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April 01 2012

This week's cultural highlights: Into the Abyss and Madonna

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

In a Garden
The Ustinov's ambitious season of modern American plays continues with the British premiere of Howard Korder's play about an American architect summoned to a Middle Eastern country to fulfil an impossible commission. Richard Beecham directs a tale of dangerous misunderstandings. Ustinov, Bath (01225 448844), Wednesday until 5 May.

Film

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

Dance

The Royal Ballet: Mixed Bill
The Royal at their adventurous best, with new works by Liam Scarlett and Wayne McGregor, plus a revival of Wheeldon's classy, intelligent Polophonia. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), Thursday until 23 April.

The Eifman Ballet: Anna Karenina (Tue-Weds) Onegin (Fri)
Big, passionate storytelling from this St Petersburg-based company. London Coliseum, WC2 (0871 911 0200), Tuesday until 7 April.

Classical

St John Passion
Stephen Layton's performances with his choir Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are regularly among the best of the annual crop of Easter passions; Ian Bostridge takes the role of the Evangelist this time. St John's, Smith Square, London SW1 (020-7222 1061), Friday.

Aldeburgh Easter Weekend
Beethoven is this year's focus; Elisabeth Leonskaja's performances of the last three piano sonatas are flanked by performances of the Ninth Symphony, with the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Ben Parry, and Schoenberg's rarely heard choral piece Friede auf Erden providing the prologue. Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (01728 687110), Friday to Sunday.

Jazz

Oxford Jazz festival

Lively, week-long international festival, including Swedish jazz singer Cecilia Stalin (exploring new vocal settings for classic John Coltrane themes) at the Ashmolean Dining Room on Thursday, innovative young guitarist Kristian Borring at COPA on Friday, and a full Easter weekend programme – headlined by bass star Michael Janisch's international group, the New York Standards Quartet at Oxford Playhouse on 7 April. Various venues, Oxford, 1-7 April.

Pop

The Futureheads
In the wake of their a cappella album, Rant – a pretty bold move by anyone's standards – the Futureheads embark on an acoustic and a cappella tour. Tour begins Monday, Komedia Brighton (01273 647100).

Orbital
There's something rather pleasing about the way the reformed Orbital have gone from providing a night out for disco dads to a genuine musical force once more: new album Wonky may actually be their best. Tour begins Thursday, Manchester Academy (0161-832 1111).

Visual art

Remote Control
Exploring the impact television has had on culture, this is more than just artists on the box. This huge group show channel-surfs Richard Hamilton and Richard Serra, Adrian Piper, Taryn Simon, Mark Leckey and many others, from the 60s to the present. ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647), Tuesday to 10 June.

Last chance to see

Theatre

Romeo and Juliet
Young, fresh, vibrant and completely heartbreaking, and you can't often say that about Shakespeare's over-familiar tale of star-crossed lovers. A memorable revival from director Robert Icke and Headlong. Hull Truck (01482 323638), until Saturday.

Film

Michael (dir. Markus Schleinzer)
This brilliant and bizarre drama, inspired by the Fritzl and Kampusch cases, shows the banal life of a paedophile. The suspense is unbearable.

Jazz

Get the Blessing
Vivacious jazz-rock band driven by Portishead's rhythm section plays mix of Ornette Coleman-influenced jazz, Morricone-like atmospherics and old-school twangy guitar rock from new OC DC album. Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (020-7439 0747), Tuesday.

Pop

Le Beat Bespoke Weekender
The Pretty Things, the Sorrows, July, the Poets and the Trashmen: if these are the kind of vintage names that excite you, then this mammoth annual mod/psych event offers nirvana. 229, London W1 (020-7323 7229), Thursday to Sunday.

Kylie Minogue
Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that Kylie Minogue might celebrate her silver jubilee by playing gigs consisting entirely of B-sides, demos and rarities? Tour ends Monday, Manchester Academy (0161-832 1111).

Visual art

Thomas Demand Model Studies
Demand photographs models of real and imagined places – this time working with rediscovered architectural models by celebrated US architect John Lautner (1911-94). Images of haunting, mysterious, decaying places. Nottingham Contemporary (0115-948 9750), until 15 April.

Book now

Theatre

Professor Vanessa's Wondershow
The era of the 1930s and 40s circus sideshow is recreated in a show that will take over the Roundhouse's main space and invite audiences to step back in time. Gawp at the headless lady and the electrifying 27,000-volt girl, and marvel at the human insect circus performers. Roundhouse, London NW1 (0844 482 8008), 23-29 April.

Wonderland
Alice gets a makeover, in an adults-only new piece from the ever-inventive Vanishing Point, which looks at what happens when a young girl leaves home in search of fame and stardom. A tale of dreams, temptations and curiosity. Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000), 29 August to 1 September.

The Sunshine Boys
It's not so much Neil Simon's tale of a legendary vaudevillian double act that is the draw here as the casting, which is very tasty indeed. Thea Sharrock directs Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths in this tale of showbiz rivalries. Savoy, London WC2 (0844 871 7687), 27 April until 28 July.

Film

This Must Be the Place (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino's English-language debut has Sean Penn as a retired Goth rocker living in Dublin. News about his father sends him on an American quest.

Dance

International Dance Festival Birmingham
Birmingham's month-long dance programme brings UK revivals for hit shows like Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant's Push, a solo for Louise LeCavalier created by Nigel Charnock, and the premiere of a new work featuring the disabled dance virtuoso David Toole. Various venues, from 23 April until 19 May.

Classical

Einstein on the Beach
Some seats still available for the UK premiere of Philip Glass's groundbreaking stage work, in a recreation of Robert Wilson's original 1976 production. Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 4-13 May.

Jazz

Esperanza Spalding

Charismatic young Grammy-winning vocalist/bassist Spalding brings her 12-piece band to London, showcasing songs from her April album release, Radio Music Society. With her stage presence, acoustic-bass virtuosity, graceful vocals and seamless fusion of jazz, pop and classical chamber music, Spalding has star power written all over her. Koko, London, NW1 (0870 432 5527), 28 May.

Pop

Madonna

Whether you think MDNA represents a return to classic form or a more modest achievement, Madonna's UK tour is bound to be one of the summer's biggest musical events. Tour begins 17 July, Hyde Park, London (0844 576 5483).

Visual art

Glasgow international festival of visual art
Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi, and much more, at venues throughout Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May.


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March 31 2012

Spring arts calendar 2012

From Snow White to Jack White, and Cumbria to Cannes, the Observer's critics pick the season's highlights. What are you most looking forward to? Post your comments below

Download the spring arts calendar 2012

April

2 Pop Dr John The New Orleans legend decamps to Nashville to record with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach; excellence ensues on the Locked Down LP.

4 Art Damien Hirst The world's richest living artist enjoys a major survey of more than 20 years of his work, including medicine cabinets, diamond skull and a certain preserved shark. Tate Modern, London until 9 September.

6 Film This Must Be the Place Sean Penn plays a retired rock star scouring America for the fugitive Nazi who tormented his father in Auschwitz. Paolo Sorrentino escapes from the art house in his first English-language film.

7 Theatre Where Have I Been All My Life? Following the success of London Road, her verbatim musical at the National, Alecky Blythe documents a local talent show for the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Until 28 April.

11 Art Hans-Peter Feldmann A retrospective for the German conceptual artist whose work since the 1950s has involved collecting and re-presenting everyday cultural artefacts. Serpentine Gallery, London until 3 June.

11 Dance A Streetcar Named Desire Scottish Ballet unite choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and theatre director Nancy Meckler in a new take on Tennessee Williams's psychodrama. Theatre Royal Glasgow until 14 April, and touring.

12 Theatre The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning Before he was a WikiLeaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning was a schoolboy in Wales, and this National Theatre of Wales production is staged in his old Haverfordwest school before transferring to two other Welsh venues. Until 28 April.

13 Theatre Wild Swans Jung Chang's international bestseller charting the incredible lives of three generations of women in China takes to the stage. Young Vic, London until 13 May.

16 Classical Bruckner Project Daniel Barenboim (conductor) and his Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra return to London for Bruckner's three final symphonies, 7, 8 and 9, paired with Barenboim as soloist in two Mozart piano concertos. At the Royal Festival Hall, London for three nights.

19 Dance Artifact Set to the music of Bach and danced here by the impeccable Royal Ballet of Flanders is the subversive new-dance master piece of the American choreographer William Forsythe. Sadler's Wells, London until 21 April.

20 Theatre Sea Odyssey The Sultan's Elephant entranced us in 2006; now Royal de Luxe take over Liverpool city centre with 50-foot marionettes for a street spectacular marking 100 years since the Titanic's maiden voyage. Until 22 April.

20 Art Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art More than 130 artists, including 2009 Turner prize-winner Richard Wright, show work over 18 days at this major visual art festival in Glasgow, now in its fifth edition. Until 7 May.

