perhaps than the scientist could understand.

Theatre, 14-18

Thomas Marshall, 16 – Richard III, Young Vic

At about 11pm, a hunchbacked man with a leg brace is hung upside-down, dead, in a darkened room somewhere in London to the applause of hundreds. Then he gets down again and takes a well-deserved bow. The man is Kevin Spacey and he has just completed another dazzling lead performance in Richard III.

One of the most fascinating things about Sam Mendes's production is the ease with which it is transposed into the modern era without jettisoning the grandeur of the original. Beside the visual Mussolini reference, Richard's military gear has a whiff of the 1930s dictator about it; and much of the production employs film, photography and word projection, whilst Act 2, Scene 3 – traditionally involving citizens on a London street – takes place on the Tube. Updating the play in this manner has a weighty resonance, too – Shakespeare's kingly tyrants are hauntingly mirrored by modern-day presidents.

This is a play with a large cast, most of whom are impressive. Of particular note are the female characters Lady Anne, Lady Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth, who all exude helpless grief and anguish. Chuk Iwuji's Buckingham is also memorably slick; when he grins you can almost picture him welcoming the audience to a quiz show.

Good though these characters are, they fail to carry the momentum unless Spacey is on the stage. Equally at home bouncing off others' suffering or withdrawing into his own brooding, this is a truly acting Richard, a man utterly convincing in his friendly air. There is a moment when the crowd is urging him to be the next king and the expression on his face is that of mild-mannered perplexity, yet with great engines churning behind his brow. He plumbs Richard's humorous lines for all their worth throughout, and conveys his pre-battle crisis particularly effectively. If there is a criticism which can be levelled against him, it is that he is never a completely terrifying villain.

But this is a small niggle with an otherwise excellent production, and I would urge anyone to do whatever it takes to obtain tickets for the international tour.

Theatre, under 14

Laura Stevens, 9 – A Midsummer Night's Dream, Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford

My review is on William Shakespeare's classic, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Set in ancient Greece, this funny love story is brought to reality by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon.

At the entrance of the auditorium, you expect to see a great forest background with dark tangled trees and twisted paths. Instead, a variety of chairs suspended on a string from the ceiling are lowered and raised throughout the performance. Although this makes the stage look bare, the lighting is so imaginative and effective, it makes a dreamlike atmosphere.

The mischievous fairies really helped to create the atmosphere with their many leaps and swivels and the way they seem to creep into the background then suddenly leap back out again like chameleons that keep changing their mind about where to hide.

Bottom, played by Marc Wootton – who also played Mr Poppy in the film Nativity – did a great job of being the brash fool always full of misplaced confidence leading him to play the main part of Pyramus and Thisbe, the tragedy performed at the end of the performance. His part was played hilariously and was one of the highlights from the show.

The most enjoyable part of the show for me was, as mentioned before, Pyramus and Thisbe being played by Bottom and a group of ordinary villagers to perform for Hypolita and Theseus, rulers of Athens, on their wedding night.

Helena, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, was very funny as she embarked on her very own quest, to gain Demetrius's love. Many times she fell to the floor almost crying about Demetrius and his love for another.

With the combination of the modern, the old and the fantasy all in one production, it brought a great performance to the stage. I would recommend this to anyone with a sense of humour who is prepared for surprises. Just remember, the course of true love never did run smooth …

Television

Hannah Quinn, 17 – The Bachelor

The end is nigh! A mad scientist has succeeded in creating a robot and an army of clones! Oh no, hang on, this is The Bachelor, that robot is rugby "star" Gavin Henson, and those clones are battling to win his heart/a career in TV rather than to take over the world. Phew. The end is slightly less nigh than previously imagined.

We are reliably informed that 25 girls are about to embark on the "adventure of a lifetime" in the south of France, which in this episode (SPOILER ALERT!) involves a lot of awkward stilted chit-chat from Robot Gavin. I love an adventure. Highlights: one girl tries to get him to carry her upstairs! Twins! Tia's half-pagan, half-Wicca and that makes her ker-azy! Someone called Carianne has an annoying voice!

Meanwhile, Gavin calls a reality TV contestant "innocent and genuine" without laughing, which is more than I could do, so fair play to him. Although it might just mean some circuits are faulty. Quick, call a technician! One girl writes him a love letter, which causes someone to start hissing about how they're going to have to act really sweet and nice now, as if before that her plan was to turn up, smack him in the face, and scream "Love me!". It would have worked too, because Gavin would have just crumbled. Gavin, I'm starting to learn, is a bit of a wuss. He falls for that creepy love letter, too, and gives the girl responsible the you're-through-to-the-next-round rose, because this show is romantic, honest; look, we have roses, don't be so cynical, this is a beautiful insight into Gavin finding true love after having his heart broken by someone called Charlotte Church, who totally isn't more famous and talented than he is, no she's not. And breathe.

At the end, Gavin gives out a whole pile of roses to the 15 girls he's deemed worthy, while looking as blank as ever. Ker-azy Tia doesn't make the grade, but Squeaky Carianne does – obviously RoboGav's hearing circuits are faulty as well. Poor luckless RoboGav. He just wants to be loved.

Architecture, 14-18

Mollie Davidson, 14 – Coventry railway station

I want to explore Coventry railway station because it is different. It is not the most noticeable of buildings; however I feel there is some significance to it. WR Headley designed it in 1962. It was built as part of the modernisation of the railways and as part of the rebuilding of Coventry after the blitz.

It is not beautiful. The building is very angular and is coloured in different shades of grey. The building is a collection of rectangles joined at right angles to each other. You enter the station to a large booking hall which is imposing. The hall is brightened by the huge windows letting the light through. Moving through the station is easy. You are on a direct path to wherever you need to be, the platforms or the coffee shop.

