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.

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.

We will remember them

For anyone not in the UK who has not heard,Poppies in remembrance of the centenary of the start of World War I a huge installation has been growing over the past two months in the moat of the Tower of London, a sea of poppies, 888,246, one for each of the British soldiers lost in the war. The poppies were created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and the setting designed by stage designer Tom Piper.

On Friday evening I made the journey to the Tower to see the poppies. By the time I arrived the sun had set, so it was under floodlights that I saw them. The scale of the installation is what is so astounding as the entire tower is surrounded, flooding the area in a sea of red. The differing heights of the poppies adds another element as they form waves as you walk past, and the tears that spill out from the tower itself is a very moving touch.

The tears

The good news is that they have decided to keep these sections intact until the end of November, allowing more people to see them, rather than take down the installation on Wednesday as originally planned. It was astonishing how many people crammed into the small walkways to see the poppies and I can only imagine how many thousands of people have made a special trip to the site since the poppies were first planted.

There has been a lot of debate recently, brought about by the publicity given the poppies of the tower, as to how the symbol of a poppy is now perceived. For me, and many others, the poppy is a symbol of remembrance. It reminds us of all those who lost their lives in service to their country, in the world wars and in every war. It is a reminder of everything we lost, and everything we maintained, and that there are still soldiers and their families who need help and support. To think it as anything else is, I think, to miss the point entirely.

Unknown Soldier

Unknown soldier3Also on Friday a brass statue of the Unknown Soldier was unveiled in Trafalgar Square as part of the Every Man Remembered campaign, commemorating the 1,117,077 men and women of the Commonwealth who fell during World War I. The figure stands tall with poppies fluttering and falling around him, a very poignant display. I was particularly struck by the soldier having his eyes closed as it seems to invoke a sense of self reflection and remembrance. The sculpture, a collaboration with artist Mark Humphrey, will be in place until 16th November before going on tour around the UK for the next four years.

Both the poppies at the Tower of London and the Every Man Remembered sculpture are remarkable reminders of all those lost in the First World War, and mark the centenary with understated poignancy.

Under the Vaulted Sky – Rosemary Lee

Today I want to tell you about my absolute favourite performance from IF: Milton Keynes International Festival 2014, Rosemary Lee‘s Under the Vaulted Sky, a new commission for the festival.

The performance was set in the beautiful Cathedral of Trees, a very tranquil setting with trees planted in the architectural footprint of Norwich Cathedral. A combination of dance and live music, with a community cast of over 100 dancers and musicians, Under the Vaulted Sky was breathtaking.

Over the course of the performance you are guided through the Cathedral, entering different sections, sitting for a while to watch groups of children present delicate leaves in wooden boxes filled with grass, walking the length of the tree cathedral as bells ring and dancers with bells attached to their dresses tinkle as they run by…

The use of music, composed by Terry Mann, and sound is very cleverly crafted throughout. Each cast member has a bell for the opening sequence. Dressed in red gowns the dancers, nymph-like, seem to invoke the air around us, combining movement and the ringing of bells to move the air and bring the sense of the cathedral to life. Just as you feel the weight of history around you in a stone cathedral, here you feel emotions well inside you as the sheer beauty and simplicity of the piece overwhelms you.

Hugo Glendinning

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

We were then led through to the cloisters where children presented us with golden leaves as gongs and drums are played to the rhythm of the dancing. The whole audience of around 100 people sits quietly, not saying a word, taking in everything that is happening.

Being led through the archway around the outside of the cathedral to come in at the top we pass through members of the cast. This for me was the most moving part. With bugles being played in the distance the dancers would walk up to members of the audience as they passed, whispering about pathways to the stars and handing these pathways as tokens of small circular mirrors… This gave you a moments reflection before heading back into the cathedral.

