Review – Jiri Kylian, Three Dances, Ballet de l’Opera de Paris, Palais Garnier, Paris, 10th December 2016

Jiri KylianA special occasion calls for a special occasion. As Mrs Chrisparkle was celebrating her **th birthday (and they don’t come much bigger than the **th), we decided to jetset it to Paris for a long weekend of culture. And Disneyland, of course. We’ve been to the Phantom’s Own Palais Garnier a few times over the years and even though I’ve attached a few photos, they really do not do it justice. It is just the most stunning theatre in the world. You could be in Versailles. Palais GarnierIt’s so chic that it doesn’t have a bar per se, just irregularly positioned tables with someone dispensing glasses of Taittinger for 12 euros a neck. One of the splendid things about a programme of three individual ballets is that there will be two intervals, each perfectly champagne-sized. Including our pre-show drink, we got through three glasses each; that’s 72 euros spent on divinely spoiling ourselves. Well, we’re worth it.

One of the ceilingsJiri Kylian has long been a choreographer to admire. I first encountered his work when seeing Rambert and NDT2 at High Wycombe in the mid-90s; and, in fact, we saw one of the three dances in this programme, Tar and Feathers, in 2007 when NDT1 were performing it at Sadlers’ Wells. He’s always been daring, stylish, funny and unpredictable; never one to create a piece that you can predict how it will develop, One of the halls you’re always guessing where he’s going to take you next. The programme is satisfyingly structured to the tried and tested formula of Dance 1: accessible, straightforward, enjoyable; Dance 2: difficult, challenging, unpredictable; Dance 3: crowd pleasing, funny, lively. Each dance was originally created for Nederlands Dans Theater.

bella-figura-2The first dance on offer was Bella Figura, created by Kylian in 1995, and which first entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera in 2001. This is a stunning piece of work on many levels. Primarily, you get an overwhelming feeling of balance and beauty. The dancers move exquisitely, with steady control, to a tender baroque soundtrack, radiating elegance and refinement. Kylian takes you by surprise with the sequences where the dancers appear topless, both men and women, all dressed similarly in billowing red skirts, creating a surprisingly asexual and uniform tableau. The semi-nudity is a great leveller,bella-figura making all the dancers appear remarkably similar. The other surprise element in the staging is how the curtains take on a life of their own and create smaller box-like dance spaces on the stage. This gives you a feeling not only that your gaze is being drawn specifically to what Kylian wants you to see, but also that sensation that you are being deprived of seeing other activity elsewhere on the stage. Both unnerving and reassuring at the same time. Suffice to say, it was performed with immaculate class and sheer delight throughout, and Dorothée Gilbert and Alessio Carbone were simply superb.

tar-and-feathersThe second dance – Tar and Feathers – was choreographed by Kylian in 2006 to Mozart’s ninth piano concerto and is both spellbinding and unutterable nonsense at the same time. Skirts made of bubble wrap; a piano standing on stilts loftily in the air; dancers who occasionally break their silence by barking like a dog. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo would love it. Plenty of slow, deliberate walking across the stage; and there is some significance in the fact that one side of the stage is coloured black, the other white. On the black side, dancers peer curiously under the floor covering to find – who knows what? They don’t seem to find anything, but sometimes they just like to stay there, protecting themselves from the outside world with lino. The dance ends with one of the dancers walking, tentatively, over a mountain of bubble wrap, cringing each time she steps and makes a cracking noise. All thoroughly weird and beyond comprehension. And also, there wasn’t a lot of what you’d call dance in it – a lot of posturing, a lot of silence, a lot of awkwardness, but not much actual dance. Yet again, it was performed with such style and grace that you can’t help forgive it its nonsense. Well, I forgave it. The rather grumpy man to my right refused to applaud.

Symphonie de PsaumesThe final dance was Symphonie de Psaumes, with Stravinsky’s music of the same name, composed to celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 1930. Jiri Kylian created the dance in 1978 and it’s an absolute crowd-pleaser. Rich looking oriental and Indian carpets hug the back wall of the stage to present a warm sea of reds and oranges, whilst on the ground dancers dressed in black and grey walk and dance in formation across a square surrounded by chairs. Waves of dancers criss-cross the stage, picking others up and dropping others off in their wake, like some human knitting pattern on a huge machine as they work towards a distant inexorable goal. It’s mesmeric to watch and full of beautiful and invigorating dance moves. The audience absolutely loved it.

