Category Archives: After the Event

My thoughts and analysis on recent events

Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Leeds Grand Theatre

NorthernBalletGatsby

Gatsby has never been a character I especially get on with: I find him weak, dull and obscure. I know F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a classic and a favourite book for many, but the great unrequited love and the life spent trying to get closer to a lost woman doesn’t really do much for an unromantic pragmatist like me.

What the book does well though, is paint a teasing picture of the twenties, hinting at silks and pearls and champagne and swimming pools and mansions, leaving me lost in reveries of fabulous parties and all night dancing. I hoped that this Northern Ballet production of Gatsby would help to recreate that feeling and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The costumes in particular are gorgeous. Gatsby sports an impeccably tailored cream suit that looks closely fitted but allows for an astonishing range of movement, while Daisy graces the stage in a series of fantastic beaded, floaty or feathered drop-waisted dresses. The party scenes are all I could ever dream of: raucous, riotous, crowded, sexy and fun.

Gatsby isn’t the most simple of stories to tell and I was unsurprised to hear a few people around us googling the storyline in the interval. Despite being fairly familiar with the book I struggled a little, and thought it could have done with pruning down a little to keep the key themes cleaner and clearer. Still, the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy is beautifully done and leads to two incredible duets. Tobias Batley as Gatsby is good (although perhaps lacking a little vulnerability), but Martha Leebolt as Daisy is mesmerising. She plays the rebellious socialite perfectly, and the control she has over her body is astonishing to a ballet newbie like myself. I didn’t appreciate it at first, but when I saw her skid across the stage then stop abruptly en pointe, calf muscles taut and body erect, my jaw almost hit the floor. I can’t even imagine the physical condition she has to maintain to pull off moves like that! Other highlights were the burly Kenneth Tindall as jocular Tom, and Benjamin Mitchell as the spurned George Wilson, who pulls off some impressive moves with a car tyre (it’s ballet folks, but not as we know it).

You’ve only got a few more days to go see this, but I’d highly recommend it. Make sure you have at least a passing familiarity with the story before you go, to make sure you enjoy it as much as possible.

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Opera North’s Otello at Leeds Grand Theatre

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago. Photo by Clive Barda

Well, lately I’ve been a pretty shoddy blogger. Since I changed jobs, I find that working evenings and weekends is incredibly prohibitive when it comes to covering the kind of things I love to write about. There’s also a temptation to relish my few evenings in, especially over winter, by shutting myself in the flat with the heating on full and a stack of books. But, when Emma, aka the Culture Vulture tweeted about the event she was running in conjunction with Opera North for bloggers to see their production of Otello, which was on my night off, I forced myself to sign up.

I’ve dabbled in opera before, having  attended a night of opera duets, which I loved, and a new opera that I wasn’t so keen on. This was my first full length, ‘classic’ opera, and if I’m honest I completely loved it. Everyone I spoke from the PR at Opera North to the lady I was sat next to for the performance said it was the perfect opera for a beginner and I agree. Because I knew the story, I didn’t have to focus too much on the subtitles (which can be distracting, and sometimes read a little strangely after translation) and I could enjoy the music, which was gorgeous.

The opening act is huge, with about thirty performers on stage, blending their voices to create a wall of sound that’s beautifully controlled. The second and third acts see Iago capitalising on every possible opportunity to act upon his scheme to drive Othello crazy and usurp his power. They’re full of intense solos that perfectly capture the character’s mood, as well as a few confrontations that were acted as well as they were sang. The fourth and final act was a complete contrast to the first, featuring Desdemona, alone in her marital bed, singing a heartbreaking song that her mother’s servant used to sing after she was abandoned by her lover, praying, and then being confronted and killed by Otello. These final scenes were an absolute highlight and so moving that I did find myself blinking really hard.

At the time I felt I’d enjoyed the performance, but not exactly been wowed by it. As time has progressed, though, I’ve found myself dwelling on it a lot, and realised I really loved the experience. I loved the way the story was compressed but still full of emotion and narrative, and the gorgeous staging really helped. I actually thought this was more accessible than watching a Shakespeare play, thanks to the plain English subtitles and streamlined plot. I’d liken it to a good film adaptation of a book – tailored perfectly to the medium, taking the key scenes that will work best in opera and making the most of them.

I’d absolutely recommend Otello to anyone who thinks they might be interested, as I had a fantastic time and can’t wait for my next Opera North production. I’m thinking it might be their upcoming double bill of Dido and Aeneas/La Voix Humaine which looks fab!

Here are opinions from a few other of the attendees from the blogger event, if you fancy reading a few different views:

@junrussell: ‘It started with a bang and ended in tears.’