23 Pop Jack White Jack White's debut solo album, Blunderbuss, is every bit as tremendous as you would hope from this restless former Stripe. There's a new colour scheme – blue – and his touring outfit (coming to the UK 21-24 June) features one all-male band and an all-female counterpart. The album, though, doesn't need gimmicks to sell it. Replete with waltzes, ballads, pianos, bravura guitar solos and troublesome women, it finds the newly-divorced White on energetic, mischievous form.

25 Art Out of Focus Major show featuring 38 photographers, including Ryan McGinley, Mat Collishaw, John Stezaker and Yumiko Utsu, who challenge the received rules of the medium. Saatchi Gallery, London until 22 July.

27 Film Albert Nobbs In a role she created on stage 30 years ago, Glenn Close plays a cross-dressing hotel waiter in Victorian Dublin. Close also co-wrote the script with novelist John Banville. Both she and Janet McTeer were Oscar-nominated for the film.

28 Classical Monteverdi's Vespers 1610 The great Italian choral masterpiece associated with St Mark's, Venice takes over the galleries and balconies of Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow for full spatial effect. The Dunedin Consort hold court.

May

1 Classical Vale of Glamorgan Festival Taking place in spring not autumn for the first time, this contemporary music festival celebrates Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass at 75 and more, across several venues in Cardiff. Until 11 May.

2 Theatre The Rest is Silence Site-specific company dreamthinkspeak kick off this year's Brighton festival with a "meditation on Shakespeare's Hamlet". Expect labyrinthine adventure. Malthouse Estate Warehouse, Shoreham until 27 May.

3 Design Bauhaus: Art As Life A big show of a big school: before the Nazis closed it down, the Bauhaus led the way in defining modern architecture, design and art. Barbican, London until 10 August.

6 Pop Grimes Canadian synth darling Claire Boucher brings her Visions album – already one of the year's most talked-about – out to play in Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. Until 10 May.

8 Theatre Babel Wildworks, the Cornish creators of last year's acclaimed Port Talbot production of The Passion starring Michael Sheen, stage an outdoor event inspired by the biblical story of Babel. A collaboration with four London theatres involving 500-plus people, this epic show explores what happens when the scattered tribes are called back. Caledonian Park, London N1 until 20 May.

10 Dance Snow White With costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier and music by Mahler, Angelin Preljocaj's darkly adult take on the Grimms' fairytale promises a very sophisticated pleasure indeed. Sadler's Wells, London until 12 May.

10 Pop The Great Escape This Brighton powwow has become a nigh-on unmissable appointment with every new band going. Until 12 May.

11 Film Dark Shadows In Tim Burton's film version of the camp gothic American TV sitcom, an 18th-century vampire (Johnny Depp) is unleashed on the year 1972.

12 Classical LSO and Valery Gergiev The London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev brave evening traffic to play Trafalgar Square for the first time with The Rite of Spring. "The acoustics will be a challenge," says Gergiev.

16 Film Cannes Film Festival Wes Anderson's new film Moonrise Kingdom opens the 65th festival. The Artist's silent march to Oscars success started at Cannes last year – will another winner be unearthed this time round? Until 27 May.

16 Art Bedwyr Williams: My Bad Biggest solo show to date for Williams, whose often hilarious work explores the absurdities of life in his native north Wales. At Ikon, Birmingham until 8 July.

18 Film The Dictator After Borat and Brüno – General Admiral Shabazz Aladeen. Sacha Baron Cohen's newest mock-doc character is the dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern state. Megan Fox appears as a concubine.

20 Art Photographers' Gallery Reopens London's biggest public photography gallery, recently relocated to Oxford Circus, celebrates its £8.9m facelift and extension with an Edward Burtynsky show, until 2 July.

23 Theatre Posh Laura Wade's 2010 Royal Court hit about an elitist Bullingdon Club-style dining institution at Oxford gets a West End transfer to the Duke of York's theatre, London. Until 4 August.

27 Classical King Priam A strong season at the Brighton festival (from 5 May) culminates in this rare chance to hear Tippett's King Priam in concert, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and Brighton Festival Chorus, conductor Sian Edwards.

31 Theatre Wah! Wah! Girls Love against the odds in London's East End drives Sadler's Wells' Bollywood-style musical at the Peacock theatre, directed by Kneehigh's Emma Rice. Until 23 June.

June

1 Design Serpentine Pavilion Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, the team who gave Beijing its Bird's Nest stadium, reunite to build the latest of the Serpentine's annual pavilions. Until 14 October.

1 Film Prometheus; Snow White and the Huntsman Beginning of the summer's blockbusters as Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated Alien prequel goes head-to-head with the Grimm Brothers reworking.

6 Dance Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Month-long season of 10 works by the late, great German choreographer, each exploring a different world city. Barbican and Sadler's Wells, London. Until 9 July.

7 Classical Opera Holland Park Another mouth-watering seven-opera season opens with Lucia di Lamermoor. Also includes Gianni Schicchi, Eugene Onegin and the family-friendly Fantastic Mr Fox. Holland Park, London W8 until 4 August.

8 Pop No Direction Home New boutique festival from the End of the Road people bringing sounds to north Notts's Welbeck Estate. Richard Hawley, Gruff Rhys and Dirty Three headline. Until 10 June.

15 Film Rock of Ages This adaptation of the Broadway/West End smash, a musical constructed around rock anthems, stars a bewigged and mostly topless Tom Cruise as fictional headbanger Stacee Jaxx.

15 Pop Plan B in the Forest The Forestry Commission lures various artists into the trees every year, but urban crooner Ben Drew is probably the most surprising sylvan songsmith yet. Until 7 July.

18 Theatre Kiss Me, Kate Trevor Nunn returns to Chichester Festival theatre for its 50th anniversary, directing Cole Porter's feisty musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. Until 1 September.

19 Art Yoko Ono: To The Light Major London retrospective will include a project called Smile, in which Ono invites people worldwide to email a photograph of their own smile. Serpentine, London until 9 September.

21 Pop Bruce Springsteen The Boss has never been more pumped than on his recent album. Join his tour-cum-rally. Until 24 June

21 Theatre Lakes Alive Les Commandos Percus follow up the arrival of the Olympic torch in Windermere, Cumbria earlier that evening with On the Night Shift, a theatrical lakeside firework display set to music at Glebe recreation ground.

22 Classical Stour Music This tiny 'festival of music in East Kent' held in a beautiful church on the pilgrim route to Canterbury has lured star countertenor Andreas Scholl. Until 1 July.

22 Film Killer Joe Directed by William "The Exorcist" Friedkin, this dark, pulpy film about a murderous cop (Matthew McConaughey) was the talk of last year's Venice and Toronto festivals.

23 Pop Radio 1's Hackney Weekender Hackney's famed football fields play host to a 48-hour Premier league of pop. Jay-Z leads the roll call of international talent, with Lana Del Rey, Jack White and Azealia Banks in defence. The cream of British pop, R&B and hip-hop are represented too (Tinie Tempah, Florence Welch, Emeli Sandé). Best of all it's free. Hackney Marshes, London E9 until 24 June.

24 Pop Nicki Minaj With her Roman Reloaded LP fresh out of the blocks, hip-hop's firecracker is set to dazzle London, Birmingham and Manchester. Until 28 May.

25 Classical The Trojans Berlioz's ambitious masterpiece, conducted by Antonio Pappano and director David McVicar; starring Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek. ROH's Olympic-season climax. Until 11 July.

25 Classical Dr Dee London premiere at ENO of Damon Albarn's masque-cum-opera about the mysterious Elizabethan magician-philosopher, directed by Rufus Norris with conductor Stephen Higgins. Until 7 July.

28 Art Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye The Norwegian artist's interest in photography and film-making is brought to the fore in this major reassessment of his work. Tate Modern, London until 14 October.

29 Film Friends With Kids In this sophisticated Allenesque New York comedy, actor Jennifer Westfeldt makes her debut as writer-director, co-starring opposite her long-time partner, Mad Men's Jon Hamm.

What are you looking forward to this spring? Post your cultural highlights in the comments section below


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Andrew Lloyd Webber calls for help to save crumbling theatres

Theatres Protection Fund to receive £125,000 from Andrew Lloyd Webber, with call for other successful writers and producers to give something back

Andrew Lloyd Webber is calling on successful producers and writers to give something back by offering financial help to ailing theatres across the country.

Lloyd Webber will announce on Monday that he will give £125,000 over the next five years to the Theatres Trust. The donation, through his foundation, will kickstart the Theatres Protection Fund, giving urgent cash for anything from repairing a leaking roof to paying for a fundraising campaign. He has also given £1m to the Architectural Heritage Fund for grade I and II listed buildings, which include some theatres.

"I'm a great lover of architecture and obviously theatres in particular," he said. "I hope my foundation's donation will help look after some of the less well-known prestigious theatres around the country and also maybe encourage other creators, writers and producers who have been lucky in the theatre, to join me in donating …

"I'm thinking of people who have made a decent living that can actually give something back. These buildings are crumbling. We don't want them ending up as lapdancing clubs or being pulled down."