Hidden away by the waiting room is a small rectangular goldfish pond, giving passengers something to focus their minds on while waiting for their trains. There are also a couple of gnomes enjoying fishing. All of the doors and the ceilings are made of vanished hardwood. There are small tiles in blocks covering the walls. The floor in the booking hall is made of polished granite, dark with blotches of white.

The balcony overlooking the booking hall is a good place to look at people and a good place to be seen. It is a place to look for those who are arriving and a place to wave to those who are departing. The station is obliged to have advertising everywhere, which means you focus your attention on this, not on the building. Overall it is sincere and it does what it is meant to. It is not very ambitious but it works for the people of Coventry.

Architecture, under 14

Michael Sackur, 13 – Jewish Museum, Berlin

Berlin's Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is housed in a building that makes an unforgettable impression. Its location, set among uniform apartments in a residential area of Berlin, makes it seem all the more striking. The structure has many unmistakable features: its twisted zigzag, Star of David-inspired shape, and its scar-resembling slashes for windows, which immediately reminded me of the wound that has been left on history by the Nazi holocaust. The colours used in the building – stark, dark grey – and the various bolts visible on the exterior give it a raw, industrial feel, which even spills out into the museum's garden.

In the Garden of Exile, olive trees sit atop 49 grey concrete pillars, just out of reach. This theme is appropriate for a museum which focuses partly on the industrialised killing of 6 million innocent people. Playing on our apprehension of the unknown, visitors take a flight of steps underground in order to enter the main building, and emerge in a tangle of tunnels. Emptiness is another recurring theme; a huge void 20 metres tall slices through the building, and in the museum tunnels, exhibits are lodged into the walls, making the spaces feel strangely bare. I interpreted this as an attempt by the architect to convey the void that emerged in the Jewish community following the genocide of 6 million of its members, as well as the hole left in German society after the extermination of its Jewish component.

The most extraordinary structure in the museum, however, is the Holocaust Tower, a great slab of concrete that is neither heated nor cooled, lit only by a tiny shaft of light at the top. It is simple, but its darkness and its surreal, unearthly echo make it a highly appropriate commemoration of the victims of Nazi tyranny and a disturbing experience for all who enter. The architecture plays an important part in a museum shouldering such an appalling burden of history, but Libeskind has designed a radical building, which meets the challenge.

Dance, 14-18

Rachel Balmer, 16 – Riverdance, Dublin Gaiety theatre

Having never encountered Riverdance before, I was totally clueless as to what to expect. What followed next was possibly the oddest genre of theatrical art I have – and probably ever will – see.

For those who have never seen Riverdance and would like to know what it involves, I am still none the wiser. And I've been to see it. A quick peruse of Google has just told me that it's the "Irish dancing phenomenon". It's certainly phenomenal. In a kind of whoa-there-how-on-Earth-is-he-moving-his-legs-so-fast way. And there's lots of Irish dancing. So I suppose it is as accurate a three-word summary as you could ask for, apart from the fact it doesn't mention that it's not just limited to Irish dancing. There was singing, a bout of flamenco, a candlelit vigil after a booming voice announced that "your leader is DEAD!" (did I mention there was a plot?), some Irish-style disco dancing complete with cartwheels and even a pan-pipe solo. All with some Irish dancing thrown in, sometimes in medieval costume. I told you it was odd.

Regardless, the dancers were amazing. Talented and ridiculously energetic; I wanted to bottle their exuberance. The leads were fantastic, and at one point our budding Michael Flatley almost propelled himself off the stage, his legs were moving so fast. Before long I started wondering whether it would be a viable business if I were somehow able to harness the heat being produced by their feet for electricity generation. To a casual onlooker, it was as if their legs were in a state of perpetual spasm.

It did, however, have an undoubted sense of "Irishness" to it. More than once I had the urge to stand up and shout "Bejaysus!". The dancers played upon the audience's enthusiasm – the majority being tourists, as I'm sure no single Irish person will openly admit to seeing Riverdance – and the show received a standing ovation. A feast for the senses, a little definitely goes a long way. Even if Irish dancing isn't really your thing, it'll certainly have you attempting to do some leg-kicking on the way home.

Dance, under 14

Thomas Holmes, 13 – Romeo and Juliet at the 02

The atmosphere at the 02 on 19 June 2011 was intense. The Royal Ballet was performing Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, with the score of Sergei Prokofiev.

The three-act ballet starts in the marketplace of Verona, with the company on the huge set, designed by Nicholas Georgiadis. MacMillan's choreography told the compelling story of Shakespeare's great work.

The technique was impeccable, from the gorgeous pas de deux (performed by the exquisite Tamara Rojo in the role of Juliet and the inspiring Carlos Acosta as Romeo) to the jaw-dropping fight scenes. The controlled and elegant movement from the Royal Ballet really inspired me and everyone else in the audience, too.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Prokofiev's challenging score. The conductor, Barry Wordsworth, lead the orchestra in harmony with the dancers, providing an exciting soundtrack.

The big screens, which showed fine detail and occasional video in the musical interludes, provided a close-up view of the facial expressions and, in particular, to Tamara Rojo's technical "potion scene". It added an extra approach for ballet, and in a new generation – it worked!

The original production, which was premiered in 1965 at the Royal Opera House, starred Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Sir Frederick Ashton was director at the time, and participated in the production direction.

The elevation and flexibility of the company really inspired me to go further in my dance training. As a ballet dancer myself, I understood the stamina of the dance, and the pure effort needed for the male roles in particular.

Carlos Acosta is a world-renowned Cuban dancer who is famous for his technique and elevation, and Rojo an elegant and awarded Spanish dancer who provides a story for the audience. The famous balcony scene at the end of Act I was breathtaking. The pas de deux was sensitively portrayed.