Under the Vaulted SkyIn the chancel we are surrounded by dancers being crowned with gold hands as brass instruments play fanfares, before being lead back down the cathedral under golden books suspended in the treetops. At the crossing we disperse to the sides as dancers open gold sheets, dressing the trees. Finally the dancers line the way out with their eyes closed, in a world of their own, ethereal…

This delicate performance invoked both the strength of the cathedral and the fragility of the bells to enclose the audience in it’s atmosphere. There is a poignancy in the gold, the music, the movement… But it is up to each to experience it in their own way.

Creative uses of Sound

Sonic installations are something that I hadn’t experienced before this year’s IF: Milton Keynes International Festival so I thought I’d try and experience as much as possible. We were very lucky this year to have sound artists Kaffe Matthews and Ray Lee involved.

IMAG0132I started off my sonic experience by attending a concert by Kaffe Matthews and Ray Lee, entirely improvised and performed in the incredible Architect’s of Ar: Pentalum that was placed in Middleton Hall in the centre:mk. Pentalum is a luminarium, an inflated structure made up of tunnels leading into different rooms in different colours. The ceilings are domes in geometric patterns which then run down the walls and along the floor to the centre points of each ‘room’, with pods nestled throughout the structure. People were encouraged to find a pod and settle down. With Ray Lee on theremin being digitally mixed by Kaffe Matthews, the sound was ethereal and very atmospheric. A group of the audience decided to settled in the room where they were performing whilst others wandered around or settled in different sections. It was very peaceful and I really enjoyed the concert and the whole atmosphere.

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I then wandered over to The Hub in Milton Keynes, a square of restaurants with apartments built above. It makes for an enclosed area with a large open central square. In this were placed eight tripods with rotating speakers attached to the top, towering over the audience. This was Ray Lee’s Chorus. Over the course of an hour each of the rotating arms began to move, emitting a pulse of sound. As each of the tripods began to move the sound increased and built, reverberating through the area before starting over, once again building to a crescendo before dying back to nothing. It was fascinating to walk amongst the tripods as the sound changed as you wandered around different parts. It was interesting to watch other people’s reactions, those who had just stumbled across the installation and stood mesmerised before continuing on their way, and those who had purposefully come to see the installation trying to work out whether they were enjoying it or not. Whilst I wouldn’t say that I found it exciting, I certainly found it interesting and I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it before.

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Kaffe Matthews’ installation by contrast I absolutely fell in love with. This was a commission by the Canal & River Trust and IF: 2014 specifically for the festival. Kaffe collected sounds during a walk along the Grand Union Canal that links London with Milton Keynes. Using these sounds and a choir created specifically for the project she recorded a composition to be played through sonic beds. These were three beds, surrounded by speakers in the sides and suspended above, with vibrations played through the base, set in an empty shop which they had darkened to make for a more intense atmosphere, surrounded by the sound. It was a fully immersive experience. I could have spent hours there and I went back several times to try the different beds as in each one you picked up different sounds in the track, whether it was the chugging of a canal boat as it passed or the birds singing at a distance. Every time was a different experience. I would encourage anyone who comes across Kaffe’s work to try it. It was incredible.

The last piece I want to talk about was a performance by Melanie Pappenheim, a solo voice-theatre performance. Although only about 20/30 minutes in duration I was enraptured. Melanie lay in the middle of an exhibition titled Cadences in MK Gallery. She began singing whilst laying on the floor, at different moments in the three songs she performed rising and turning or falling… For that was the theme… falling, destruction, gravity. Dressed simply in aIMAG0233 white dress with loose hair and piano hammers attached from wires on the back scraping the floor as they tangled, the whole performance was beautifully simple but very emotive. I hadn’t been sure about going to see it initially but I am so glad that I did. I feel I would really have missed out had I not gone.

The events that I saw really inspired me and challenged my perceptions of how we use sound in art, differing drastically from the musicals and concerts I’ve seen in the past. It also challenged my views on how to engage people with sound installations with the Lock Shift Songs definitely having the most impact on my experience.