Live Ballet and Theatre – At a cinema near you!

Over the course of the past year there has been a surge in world class theatre, ballet and opera companies, even art galleries, screening their performances, either live or pre-recorded. I was initially sceptical about this as there’s always something magical about going to a theatre and watching things live within their own settings with an audience buzzing around you and being able to take in all the action. My initial thought to cinema screenings was whether the atmosphere would be much flatter and how I’d react to my eye being specifically drawn in a particular direction. It’s barmy when you think about those worries, as we all at some point sit down to watch live ceremonies and sports competitions on our TV.

And it was barmy.

Call me a convert.

The first screening I attended was the Royal Ballet’s live broadcast of Swan Lake from the Royal Opera House. Now I never had ballet lessons as a child and the only ballet I’d ever seen was The Snowman when I was about 10 and somehow I don’t think that counts as I can’t actually remember any of it. So this really was my first proper experience of ballet. I have to be honest, it took me a while to get the hang of it and settle into the performance as I found it bizarre going into a performance that didn’t have any dialogue. And yes, I do know that sounds daft, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that. The performance actually started with an introduction by Darcey Bussell. This was actually a really nice touch as it allowed people to see some of the cast before the opening act and to be introduced to the work. There were also interviews with cast members and the production team throughout the intervals. If you’re interested in seeing any of those interviews they are on the Royal Opera House youtube page. Go and check them out because they are really interesting, give you a different perspective on the work and an insight into the workings of a professional ballet.

Although I’m definitely no expert on ballet, what I will say is that the power and agility of the dancers is very evident over the big screen, particularly Natalia Osipova whose poise and elegance is just insane. It’s hard not to appreciate the physicality of the double swan role as Odette and Odile, despite how easy it’s made to look. It’s great to see close up shots and different perspectives that really help to keep track of the narrative, if you’re a novice like me, as well as seeing all the nuances which you wouldn’t be able to sat at the back of the Royal Opera House.

Another aspect that I hadn’t counted on was the immediacy of the audience feedback through social media, something that the screening itself promoted. The moment the intervals started many people turned to their phones to see what was happening on twitter and #ROHswanlake actually trended worldwide. It’s phenomenal that we’re now able to connect on such a huge scale with such immediate effect.

For me this was a great way to be introduced to ballet and makes performances like this much more accessible. At £17 the tickets were high for a cinema, but much more affordable than booking at the Royal Opera House and adding in travel into London. If you’re looking for an introduction to ballet, or simply can’t make the trip to see it, then the cinema is the perfect alternative.

The following week I was back on more familiar territory as I went to see Maxine Peake as Hamlet, a pre-recorded performance from the Manchester Royal Exchange. The cinema screening worked particularly well for this work as it was set in the round, allowing the cinema audience the luxury of all angles. Once again it was a pretty full audience who probably enjoyed the fact that they had more leg room than in most theatres… although I really didn’t appreciate the person who took 10 hours to unwrap the crinkliest wrapped sweet on earth.

The actual performance was incredible with a stellarHamlet quote cast. Maxine Peake plays a very young Hamlet, stark and brutal, but with a sharp wit. The performance is edgy and plays off the cast very well, seeming alienated from all, except from maybe Thomas Arnold as Horatio, a relationship I think works very naturally. I also enjoyed Katie West’s performance as Ophelia, wounded and innocent, devastated by the loss of her (in this production) mother, dissolving into a very distressing madness scene. The only cast member I felt disappointed in was Ashley Zhangazha as Laertes. For me he never seemed to quite settle into the role, seeming almost too wild. However I thought the ensemble as a whole was great, focussing wholly on Hamlet’s revenge. Once again I thought this work translated well onto the screen, except for one very odd slow motion moment, a liberty from the editor that did little and seemed out of place.

You can now count me an advocate for screening theatre. I think it’s another route into live performance and is very accessible. There is such a great range of work being screened that anyone can find something they will enjoy. Over the summer there will be screenings of National Theatre’s Everyman starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, English National Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Merchant of Venice to name but a few. So have a look, try something new, and see what you think.

John presented by DV8 Physical Theatre

John is a new verbatim work by Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director or DV8 Physical Theatre, and follows the story of one man.

Hard-hitting, gritty, dark.

Through interviews with 50 men Lloyd Newson discussed love and sex, the risks and the sacrifices they were prepared to take. It was through this that John’s story was discovered and is now brought to life.

Rape, beatings, miscarriage, drug use, alcoholism, overdoses. And that’s just the first five minutes.

This is an extraordinary piece of work that is deeply unsettling and incredibly hard to watch, and yet you cannot tear your eyes away from the stage.