Overall, this production of Romeo and Juliet was to an excellent standard by the Royal Ballet, showing the company at its best along with its incredible dancers. It inspired me and thoroughly enjoyed it as my first ballet experience!

Classical music

Rosie Busiakiewicz, 18 – Quatuor Byron: Shostakovich Eighth and Ninth String Quartets

Every time a new recording of Shostakovich's Eighth string quartet is released, the classical world sits up – the emotional and technical demands of the work are notoriously difficult, and Quatuor Byron unfortunately falls prey to them.

Some movements are significantly faster than Shostakovich indicated. Each melodic line is saturated with so much non-functional harmony that you should savour each dissonance; the terrors of the Holocaust are represented in the modal shadings of C minor. Shostakovich is famous for these heart-wrenching harmonies, yet here they are lost. This fast tempo also causes much vibrato to evaporate, giving the quartet a shallow tone which is incongruous against the work's emotional, programmatic context. It serves as a haunting musical autobiography to the composer, quoting his 10th, first and fifth symphonies alongside his passacaglia from Lady Macbeth as well as his DSCH monogram (his musical "signature", in which four repeated notes represent his first four initials). Poignantly, the quartet is seen as Shostakovich's suicide note due to his referencing of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, yet this tragic nature is tragically lost in the childlike non-vibrato of the strings.

The players' hesitance is evident elsewhere in the recording. Whilst the frantic eruptions at the opening of the fourth movement should allude to bombs, or to the Gestapo knocking at the door, Quatuor Byron's interpretation only brings to mind a rabbit thumping its hind leg. Similarly, whilst the allegro molto opening of the second movement is a tremendous contrast to the first, none of the pictures of Jewish outrage are capitalised upon, despite the perpetual rhythmic movement and violent chords that should make the music powerful and intense. The third movement's satiric "grotesque waltz" is, however, captured well – the lighter mood cleverly mitigates the previous movement, and Quatuor Byron's playing is effervescent. Yet it may be telling that the only movement in which this recording excels is in the third's playful irony. It reflects a quartet that is comfortable with the absolutist works of Haydn and Beethoven, but are perhaps out of their depth with the emotional sophistication of Shostakovich.


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October 05 2011

The artists' artist: choreographers

Five choreographers nominate their favourite living artist in their field

Derek Deane on Jirí Kylián

Jirí Kylián is a dance genius, probably the only one left. Many choreographers lean on other people's styles – it's hard to be original when so much has gone before – yet Kylian's work is completely individual. You instantly recognise his style: it's always breathtaking, always inspirational, the way he blends the dancers' bodies. He doesn't usually concentrate on storytelling, but on emotions. He moulds and manipulates the performers into incredible shapes. He invents whole new ways to move, to balance, to turn the human form inside out.

Since he creates little outside his own company, he works with people he knows intimately. All choreographers match a dancer's style and figure to certain roles, but he goes deeper. He focuses on the mentality of the individual, how their mood matches the moves, how they integrate with other personalities; he selects his dancers not only for their phenomenal technique, but for their physical perfection.

True choreography is inspired by dancers, and Kylian is so worshipped by his performers that they would give him their blood: they are open canvases. His creations are very intelligent, very cerebral and encouraged me to go deeper into my own work. Anyone can make up the steps, bu to influence musicality is exceptional.

Derek Deane has worked with English National Ballet

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on James Thiérrée

James Thiérrée, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, can create magic on stage. He choreographs all his own shows, which mingle vaudeville, circus, dance and poetry – and cast a spell over audiences. His movements are powerful, clear and liquid, with ideas illustrated through the simplest of means. Raoul is an epic that tells the story of a man confronting his loneliness and fears; at one point, he pretends to be a horse with movements so convincing that you start to believe he is one. It's rare to encounter someone who can make you forget reality. As a choreographer, I always find myself analysing the techniques of a performance, but when I'm watching Thiérrée I lose my analytical side and allow myself to be enchanted.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has worked with Les Ballets C de la B

Christopher Bruce on Ohad Naharin

Because I rate him highly, and because his work is only occasionally seen here, I would recommend that lovers of contemporary dance see the work of Ohad Naharin. His unique style is grounded in his early training with Martha Graham but fused with a loose-limbed dynamic where the dancers appear to be thrown through space. I so enjoy their obvious pleasure in the physicality of the movement.

This seemingly crazy invention is always well structured and set against sections of beautiful simplicity, as in his Tabula Rasa, where a simple line dance is continued for almost a whole movement of Arvo Pärt's score. Importantly, he is not afraid to take risks. The work is sometimes wonderfully theatrical and amusing, but one can sense a deep emotional weight underpinning his composition.

Christopher Bruce has worked with Rambert Dance Company.

Kim Brandstrup on Lloyd Newson

If I had to choose one living choreographer it would be Lloyd Newson. I have always admired the physical and psychological rigour of his work, and his ability to deal with profound and often difficult human issues in a language that is raw and direct, but always beautiful. Although our work is very different, I have always felt a kinship with his commitment to unadorned storytelling. In his work, the movement and the human body always resonate with meaning and purpose. A theatre of essence rather than abstraction – a physical theatre that speaks with precision and clarity.

Kim Brandstrup has worked with New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Shobana Jeyasingh on William Forsythe

I identify with Forsythe because we both had our dance training in a strict, rule-bound classical form. I admire the way he has taken the ballet technique and used it to express something searingly radical. To be subversive, one needs something to subvert and ballet has served as a perfect foil. You can question the legitimacy of a straight back and carriage of the torso (very much a given in classical dance forms) so much more effectively after you have mastered them. His dance works for Frankfurt Ballet did not look like ballets, but could have been realised only by balletic bodies.

His best work takes one on a sly, intellectual rollercoaster. It is the quality of thought and judgment I enjoy most. The movement – although beautiful and powerful – seems almost incidental, a peg to hang the ideas on. Dance often serves as comfort food among the art forms and Forsythe reminds us that it can be far, far more.