@emglobetrotter: ‘I felt myself literally on the edge of my seat’

@craftyblueberry: ‘would I go to the opera again? I’m quite surprised to find that yes, I would’

@jon_cronshaw: ‘something really needs to be done about the shushers and the tutters’

@leedsjourno: ‘I never fail to be amazed by the three-dimensional nature of live opera’

@jamesagrayson: ‘opera and theatre organisations need to look at attracting younger faces’

@salliex: ‘I found it inaccessible and outdated’

@littletinykate: ‘To enjoy opera, you’ve got to like the music and I just don’t, really’

@theotleyguide: ‘too much bitter scheming, death and anguish and not enough sweetness’

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Ondine rehearsals at Northern Ballet

After reading this lovely blog from Anna at angel in the north about her visit to the ‘try before you buy’ sessions at Northern Ballet, I knew I had to get myself booked in. The try before you buy scheme is a brand new initiative by Northern Ballet to let people get a little taster of what they can expect from a ballet. For £5 you got to watch the dancers in their rehearsals for an hour, with the added bonus of a packed lunch at the afternoon sessions or a nice glass of wine/Pimms/beer at the evening sessions. Finally you also got a voucher for £5 off any ticket when the show opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. If the crowd when I popped in was anything to go by, it’s a successful initiative; the benches were packed with about 150 people and I was lucky to find a seat. Although all the Ondine sessions are over now, it’s to be hoped that Northern Ballet consider running this scheme again – it’s a genuinely unique experience that was more than worth what I paid.

Proceedings started with a little introduction from Daniel De Andrade, Northern Ballet’s witty and charismatic Ballet Master, detailing the plot and giving us a little information about which scenes we would be watching.

The dream sequence between Brand and Ondine

The difficult thing about the speech was that as interesting as it was, I kept getting distracted by the dancers warming up in the background. They were limbering up, practising their moves and just casually contorting themselves into increasingly graceful but unattainable positions. So although I caught the gist of the story, here it is more coherently from the Northern Ballet website:

“As a child, water sprite Ondine is rescued from the shore and raised as a daughter by the fisherman who saved her. Regardless of her mortal upbringing she maintains the mysterious allure and eternal youthfulness of her species.

Years later when nobleman Brand stumbles upon Ondine he is mesmerised by her, and she by him. Despite his betrothal to the mortal Beatrice his attraction to Ondine is too strong to resist. When forced to choose between them he marries the breathtakingly ethereal nymph and swears his eternal loyalty to her.

Through their union Ondine develops a soul and is transformed from sprite to woman, opening her heart to the joy and pain of human emotion. Nevertheless, in time Brand grows fearful of the alien and otherworldly creature he has married and finds himself again drawn to Beatrice.  However, he knows that should he break the bond between mortal and water sprite, nature decrees that a watery grave will seek him out.”

Daniel told us how Ondine was inspired by the same folk tale that inspired The Little Mermaid. There is a similarity between the two, in the way they deal with the human obsession with and fear of the sea.

We watched three different scenes being rehearsed: a dream sequence with Brand and Ondine, some wedding dances, and the final scene which I won’t spoil for you. They were all really different: as Daniel explained to us beforehand, Ondine boasts a wide variety of both classical and more contemporary dances, so it’s very challenging for the dancers. The difference between the two styles was apparent even to my extremely untrained eye – they’re both executed with immense skill and grace, though. The dancers are just absolutely beautiful people, every single one of them, with incredible chemistry, and the atmosphere once they started moving was electric. I couldn’t help but think forward to how much more intense it would be on a stage with the lighting and costumes and everything. At the same time, though, I loved the way this was treated as a normal rehearsal, so if something wasn’t right, the dancers were stopped and made to do it again. It was fascinating to watch this process and learn more about how everything comes together backstage to make the spectacular shows that the audience sees.

The hour of rehearsal absolutely flew by, and left me wanting more! Luckily I was able to have a quick chat with Daniel before I left, to ask him a couple more questions. We talked about the try before you buy scheme, which he was really pleased with, but what I really wanted to know was, why should new audiences, previously uninterested in ballet, come to see Ondine? “It’s a true British classic”, Daniel says. “The choreography is incredibly rich, it’s musically rich and it has a very strong narrative. The characters really come alive.” He also adds that the story really plays to that mythological relationship between humans and other worlds. I also ask him what stories within popular culture bear a similarity to Ondine. After a brief mention of the Colin Farrell film version of the story,  Daniel describes Ondine as a “more tragic, more sensual” version of The Little Mermaid. This seems about right to me, although the story also brings to mind Romeo and Juliet – except they’ve both survived, the novelty has worn off for Romeo and he starts remembering that Rosaline chick a lot more fondly.

I can’t wait to go see this production for real – the costumes, the set and the lighting are all bound to be fabulous and I can never resist a trip to the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the best of times. Ondine runs from the 8th to the 15th September, and you can get tickets here. Also see Northern Ballet’s gorgeous publicity photos here.

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Opera North: It Takes Two

I’ve been thinking about attending my first opera for a while now, but the cost, combined with my uncertainty that I’d enjoy a full two hours of a story that I possibly wouldn’t be able to follow or understand, put me off a bit. When Opera North tweeted about their free summer event It Takes Two: Opera’s Greatest Duets, I leapt at the chance to sample a little opera without breaking the bank – which is remarkably easily done, this close to the end of the month!