The staging itself is simple and yet suits perfectly the whole feeling of the play. First we see two rooms of John’s house as a child, sparsely dressed. The stage then rotates, revealing a corridor which then leads on the other side to another two rooms. For the first sequence the stage rotates constantly as John narrates his childhood and adolescence, walking between rooms into explicit scenes, both frozen and physical. You are immediately put on edge and the continuous motion does nothing to settle you, nor the music overlaid, a constant through the show that you barely notice, yet notice the absence of. Throughout the play the walls of the set are realigned to make new rooms, and at one point a maze, yet you don’t notice the changes at all as your eyes are always drawn to the characters onstage at any one time.

There is a synthesis between the movement and speech that is developed throughout, and cleverly draws your attention or serves to highlight particularly hard subjects and unique viewpoints, for example the unsteady and erratic actions of drug users are displayed through swaying, jolting falls into one another…

The story breaks the narrative of John’s story for a while when the gay sauna is established, introducing alternative viewpoints on the subject of love and sex. Here we are presented with an extremely open and honest discussion and varying opinions of addiction, sexual compulsion, the search for love and the risks that entails, including a candid interview about HIV. In one particular sequence the owners of the sauna describe the risks men take with one of them affirming that education about the risks is out there, but people choose to ignore it and risk their health, in the pursuit of intimacy in the case of another interviewee.

The physical theatre sequences were restrained throughout to specific moments, and this served to really bring out the serious issues and conflicting standpoints. The juxtaposition between movement and stillness throughout is a key tool. At one point one of the owners describes the search for sexual partners, the predatory nature of it. During this time the men walk between a maze of walls, on the periphery of your vision while he leans against a wall, a focal point in a constantly shifting tide. It is only when any of the men stop, confronting another, that your eye is drawn to them before they slip away again.

Add to this the very straight delivery of the words, taken from the interviews. It is very personal, and you cannot help but be drawn into the person’s world, in particular John, and it is to him that they finally return. One man, centre stage, speaking of his hopes and dreams for the future, trying to put aside the horrors of his past.

Whilst there are moments of comic relief, they are few and far between, although necessary. The intensity of the performances, particularly by the exquisite Hannes Langolf as John, submerge you in this explicit view into one man’s life, and the issues and trials he has, and continues, to face.

John is at the National Theatre (+16 years) until January but will also be broadcast on 9 December in cinemas (+18).

Arts Award – Personal Arts Development

As part of the Gold Arts Award we have to develop ourselves as artists. Part of this is attending events and reviewing them, in order to learn from them and reflect on how they can influence our own art form.

Previously I have been involved in concerts as a singer, and have acted in plays and musicals. I’m always intrigued by the use of the voice in works of art, and I was very lucky to see Melanie Pappenheim perform ‘Falling’ at the IFMK:2014. The use of the voice in such a way, in those particular surroundings, was very new to me and I began to think more on how you can use the voice in theatre, not just in traditional song form or spoken word.

Last night I attended John at the National Theatre, presented by DV8, a physical theatre company. The artistic director Lloyd Newson plays on the interaction between voice and movement in an incredibly interesting way and I found the whole piece very moving. This was the first proper piece of physical theatre that I’ve seen, so it was interesting for me to see how music, voice overs and movement were combined in such serious subject matter.

I’m still putting together my full review on it so you will see that tomorrow.

I think this element of the Arts Award is really exciting as it makes you evaluate what you already know, and then build on that foundation, encouraging you to explore the arts and experience new techniques and ideas. It makes you want to move out of your comfort zone and I’m really enjoying that challenge in itself.

Children in Need and the celebrity choir

For those not in the UK, BBC Children in Need is a massive charity event that happens annually culminating in a national broadcast on the second Friday in November. In the weeks leading up to the broadcast schools, clubs, individuals across the UK take part in fundraising events, with the proceeds going to the charity, their vision being that every child in the UK has a safe, happy and secure childhood that allows them the chance to reach their potential.

It is incredible the volume of famous faces that get involved and this year is no different. For the official Children in Need single choirmaster Gareth Malone created a choir of celebrities to record and perform a cover of Avicii‘s ‘Wake Me Up’. Comedians, presenters, a Strictly Come Dancing judge, actors, actresses…. and a host of kids as well.

Let’s be honest, no one was expecting much, but somehow they managed to be worse than anyone thought. Luckily, with a boost of confidence, a bit of coaching and a lot of hard work they gradually began to realise what being in a choir meant. They started to work together, listen to each other and by the time they got to recording they were sounding a lot more like a choir.

That doesn’t mean that the recording wasn’t hard work. It really looked and sounded like it was. But they got there and the track sounds really good, definitely worthy of being the official BBC Children in Need single. Gareth Malone really shows that anyone, no matter how much experience or confidence they have in the first place, can sing and can sing in a choir.

It’s great to see people discovering a love of singing and despite initial nerves you can tell that they are enjoying themselves on stage while performing the song. It’s such a great track involving so many great celebrities and kids, as well as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Please go check it out and if you feel compelled to, donate to Children in Need, it’s a great cause and they do brilliant work.