Shobana Jeyasingh has worked with Random and Ballet Black


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September 17 2011

Picturing Movement – review

Royal Academy, London

The Royal Academy's mesmerising Degas and the Ballet begins and ends with the artist himself: dark-eyed and wary at the door in a lifesize photograph, half-blind in a tantalising film in the final room. In between are more than 40 years of ballet dancers shifting through a thousand different positions, depicted from every angle, in one ever-changing performance. Yet it is not the dancers but the artist one seeks to hold fast, to grasp the mystery and greatness of his work.

Degas (1834-1917) began visiting the ballet of the Paris Opera in his 40s. Thirty years later, when he had long since made the subject his own, an American collector asked: "Why, monsieur, do you always do ballet dancers?" Degas flashed back: "Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks." The aphorism appears barbed until one considers that in ballet Degas found an inexhaustible source for his modern classicism with its emphasis on the body. But nor is the question as obtuse as it seems.

For why does Degas keep returning to the backstage hiatus and the weary rehearsals, to the waiting, watching, struggling and straining, to the laborious practice that eventually makes perfect? Convention, abetted by popularity, insists that this is the winsomely traditional side of his art, all those graceful ballerinas flitting across the stage in swan's-down and tulle. But consider how rarely he depicts a full-dress performance.

As if to make the point, the curators have positioned the Courtauld's Two Dancers on the Stage at the start of the show. The painting is justly famous for its ballerinas quivering en pointe in the limelight, shoes shining, tutus gauzy, roses blossoming in their hair. It is an image to spur a million girls to ballet on a winter's day, but it stands in contrast to almost everything that follows.

Degas's dancers are shown scratching their backs, hauling up their bodices, slumping exhausted on the floor. Beginners wait, old hands sprawl, lessons repeatedly stall. There are classes without teachers, rehearsals in which nobody moves, bare rooms in which stretching alternates with inaction, where one girls sits head in hands while the scene rakes to her distant companions awaiting instruction. It is remarkable how few dancers actually dance.

Ballet is an art of perfection, but Degas shows the workings, the ceaseless studying involved; the analogy with his own art is self-evident. Just as he depicts every fractional repositioning of the foot, every degree of bodily torsion from all round and in every medium – pencil, pastel, charcoal, chalk, paint, print and even wax – to get at the truth, so his dancers keep rehearsing to perfect their performance.

And how staggeringly radical he is from first to last. In The Rehearsal (1874), for all its diaphanous tutus and fetching arabesques, the scene is sharply cropped on one side like a snatch of half-heard conversation, while a spiral staircase restricts the viewing on the other. Dancers are seen from behind, so close their limbs are barely in focus or reflected in the mirror as illegible wraiths.

Three Dancers (1903) is built up using pastel and fixative in glowing layers of dot and swipe that resemble Jackson Pollock 50 years in advance. Degas doesn't even confine himself to one kind of mark-making per image. A painting will go many ways – incisive outline, dry stabs, liquid blurs, fingerprints. He will use a soft pastel for something sharply complex, crisscrossing the strokes so that you have to look through them, like traffic, to deduce a figure.

Photographic details are transcribed. Poses are recycled. A single figure repeated and reversed goes to make the mass of forms locked together, like gears in motion, in the Russian Dancers series. Heaven knows how he achieved this feat in fugitive chalk on slippery tracing paper, but that is part of his strangeness.

And Degas is profoundly mysterious. In this respect, the dancers are emblematic: beautiful people, perfect bodies, invitingly ideal forms to many another artist; nothing so facile to Degas.

The crime of popularity yielded to a charge of coldness some years ago. Degas is still portrayed as a heartless taxonomist of human anatomy and the dancers are still cited as evidence: their facelessness, their squat, hunched, splayed and overworked bodies, all observed from inelegant viewpoints.

They are not portraits, to be sure (though recognisable individuals emerge), but nor are they anatomical drawings. Degas isn't analysing the articulation of limbs or the muscle groups involved in each movement so much as the struggle of bodily existence, the drama of being embodied; he is less Leonardo and more Michelangelo.

Movement, the central theme of this show, is investigated with discrimination and insight. Degas's great wax dancers (or their bronze casts) are displayed alongside Muybridge's stop-start photographs of bodies in motion and one sees an affinity: the sculptures as 3D representations of sequential movement. Early films, Parisian panoramas, François Willème's "photo-sculptures" (statues based on multiple shots of sitters in the round, and surprisingly kitsch): all show French art swinging into motion. And yet movement itself is surely not Degas's true subject.

It is in the gallery of his own photographs that the artist comes into new focus (for me) and not just in his well-known portraits of Renoir, Mallarmé and others appearing like visions in a twilight dream. The Royal Academy also presents the rare shots of dancers. Technically flawed, these are aesthetic revelations none the less: the figures oblique and spectral in the gloom, as if trying to escape their own corporeal existence. Degas is already looking for more than the camera can catch.

So it is with this tremendous show, each work imagining the physical life – the inner stress – of the dancer. What it is to balance on one toe or lean precariously close to the floor; what it is to hold a leg at shoulder height or twist until your muscles nearly snap: this is what his images express. Degas goes far beyond observation, as if willing himself into the body of his dancers.

It is said that Degas's art is all climax from the off and so it seems from this show, superbly curated by Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, beautifully designed by Ivor Heal. An early sketch of a child straining to hold a pose carries the same intensity as a late painting of dancers strenuously flexing their limbs and there is always Degas's peerless line, charged with perfect clarity.

But towards the end of his life, he addresses groups of figures with such force that they seem to metamorphose into pure form, something more like the essence of dance. Melting, curving, merging like multi-limbed goddesses in a limelight of violet, sulphur and flame blue, they move towards a vision of the future, towards the pure painting of modern art.