The production continues in repertory at the Palais Garnier until 31st December – a rewarding and most refined evening.

Production photos by Ann Ray. Theatre photos by me.

Review – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Charing Cross Theatre, 10th November 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and WellI think I’d heard of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” before I’d actually heard of Jacques Brel himself. The show first saw the light of day in 1968, off-Broadway, and gained something of a cult status as it clocked up a four year run in its initial production, plus the many other international versions that followed. But through my early years the work of M. Brel remained something of a mystery to me. Then about fifteen years ago my friend the Lord Liverpool introduced me to the album “Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel” and particularly the song Jacky, which famously was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics – you won’t want me to reprint them here. Suffice to say, I loved it – and the rest of the album, with my other favourite being the savage Next – more of which later.

Gina BeckThe album also features If You Go Away, but to be honest I always preferred Terry Jacks’ 1974 version, his follow up hit to “Seasons in the Sun”, (always enough to reduce a grown man to a deluge of tears), and which was itself an adaptation of Brel’s Le Moribond. But I realise now that in comparison to the originals, these Scott Walker renditions are really overblown, over-orchestrated and over-fussy. So when I saw that “Jacques Brel IAAWALIP” was having a revival at the Charing Cross Theatre I thought it was a perfect opportunity finally to acquaint myself with this cult show. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be Mrs Chrisparkle’s thing. If I’d said to her, “would you like to see a show based on the songs of a Belgian who died in 1978” she would have looked at me more than askance. But my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford is another Brelhead, and so it was that he and I went to see the show last Monday night.

Daniel BoysI’d never been to the Charing Cross Theatre before. When I was growing up it was the Players Theatre Club, having been home to the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in the 1950s. If my memory serves me right, in the 1970s members of the Players Theatre used to perform on the BBC’s Good Old Days programme (all together in your best Leonard Sachs voice: Once again, Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!) But today it is its own little theatre in its own right, seating 250 at a push, and with a rather charming atmosphere, helped or hindered (you decide) by the regular rumblings of trains passing overhead, and with a comfortable bar/restaurant offering an excellent and filling pre-theatre dinner at a much cheaper price than is decent for such a Central London location.

Jacques BrelTo say the show has a simple structure would be something of an understatement. If, like me, you were expecting some kind of narrative, or some theme to the evening, you might be in for a disappointment. I had thought it would be a kind of Side By Side By Brel, with some Ned Sherrin style bonhomie taking us through his career and illustrating it with choice examples of his work. Alternatively, it might have been an early example of the Mamma Mia genre, where you have an original plot but into which the Brel numbers would have dovetailed perfectly. But it’s neither. You simply have a running order of 28 songs, performed by the cast of four, accompanied by Dean Austin’s splendid five piece band nicely integrated with the action, scattered around the set, which resembles a modest cabaret club. The cabaret feels spills out into the auditorium in fact, as the usual first few rows have been taken out and replaced with five cabaret tables, each with four chairs. His Majesty and I sat at one of these and I have to say that, although you really have to look up high, our proximity to some of the action was breathtaking. At times it was as though we were on the stage with them, or they were performing promenade style around us – Miss Gina Beck even poured us out a glass of water. There’s no particularly rhyme or reason to the sequence of the songs that I could make out, no attempt to create a real narrative strand; but that’s not a problem as each song is its own mini masterpiece of a drama, and there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to excel both musically and dramatically.