Madeleine Lloyd Webber, the composer's wife and a foundation trustee, said: "Andrew has created a huge amount of millionaires in this business. There's an awful lot of people out there that are very well off thanks to live theatre."

Last week Arts Council England announced that 26 organisations are to share £114m from its new capital funding programme. With the Southbank Centre to receive £20m, the National Theatre £17.5m and the Royal Opera House £10m, there was, however, concern that the funds would support some of the most heavily subsidised arts, with London venues receiving half of the total.

Fifty-eight theatre buildings – jewels of the nation's theatrical heritage – remain "at risk". Many others have already gone, including the Borough Theatre, Wallsend, which was demolished last year. The actress Penelope Keith, a trustee of the Theatres Trust, applauded the donation: "We will now be able to offer a lifeline to theatres," she said. "There's so many around the land that were wonderful buildings that need restoring. Quite often they're in good locations and there are people waiting to pounce, knock them down and turn them into shops or whatever."

She singled out the Derby Hippodrome, a 1914 variety theatre with rich baroque plasterwork. It fell victim to vandalism, including arson, and in its state of disrepair has an uncertain future. She said: "Rather mysteriously a ball and chain happened to swing and knock into the theatre. There's no [roof] over it. It's a shell."

Acknowledging the vast capital funding involved in such causes, sometimes running into millions, she said: "Quite often they need small funds to get started. Thanks to the foundation a lot of these things we hope will now get off the ground. Theatres are so much part of a community."

Rob Dickins, chairman of the Theatres Trust, said: "Theatres have been torn down for supermarkets. These are not just 'buildings'. They have the ghosts of creativity and performance and are special for communities."


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March 28 2012

Cambodia's art of survival

The country's rich artistic culture was destroyed in the 70s by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Today, despite terrible poverty, a revival is taking place – and it is gaining international recognition

Down a dusty road littered with motorbikes and tuk-tuks, past the charred red monument to independence and through a leafy courtyard populated by stray dogs, there stands a derelict-looking, 1960s cinderblock school in Phnom Penh where, on weekends, the atonal sounds of Khmer opera waft out of its shuttered windows.

In this ad-hoc dance studio, 15 pairs of feet are pointing delicately upwards, in geometric contrast to the checkered tiles on the floor. As the partners twirl side by side, their fingers bent backwards, shy smiles on their young faces, repeated patterns emerge in their footsteps. "Cambodian folk dance is a visual form of storytelling, about religion, nature, weddings and funerals," whispers Neang Visal, 21, a dancer who is looking on. "This dance, the krama dance, is about farming."

It is hard to imagine a paean to agriculture that would have the same clout in the west today. But in a nation that lost 90% of its artists, musicians, dancers and intellectuals to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, remembering the past is a vital aspect of safeguarding the future. Now that a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is investigating past atrocities, studios such as this one – part of the American not-for-profit Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) organisation – as well as government-run art and music courses, international funding and determined local artists, are helping Cambodians to embrace their cultural heritage once again.

Long known for its artistic traditions – most famously demonstrated by the temples of Angkor Wat – this nation of 14.8 million was once home to a vibrant contemporary art and music scene that saw psychedelic rock groups, led by Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, take south-east Asia by storm.

But when the Khmer Rouge took power – with their slogan "To keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss" – many artists were a direct target of the new order that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians within four years. Twenty years of economic hardship followed, preventing Cambodia from regenerating itself artistically. Now the nation's cultural future depends on organisations such as the CLA, which was founded by a Khmer Rouge survivor. It teaches classical Cambodian dance and music to some 300 students, aged five to 30, relying on "masters" – those few dancers and musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge – to instruct students in a circular education programme where students become teachers once they have learned their trade.

Most artists earn just $50 (£31) a month, so it is unsurprising that many would-be musicians and dancers look for more lucrative trades. Yet Khmer artists must pursue their art, says Long Oun, 48, a roneet (xylophone) teacher who doubles as a musician for the ministry of culture and fine arts and regularly performs for the king in royal ensembles for less than $2 a day. "Cambodia is a developing country, so we focus on healthcare and education, but we need to cultivate the arts sector, and the government has a lot to do," he says. "But as individuals we also need to work hard to make a viable future for ourselves."

That, however, requires a capable government, says an insider with close ties to the ministry, who requests anonymity. "The reality is that the ministry of culture and fine arts is one of the poorest in Cambodia and has very limited power. They focus on keeping Cambodian arts alive, but there's simply not enough money to do that."

Consequently, much of Cambodia's artistic regeneration is left to NGOs and large international funders, he says, which "inherently puts a neocolonialist edge on the art that's created. But if you gave artists a living salary, then you wouldn't have to cater to what the west wants to see."

Contemporary performing arts group Amrita recently faced a similar dilemma after funding cuts from their main donor, the Rockefeller Foundation, says project coordinator Kang Rithisal. "We had to rescale: instead of having lots of different projects in both contemporary and traditional arts, we decided to stick to what we were really good at – the contemporary," he says.

Amrita's shows focus on modern-day issues: in Breaking the Silence, Khmer Rouge victims are forced to face the soldiers who killed their families. The play toured Cambodia to rave reviews and is now heading to Rwanda, another victim of genocide.

But, like many contemporary art groups, Amrita faces a "cultural barrier" in getting Cambodians interested in an essentially very new art form. "People come to see us and they wonder what we're doing, but the more they see it, the more they'll get used to it," Rithisal says, admitting that money is an issue. "Cambodians say they like going to performances, but they're not willing to pay the money to sustain a performance or dancer's salary."

That's why some organisations are now targeting the Cambodian middle-class to create a sustainable, local culture scene that transcends those "neocolonialist" tendencies. At Romeet Gallery, on Street 218, Kate O'Hara exhibits contemporary work from up-and-coming Khmer artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO in Battambang in the north-west of the country. Here, huge black-and-white watercolour portraits of Khmer Rouge prisoners hang next to moody, Rothko-like abstracts. "Our buyers are definitely international right now – some are visitors to Phnom Penh, others are working here on the UN [war crimes tribunal] case," she says. "But we're trying to encourage local buyers by capturing the middle-class, fashion-week market, showing them that art is worth investing in."

On the international art scene, at least, Cambodia is becoming increasingly popular. From April to May next year, New York City will host the first-ever Season of Cambodia, which will see 200 Khmer artists perform across an interdisciplinary platform. The date already has culture hawks talking. "There's a buzz about what's going on here," says contemporary art-buyer and director Andrew Fitzgerald of the Toronto-based pop-up gallery East. "With the Season of Cambodia show coming up, we want to include more peripheral countries in south-east Asia in our gallery. What's interesting about Cambodia particularly are these common themes of self-identity and memory."

Bands such as Dengue Fever, with their Khmer-surf rock influences, and Krom Monster, which mixes traditional Khmer music in an electronic format, have helped to create a new sense of Cambodian identity and memory. But not everyone is ready to deal with such themes, it seems, particularly the government, which some say could strike against artist or gallery at any time. "This fear of being shut down at random, of threats against artists – one was recently told he'd have his hands cut off – terrifies me," says one gallery owner, requesting anonymity. "People here just disappear. It's not about the law, it's about what goes unsaid. That's why self-censorship is so rampant."

Photographer Lim Sokchanlina, who co-founded the conceptual art space Sa Sa Bassac to explore themes such as sexual identity, social justice and urban development, says the only way around that is by being sneaky. In his series My Motorbike and Me, he poses on a motorbike as an illegal country doctor, selling bogus medicine; as a policeman, asleep on the job. "There's a saying in Cambodia, 'Flow with the river'," he says. "You can say what you want, but you have to be clever about it – and for me that means being funny."

However hard things may be now, they are a welcome break from the past, says Ros Veasna, 63, a classical Khmer singer who trained with Sinn Sisamouth before the Khmer Rouge marched to power in 1975. "I could have done any other work when I left the work camp," she says. "But it was, and still is, only singing that makes me happy."


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March 26 2012

2012 Olympics inspire love poetry across Britain

The traditional Olympics truce has inspired a 'peace camp' that will bring poetry readings to remote coastal sites across the UK

The islands will be full of noises this summer, when a series of "peace camps" inspired by the Olympics will be set up on some of the UK's remotest beaches, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides and from County Antrim to Sussex.

As the pageantry, athleticism and rampant commercialism of the games comes to London, a collaboration between the theatre director Deborah Warner, the actor Fiona Shaw and the creative events company Artichoke, will put up tent encampments in eight coastal areas of outstanding beauty, including Cemaes Bay in Anglesey, Mussenden Temple in County Londonderry, Dustanburgh Castle in Northumberland and Fort Fiddes in Aberdeenshire.