Here, the show itself breaks into motion with the few precious seconds of film captured (without permission) by Sacha Guitry in 1914-15. Degas is seen negotiating a faltering route through crowds in the Boulevard de Clichy, most of his face concealed by a white beard and dark hat. Just as he is getting close enough for you to see his eyes beneath the brim – to see the artist himself – the film expires: Degas is out of sight.


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September 07 2011

A fine balance: Degas and the art of ballet

The ballet pictures of Edgar Degas were the laboratory for the painter's most daring ideas

Edgar Degas and ballet dancers is one of the great painterly partnerships, like Monet and lilies, Gauguin and Tahiti, or Lucian Freud and naked flesh. The world of the ballet, and in particular of the Paris Opera Ballet, was Degas's specialist subject, as well as the source of materials for his most popular and lucrative lines. Indeed it is impossible to think of him without thinking of floorboards and tutus, the endlessly reproduced Etoile of 1876/7, for instance, soaking up the applause with an elegant curtesy at the edge of the stage, or one of the many "Dance-classes" where young girls strike poses for their ballet master, Jules Perrot.

Indeed during the first few years of my life, one of those Perrot paintings, now in the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, was the sole representative of art in my little world, hung above the alcove in the sitting-room where I used to hide during Doctor Who. For a while I confused the Perrot with Harold Wilson smoking a pipe, an association I have never been able completely to forget.

Because Degas was so familiar, because I felt over-exposed to his talent and therefore somewhat inured to his charms, I acknowledged rather than appreciated the greatness of his work; he was the impressionist for people who didn't really like impressionists, the same prettiness but with line, structure and form, a brilliant draughtsman, yawn, a 19th-century classic. I even thought of missing the massive Degas retrospective that opened in New York in the winter of 1988, though it was not far from where I was living at the time; it would be uncomfortably crowded and Degas had not apparently been a very nice man, a grumbling grouch with a sarcastic wit in his early years, who evolved into an embarrassing antisemite.

I did go, however. It was crowded. And I was completely blown away. Degas didn't just paint dancers, I discovered, he painted horses and washerwomen and milliners, and women getting awkwardly in and out of bathtubs, or combing their or some other girl's hair. There were also some remarkable group portraits, of his relatives, the Belelli family, of the clerks in a New Orleans cotton exchange. Above all it was clear he was a risk-taker and an innovator. His compositions were daring and dynamic, combining radical foreshortenings and vast areas of "empty" space, Procrustean croppings and dangerous blockings of view, and an enormous variety of materials and techniques, greasy inks and essences – oil diluted with turps – powdery pinky pastels, plain old charcoal on bright green commercial paper or robin-egg blue, and all shapes and sizes, some huge some almost miniatures, some extremely elongated, some almost square. Some of the most extraordinary were fan-shaped.

Having been familiar with Degas for longer than I could remember, I now felt as if I had met him for the first time. Instead of merely acknowledging his genius, as a mark of my literacy and education, I recognised it, was overwhelmed by it.

The first effect of this conversion, however, was to split Degas in two: the ballet painter, endlessly reproduced, and the other Degas, the one I admired. It was only much later that I was able to see the ballet-pictures too as worthy of admiration, indeed as the laboratory for some of his most daring pictorial ideas.

Degas had started his career in the old fashioned way with life studies followed by trips to Italy and innumerable copyings of old masters. It was here that he refined his incomparable talent for drawing, but in his early years he was drawn to history painting – young Spartans, Semiramis – and the dreamy style of symbolists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau. The turning point seems to have come with a startling painting of 1867 when he was in his mid-30s. A group of women in medieval-looking garb rest by a pool, the horse bows its head to drink, one of them plays a lute. It could almost be something from the studios of the pre-Raphaelites. But this is not some illustration of a legend, it is Mlle Fiocre in the ballet La Source, and therefore his first ballet picture, not that you would notice if the title didn't give the game away. By taking one step back from the drama, by framing his frame, so to speak, with a proscenium arch, he had in one instant shifted from being a painter of historical fantasies to a painter of modern life.

Within a few years he was a central figure in what has come to be known as the impressionist movement – "the pontiff of the sect" – taking a leading role in organising the first of the Salons Anonymes in 1874. In what would become a familiar pattern, the critics praised Degas and panned the rest. Degas nevertheless publicly stood by his new friends, although he also seems to have disliked Monet's work – he said it gave him vertigo – and could be sarcastic about their fondness for painting out of doors: "If I were the government, I would have a squad of gendarmes to keep an eye on these people painting landscapes from nature. Oh I do not wish anyone dead; I would however agree to spraying them with a little bird shot for starters."

By now his own preference was for the interiors of the Paris Opera, the off-stage spaces, the dingy classrooms and peeling walls. In fact four of his contributions to the 1874 exhibition were ballet pictures, and when Edmond de Goncourt visited him in February of that year he recorded in his diary that "After many attempts, experiments, and thrusts in every direction, he has fallen in love with modern subjects and has set his heart on laundry girls and danseuses."

Goncourt noted one particular painting that was not submitted to the salon but which features prominently in the Royal Academy's reassessment, Degas and the Ballet. Called simply The Rehearsal, it has some dancers relaxing with their chaperones in the foreground on the right, while more girls descend by means of a spiral staircase that blocks off the view on the left hand side. The rehearsal itself is going on in the middle distance above an acreage of floorboards. Just visible in the upper right is Jules Perrot with his big stick. It is a lovely example of a moment captured in real life, almost a fly-on-the-wall painting, with lots of things going on at once, people partially obscured, figures broken up by objects in the way, a pair of legs in the top left corner entering from the floor above, a snapshot of a moment in time in a place of bustling activity, people and objects not posed for a picture but chaotic and half-seen, as they are in real life.