Eve PolycarpouThe structure of the show means that its success or failure lies completely with the quality of the songs and performances; and for me I can definitely say it was a resounding success throughout. The songs that I recognised, I loved; and those that I didn’t know were, almost without exception, exciting discoveries. The cast are a superb combination of young, pure and idealistic (Gina Beck and Daniel Boys – brilliant in last year’s High Society) and the more mature and experienced (Eve Polycarpou and David Burt – an excellent gangster in Kiss Me Kate and hilarious in Hamlet the Musical), giving a nice sense of balance to the production. The evening begins with Eve singing Le Diable (Ça va) in both French and English, creating a very moody and melancholic atmosphere, which leads into If We Only Have Love and the sumptuous Alone. The English lyrics, by the way, were written by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman who together created the original production of the show. Other first half highlights included a very original presentation of Jacky by David, with a laid back, reflective, self-satisfied first verse, which then gains triumphant self-confidence as the song progresses. David also performed a very emotional rendition of Fanette which I really loved; and the whole company joined together for The Desperate Ones – again with the performers right up close to us you could see their unflinching commitment to what they were doing which somehow made it even moving; these Brel songs can be very raw as you witness the passion and pain in the performers’ concentration. There was also a very perky performance of Timid Frieda by Gina and then David took us into the interval with a rousingly angry (as is traditional) version of Amsterdam.

David BurtAct Two began with the whole company performing Madeleine (HRH’s favourite) – a tune that I now realise was shamelessly ripped off in the song Veronique in the 1970s musical On The Twentieth Century. Act Two continued with some spectacular performances including Eve singing Ne me quitte pas in French, sat on the edge of the stage with her guitar, right in front of us – a right goose-bumps moment if ever there was one; Daniel and David doing a very funny version of Middle Class (during which David cheersed me with his champagne glass; Gina singing a very moving Old Folks, David providing a hilarious and immaculately timed Funeral Tango, Daniel performing a very touching Song For Old Lovers and the whole company presenting a highly disturbing and effectively staged Next (Au Suivant), the least romantic song about sex that you could imagine. There is some nice subtle updating going on with a few of the numbers, with Iraq and Afghanistan taking their place and even Nigel Farage muscles in on the action at one point.

Monsieur BrelI really enjoyed the show, but what was the reaction of a true Brel aficionado? The Crown Prince was extremely impressed with it, and was in fact on tippy-toe point of leading an ovation when a sudden wave of self-consciousness overtook him, which he regretted all the way back to the station. Despite the fact that it is now 36 years since Jacques Brel literally was alive and well and living in Paris, the show gives us another opportunity to appreciate his extraordinary contribution to 20th century music and is a fitting and lovingly performed tribute to one helluva character. The show is on until 22nd November and if you like your musical entertainment to be francophone and with a bit of bite, I can’t think of anything better.

Review – Le Parc, Ballet de l’Opera National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 27th December 2013

Le ParcIf ever there was a venue where the artistic impact of the building provides as much pleasurable anticipation – probably more – than the prospect of the show itself, it’s the Palais Garnier in Paris. Yes, the original home to the Phantom of the Opera, built over a hundred years before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the music of the night, it’s the most breath-taking structure, that gives you a sense of fabulous privilege just walking up the stairs on your way to locating your “fauteuils” in the “orchestre”.

Palais GarnierAll sorts of delights await you before the show starts. Of course, you must have pre-theatre drinkies. About the only thing available is a glass of champagne. Well that’s fine by me. I approached the bar where the lady before me was ordering “deux verres de champagne, s’il vous plaît”. “Oui monsieur?” enquired of me the formally dressed but quite friendly guy behind the counter, as he was preparing the champagnes for the lady in front. “Aussi deux verres de champagne pour moi, s’il vous plaît” I stumbled in response.Corps de ballet The lady beamed at me in recognition of a champagne comrade. “Vive la champagne!” she said, joyously. “Absolument” came my idiomatically iffy reply. Mrs C and I supped our delicious champagne (top quality, 12 euros for a small glass) whilst staring down over the grand vestibule.

Then you have to work out whereabouts in the auditorium you are sitting. You show your tickets to an usher and hope that you understand their directions. Stage“Tout droit, au bout”. We got there ok. There must be a reason why the seat numbering system isn’t consecutive; Mrs Chrisparkle and I had seats 179 and 181, which were next to each other about seven rows back from the orchestra pit. In a UK theatre you’d think of them as seats G6-7. The auditorium is stunning. So lavishly baroque, apart from the 1964 Chagall ceiling that depicts scenes from 14 operas and which I think is rather splendid. Chagall ceilingAnd of course there is the central chandelier, that did once famously come crashing to the stalls and killed an unfortunate opéraphile, so be careful where you choose to sit.