The tents are due to glow from within, accompanied by a soundtrack created by the composer Mel Mercier from the sounds of nature, and British love poetry in languages and dialects of the UK and Ireland.

According to Warner, the idea for Peace Camp was sparked by hearing of the Olympic truce, when all nations receive the call to "lay down your arms, and let the games commence".

"We're engirdling our shores in a symbolic call for peace," she said. The tents echo Aulis, the port from which the Greek fleet sailed to Troy, and offer an "ironic turn on the military encampments of the past. There are also echoes of Henry V walking through his camp before Agincourt, but visitors to Peace Camp will hear poems of love in all the languages of Britain and Ireland."

The project takes locations such as John of Gaunt's castle in Northumberland, destroyed during the wars of the Roses, and makes them into a "welcoming gesture" to visitors from around the world, she explained.

"In a way it's a very simple project, which can be crystallised in words such as 'peace', 'love', 'encampment', 'poetry', 'light' and 'dark' – because the tents will be lighting up at dusk," she added. "But these words mask the richness that the extraordinary locations and the very extraordinary texts – from Shakespeare, Donne and many more – will bring to it."

Shaw will be travelling around the country gathering recordings of poems in all the accents and languages of the UK. She is drawing inspiration from poetry since, she said, it was once part of the Olympics and love poetry is "the opposite of war".

"So much of the Olympics is about competition," she said, "this is absolutely the antidote to that. In a way it's a complement to the struggle down in London."

The bell-shaped tents, which have been specially designed for the project, are "amazing", she continued, recalling a visit to a mock-up of one of the sites. It was "very moving, being among them, because any shape like that you imagine what's going on inside them".

"None of the locations is hospitable," she said. "They're not the usual sort of beach that you might like to go to." The installations explore the boundary between sea and land, highlighting how the UK is surrounded by sea, she added. "The idea is to ring the island. You're making a circle, so that you hold the magic of these islands within."

A parallel installation is being created online at peacecamp2012.com, where readers can nominate their favourite love poem, upload their own readings of love poetry and even write their own poems. "You might even get a reply from me, if I'm not too inundated," Shaw said.

The project, launched at a reading as part of the Guardian Open Weekend in London on Sunday, has already received a "huge" response, said Shaw, not least from poetry lovers who volunteered their favourites in response to blogs calling for readers' favourites.

"The event at the Guardian Open Weekend was amazing," she said. "What was wonderful was people turning up with poems they wanted read." Not only did the audience bring poems, but they came equipped with iPads and mobile phones, which they handed up to the stage so their choices could be read.

Shaw won't be reading many of the poems used as part of the installation, "but I am going around the country spouting any poem that comes out of my head". Readers who catch up with her as she travels the country can expect to hear lines from Shaw's favourite love poem, Adam's Curse by WB Yeats, who she saluted as "the ultimate poet", for the way he finds something wonderful in an ordinary scene.

Visitors who sit together as the poet imagines when "the last embers of daylight die" between 19 and 22 July, may find themselves drawn to "talk of poetry" and of the "old high way of love" as Yeats suggests.

Locations:

• Cemaes Bay in Anglesey, Wales

• White Park Bay in County Antrim

• Mussenden Temple in Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

• Valtos on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

• Fort Fiddes in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

• Dunstanburgh Castel in Northumberland

• Cuckmere Haven near Seven Sisters in Sussex

• Godrevy Head, Cornwall


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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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March 23 2012

The stars of British theatre - in pictures

Nadav Kander photographs Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Eileen Atkins, Mark Rylance and more



December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)

MattB75

One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.

oogin

Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.

daveportivo

Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.

Kleistphile

The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.

drdownunder

Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.

SlimJim888

The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.

OldFriar

Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

digit

The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.

Mark42

Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.

dbeecee

Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.

davidabsalom

Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.

zibibbo

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.

andglove

The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.

LDTBFJ

Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.

Snarlygog

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.

alphabetbands

Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.

juliendonkeyboy

In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.

habsfan0303

Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?

glynluke

Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.

Shatillion

I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.

JimTheFish

A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.

LocalBird

We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.

Carefree

Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.

Alarming

There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.

uptomost

85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.

AdminGuru

The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.

Wrighthanes

I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.

DeunanKnute

The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.

GorillaPie

The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.

Gundmundsdottir

Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.

CurlyScot

Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad.


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December 11 2011

Your cultural highlights of 2011

Our critics have had their say about the cultural highs of the past 12 months – but what did we miss? Tell us which moments from the world of culture made your 2011 a year to remember

As we approach the end of the year, now is the time to reflect on the best performances, albums, architecture, exhibitions, films and TV of 2011. Some of our critics have already listed their favourites: Adrian Searle picked Steve McQueen's film Shame, as one of his highlights; Susannah Clapp declared Michael Sheen's staging of The Passion in Port Talbot "the year's revelation"; and for Judith Mackrell it was Lucinda Childs' luminously structured Dance. Despite Alexis Petridis's momentary fear that he had turned into his dad, he thought AlunaGeorge "suggested the same balance of sonic innovation and commercialism you found in R&B a decade ago". Philip French meanwhile, felt the year's outstanding performances were by British actors: Colin Firth (The King's Speech) and Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin).

Below are the links to all our critics' cultural picks of the year, but what did they miss?

We'd like to know your cultural highlights of 2011. Did you enjoy a summer of music? An autumn of art? Which exhibitions, plays and festivals have taken place in your local area? Post your thoughts in the comments below and we'll print the best, most interesting nominations this week.

Read Guardian critics' highlights of 2011
Read the Observer critics' reviews of 2011


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November 21 2011

Guardian wins people's choice award for excellence in disability journalism

Judges praise 'thoughtful, entertaining, rigorous and enlightened' coverage of Guardian series on disability and the arts

The Guardian's "outstanding" coverage of disability issues was recognised on Sunday night when it picked up the first ever People's Choice award for journalistic excellence.

The publicly-nominated Ability Media International award, created by the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, recognises "creatively excellent work that has either been produced by disabled people or promotes a greater understanding of disability issues".

The judges praised the Guardian for its "thoughtful, entertaining, rigorous and enlightened" coverage of issues facing disabled people in a series of pieces about disability and the arts.

The award was presented at a star-studded ceremony at London Studios, attended by UK media and arts luminaries including Downton Abbey actor Dame Maggie Smith, childrens TV pioneer Anna Home and filmmaker Mike Leigh.

Jane Jutsum, Leonard Cheshire Disability Innovative Projects director and co-organiser of the AMI awards, said: "The Guardian has an impressive record in its coverage of disability issues. Its features and news coverage are thoughtful, entertaining, rigorous and enlightened and demonstrate the inclusion and journalistic responsibility not always apparent in our national press."

The Guardian's editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, said: "Diversity is a central part of what we are trying to do at the Guardian. I hope we are at the forefront of allowing a range of voices in, getting other points of view and raising issues of vital importance to people who previously weren't heard. That is why it makes me very proud to receive this AMI Award."

Ability Media is an initiative by Leonard Cheshire Disability aimed at giving disabled and disadvantaged people access to all forms of digital media training, providing a springboard into the industry.


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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 06 2011

London 2012 festival: 'It's going to be amazing'

Two years ago the Cultural Olympiad was floundering. Has new boss Ruth Mackenzie turned it around? She talks mass bell-ringing, Barenboim and beaches with Charlotte Higgins

Last year, when Ruth Mackenzie was appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, the very concept was at a low ebb. No one seemed to know exactly what it meant. The early planning seemed bogged down in impenetrable jargon about Olympic "themes" and dead phrases such as "celebrating youth and diversity". While worthy, these had the kind of committee-speak tang that is the enemy of good art. As one commentator put it, after attending the glossy, self-congratulatory launch in 2008, "it felt like we were all bathed in a warm vomit of inclusivity".

Mackenzie was the cavalry, brought in to give the Cultural Olympiad – which, should you still be in the dark, is the arts programme that will accompany the games, and which has been running, in various forms, since 2008 – a fresh start. She would have to be a sprinter: the opening ceremony might have been two years away, but that was still a hideously short time frame in which to pull together a coherent cultural programme for 2012. Mackenzie's appointment was greeted with relief, however: if anyone could pull it off, it was this former boss of Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival theatre and Manchester international festival. Like her or loathe her (and the arts world seems split, her nickname in some quarters being The Childcatcher, after the villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she is regarded as effective.

"Did I have time to spend two years doing research, which any director of any festival would expect?" she says crisply when we meet at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "No, I didn't. But there are merits in being decisive. There was no time to linger."

And in many ways – judging from the launch on Friday of her London 2012 festival – Mackenzie does seem to have pulled it off. The festival, running from 21 June to 9 September, will be the climax of the Cultural Olympiad. If all goes well, it will bring some much-needed focus to a rather inchoate programme that has risked lacking a binding identity.