‘A Year to Inspire’ inspiring others

I always love finding new blogs as you enter into other people’s worlds as they share parts of their life with you. One blog in particular that has really stood out for me this year is A Year To Inspire. The premise is to keep a journal for a year and that on each day you have a prompt, an idea, that you explore.

Stephanie and Annetta decided to go on this journey and it’s been really fascinating gaining an insight into their lives, thoughts, aspirations and creativity.

One of the things that really strikes me about their blog is just how creative they are and how beautiful each page of their journals are. Each page is stunningly crafted, unique and portrays a new part of their personality every day. It seems like such a creative outlet, a chance to try new techniques and challenge yourself to be creative every single day.

From the silly prompts such as ‘which fairytale character or Disney princess would you be?‘ to the more serious ‘what are your aspirations?‘ each day is intriguing. The care and attention these two women put into the journals is impressive… and it sort of makes you want to join in too!

Prompt: Write a list of books on your 'to read' list.

Prompt: Write a list of books on your ‘to read’ list.

Arts and humantities vs STEM. Why is it a competition?

There has been a lot of controversy over the past couple of days caused by Nicky Morgan’s comments at the Your Life campaign. There has been a backlash from the arts and humanities communities as her comments downgraded these subject areas and instead proclaimed that the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects were the way to keep young people’s options open. Yes, there is a place for these subjects but there are also places for the arts and humanities that are equally important and are just as valuable at STEM subjects.

I cannot understand for one thing how you can value certain subjects based on the earning potential of the jobs they can lead to. There are many people who studied arts and humanities who make a good living, a living that they are happy with, in a field that they love. For many people the sciences and maths are just not for them, just as the arts and humanities are not for others. How can we school people to value some subjects over others based on earning potential rather than the strengths of the student? The arts can have such a great social impact on young people, their development of self-worth, confidence and concentration. Is this not more important than earning potential?

Another element of the argument for promoting STEM subjects was the imbalance of how many boys take these subjects compared to girls. Having gone to an all girls school between the ages of 7 – 18 I have always been aware of the glass ceiling, and it has always been drilled into me that I should pursue any subject I liked. There was no such thing as a boy subject or a girl subject. My headteacher had a motto of ‘be the best you can be’ and was a great advocate of encouraging girls to pursue their interests. I remember being sent on a science day between three schools to encourage us to take sciences to A Level and I enjoyed sciences and loved maths, but the arts were always my bag. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age we still have to address the fact that girls don’t feel comfortable to take sciences and girls should be encouraged into the areas, but not at the expense of others.

This isn’t the same however as degrading the arts and humanities. My first music teacher told me I was ‘too academic to do music as a career’, another told me that I shouldn’t do music as I ‘didn’t practice enough’ even though I was stronger at the research and historical side, and when I decided to drop the maths side of my joint degree after first year and instead do a full music degree I had friends argue that it was a  bad decision, I’d drastically decrease my job prospects and that I wouldn’t earn as much. How on earth has this opinion become so ingrained?

I have not regretted my decision for one moment.

I definitely value the fact that I have a good numeracy level, and I enjoyed sciences to GCSE and took maths and further maths to A Level and into university, but that does not change the fact that music was my strength, I have learnt a huge range of skills through it and I am now pursuing a career in the arts, something I love. I will always be grateful that I went to a school that encouraged me to reach my potential in whatever field I wanted, regardless of earning potential or gender bias. Pupils should be encouraged to explore a range of interests but that does not mean that some interests are more valuable than others and that taking the arts and humanities closes doors. By not partaking in these areas you can close just as many doors as not studying STEM subjects.

Colour Bandits – KickThePJ / PJ Liguori

Youtube is a weird and wonderful world of creativity, bursting at the seams, over-flowing with new ideas and creators. There is a freedom about youtube that allows for an outpouring of innovation and original thought. I have been an avid viewer of youtubers since 2007 and I am still blown away by how creators continue to develop and evolve.

One of my favourite creators is the film maker PJ Liguori, aka KickThePJ. His quirky imagination is vividly translated onto the screen and I am really enjoying seeing him attempt more complex shoots, challenge his storytelling abilities and collaborate with other artists.

It’s at this point that I’d like to direct you to Colour Bandits.

Cinematography by Director Jamie Swarbrick and music by PJ, who plays the bandit, Colour Bandits is wonderful in it’s simplicity. The costume and make up by Sophie Newton and Louis Grant work perfectly. I find it very inspiring that a whole story can be told in 2 minutes, with only a plain white set, plain white clothing, and a collection of colourful powders. The music and the lilting tone of PJ’s voice meld with the artistry of the cinematography to create a whole new world.

It is a stand alone piece, as many of PJ’s works are, and I encourage you to explore them.

Director & Cinematography: Jamie Swarbrick

Music & Bandit: PJ Liguori

Costume & Make-up: Sophie Newton & Louis Grant

Additional Help: James Allen & Georgie Woodley