Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Magic Flute

   Something else there wasn't 'headspace' to write about earlier in the year with everything that was going on at the time, was the English Touring Opera production of 'The Magic Flute'. We had seen it once before, also by the ETO, but only the truncated kid's version, simplified and shortened for an all ages audience, and cheaper than their usual shows. This however, was the full length deal with all the extra plot that was left out before. 
   One knew one was in for a treat as soon as the curtain went up. Each side of the stage had three doors, one behind the other in a descending perspective, and as well as the fantastic singing and Mozart's classic score, what became clear was the ETO's amazing attention to detail. In the first productions in Mozart's day, apparently they were full of trapdoors, special effects and other highly theatrical features. And this production was truly in that early spirit of total theatre. The singers, who were all fine actors and dancers as well! leapt out of doors, things appeared from trapdoors in the floor, there was a projected action screen at the back, to highlight the mythical dimension of Sarastro's dungeon, and altogether it was a marvellous spectacle. 
   In the shorter version, the monsters in the forest were personified by a delightful dragon with rope LEDs for a body. In this version, spirits of the forest were personified in dark and dramatic purple and black themed ball-wear, and it was all by sinister hint and shadowy suggestion. One of the most effective visual effects was (oddly enough) the standard lamps which swayed up through the trapdoors...and yet those, and most of the other effects and visuals, fitted perfectly with the bizarre fanciful plot. The Queen of the Night and Papageno were especially excellent, and the Ladies of the Queen of the Night too - but all the singers were fantastic. Being before Easter, it's too far away for a proper 'review', but a short tribute to the ETO seemed appropriate - indeed necessary, as they rely on sponsors and donors as well as ticket sales and grants. Don't miss them! They bring opera to even those who don't like opera. On one of their schools workshops, there mission was summed up by one school pupil who said - 'Before I came here, I thought opera singers were really sad...now I know they're really cool.' 
   Past productions include a matchless Carmen, with a never-to-be-forgotten theatre moment when all the market sellers came forward and tried to sell their goods to the audience, getting angry with us for not buying, stamping their feet, tossing their heads, and going off elsewhere - a true 'slice of life' opera scene. The tragedy that still felt life-affirming at the end... Then Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Oberon the counter tenor being absolutely entrancing...and the whole thing making sense of Britten's remarkable but challenging score. The ETO's mission is vital to introduce those who live outside large cities, aren't flash with cash or don't know why opera's important, to the wonders of the artform. Exeter is always especially lucky, as reading their review of past tours, apparently the most difficult are the theatres they come to year after year at Malvern and Exeter which are 'a real squeeze' with barely elbow room for their superb orchestra! How can one thank them enough for making the effort and turning smaller cities and towns into centres of cultural wonder? Long live the ETO! 

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Early Dance Extravaganza

Earlier in the year (and this review would have written then, had the time been carved to do a Performance journal before!), I went to see the marvellous Daughters of Elvin whom we had seen four times before, but the last some time ago. First at a Quaker Meeting House, playing work from what was to be their first album, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', and their singer was Jeremy Avis of the Dufay Collective. I recall it was one of the most magical evenings, with Katy Marchant's gifted playing on Medieval bagpipes, Dhevdhas Nair's hypnotic drumming, and Jeremy Avis's ethereal singing, it was truly an evening of delights. The gilding on the lily was the masked dancing and the invitation to join in at the end! The next was at the Phoenix. (And incidentally a great source of pleasure was the booking itself, as the Phoenix had given out a form to ask for suggestions from regular visitors, and on it I had recommended sofas for the bar - which soon appeared! continuing with their Medieval Music Weekend - what bliss they were! and booking the Daughters of Elvin...). At which concert the amazing music, song, dancing and masks were joined by an acrobatic dancer doing rope dance! And an exquisite unicorn, which came to the audience at the end to ask them to join in the dance...who could resist? The third time was at Castle Drogo, and this time demons on stilts, a 'dancing bear', and a dragon joined the unicorn, devil and rope dance. The fourth time was at Chagford Village Hall, and this was the full Medieval Circus - how music could keep its primary place with the dancers, the masks, the dragon, the jester, the acrobatics, the devils on stilts...? but this was the Daughters of Elvin, and Katy playing bagpipes and two ! recorders at the same time, plus tambour plus ankle bells...and Dhev's matchless symphonic drums and dulcimer - how could the music not still star and take it's rightful place as the core, the fabric that wove the event together? 
   The fifth time - this time, was at South Zeal Village Hall. In the first half, the Elvins were playing alongside Baroque musicians, and to courtly dances from the C17th and C18th by dance historian and dancing master Ricardo Barros (of the Mercurius Company). It was fantastic - the dances were absolutely like going back in time to the Baroque period, one could believe that they had been meticulously researched, and authenticity breathed life into the stately moves of formal gaiety and graceful elegance. Ricardo Barros was extraordinary, not only in his expert dancing and array of richly ornate and detailed costumes, but also in his acting. He entered first in black, with shoulder-length wig to match, with a precision and haughtiness that perfectly complimented the role of dancing master. He appeared in a blue costume for another set, complete with a hat in the shape of a ship - few people could have carried it off with such total conviction. His last costume was all in pastel shades, and even more extravagant and genteel than the dramatic black he'd begun with. Alternating with his dances were the South Zeal dance group Zayle Baroque, with excellent period costumes, country dances and lots of zest - their sense of merriment was infectious. The music was exquisite, including bass viol by Mike Edwards, and hearing live Purcell was something I at least had been longing to hear. 
   In the second half, we went further back in time to the Medieval, and the Elvins played music from their haunting second album, 'Galdrbok', let off flying butterflies from a skull, came toward the audience as demons playing instruments...and Ricardo Barros was the masked dancer as the unicorn, an then as the minotaur, chasing a butterfly... It was another wonderful performance. Due to the tight space in the area before the stage, while they came and played and danced amongst us, there wasn't the space for the audience to join in, but our spirits were dancing nonetheless. The Daughters of Elvin are not only incredibly gifted, they gather seriously gifted guest performers around them. 
   I can't recommended both their albums, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' and 'Galdrbok' too highly. Check out their website to order them on the links to the right. And don't miss a show if it comes near you, and the same goes for the Mercurius Company - check out their videos on YouTube!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