But of course the picture has been very carefully composed. It is rigorously structured with strong diagonals, centrepoint and symmetries. The apparent chaos is resolved into a scene which is in practice clear and understandable, within a composition that achieves a satisfying equilibrium.

In fact The Rehearsal is in its own way a historical fantasy as imaginary as Semiramis contemplating the construction of Babylon. The room never existed in the Palais Garnier, but belongs to its predecessor the Opera Choiseul which had burned to the ground some years earlier. Jules Perrot is also unhistorical and misplaced, for the figure is taken from a postcard of him in his younger days when he was working for the imperial ballet in St Petersburg.

The organisers call the picture a manifesto and, looking at it, it becomes easier to see the, at first rather surprising, affinity the curmudgeonly bachelor discovered in this world of girliness and frills. First of all, amid the chaos Degas found endless repetition of standard movements and poses, providing plenty of opportunities for the relentless copyist, the champion draughtsman, to get some daring and implausible postures absolutely convincing and right, creating a series of interior landscapes accessible without having to go outdoors. Then, it provides a neat metaphor for the realist's quest for authenticity, the dingy truth of dingy classrooms that lies behind the Opera's glamorous stage façades.

But I think there is a much deeper affinity between the gentleman artist and his favourite subjects. There is something profoundly balletic about the way that Degas works the visual field, as a ballerina works an empty stage, the way he stretches perspective, pushes foreshortening, teeters on the brink of unbalancing, but balances, briefly, nevertheless. Now when I see that endlessly reproduced Etoile, I see the artist himself, acknowledging the appreciation, daringly poised.

Degas and the Ballet is at the Royal Academy from 17 September to 11 December.


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May 20 2011

Edgar Degas painted as radical mover in Royal Academy show

Exhibition splits from 'choc-box reputation' to unveil French painter as technically savvy innovator

Edgar Degas was unquestionably a sublime painter of beautiful ballerinas, but the Royal Academy believes he should be seen as so much more than that: his dance images over 30 years are the work of someone who was radical and innovative.

The RA has announced details of its big autumn show which will, surprisingly perhaps, be the first UK exhibition that looks at the great impressionist artist's preoccupation with dance.

But it is the painter's relationship with early photography and film which remains largely unexplored and which, the RA believes, will cast Degas in a new light.

Ann Dumas, co-curator of the show, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, said the RA was planning an "original and revealing" perspective on a painter who had something of a chocolate box reputation. "We hope people will revise the notion that Degas was just a painter of pretty dancers. He was in a way conceptual and an extremely radical, highly innovative, artist, in tune with the technological developments of his time," she said.

Degas was obsessed with painting ballerinas in action. He did it over and again like no artist before or since. Asked what led to his fascination, he said it was the nearest one could get to the complex movements of the Greeks.

The RA's show in London, opening in September for a three-month run, will have about 85 works, and will include his sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, on loan from the Tate.

There will also be exhibits exploring how Degas was influenced by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge and Jules-Étienne Marey, and by the films of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière.

The show offers the chance to see Degas himself on film – not that the artist knew anything about it as he declined Sacha Guitry's request to be filmed. The footage of a white-bearded Degas making his way along Paris's Boulevard de Clichy was an early example of covert filming.

Kathleen Soriano, the RA's director of exhibitions, said the show would mark the first time that the RA had "considered the relationship of Degas' work with dance and dancers alongside the birth of photography and the development of film and the moving image".


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February 02 2011

My best shot: Colin Jones

Colin Jones speaks about the hardships of life as a Royal Ballet dancer and photographing Rudolf Nureyev in a pub in Fulham



January 19 2011

Behind the ballet

This was shot in 1966 for Time Life magazine, part of a day-in-the-life series they wanted on Rudolf Nureyev. It was taken in a pub in Fulham, London. The woman is Lynn Seymour, who I was married to at the time. They were doing Romeo and Juliet together, and they used to get on well; we used to go out drinking together all the time. Rudi was a great laugh, very outspoken – if something wasn't right, he'd really lay down the law. He was fantastically bright, spoke six languages, and had an animal magnetism: you couldn't take your eyes off him when he was on stage.

I was a dancer myself. I joined the Royal Ballet School in 1953, but by 1962 I had started work as a professional photographer. I didn't really like ballet that much – I couldn't take the tension. You've got to be very self-assured.

There was no paparazzi in those days. I just asked the bloke at the bar if I could take a few pictures, and he said fine. What I love about it is those people at the next table: they are just having a quiet drink and didn't know or care about Nureyev, even though he was all over the papers.

The thing is, dancers always want to look perfect, and I like taking pictures when they're off guard, working in difficult places or in rough environments. What I wanted to show was that, for all the glamour, there's a lot of hard work.

I wasn't getting on too well with Lynn at the time; in fact, we broke up shortly afterwards. Before I took this shot, I went with Nureyev and another woman to buy an expensive waterski boat in Ruislip or somewhere. She was all over him in the car, but of course he wasn't interested.

CV

Born: London, 1936.

Studied: "Completely self-taught."

Inspirations: "Michael Peto, who used to work for the Observer."

High point: "A 1966 exhibition about the Black House in Holloway."

Low point: "In 1969, while shooting a Sunday Times feature, I was put under house arrest by Colonel Gaddafi."

Top tip: "Don't be influenced by others.Shoot what you like."


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January 18 2011

Zoë Dominic obituary

Dance and theatre photographer with a gift for capturing the essence of a performer

Zoë Dominic, who has died aged 90, was one of the outstanding group of dance and theatre photo- graphers – including Lord Snowdon, Angus McBean and Anthony Crickmay – who flourished in the postwar renewal of the British performing arts in the 1950s and 60s. She was a pioneer in a man's world and her talent for capturing the essence of a performer endeared her to some of the greatest stars of the age.

