November 20, 2013

Matthew Bourne’s Swans Fly South for the Winter

             This past weekend, I travelled to Manchester by way of a very convenient two-hour train journey. You might be wondering what this has to do with London-related events, the chosen theme of this blog. Well, not only was I in Manchester to visit my relatives, but a viewing of Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake also featured on the agenda. Swan Lake will be coming to London’s dance theatre, Sadler’s Wells, on December 4th, but I had the opportunity to see it firsthand up north at The Lowry Theatre.

             I openly attest to the fact that I am a fan of Bourne’s, having previously seen his ballets Nutcracker! and Sleeping Beauty, the former at The Lowry and the latter at Sadler’s Wells. However, Bourne prefers to classify Swan Lake as contemporary dance/theatre rather than ballet. Bourne is a British choreographer and director and is the recipient of five Olivier Awards and the Tony Award, an award to recognize excellence in Broadway theatre, for Best Choreographer and Best Director of a Musical. He was the Artistic Director of his company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, from 1987 to 2002. Alongside co-director Robert Noble, Bourne erected his current company, New Adventures.

             Swan Lake has been running strong for 18 years since it first debuted in 1995 at Sadler’s Wells and it still continues to challenge our ideas of typical gender roles today. Bourne chooses to cast all-male swans, with not a female swan in sight. To some, the idea might seem laughable, but what this new role designation creates is an aggressively charged and highly athletic performance, something that simply would not have been possible with the traditionally feminine tutu-clad swans. However, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in all its perfection is not tampered with despite Bourne’s otherwise modern twists.

             The original Swan Lake storyline follows Prince Siegfried, who falls in love with Odette, the Swan Queen. Bourne’s Swan Lake is less about love than about affection. Referred to as The Prince (Sam Archer when I attended) in Bourne’s rendition, he is stunned by the powerful beauty of a male swan (Glenn Graham when I attended) and they quickly form a mutual bond. The Prince is often rejected by his mother, The Queen (Michela Meazza when I attended), but The Swan offers him a new sense of purpose and direction for reciprocated fascination. Swan Lake has been characterized by some as homoerotic, but the onstage chemistry between The Prince and the Swan defies sexual orientation and should be translated as undeniable in-“Bourne” talent on the part of the dancers, regardless of underlying inclinations.

Sam Archer pictured as The Prince (left) and Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan (right), photo courtesy of London Calling
             I was enraptured by the very strong stage presence of the male swans with their toned chests, synchronized movements, and exceptional poise. I cannot diminish the female characters however, as their glitzy ensembles were tantalizing in their own right and their soft nature complemented the male figures’ abrasiveness. The original Swan Lake features Odile, the Black Swan to Odette’s White, an imposter to trick Prince Siegfried. Graham donned all black and leather trousers in Bourne’s masterpiece, shedding his powdery white skin and feathers to torment The Prince, slinking his way around the stage like a top-class seducer, everyone in the palace (and the audience) falling at his feet.

Photo courtesy of Show & Stay
             Whilst debatable if Swan Lake is indeed homoerotic depending on your standpoint, there is no question that it is erotic. My favorite scene occurs when The Prince is asleep in his room and swans suddenly crawl out from beneath his bed, their stretching arms the only discernable body parts upon first glance. They are soon accompanied by The Swan, who wiggles his way out from underneath The Prince’s sheets. The male swans’ arm movements are utter precision, especially when paired with the dancers’ conviction in their nuzzling, fighting, hissing, and squawking. Throughout the performance, they imitate the gracefulness of actual swans while preserving a pristine composure, even in the face of excessive amounts of exertion.

             Bourne creates subtleties in his work and pays inordinate attention to detail. The eyes have to overcompensate in order to keep up, because Bourne visually overloads the audience, making it nearly impossible to capture everything going on at any given time. It could be observed in a sly look or a mini scene captured within a bigger scene. Bourne also likes to incorporate elements of humor in his work, as evident with the role of The Prince’s girlfriend (Kerry Biggin when I attended). During a ballet within the actual ballet, her phone goes off with an all too recognizable tone, much to the chagrin of The Queen and The Prince. Popular culture such as this is easily identifiable, with flashes of paparazzi’s cameras and the pink neon flicker of the Swank Bar sign. The props earn a rightful place on stage just as much as the dancers. I had to reign myself in to remember that I was watching a dance performance.

The Lowry Theatre in the background with my grandparents aptly and unknowingly featured in the foreground
             The only part of Swan Lake that seemed to drag on was the 20-minute intermission, because the entire show glided effortlessly from its triumphant start to its heart-wrenching conclusion. The performance is grossly absorbing and all of its magic comes just in time for Christmas. The Lowry was surrounded by stalls of Christmas treats and goodies outside and the Lowry Outlet Mall just across the way already had their silver trees and shimmering lights out on display. After the performance, all I could do was sing the praises of Swan Lake,over a plate of fish and chips no less!

             The Lowry proved to be full to the very back row, so book to see Swan Lake in London here and view the show’s official website hereSwan Lake will run at Sadler’s Wells from December 4th to January 26th until the swans take flight for their next destination.

             [Author’s Note: I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that I contribute to my university’s online newsletter, The GazelleAs well as remaining a staff writer, I now also hold the position of Arts and Entertainment editor. Today, December 10th, I can proudly announce that we have released our second print edition, where my above review of Swan Lake has been published.]