To create the festival programme, Mackenzie and her team examined the work already in development, extracted the good stuff (such as Big Dance week, which saw 1.2 million people dancing in London last year) and quietly dropped the rest. She also opened her contacts book, inviting major international artists to make work that would form the high points of the festival; she cherrypicked projects being run by other institutions and drew them into the festival programme. For example, Tate Modern's regular Turbine Hall commission, which next year is by the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, will be regarded as part of the festival.

The problem, perhaps, is that the definition is still somewhat baffling. The festival is not the same as the Cultural Olympiad – there are plenty of Cultural Olympiad events that will happen next summer that are not part of the festival. Nor is the festival, despite its title, a London thing: it will be UK-wide. Some events that are part of other festivals – such as the Southbank's festival of the world – will also be included in Mackenzie's London 2012 festival. Confused? Don't worry, says Mackenzie. London 2012 festival events will be identifiable through branding, a pink ribbon, that she says will give them the imprimatur of quality. "We encourage people to feel that if there is a pink ribbon on it, it's like a critics' pick: trust us, it's going to be amazing."

Wisely, she has ditched the idea of connecting the programme too closely to the sporting events. The only two Olympic "themes" she has dreamed up are the idea that the artists are "exceptional, gold-medal talents, capable of producing something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"; and the notion, as a loosely applied metaphor, of the Olympic truce, which in the ancient Greek Olympics was a downing of weapons between the frequently warring Hellenic nations for the duration of the games.

And so, bound together by Mackenzie's curatorship, the London 2012 festival does now have a certain coherence. It is recognisably her taste, whether originated by her or not. She has a bracing (and to my mind commendable) penchant for the European avant garde; there is serious work of all stripes; and contemporary music that is anything but lowest-common-denominator. So Birmingham will see the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's new epic choral work Weltethos, under Simon Rattle; there will be a strand devoted to the work of composer George Benjamin; Daniel Barenboim will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms; theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create a series of installations on Britain's beaches; and there is the already announced Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal retrospective planned for the Barbican in London.

Offsetting all that is more populist fare: David Hockney at London's Royal Academy, a celebration of Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and Chichester; and, presumably, the pop and comedy elements of the festival, which are to be announced next year. Skirting between the two extremes are some intriguingly eccentric works, such as Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. (Yes, Creed wants everyone in Britain to ring something – church bell, bike bell, doorbell – simultaneously to celebrate the opening of the Games.) Mackenzie hesitates to sum up the "tone" of the festivities but, if anything, she says, they will have a certain humour and wit: "There's something about the surprise and quirkiness of them – about being funny as well as touching."

Will the London 2012 festival feel like a festival? As Mackenzie herself says: "Most festivals are in fields or cities; this one is in an entire country." Good festivals involve audiences sharing a stream of thought or experiencing a sense of place. They create a feeling of "festiveness" and a certain camaraderie between audiences and artists. Mackenzie has worked to disperse London 2012 into all parts of Britain, from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Gateshead to Margate. But that geographic generosity could cost her the coherence she wants, as most people are unlikely to get to any but a few events.

Mackenzie counters: "One of our offers is, we bring the events to you: we make sure there are amazing events all round the UK. You will feel a festive spirit in quite a few of our major cities. There is no doubt that there will be a critical mass of cultural events in London, and it's going to feel like it's absolutely at the centre of a festival – that goes for Edinburgh, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Birmingham, Stratford, too. What you can't do is have one festival club, you can't, and that's a sadness for us. Would it be easier if it was all in one city? Yes. But if we're to offer 10m free tickets or free places at events – well, you just couldn't do that in one city."

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

And what – to use a dreaded piece of Olympics jargon – does Mackenzie want the legacy to be? It's partly, she says, about using the strength and power of the Olympic brand to tempt audiences to take a punt on events they wouldn't normally go for. "I don't want to sound pious, but I believe in the quality of these artists. I believe that if you have the chance to see David Hockney or Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen, I think you will be amazed. I really do. I think you'll remember it; I think it will shape the way you think."

There are more tangible ends in view: the government, for example, has set targets for increasing cultural tourism to Britain once the games have finished. Mackenzie is also keen to raise the cultural stakes for subsequent Olympics, not least Rio in 2016. "If we are lucky, we will change the way future Olympics see their cultural festivals. I don't mind if Rio is better than us: I would like us to be the best yet, but I would be pleased if they were better than us."

The sheer scale of it all prompts more questions. At the latest count – and new projects are still being added – there were more than 1,000 events in the London 2012 festival, and many times that in the Cultural Olympiad as a whole from its 2008 inception. Will there be enough audiences to go round? And will 2013 be a terrible cultural letdown, arts organisations having exhausted their energy and budgets on big Olympic projects? One thing's for sure: far from there being nothing much to see next year, the UK is going to be awash with big ticket arts events. The danger, perhaps, is not cultural impoverishment – but cultural overdose.


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November 04 2011

Ring the bell! Cultural Olympiad announcement

The London 2012 festival, which will form the grand finale of the Cultural Olympiad, unveils countrywide programme of arts events from a bell-ringing flashmob to Cate Blanchett's return to the stage

The simultaneous ringing of every bell in the country, from doorbells and bike bells to church bells; a world-famous Venezuelan symphony orchestra performing on one of Scotland's most deprived council estates; a play in which audiences track performers through the Rheidol forest in Wales as they transform themselves into animals – all are to form part of the London 2012 festival, the climax of the Olympics' cultural programme.

The London 2012 festival, details of which were announced on Friday, runs from Midsummer Day until 9 September next year, in venues from Shetland to Belfast and Hadrian's Wall to Margate. The festival is planned to form the grand finale of the Cultural Olympiad, a programme of Olympics- and Paralympics-connected arts events that have been running since 2008. The organisers, under artistic director Ruth Mackenzie, promise 10m free tickets or free places at events for the countrywide celebration.

It is Turner-prize-winning artist Martin Creed's project to encourage people across the UK to ring whatever bell they can, simultaneously, on the day the Olympics and Paralympics open. And it is the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela – which has entranced audiences at the Proms, Southbank Centre and Edinburgh international festival – that will visit the Stirling housing estate of Raploch for an outdoor concert on midsummer's night under its conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Raploch – an area best-known for its drug problems, educational underachievement and violent crime – is the setting for a social project inspired by the radical Venezuelan "Sistema", in which children are given intensive musical training in order to teach them skills to help them break through the poverty gap. And in Wales, the event in Rheidol forest, inspired by the ancient stories of the Mabinogion, will be staged by Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras with the National Theatre of Wales.

Other theatrical highlights will include the first chance in 13 years to see Cate Blanchett on the British stage: she will star in Botho Strauss's Gross und Klein at the Barbican in London. There will also be a festival devoted to the work of Samuel Beckett in Enniskillen, featuring artists such as Robert Wilson, Antony Gormley and the tenor Ian Bostridge; and theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create installations on 10 British beaches, exploring love poetry.

Art highlights of the festival are to include major exhibitions in London of the work of Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. A show of work by Tracey Emin in her hometown, Margate, at the new Turner Contemporary art gallery, will also be included in the programme, as will next year's Turbine Hall commission in Tate Modern from the German-British artist Tino Sehgal – which is likely to involve mass audience interaction with performers.

Aside from the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, the festival will also welcome another orchestra of young people when the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – composed of Arab and Israeli musicians – appears under its conductor, Daniel Barenboim, at the Proms. Simon Rattle will also make an appearance, conducting Wynton Marsalis's Swing Symphony at the Barbican in London. And the previously announced World Shakespeare festival will bring together the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe and the National Theatre to present interpretations of Shakespeare from as far afield as Tunisia and Iraq.

According to Mackenzie: "This is my take on world-class excellence. These are exceptional, gold-medal talents. They are capable of producing something experiences that are once-in-a-lifetime. Of course there is no guarantee – but exceptional talent is a great start." Mackenzie was brought in to turn around the Cultural Olympiad last year after widespread criticism of the early manifestations of the games' cultural programme. She was appointed by Royal Opera House chief executive Tony Hall, chair of the board of the Cultural Olympiad.


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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 16 2011

Ray Aghayan obituary

Award-winning costume designer who dressed Judy Garland and Diana Ross and oversaw the Oscar red carpet

Now that television talent contests are gussied up to Vegas standards, it's less easy to appreciate the discreet glamour that was the speciality of Ray Aghayan, who has died aged 83. But for 60 years, he guaranteed that difficult divas would arrive on screens and stages projecting perfection. Glamour was so much his habitat, he supervised over a dozen Oscar shows.

His initial diva, he remembered, was even more terrifying than Barbra Streisand: Princess Fawzia of Egypt, first wife of the last Shah of Iran, a woman of movie appearance and wilfulness. Aghayan came from an Armenian family in Tehran, and his widowed mother, Yasmine, designed clothes for the ruling Pahlavi family; the boy, starstruck by Hollywood, was certain he, too, could create, and the amused Fawzia summoned him via her ladies in waiting. She explained to him that she had to wear mourning dress, but didn't want to be extinguished by it. So he drew her "this big black tulle thing trimmed with droopy red ostrich feathers". It was sewn, defiantly worn, and after that no grand dame scared him.