Dominic was the "chosen" photographer of Maria Callas, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith. Her career, which started around 1957, coincided with the launch of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in London, which she documented, and, a few years later, the coming of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

Although she was retained by the Sunday Times and the Financial Times in the early 1960s, her first loyalty was always to those she photographed, and she regarded that relationship as very much a personal one. For 30 years, in her Chelsea workplace, an old artist's studio with north-facing light and a wooden floor, she would oversee every element of the process.

In pre-digital, black-and-white days, that meant many hours in the dark room after the session itself, which performers always enjoyed because of her discretion and lively mind. She only stopped working in the early 1990s after the physical demands of juggling four cameras and jumping up and down stepladders became too much.

She never lost her affection for the first camera her father gave her, a Rolleiflex, but she usually worked with Nikon or the larger Hasselblad cameras and always gave the impression that whichever one she used was an extension of her own arm; she wielded it like a violinist with a bow. She was particularly good at capturing gestures, or the rapid motion of a dancer, and used shadow to much subtler effect than, say, McBean.

An intensely private and dedicated professional, she was attracted by what she called the vulnerability of the great artist. She found common ground, for instance, in Callas and Smith. Callas, she said, feared that audiences would destroy her each time she went out to sing. Smith took Dominic with her to Canada as a kind of publicity comfort blanket when she decamped for a couple of seasons to Stratford, Ontario.

"She is the only actress I know," Dominic once told me, "who can walk in one direction and be acting with her head in the reverse direction. I've always found that hysterically funny. She has immense physical grace, which is why I like to catch her on the move ... when she feels good, and that's the ideal time to photograph anyone, she positively blossoms. She looks like a wonderful peach." Her alluring studies of a refulgent Smith as Rosalind in As You Like It, Millamant in The Way of the World and Amanda in Private Lives bear this out.

Born Zoë Denise Levi, in London, Dominic was the daughter of Lionel J Levi, a fine art dealer who specialised in French antique furniture and had a shop in Mount Street. She was educated at Francis Holland school in Regent's Park and went to a finishing school in Switzerland. She changed her name to Zoë Dominic around 1960. She first worked in the studio of the portrait photographer Vivienne, and was called on at the Royal Court for the first 10 years of its life under George Devine, Tony Richardson and William Gaskill.

There, she photographed Olivier in John Osborne's The Entertainer, Joan Plowright in Arnold Wesker's Roots (there is a wonderfully vivid picture of Plowright clowning, arms folded, hair in curlers) and Edward Bond's baby-stoning scene in Saved.

These are defining images of the modern theatre, as were her pictures of David Warner and Ian Holm in The Wars of the Roses at the RSC, Judi Dench as Sally Bowles, singing lustily in a slashed skirt, in Cabaret, and Peter Gill's DH Lawrence productions back at the Royal Court, where she uncannily conveys the grime and graininess of the performance. At the National, for Olivier, her work is an essential adjunct to any historical survey. Her portrait of Olivier as the Captain in August Strindberg's The Dance of Death tells you everything about the character and performance: it is sly, cruel, on the verge of explosion, as Olivier cocks his right arm behind his head, places his left hand on his hip and shapes up for a tarantella, like a puffed-up matador.

Her portraits of Peggy Ashcroft in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days – the performance that opened the National Theatre's Lyttelton on the South Bank in 1976 – catch, in all its glorious, fleeting evanescence, the elegance, sensuality and absurd stoicism of a woman defying the world as it consumes her.

Dominic Photography, which she ran with her younger colleague and friend Catherine Ashmore, has a library of more than 250,000 transparencies, negatives and digital files. Dominic's publications include Frederick Ashton: A Choreographer and His Ballets (1971), with John Selwyn Gilbert; John Cranko and the Stuttgart Ballet (1973); and Full Circle (1982), with Janet Baker.

She was a member of the council of the London Academy of Music and Drama, a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (where she was given the Hood medal for distinguished contribution in 1986) and was appointed OBE in 2007. A younger brother predeceased her.

Zoë Denise Dominic, photographer, born 4 July 1920; died 11 January 2011


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November 18 2010

Edgar Degas' ballet paintings on show

French painter's fascination with movement to be focus of Royal Academy's canvas and film exhibition

An exhibition on Degas and his fascination with ballet dancers – surprisingly, the first to be staged in the UK – was today announced as one of the highlights of the Royal Academy's 2011 programme.

Edgar Degas is often seen as a populist painter of chocolate-box scenes of horse racing and pretty ballet dancers, but the RA exhibition will aim to show he was far more than that. "He was a very radical, cutting-edge artist in his day," said the co-curator Ann Dumas.

The artist's preoccupation with ballet dancers is well-known, which makes it all the more surprising that the RA show will be the first significantly large UK exhibition to explore this. Dumas said it could have taken so long because of the popularity of the paintings. "The appeal of these images has, in a way, almost been a barrier to a thorough investigation."

The show also aims to break ground by exploring the development of modern film and photography practices alongside what Degas was attempting in paint and sculpture. "Degas was actually much more skilful at capturing figure and movement than the very first film-makers were. Sometimes Degas was ahead of the game and sometimes he was learning from photographers. There was a give and take process," said Dumas.

Degas never really explained why he painted dancers so much, although he once flippantly said it was because of the pretty dresses. On another occasion he said it was the nearest one could get to the complex movements of the Greeks.

For Dumas, that answer is central to the debate. "Degas loved the art of antiquity. He used to go a lot to the antiquity galleries at the Louvre and look at figures on vases and the patterns of movement you get on classical friezes. He was really interested in the human figure in movement, and complex movement." The artist would observe dancers backstage and in rehearsal rooms.