The Gazelle pictured against the Christmas tree that is currently adding festive cheer to my flat

November 08, 2013

Drumroll, Please…Presenting Bastille and Josh Record

             Out of the blue one evening, I received a message from a friend asking me to attend a concert with her, and not being one to turn down such an offer, I hardly hesitated in replying. Bastille and Josh Record would be performing, and while I was vaguely familiar with their music, I was more than vaguely familiar with the venue. Some might say I am cuckoo for Camden’s KOKO, which I have frequented on an assortment of nights out, including the not too long gone Halloween Ball that they hosted on November 1st. KOKO was formerly known as Camden Palace Theatre until its renovation as a live-music venue that also holds (very packed) club nights. Evidence of the old theatre lives on in its chandeliers, sumptuous red trimmings, directors’ boxes, and plush seating arrangements.

             My friend is a huge Bastille fan, so she was adamant about nabbing a first row standing placement and that we did (thanks to her six-hour devotion waiting outside before doors opened)! I aimed to prepare my ears for the noise that would ensue with giant speakers looming to the left of us. The speakers proved to add to the experience, reverberating through the crowd and matching the vibrations of the instruments on stage.

             Opening act Record graced us with fluid lyrics and wistful guitar riffs, which quickly had me bopping my head along. Record crooned soulfully with a longing in his voice and I am sure many from the audience that night, including myself, will be picking up a copy of his Bones EP later this month, an addition worthy of its precursor, The War EP. Record relied on his talent pure and simple without needing to overcomplicate his performance. Record himself was understated and emotionally stripped up there on stage, conveying himself as an open and honest artist. That proved to be more than enough to tide everyone over before Bastille were to grace us with their much-anticipated presence.

Bastille’s opening act, Josh Record
             Bastille utilizes the talents of Daniel Smith on percussion and lead vocals, Kyle Simmons on percussion, William Farquarson on bass guitar, and Chris Wood on drums. I had brushed up on my Bastille discography so as to be fully committed to the show, and before long, I was singing along with the best of them! The band was nothing short of energetic and how Smith managed to maintain pitch-perfect vocals while gliding and jumping effortlessly around the stage remains a mystery to me. The feel-good vibe emanated throughout the fast-paced act and Bastille manically played as if their lives depended on it, like puppets maneuvered on strings at the discretion of expert hands.

Bastille’s bassist William Farquarson (left), drummer Chris Wood (center), and lead singer and percussionist, Daniel Smith (right)
             While playing songs from their album, Bad Blood, that everyone cheered for and sneaking in a few from their mixtapes, Other People’s Heartache and Other People’s Heartache, Pt. 2, Bastille also busted out new material, one song going by the name of “Campus.” Smith waved the drumsticks around precariously, pointing at us, pointing at the sky, before landing with a dramatic thud on the drums. Smith’s quirky, jerky dance moves and undulations were surprisingly fitting and he later claimed that he couldn’t dance so we would have to help him out, but I begged to differ. He’s adopted a style that works for him and the band, which complements their fusion of fun pop and dance music.

             With a quick change into his hoodie, Smith dragged his microphone down to literally “work the crowd” and snaked around the attendees. His voice merely floated above us, it being nearly impossible to pinpoint him from where we were standing. The concert itself elapsed in what seemed like snapshots, aided of course by bursts of strobe lights. Smith’s live vocals rivaled the recorded versions of himself, demonstrating how incredibly satisfying and easy it is to watch a truly good band play when they’re in their element. During various moments of the night, I turned around to face the crowd and what I witnessed was a mob of people jumping up and down, jabbing their fingers in the air back at Smith, the disco ball illuminating the higher levels of onlookers peering down at the stage. Everyone was grinning and Bastille were grinning right there with us.

             Bastille ran off stage only to return and end with the widely popular “Pompeii,” which escalated to number two in the UK charts, and with good reason too. The night was a triumph full of riotous drums and electric personalities that didn’t end there for my friend and me. Exiting back outside, we occupied the back doors of KOKO where Bastille’s lime green (how inconspicuous!) tour bus lay in wait, to see if we could meet any of the band members. We were joined by many other eager fans, and as the members of Bastille piled out, it was a matter of who could grab their attention first before they made a quick getaway. There is no doubt they will have been plenty tired already and keen to retire for the night. 

Usually Bastille’s percussionist, Kyle Simmons tries his hand at the electric guitar 
             Record surfaced and broke the barriers separating the fans from the famous, appearing almost more star-struck by them than they were of him. He was genuinely willing to instill his undivided attention in everyone he spoke with. As he was whisked away, the question on everyone’s minds was when Smith would appear, the last member of Bastille who was yet to emerge and most likely the person everyone was waiting for, judging by the still substantial crowd. When Smith was eventually spotted, a guitar, an iPod, flyers, CD case inserts, and cameras were thrust in his direction. He took all of this in his stride and his soft-spoken manner didn’t match that of his larger-than-life stage persona, which was a sweet surprise. Smith made a point to connect with each individual, personally thanking everyone for coming to the show, as if he was the grateful one.

With Josh Record (left) and Bastille’s Daniel Smith (right)
             Pre-order Bastille’s double-CD album, All This Bad Blood, now before its release on November 25th and view their official website here. For Josh Record news, see here. His Bones EP is expected for November 24th. I cannot recommend KOKO enough, so browse the venue’s website here to see what’s lined up for the coming months.