His mother took his cinema passions seriously enough to send him to California to study. In Los Angeles, he dropped out of architecture and into acting, then: "I was directing a play and found we didn't have enough money to hire a designer. So I designed the costumes."

He went into television in the mid-50s, when most of its costuming was re-used from movie stock, or agency hires. NBC or CBS budgets for original commissions were reserved for big variety specials, and Aghayan was confident that whatever the level of luxe, he could supply it. It was steady work, culminating in 1963-64, when he costumed Judy Garland's regular shows. Edith Head had been commissioned, but exited, fast. Garland was trouble. But Aghayan was a fan ("If you can sing like that it doesn't matter how hard you are", he said), and her demands were minimal: she wanted to wear spike heels. As her legs were long and thin, Aghayan thought this was a great idea, and he was sure of the way she should look. "The lady was like the Statue of Liberty: you know what she wears." He defrumped Garland with slacks under over-blouses, simply cut but surface-decorated at $350 a time, to catch the light in monochrome. Garland wore them on her late tours, including the famous 1964 London Palladium gig.

Aghayan's success meant he needed assistance. It arrived at his door in the form of Bob Mackie, a young designer who sketched better than anyone and became Aghayan's professional and personal partner for life. They shared an aesthetic based on old Hollywood and burlesque – fearless with feathers and rhinestones, but lightened up and styled for wit. Sometimes as a duo, sometimes solo, they produced costumes for Diana Ross in her Supremes days, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing – the latter getting a Broadway gown with 80lb of crystal beading, its scarf so weighted that Channing, flinging it over her shoulder, damaged the scenery.

Aghayan never went as far into parody as Mackie, but he did enjoy pastiche in a short movie career, rebranding Doris Day in a mad mod mode for Caprice (1967). The terrible seriousness, and serious terribleness, of Doctor Doolittle (1967) put him off big films, although he and Mackie rallied to Ross and Streisand, picking up Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues (1972) – the shoulder treatments of Ross's dresses amplifying her slight frame to more closely match Billie Holiday's broader form – and Streisand's Funny Lady (1975), the sequel to Funny Girl, a masterclass in bias cut. Aghayan alone had a nomination for Gaily, Gaily (1969), and among his Broadway productions was nominated for a Tony in 1970 for Applause, the musical of All About Eve: he draped rows of fringe from Lauren Bacall's loping frame, to dance in lieu of her feet.

Aghayan campaigned successfully for an Emmy category for costume, and he and Mackie shared the first award, in 1967, for a television movie of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences still assumed that nothing on the box was purpose-made, however, and a member asked Aghayan what he did that was worth recognition, stating: "You shop for clothes and you bring it in and you put on stars and they wear it." Aghayan replied: "I want you, tomorrow, to go to the May Company [a department store] and buy me, and bring here, the Red Queen's costume."

He and Mackie were aware that the studio workrooms of trained craft hands were closing in LA; New York was a long way to go to get 10,000 sequins applied at speed. So in 1968, along with Elizabeth Courtney, formerly of Columbia Pictures, they set up their own Californian atelier, later exporting its output to Broadway. Many showbiz customers also wanted unique dress-up ensembles, at a time when Paris couture was low on handworked glamour. So the duo obliged, a custom-making venture that turned into retail collections in the 1980s. Mackie had the wow factor, Aghayan supplied the subtle flattery. The Costume Designers Guild executive director, Rachael Stanley, said: "Whenever there was a problem trying to make something work, Ray could come in and take a look at it and say, 'Oh, the problem is ...'" The guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2008.

Aghayan was asked to advise on the televising of the Oscar shows from the late 1960s. He didn't have a veto over red-carpet choices, but up until the mid-1980s, when couture houses began to fight to place their designs on stars' backs, his recommendation was heeded. By his last Oscars, in 2001, he felt costume design – the dress as character or an extra asset on a charismatic performer – had been overtaken by fashion advertising.

He won an Emmy and several nominations for the Oscar shows, and designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 LA Olympics,  with 50 designs mass-produced into 11,000 outfits of white sportswear: happy, summery, the summation of his fantasy America.

Mackie survives him.

• Ray Aghayan, costume designer, born 28 July 1928; died 10 October 2011


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October 15 2011

Abi Morgan: 'I don't look back. I am totally now'

Thanks to The Hour, playwright Abi Morgan has enjoyed an incredibly prolific year. Next up, a Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep, a Steve McQueen film about sex and a play about God

Abi Morgan shows up late, full of apologies, to a cafe on the corner of Exmouth Market in London's Clerkenwell. I tell her it would have been understandable if she had failed to turn up at all. For she is Mrs British Screenwriter and it is daunting even to try and imagine her workload. This has been, as she says, an "extraordinary" year in which "it is all happening at once".

She has a hasty look as she bustles in, wrapped in a black shawl – part Mediterranean peasant, part human dynamo. The minute she sits down, we both start talking at once, as you do with people who, for some reason you cannot as yet explain, you instantly like. Right away, we are analysing her Diet Coke habit and she is promising, unconvincingly, that the one she is ordering will be her last and I can see that, at this rate, we are going to blow right off course.

So: quantity. Could we concentrate on this first? Does she even know how many scripts – for film and television and stage – she has written? After some genuine attempts at counting, she has to admit she doesn't. All right then: there is The Hour, the 1950s newsroom BBC drama watched by 2.1 million viewers (she is now working on a second series); Shame, a film directed by Steve McQueen, to be released in January; and, in the same month, the eagerly awaited biopic The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. And then there is her adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, at last going ahead. And that is not to ignore her new play, 27, about to open at the Royal Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh. And we can't even begin to mention the scripts that never made it – some her personal favourites.

If I am not sure where to start, how must Abi feel? How does she keep so many plays in the air? As she talks, her flesh-coloured Perspex ring (from Next, she says) catches the light as she pummels, boxes and burrows with expressive hands. She has big, brown, intelligent eyes, which she likes to roll (often self-mockingly). And sometimes she watches me warily – she is not about to be tricked into blowing her own trumpet. She insists she is governed by "escape". If you have enough scripts on the go, there is always one to disappear into: "I am always running away from something." But she writes fast and adds – understatement of the year – "I don't have writer's block as such." She will do "eight or nine drafts" per script.

If I could spy on her at home, what would I see? She describes her north London house, currently a "building site", and her study in the middle of it. She has always had the ability to work in a hubbub. For her first 10 years as a writer, she had other jobs as telemarketer, researcher, caretaker, when she covertly scribbled. Now, her days are a combination of "frenzied work" and "procrastination". She starts at nine, finishes at seven. But this isn't solid working? "In that time, I am doing a hell of a lot of internet shopping, navel-gazing, picking away at my partner, sharing several cups of tea with whoever turns up…"

But the day has to be more organised than it once was – children make one "conservative" and she and her partner, Jacob Krichefski, an actor, have two (Jesse, aged nine, and seven-year-old Mabel). She writes in chaos: a nest of papers, bits of chocolate, her daughter's hair slides, a huge whiteboard "besieged by my kids" and with nothing sensible on it. The promise to tidy her study is broken every day. And she never makes lists. David Hare – she quotes him brightly – apparently once declared: "If you can't remember it, it wasn't important enough." I protest at this. And her face clouds over, too, as she confesses she spends her whole time forgetting things.

I am a huge fan of The Hour and before we move on need to be reassured that Dominic West, who plays Hector, the news presenter, has survived into the second series (if only because it looked, at the end of the first, as if he might vanish into the beautiful, boring arms of his posh wife and forfeit his life in current affairs for ever). She delights me by saying: "Everyone in the cast is coming back" and: "I am really excited about where I can take Hector… I think there is a darker place for him to go but that is all I am saying because… [she pauses as if recognising the absurdity] I haven't written it yet and [a different, more thoughtful pause] we start shooting in two months." We talk about the brilliant casting of The Hour – with Ben Whishaw as Freddie (she identifies with Freddie because he is "on a rollercoaster waiting to hit a wall") and Romola Garai as Bel. And she tells me that Jill Trevellick, who cast Downton Abbey, was responsible.

Anyone who has seen the trailer for The Iron Lady will agree that casting does not come more classy than Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, looking killingly plausible in her turquoise twinset. She is being told, by image advisers, to sacrifice the hat and pearls. But, deliciously, she pronounces the pearls "non-negotiable". The only thing wrong with Streep's performance is that, when she smiles, she is a smidgen too pretty. Nothing she can do about that, but she has worked on everything else. Abi says it was "an exceptional privilege" to watch her in the early stages: "The extraordinary thing is how quickly that voice was there."