And now for Something Completely Different...

How extraordinary. Amidst all the Spoken/Written mayhem...and after a successful evening at the Queen's Theatre having a stall for Spoken/Written Bulletin S.W. - really big thanks to Mel Scaffold of Apples and Snakes S.W. ! - and then other things, I had had to go out too many evenings in a row, and was wondering if I could stay awake for another one...when I turned up, feeling like nothing so much as an early night... And to my amazement, was soon caught up in an inspirational experience. The idea of the evening - called the Edge of Chaos, and held in the Voodoo Lounge of the Phoenix, by Ric White, who has put these events on before in Lancaster - was to get musicians, painters, dancers and a poet (yours truly) to all improvise and respond to each other spontaneously. I had no idea, and nor did anyone else, how or indeed whether, it would 'work', but the key thing was that we all came to it with a sense of openness. 
   The music began, with synth and iPhone (the latter as played by Sufiboy of the Collective), and then entwined with the spontaneous production or evolving of a painting by Ric's collaborator in Edges of Chaos...and then we all took it from there. The dancers were brilliant, and I was soon caught up in movement and sound and brushstrokes, I wrote words and sentences, sometimes more connected than at other times, as they came up on the projector in my not-wonderful but still legible handwriting! The music started hypnotic, then went jazz, experimental, John Cage-esque, the dancers swung between grace and jerkiness, flowing together or separate moving, beginning on the floor, and ending in wheels...I picked up the mic and rather than speak, began with sounds - hisses, whistles (not the kind that hurt the ears!), and was astonished that it all seemed to work. Breath like storms or gales, and whirling dance, or words and colours...everything seemed to merge and exchange. When I spoke, I tried to mirror the dancers, painters and music, but abstractly. Shadows in purple or curves and arcs... At the end of the first half - a natural end, I was exhilarated and feeling that never having been able to tell the difference between the word/image/movement/sound (and in extreme cases the thought, and their past!) was somehow justified. I had been wanting to do something like this for too long. 
   The second half, and the painters took off - amazing blues on one side, and on the other the painter/poet Robert Joyce turning the canvas over, from subtle greys and textures to the four quarters of the wooden frame, proceeding to rip parts out and stick them back on...the drummer saw the palette knife coming out towards him as he said afterward, and attacked the canvas, shoving an incredibly loud rain drum instrument through a canvas panel...the other painter banged his palette knife or brushes on a table in response...a dancer shouted my words, and afterwards said he could see the words between the gaps in the torn canvas! And altogether, I felt we teetered on the edge of chaos...before drawing back, and to a close. It seemed unreal - just as hissing or whispering to that music with the dancing and painting feeling like it was taking up themes that I was impelled to describe, to drawing symbols and numbers and lines in place or together with words, and then hardly believing a dancer was tracing a spiral in response to my spiral, becoming no longer mine but theirs...
   I must stop there! but I did lose myself in a way that I had hoped to, but had not really thought likely or realistic. Met some brilliant artists of 'other' disciplines, and we all thanked each other, and thanked Ric for putting it all together. A mind-blowing evening. Rounded off by a drink in the cafe bar afterwards with Sufiboy and Robert Joyce and two of the dancers. What a remarkable evening. It called on what I can only describe as the emotive part of the intellect that one must, for want of all other words, call the spiritual. And I even got to keep the acetates...
   Huge thanks must go to Ric, to all the other artists, including Sufiboy, and Robert Joyce including for the drinks! 

   And finally the person who codified my interest and passion for cross-artform in the first place, one Wassily Kandinsky.