Stephen PRESS

Sarah McIlroy and Jan-Erik Wikström. Photo: Nigel Barklie

Sadler’s Wells, London,
Tuesday 8 April 2003

English National Ballet ‘Tour de Force’

Choreography: Christopher Hampson

Sarah McIlroy,
Jan-Erik Wikström,
Amy Hollins,
Francisco Bosch,
Joanne Clarke,
Laura Tong.

The Dance

In late 2001 Mann approached various ballet companies with the proposal to stage Trapèze in the 2003 anniversary year. Matz Skoog, Director of the English National Ballet, eagerly picked up the offer and assigned the project to the rising young choreographer, Christopher Hampson, recently of “Double Concerto” fame (to Poulenc’s score). He met with Mann for a “very inspiring two hours” in the summer of 2002, and was immediately excited by the opportunity to work with Prokofiev’s music. Hampson’s musicality is readily apparent in his conversation as well as in his work. He had studied piano since his early childhood with such devotion that by age 11 it was a toss-up as to whether he would become a musician or a dancer. Dancer he became, participating in four Romeo and Juliet’s along the way before turning to choreography. He considered Prokofiev’s score for Trapèze as being something brand new, remarking that “it actually feels like I have had a kind of collaboration with him”. In his ballet Hampson retains the original order of the Quintet movements, preceding them by the Overture, and “Matelote” (referred to below as numbers one through eight).
     Hampson learned from Noëlle all that there is to know about Romanov’s ballet (see Three Oranges, IV (Nov. 2002), 4-9). But because the details about the characters and the circus plot were so sketchy, so surreal (as was typical of the time), he decided to approach his ballet with a clean slate. However, the original use of props – tightrope, net, etc. – prompted him to keep the title and to use a large trapeze as the focal point. Off he went to Courtisols, near Reims, France, to see Ernie Clennel, renowned for making anything to do with the circus. “I wanted a free standing trapeze; not an acrobatic type from which people are caught on descent, but one which would allow the dancers to be much more sculptural.” Clennel started building this customised, swinging trapeze in January. Next, Hampson went to see Lorraine Moyenham, a trapeze artist and aerial instructor with a background in dance. “I went for trapeze lessons with Lorraine – my logic was if I could do it, I could ask the dancers to do it. This is a totally different technique for them, with a different set of muscles, different way of thinking, heights, motion, being upside down, totally different. I worked with her for three weeks solid, acquiring many cuts and bruises – it’s really tough, agony! I actually got motion sickness because of the swinging, something you’d never know until you try it. I soon took the dancers along to make sure they could do it. Some had a thing with heights, some with being upside down.” Gary Avis, a dancer in the production, remarked that everyone seemed to think it was going to be very easy, “first of all because we are strong – but this is different, a lot of my strength comes from my legs – and secondly because we’re co-ordinated and know our balance, but when you get up there you really don’t know where your body is, especially when you’re upside down. It’s only two metres off the floor, but when I stand up on it, it is really high and it swings about.”
     Hampson summed up, “in all it took quite a lot of work to integrate the trapeze”. But it opened up a whole new idea of performing space. “It was immensely liberating that you can go ‘below the floor’. But I didn’t want it to look like ballet dancers trying to do trapeze; I really wanted them to look confident, so I limited their vocabulary.” Avis noted that “trapeze artists have set positions and moves just as we have our pliés, tendus, etc. They have a “mermaid”, a “half-angel”, a “gisele”; so we take a “gisele” into a “half-moon” into a “half-angel” then do a port de bras with it – incorporating circus moves with a ballet move. They’ve got some great names: I do a “candlestick”, Jan-Erik [of the other cast] does a “Titanic” (yes, it goes under, then “bubbles” back up). It’s been good to incorporate the two techniques together because they’re both so graceful.”
     Hampson doesn’t consider Prokofiev’s score to be “difficult”, rather he calls it challenging, just like all of Prokofiev’s ballet music. “There are rhythmic challenges in this score that I thrive on; the seventh movement for two boys and fifth for two girls are absolutely great to get our teeth into rhythmically. They are so much fun, it’s like he’s put a problem on the table and you’ve got to deal with that.” Hampson notes that the composer’s phrasing can be challenging as well, “it does trip us up sometimes – I like it, just as you’re getting comfortable he goes somewhere else, and visually it works well too. I don’t think it’s easy to second guess what comes next in the score.” The notorious fifth movement, a quick 5/4, provided some difficulties for the dancers at first due to the unusual counts and the rapidity of steps, but as they gained familiarity with the music the problems subsided. Emma Northmore, one of the dancers in this movement, relates: “if you know the speed of the music and you’ve got the rhythm of the steps you’re all right; there are just a couple of places, actually, when you’ve got less steps, that you’ve got to count more. As long as you keep the right rhythm you’re on the music”.
     The problem with audibility due to Prokofiev’s choice of instruments either diminished with experience or was taken into consideration from the start. Avis spoke of one section where the dancers have a count of three sixes, a ten, a nine, and a four. “At first we couldn’t pick up the nine and the four at the end, but I think we’ll be able to now.” There are several passages in the Quintet portion of the ballet which are scored for solo double bass, an instrument that does not have a strongly projecting voice. One such place is the opening of the seventh movement. For this Hampson purposely started his dance with the two boys facing the conductor, so that, even if they could not hear the music, they would at least see the preparatory gesture of the conductor’s baton.
     Did this sometimes harmonically astringent and often highly contrapuntal score pose any other problems? “There were some parts I was not immediately attracted to”, Hampson replied, “but they ended up being the ones I like the most. For instance, the sixth movement – I just sat listening to it and thought what the hell is that about? And the finale too, this presented real problems trying to visualise some sort of continuity.” As it turned out the sixth is one of the most beautifully expressive movements in the ballet. This slowly moving music that acquires more layers as it goes, reaching a powerful climax three-quarters of the way through, became a solo for the woman on the trapeze, or perhaps it is a duet for her and the trapeze. Difficult though it was to visualise at first, Hampson immediately appreciated the music’s unique sound. “It was about all I could do with it, something as obscure as this woman fighting or guiding or moving around the trapeze.” She utilises the trapeze, she pushes it; at one point she is suspended in a grand jeté by the ropes, and later is held in a reclining repose by it.
     Hampson’s choreography here and elsewhere is based on classical technique. “It’s the language I feel I can express the most in.” But it is combined with trapeze moves and some modernistic bends and flexes of the torso and limbs. With the trapeze as the only décor and colourful leotards (or less) instead of costumes for the dancers, the circus motif is underplayed. But this is not a completely abstract ballet, there is a plot. “To my mind I couldn’t hear the music abstractly, I really felt that there was some underlying emotion, story, psychological play, something going on; the writing for the winds is so particular, they are saying something. But I also did not want to take the strongly narrative route that Romanov had done. Like Prokofiev’s score I hope it is a ballet that you can read abstractly or narratively as you wish.” For this observer at least, this ballet about changing relationships among the two couples falls clearly in the latter category, at least after the opening two movements. The dancers say that Hampson left it quite open for them to deal with their characters as they feel, consequently the two casts (playing on alternate nights) present a different reading. Their interactions and the consequences of them, however, remain the same. The cast includes a man and a woman (trapeze artists), a boy and a girl, and two girls as a mini corps de ballet. Narcissism, jealousy and rivalry abound.
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