This is no reflex rave. Abi knows about acting. Her father, Gareth Morgan, was a director; her mother, Pat England, is an actress. When reading English and drama at Exeter, she wondered about an acting career herself ("like someone whose dad is an electrician, having a go at changing plugs"). But after a university performance, she asked: "Mum, what do you think?" The reply was: "No, darling." Wasn't that hurtful? "Not at all. I felt incredibly relieved – I thought it was quite funny."

Her tutor's verdict was discouraging too. He said she was "'too short'. 'But what about Judi Dench?' 'Ah, but she has that voice.'" And what Streep has, we agree on, is "exceptional intuition". She "observes and listens and finds the character through the work". And what about Thatcher – did Abi meet her? She hesitates – sworn to silence at this stage. My guess, for what it is worth, is that she did.

Shame could hardly be less like The Iron Lady. I am amazed by a preview I see after meeting Abi. It is a stunning film. Michael Fassbender stars as a sex addict whose sober demeanour is completely at odds with his chaotic sex life. In no way is it about the joy of sex; it is about nightmarish compulsion, a New York underworld. Yet the two years Abi spent working with Steve McQueen were "joyous". McQueen is "brilliant… one of my favourite people".

Sex addiction is barely recognised in the UK, one reason why the film was shot in New York (this sort of territory is not new for Abi – 2004's Sex Traffic, about prostitution, won a Bafta for best drama serial). But what she and McQueen were interested in was how the "currency of romance" has been devalued by the internet, where "sex has become a phenomenal industry". They met sex addicts and the professionals working with them. It made her conscious of a peculiarly 21st-century agony in which "the quest for love and sexual intimacy swims against the tide of a therapised world that deconstructs love and a cynical internet world that commodifies sex".

Phew – and we haven't even got to the play that is our ostensible reason for meeting. This isn't fair, because 27 sounds extraordinary too. It is set in a convent in the west of Scotland and is an exploration of faith versus science. "I used to believe in God as a child. God, for me, was linked with hope." The inspiration was Abi's meeting with "two elderly nuns on a train to Edinburgh, returning to their convent". She realised they were a "dying breed – there were only five of them left". She thought their dedication "amazing" and wondered how they felt "about their own belief system with no one following after them".

She was also inspired by a "wonderful" book: David Snowdon's Aging with Grace about the effects of ageing on the brain in relation to Alzheimer's, based on a "study in midwest America of several hundred nuns who donated their brains after death".

After this, we talk a bit about age (Abi is 43 although her "inner age" is fixed in her late 20s) and about families – her childhood and her parents' divorce (she talks about the "bravery" it takes for people to admit their marriage is over). We also talk about belonging. She feels she grew up with no fixed abode, had a theatrical, peripatetic childhood. "The thing I love about London is that it is filled with migrants, including myself." And we bond over our mutual love, as children, for a Marine Ices kiosk that sold wonderful Italian ice cream on the edge of Hampstead Heath. We talk coconut versus pistachio. We talk children and technology. She exclaims that for her kids "the page is interesting but antiquated". She describes herself as a "technophobe married to a technowhizz".

We talk about husbands. And she tells me how "fantastic" hers is. He keeps the family going. "The answer to 'I don't know how she does it'," she says, "is usually 'someone else does it'" (and that someone might be a husband). She hopes she doesn't sound smug. She notes that this division of labour (the woman as main breadwinner) is becoming more common. By the way, did I know women's salaries are starting to overtake men's? It could be a "new world order". She wonders if there might be a play in it. I start to egg her on – you can see how things begin with Abi: a new play round every corner.

By the way, she hastens to add, she is around for her children at weekends, breakfast and bedtime. And she is glad her children can see she has a "huge passion" for work. Yet she struggles to see herself as a success. She is somewhere between modest and incredulous. "I am a short, tenacious woman running around trying to fit in a haircut. I don't look back. I don't look forward. I am totally now. I think: God, is someone going to pay me this week? That is totally amazing."


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October 14 2011

Rouges gallery: paintings put first actresses in the spotlight

An obsession with the looks and love lives of actresses is nothing new, as an exhibition of portraits of the first women on the stage makes clear

Is it any wonder actresses are neurotic about their appearance? If anyone ever doubted the sexist scrutiny they are up against, Michael Parkinson's 1975 interview with Helen Mirren (a YouTube sensation) is a sobering reminder. "Critics spend as much time discussing her physical attributes as assessing her acting ability," says Parky, by way of introduction for the "sex queen" of the RSC, that byword for "sluttish eroticism". Nor does he seem much interested in Mirren's acting, either. "You are, in quotes, a 'serious actress'; do you find what might best be described as your equipment hinders you in that pursuit?"

You can understand why many women on stage and screen prefer the title "actor" – as an assertion of their professionalism and to fend off the prurient personal remarks the "actress" has suffered since she first trod the boards in the 1660s.

The emergence of the actress on the Restoration stage was revolutionary. As every pupil of Shakespeare knows, it was men in drag who took the ladies' parts before. Imagine the frisson, then, when Nell Gwyn first showed herself aged 14 to a packed house at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1664. This unprecedented female exhibition provoked salacious frenzy, which theatre companies hoped to harness to their profit.

The showcasing of beauties in "breeches roles" exploded ideas of decorum. Actresses welcomed the chance to demonstrate the virtuosity demanded by parts such as Viola and Rosalind. But the display of their shapely legs was condemned as an exercise in "brazenness" which confirmed the shameless immodesty and sexual availability of the actress. That both theatre-land and prostitution had their metropolis in Covent Garden was not lost on the press. From the first, the "actress" of popular imagination was a shimmering mixture of whore, coquette, talent and celebrity.

Nell Gwyn, still one of history's most famous Englishwomen, might justly claim to be the original female celebrity. Born in obscurity, barely literate and no conventional beauty (red headed and hazel eyed), Gwyn was as celebrated for her ready wit as her legs – which she revealed even when cast as an angel in The Virgin Mary. Within months of her debut, Nell was known to the public by her first name. In becoming mistress to Charles II, but never hoity toity, she became the people's Cinderella, and a Protestant one at that. "Nell" was both star and brand.

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, investigates the concept of the "actress" in all its troubling contradictions. The artists include Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppner, Lawrence, Zoffany and Gillray.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Gill Perry. When she was writing her book Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in Eighteenth Century Art and Culture, she realised that the NPG had an exceptional collection of early actress portraits – "And not only that they are in Covent Garden," she says.

The idea appealed to Lucy Peltz, the NPG's curator of 18th-century portraits, because this "will be the first show to explore the importance of women in early English theatre, through portraiture, highlighting themes that are close to the Gallery's heart – gender, identity, representation and the history of celebrity culture."

The first actresses benefited from an emerging publicity machine that anticipated aspects of the modern star system. The explosion of print after the relaxation of censorship in the 1690s spawned theatre reviews, gossip columns and puffs, as well as adoring and salacious biographies. The burgeoning art market served their image too. Fans could gaze on their idols in glowing portraits in popular exhibitions and mass-produced prints. They could even take home a model of their favourite in porcelain (Kitty Clive as Mrs Riot or Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth) or a transfer printed on snuffbox, fan or screen.

Portraits of actresses were always crowd-pleasers at the Royal Academy, hanging next to the flower of the nobility – a juxtaposition that inflated the prestige of the performing arts. The actress was usually depicted in full theatrical make-up and flamboyant costume, posed seductively to beguile the viewer. "Portraiture is always a form of dazzling performance, not a mirror image," Perry points out. But the audience conflated the painted lady with the real woman, and the actress with her role.

The canniest performers stage-managed their public appearances to enhance their reputations. Mary "Perdita" Robinson used her well-reported outings in "her chariot" to advertise her versatility. As Laetitia Hawkins wrote in her diary: "Today she was a paysanne, with her straw hat tied at the back of her head … yesterday she perhaps had been dressed as a belle of Hyde Park, trimmed, powdered, patched, painted to the utmost powder of rouge and white lead; tomorrow she would be the cravatted Amazon of the riding house."

Artists, critics and dramatists were as interested in the public persona and desirability of the actress as in her acting. Even singing and dancing were described as theatrical flirtation and coquetry. But women were not passive victims of the new cultural marketplace. They constituted an opinionated section of the audience for plays, as for opera, concerts, assemblies and exhibitions. Meanwhile the first female journalists, novelists and playwrights managed to live by their pens. Many actresses including Susanne Centlivre, Charlotte Charke, Kitty Clive, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, Susanna Rowson, Siddons and Robinson enjoyed a second career as playwrights and authors, some deliberately writing challenging roles for women.

Others like Lavinia Fenton, Elizabeth Farren, Frances Abington and Dorothy Jordan used their charisma to scale the social ladder. Their leap "from gutter to royal mistress or aristocratic wife might surprise the Hello! generation", Peltz says.