We were there to see a post-Christmas performance of Angelin Preljocaj’s much-loved ballet Le Parc, which has been part of the Paris Opera’s repertoire for twenty years or so now.Inside the theatre It contrasts courtly, romantic love as suggested by the Mozart chamber music that is played exquisitely by the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris under the direction of Koen Kessels, with the sexual motivation and tension that bubbles under the surface to a modern abstract soundtrack by Goran Vejvoda. As a result there are juxtaposing scenes of both pure 18th century ritualistic elegance, and 20th century direct physical contact. In Chaucerian terms, imagine the Knight going on a date with the Wife of Bath.

GardenersNow, this show has been running on and off since 1994 and I know it is considered to be something of a modern classic, but I have to confess I found most of it strangely unsatisfying. Much of the choreography was, I thought, tame and unadventurous, with a lot of repetition and I would guess largely unchallenging for the hugely skilful dancers on stage. If this were “Strictly Come Ballet”, Len Goodman would criticise it for having far too much posing and faffing around and not enough “Gertcha”. Much of it was very predictable as well. In the first act you witness a lot of chair repositioning; a male dancer will place a chair down on the stage surface with a loud clatter, which is the cue for a female counterpart to do precisely the same thing. And then another man. And then another woman. Stomp, stomp, stomp – clatter; stomp, stomp, stomp – clatter. Forgive me, but we’ve seen all that before; it’s not dancing, it’s removals. It wasn’t saying to me “I’ll test you with my aggressive-assertive behaviour and see if you respond”, but more like “that’s the last time I buy from Ikea”.

Dancing round the treesIn the second act, there are eight (or so) posh ladies, one of whom faints. The other ladies gather round her, get her back on her feet, and all is well. Then, blow me down, another lady faints. They gather round her too, reinstate her vertically, and she’s ok. You’ll never guess what happens next. Yes! Another lady faints. The same sequence is repeated ad nauseam until every one of them has had need of the smelling salts. This is not dancing. At primary school they might have called it “music and movement”. It really was tremendously tedious. The framework of the whole ballet is to have regular reappearances of four gardeners, who make slow modern shapes to abstract technothrob, and who were more athletic than artistic in my view.

rehearsal shotsFor sure, there are some tremendous scenes. At our performance the chief roles were danced by Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche, and they are simply superb. A brilliant pas de deux towards the end involved Mlle Dupont clinging hold of M le Riche’s neck as he swung her round and round; an extraordinary display of trust and elegance that stood out as a stunning visual image. There was also a rather beguiling scene where various ladies and gentlemen followed each other round stylistic tree trunks in a playfully coquettish game of catch. Not a lot of dancing involved but it was charming.

enigmatic imageWhether or not they scheduled this dance for shortly after Christmas as being the perfect choreography for performers who’ve enjoyed too much dinde over the festive period, I don’t know. Certainly for much of the time the dancers weren’t required to do much more than walk around and do some finger pointing. Sadly there’s no interval; not having an interval at the Palais Garnier deprives you of twenty minutes relaxing in luxurious surroundings. The show lasts just over an hour and half as it is, and on reflection I might guess that with an interval a number of people wouldn’t bother returning for the final act. The very keen balletomane on Mrs C’s right who looked all agog before the show started spent the final act with his head in his hands as if trying to work out where it all went wrong. I feel his pain. This was the third, possibly fourth time we’ve seen the Opera de Paris at the Palais Garnier and it’s the first time where the applause at the end was respectful instead of wildly enthusiastic. Oh well, on ne peut pas être gagnant dans tout, as I’m sure they don’t say in French.

Review – Another theatrical catch-up post

I really must keep up to date with these entries. I’m disappointing myself.