The show will include one of Degas's most famous sculptures, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, lent by the Tate, an artwork that would not raise an eyebrow today but which in the 1880s "would have been like Damien Hirst".

Degas's sculptures were cast into bronze after his death, but he made them in wax. "When he first exhibited [Little Dancer] people were astonished at its realism," said Dumas. "It was wax-painted flesh colour with a real tutu, real satin ballet slippers, a wig of real human hair with a ribbon. One critic compared it to a voodoo sculpture."

The RA will also next year hold its first large photography show since 1989, focusing on 20th-century Hungarian photography, including that of émigrés such as Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, and Martin Munkácsi.

Before that, the RA will stage the UK's first retrospective of the drawings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, an artist best known for his invention of the genre fêtes galantes, mostly pictures of idle but elegant aristrocats in parkland settings. There will also be Watteau's less well-known erotic nudes. "It's quite a sexy show," promised the RA's director of exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano.

In the main galleries in January will be a show devoted to modern British sculpture, followed by the 243rd summer exhibition, before the Degas opens on 17 September.

The RA gets no state funding and relies on generating its own income and attracting donors.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA's secretary and chief executive, conceded that it was, in the current climate, more difficult to attract sponsors. "Inevitably, in a period of recession, it is not straightforward to secure major corporate sponsorship. Big corporations have, to some extent, reined back and that makes us proportionately more grateful to those who have continued to sponsor us."


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September 23 2010

Picasso's women resurrect a golden age

Victoria and Albert, London

When Lydia Lopokova, a former Diaghilev ballerina, went to see her old company perform in Paris in 1924, it was Picasso's drop curtain for the ballet Le Train Bleu that most impressed her. She found it "moving and alive". The ballet itself has long disappeared, but the drop curtain, of two women bounding along a beach, has survived. And for the first time in three decades, it's on public view, part of the V&A's magnificent celebration of Diaghilev's troupe, the Ballets Russes.

The curtain, hung from ceiling to floor, looks monumental: the rosy solidity of the women's bodies, the cloudy blue of the sky, all on an awesome scale. It's a startling reminder of the size of the stage where the ballet was premiered. But even more arresting are the tiny holes and creases on the curtain's surface – testament to the hard-working life of Diaghilev's troupe as it toured the world between 1909 and 1929.

During those years, Diaghilev famously corralled an extraordinary array of talent to collaborate on the ballets he presented, to which the 300 items in this exhibition pay scrupulous and moving tribute. There are cubist sets and costumes by Picasso, surrealist costumes from De Chirico, jewel coloured costumes from Matisse, along with contributions from Braque. All offer a fascinating slant on the artists' painterly concerns. Some are familiar, some I've never seen before – including an earnestly bizarre industrial set for the 1927 ballet Le Pas d'Acier, designed by the Russian constructivist painter Yakoulov.

The exhibition takes a chronological course through the company's history, pausing on certain individuals and themes. A whole section is devoted to Nijinsky, allowing you to ponder how a dancer whose jump became world famous could defy gravity in costumes so heavy and ornate. En route, the exhibition also accumulates vivid souvenirs from the wider historical context. Early exhibits, indicating the culture out of which the Ballets Russes was born, feature period film of the kind of overstuffed, sentimental ballets that were current before Diaghilev and his radical choreographers changed the artform for ever.

But it's the emotional power of the little objects that hits you, reminding you of the day-to-day labour that went into the creation of the Ballets Russes legend: a display of ballet shoes, stained and worn; the manuscript for Stravinsky's Firebird, crisscrossed with pencil and blue crayon; and, most touching of all, a collection of Diaghilev's personal items – his travel clock, his top hat and the opera glasses through which he watched his triumphs (and occasional disasters) take shape on stage.

Rating: 5/5


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May 14 2010

Dance picks of the week

Merchants Of Bollywood, London

This kaleidoscopic dance and music chronicle of the history of Bollywood has been touring the world since 2005, but it makes its first appearance at the Peacock this month. Written and directed by Toby Gough, it is based on the story of the Merchant family, a dynasty of choreographers who led the evolution of Bollywood into one of the world's largest film industries. It's nominally based around the story of a feud between a young woman and her grandfather as she sets out to pursue a career in the movies, but the story is simply an excuse for the all-singing, dancing, acting cast to cull the best of Bollywood style. Choreography is by Vaibhavi Merchant in a mixture of folk, classical and disco sounds and among the song list are blockbuster hits from the Bollywood back catalogue that include Lagaan, Devdas, Musafir and Dhoom.

Peacock Theatre, WC2, Tue to 5 Jun

Hofesh Shechter: Political Mother, Plymouth & Brighton

This latest work from the always fascinating Schechter plays with notions of shock and normality. The former rock drummer has developed into a world-renowned choreographer over the past several years, and this work follows global acclaim for Uprising/In Your Rooms. With a cast of 10 dancers, Schechter orchestrates a surreal chain of encounters, from which ever more absurd, tragic and horrible consequences unravel – each one challenging our sense of what is acceptable and routine. Political Mother promises to deliver raw visceral emotion and fierce structural complexity and comes with a richly layered cinematic score composed by Schecter and performed by a band of live musicians.

Theatre Royal, Plymouth, Sat; Dome, Brighton, Thu & Fri

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Babel (words), London

Babel is the final work in a trilogy that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui began with FOI and Myth and continues his study of culture, race, belief and identity. Here, the choreographer takes off from the moments of crisis and incomprehension that occur when words and language fail. As with the other works, Cherkaoui's co-choreographer is Damien Jalet, but for Babel he also collaborates with artist Antony Gormley, who played a crucial creative role in Zero Degrees and Sutra. Created in a global mix of styles set against a soundscape of voice and rhythms, Cherkaoui maintains his reputation as one of the most visionary choreographers working today.

Sadler's Wells, EC1, Tue & Wed


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