The skill with which actresses managed and manipulated their public reputations is striking. Clive, for instance, was a separated wife, who shone in breeches parts, comedy and oratorio, attracting numerous admirers. By 1744, she enjoyed a salary of £300 a year – twice the annual income of the director of the British Museum. She shrewdly maintained a reputation for chastity. At her death, Horace Walpole sniffed: "The comic muse with her retired. And shed a tear when she expired."

Critics lingered over Siddons's perfection of form. "Her height is above the middle size, but not at all inclined to em-bon-point. There is sufficient muscle to bestow a roundness upon the limbs. The symmetry of her person is exact and captivating." But Siddons conveyed the impression she was above such tosh. She harped on her love for her children and vaunted her aristocratic contacts, carrying herself with regal dignity. This air of moral rectitude and personal nobility leant credence to her tragic performances and informed the grandiloquence of her portrait by Reynolds.

However, as Perry acknowledges, the "construction of the actress as a celebrity brand was a fickle process". A reputation could be as easily demolished as made in print, especially by dredging up a scurrilous sexual history. Being a lofty vehicle of erotic fantasy was one thing, a whorish backstory was quite another. No wonder so many actresses turned to autobiography or commissioned self-portraits to frame their own story. "Artists – even in satirical prints – paid less notice to the breasts of actresses than critics did," comments Shearer West in her essay on beauty in the catalogue. Jordan's "bosom concealed everything but its own charms", frothed one reviewer.

Commentary on the appearance of actresses was not always positive. Beautiful females were supposed to be symmetrical, irrespective of the demands of the role, and performers could be castigated for being either to fat or too thin. Farren, a comedienne, was mocked for her flat chest and bottom. Most actresses had no choice but to soldier on through heavy pregnancy and inevitably feared for their livelihood when they could no longer convince as pert ingénues. When Garrick was urged to restage The Jealous Wife for Hannah Pritchard (then aged 57) he recoiled at her "great Bubbies, Nodding head & no teeth – O Sick – Sick – Spew".

When modern critics rate a female performance on whether it's theatrical Viagra or doubt that a woman is thin enough to play Juliet, they invoke a long and dishonourable tradition. "Modern actors should see the first actresses as trailblazers, fighting prejudice and innuendo," Perry concludes. Certainly women today might take comfort that so many of their forebears managed to seize the public relations initiative and shape the culture that so objectified them.


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October 13 2011

Il Deserto – review

St Pancras Church, London

Last winter in Athens I discovered the work of a major Greek director, Theodoros Terzopoulos. The piece I saw, based on the letters of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, offered a stunning, highly physical re-creation of a mythical encounter between the two serpentine queens. Now Terzopoulos pays a lightning visit to London with this astonishing work staged in the context of an exhibition by the London-based Kalliopi Lemos.

We assemble in a crypt, which seems apt, as Il Deserto is an evocation of a living death. The hero of the piece, written by Carlo Michelstaedter and performed in Italian by the virtuosic Paolo Musi, is entombed in the desert. Like some Beckett protagonist, he uses words to beat back the darkness. "You keep talking, talking," he declares in the English synopsis we are given on entry, "and no one is listening to you." Clad in an ash-covered suit, Musi goes through an extraordinary range of emotions – fear, rage, defiance – as he delivers for 45 minutes an almost ceaseless verbal torrent. The only relief comes when the director himself, seated in front of Musi, utters lamentations deriving from his native Pontus on the Black Sea coast.

What does it all signify? To me, it provided a frightening sense, reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, of being suspended between life and death in a subterranean world. The point is reinforced by Lemos's sculptures, which eerily enhance the action. Titled Navigating in the Dark, her installation is dominated by three stripped-down Greek boats. One contains writhing snakes, another life-sized human figures and a third death-symbolising ravens. All are made of steel, are accompanied by suitable sounds and suggest some Virgilian passage across the river Styx into eternal darkness. But relief is provided by a recess filled with floating white bees made of Japanese paper and indicating a lost paradise.

The performance lasted one night; the sculptures will be there for some weeks. But the evening transcended the barriers between theatre and visual art and showed a perfect synthesis between two powerful Greek imaginations. What puzzles me is our ignorance of Terzopoulos. Feted the world over, he has created a theatre that, while it has elements of the work of Poland's Jerzy Grotowski, seems very much his own: one that explores the cornered human animal in all its naked desperation. I was left both with a sharpened sense of life's joy and of its inevitable transience.

Rating: 4/5


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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 11 2011

Guardian young arts critics competition 2011: the winners

Our young critics competition turned up some fearless talent

What makes a great critic? Lots of things: an eye for detail, an instinct for the right adjective, an empathy with audience and artist. A great critic can make a reader feel that they, too, have been there: watching, listening, holding their breath. A great critic's opinion carries conviction; a great critic loves language. And, in a world where everyone has an opinion, and the means to share it, these qualities matter more than ever: a professional 21st-century critic has to look harder, write funnier, be smarter than anyone else.

So it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it – and somebody has to do it after this generation have had their turn. For the fourth year running, we've been looking for the UK's best young critics. We asked for entries in eight categories, and split those into two age groups: under 14, and 14 to 18. Most wanted to write about film, TV, theatre, visual art and music; there were fewer entries for classical, dance and architecture. You told us about your 2011 highlights and lowlights: Bon Iver's "magical" new album, Kevin Spacey's Richard III (not terrifying enough), Gavin Henson's "robot" turn on The Bachelor, the discreet charms of Coventry railway station. You were direct, engaged, enthusiastic, occasionally brutal – and you impressed our judges, who included writer Anthony Horowitz, singer Emmy the Great and Kick–Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman.

In the film category, 13-year-old Francesco Dernie reviewed Project Nim, James Marsh's documentary about the chimp raised as a child, concluding: "I do think he achieved some humanity." For Goldman, this was "the stand-out entry, a beautifully honed balance between information and opinion". Kiera McIntosh-Michaelis's review of Kevin Macdonald's crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day won in the older category. "A little gem that showed natural writing talent," said Goldman.

Among younger pop critics, 13-year-old Holly MacHenry won for her rousing review of Gogol Bordello, with the judges praising its ability to convey the raw excitement of being there ("About halfway through the second song I decided being cool wasn't important and started jumping about"). Julia Smith, 18, was first in the older age group for her review of Bon Iver's recent album. His previous album, For Emma, Forever Ago, she wrote, "hits you right there. You know, there, that space between your head and your heart". Judge Emmy the Great said: "She will doubtless be the sort of music critic who has fans. I am one."

There was a surprising amount of foreign reporting in visual art: Seward Johnson's controversial 26ft Marilyn Monroe in Chicago, two shows at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ceramics in Switzerland. The Met shows inspired the best writing: 14-year-old Angelica Gottleib's take on Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen retrospective ("a marvellous, skeleton-like back-brace … antelope ears crafted from gleaming twigs"); and 12-year-old Freddie Holker's extraordinarily accomplished review of a homage to Lucian Freud, in particular his painting Naked Man, Back View ("Disgusting. That's what I'm thinking, that's my gut instinct.") Of Freddie, art critic Adrian Searle said: "The writing is tight, the descriptions vivid."

It was a strong year for theatre. Thomas Marshall, 16, won the older category with his review of Kevin Spacey's Richard III: "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." (This first line had director and judge Katie Mitchell "hooked".) The under-14s group scored the competition's youngest winner, nine-year-old Laura Stevens, whose review of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Stratford used "beautiful imagery to relate what she'd seen, conveying her enthusiasm and insight", said playwright Lucy Prebble.

There was a confidence and swagger to the TV reviews, pleasing our TV editor, Vicky Frost. Hannah Quinn, 17, won for her savagely cynical review of Gavin Henson's The Bachelor ("The end is nigh! A mad scientist has succeeded in creating a robot and an army of clones!"). Horowitz said: "This is a critic who puts her personality right on the page – great fun to read."

Dance critic Rachel Balmer, 16, wrote one of the bounciest, liveliest reviews. Riverdance, she said, was "the oddest genre of theatrical art", featuring "singing, a bout of flamenco, a candelit vigil … some Irish-style disco dancing complete with cartwheels … I told you it was odd." Our classical music winner was Rosie Busiakiewicz, 18, who reviewed a new recording of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet.

In the final category, architecture, judge Ted Cullinan declared Michael Sackur, 13, winner in the younger category, for his "beautifully observed formal critique" of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin: "Criticism like this is hard to write." Fourteen-year-old Mollie Davidson won the older category for her review of Coventry railway station. This, Cullinan said, was a brilliant summary of the "earnest economical period" of architecture just after the second world war.

The winners will receive a Guardian certificate and a £25 book token; their entries are published today at guardian.co.uk/culture. Picking an overall winner was tough, but with Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, and Georgina Henry, head of guardian.co.uk, we agreed on 12-year-old Freddie Holker for his amazingly mature critique of Lucian Freud. I would conclude by saying something along the lines of the kids are all right – but that's just the kind of cliche our young critics know to avoid.

• Winner Freddie Holker will be writing for G2 later this year.


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