ian maxwell fisherSunday March 28th saw us at the Lilian Baylis theatre at the Stage Door of Sadler’s Wells to see the Lost Musical, Paris, by Cole Porter. If you don’t know, Lost Musicals is a fantastic thing. They dig up shows that haven’t seen the light of day for yonks and then perform them on an empty stage with just chairs and a piano. We’ve seen seven or eight of these over the years and they never fail to delight. Anne ReidThis year’s show, Paris, (it’s the one where “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” first appeared), is one of the funniest and most entertaining we have seen. The cast includes the wonderful Anne Reid who completely steals it. All hail the miraculous Ian Marshall Fisher who puts these things together. There are two more on this year, I confess we haven’t booked for them and I fear it may be too late to get decent seats. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Hedda GablerGood Friday, April 2nd, we saw Hedda Gabler at the Oxford Playhouse. Front of House at the Oxford Playhouse were obviously having a bad hair day. It’s always been a wonderful theatre, I remember it from when I was a teenager going there with Mum. And as a student, I was their College Rep. Happy days. But it’s not a good idea to have just one position where you can buy programmes when it’s a full house, and then only when they require you to have the correct change…. And why have they removed the signs that say Seats 1-10 this way, Seats 11-20 that way, we were all walking over one another to go in the right direction. Sigh.

Tim McInnernyAnyway it was a very good production of Hedda Gabler; Ms Gabler herself played by Rosamund Pike was a very dismal person right from the start. It was never a good idea to let that woman anywhere near those pistols. It was great to see Tim McInnerny again, I last saw him in a student production of Measure for Measure on the very same stage and I am pleased to say I gave him a glowing review in a student newspaper. My hunch was right, he came good. I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as I thought I would, and it brought back memories of a more thrilling Janet Suzman in the role circa 1977, maybe it was my age!

Sondheim Birthday ConcertThen last Sunday, April 4th (Easter Day, you may remember) we saw a celebration for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday at the Derngate in Northampton, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the wonderful Maria Friedman, with the also wonderful (if not quite as much) Graham Bickley and Daniel Evans. It was a most jolly and entertaining affair. They started off with a concert version of Merrily We Roll Along, none of which I had heard before and it certainly made me want to see The Real Show. Maria FriedmanMuch of the rest of the evening brought back memories of Side by Side by Sondheim, but with some twists: a gay version of “Getting Married” – with Amy now Jamie – which worked pretty well. Daniel Evans and Maria Friedman in bed doing “Barcelona” was a hoot, and her “Send in the Clowns” was most moving. There was a fabulous symphonic suite containing about three songs from Sweeney Todd; and then some more Todd songs, including A Little Priest in which Ms Friedman forgot the lyrics, which shows that even the divine are human. It was a great night and left you buzzing for more.

The meaning of the Real Chrisparkle

Thanks for the warm welcome to Blogland. Whether it’s good news or not, it has spurred me on to write more.

I doubt anyone reading this who has met me would think of me as Chrisparkle. But that was a nickname my mother had for me for as long as I can remember. Chrisparkle was the formal nickname – sometimes shortened to Sparkle – more often shortened to Sparks. If she called me Sparks I knew I was in her good books and there was nothing to fear. If she called me Christopher I knew I was in trouble.

I don’t know whether she was in a particularly literary erudite mood when she coined this nickname but it does come from the Reverend Crisparkle (note the lack of “h”) in Charles Dickens’ unfinished work “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Or, if you saw the musical show back in the 1980s with the late Ernie Wise, “The Mystery of Edwin Droo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ood”. He’s a goodly (not to mention Godly) soul who almost certainly didn’t do away with Edwin, although someone did. Crisparkle, that is, not Ernie Wise.

Here is a picture of the actor Martin Wimbush playing Cedric Moncrieffe playing Crisparkle (a.k.a. me) in the show in the 1980s – actually 15th May 1987 was the day I saw the show according to my ticket stub.

Reverend Crisparkle as played by Martin Wimbush

And here are all the suspects who might have killed Edwin. He is/I am Number 1.

The suspects for the murder of Edwin Drood

Now that my mother has fallen foul of the dreaded dementia, she doesn’t think of me as Sparks any more. She does think of me as Chris, which is a good thing, although she does suspect I may be her brother and not her son. Whenever I see her she does try to ascertain our relationship early on in the conversation, but sometimes she forgets during our chat. So by resurrecting Chrisparkle online, I’m bringing back something that had otherwise been lost, and I’m quite pleased about that. I also think that to sparkle or to spark is not a bad ambition.

Mum, circa 1947 Here’s a picture of Mum in more carefree days. I believe this was taken on the steps of the Madeleine church in Paris shortly after the end of the Second World War. Even though this was a long time before I was born I can certainly recognise some of the joie de vivre that survived for many years.

I’m sure she created plenty of sparks in those days with that cheekiness.