The Howard Assembly Room was set out beautifully; a simple space in the centre of the room held a piano and a white armchair, and was surrounded by rows of eclectic wooden chairs and benches for the audience. We were all handed programmes on the way in, listing the ten duets that would be performed, with a few details about the operas that they come from. There were also voiceovers or introductions before each song, giving some background about the storyline, and what the song was about. Obviously in the low key setting, there were no subtitles, but as each performance was just four or five minutes long, so the background explanation was enough to keep me engaged.

The whole experience was fantastic: the four performers acted as well as they sang, and dashes of humour had the audience laughing out loud several times. There was a great variety of duets, trios and quartets, sung in English, French and Italian. The Flower Duet from Lakme was a real highlight as one of the few female only performances, and the Quartet of the Defeated from Paul Bunyan was incredibly atmospheric. The pianist was jaw droppingly good – his fingers flew across the keys in a total blur. In a smiling nod to the perceived inaccessibility of opera, the last number saw three of the singers each holding up a sign to convey the essence of what they were singing; one read simply, “Well, that couldn’t have gone worse.”

If you think you’d like to try a taster opera session, then I can’t recommend Opera North’s events enough. Keep an eye out on their events page for details of upcoming performances. If you’re expecting 300-pound singers and people dressed in ballgowns, think again!

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Call Lane Social: Tiki Hideaway

You can’t really miss Call Lane Social: it’s the newest addition to the Call Lanebar scene and its name is literally in lights. Bright red lights. Thanks to The Culture Vulture, aka the best blog in the North, a few bloggers were invited down there recently (ish, my blogging hasn’t been especially timely of late) for a mysteriously titled ‘mixology event’ where we would check out the bar and have a go at mixing our own cocktails.

On arrival, after a quick catch up with a few awesome blogger folk, I got chance to check out my surroundings. The space was dark, the walls exposed brick, the seating and bar sleek and black. So far, so trendy Call Lane. The last thing I expected was what happened next, which was that we were whisked upstairs, up a narrow, dark staircase, and into a completely different world. The bamboo walls, the pufferfish lightbulbs, the treasure map of themed cocktails: it was like being transported to a beach bar in Hawaii.

After a few minutes to explore, we took our seats at the bar and began our cocktail lesson, led by Andy, the talented and incredibly knowledgeable barman, pictured below. We started off with one of their best sellers, the Amputated Zombie (so named because just two or three of them will reduce you to a similar state), and as one of the first ‘volunteers’ I took my place behind the bar, surrounded by fragile looking bottles and fruit displays, to shake, layer and pour my masterpiece.

A rather blurry picture of Andy, mixologist extraordinaire

Under Andy’s expert instruction, I combined no less than three increasingly potent varieties of rum with a blend of tropical fruit juices, ice, and the garnishes of my choice. The enormous, chunky Aztec style glasses are a nice touch; they add to the ambience whilst making sure you get great value for money. The final flair, though, was a slice of lime, topped with a rum soaked sugar cube. Suddenly, Andy produced, as if from nowhere, a vicious little blowtorch, and ignited the sugar cube. It was obviously a little more flammable than I expected, as instead of the gentle glow I anticipated, a billowing flame shot up, threatening to melt my straw.

Voila!

After the flames had subsided, I got to work tasting my work of art. The blend of sweet fruit juices was the perfect counterpoint to the spicy heat of the rum; the drink was obviously strong, but it tasted sweet, fruity and spicy, with just a kick of alcohol at the end.

I watched a few other people make their Amputated Zombies, but unfortunately I had to leave shortly after this to attend a birthday dinner. It was the perfect start to my evening out, even if I did feel a little deflated stepping out on to the grey, drizzly Call Lane after such an exotic experience.

Call Lane Social’s Tiki Hideaway is open from 9pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and if you fancy holding a private function there, you can book it up until 9pm on those nights.

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Carousel at Opera North: The Sitzprobe

If the brightly coloured, ethereal posters around town haven’t alerted you to the fact, Opera North are right in the middle of a two week run of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical voted as the best of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A week or so before the opening night, I was lucky to be able to attend the sitzprobe, a seated rehearsal which is the first time that the orchestra and the singers rehearse together. This particular one was held in the Howard Assembly Room, which many of you will know as a remarkably versatile venue, and which turned out to be a beautiful space in which to enjoy this experience.

As we waited to go into the Howard Assembly Room, the musical director, Tim, spoke to us a little bit about where the cast and crew were at in the rehearsal process, what the sitzprobe would involve and why the show was going to be so good. It was all incredibly interesting, but one moment stood out for me. A blogger asked why someone who wasn’t interested in musical theatre at all, and would rather watch X Factor on a Saturday night, would be interested in going to see a musical by an Opera company. Tim described that moment that people get when watching X Factor, when someone opens their mouth and starts singing, and it’s so beautiful that your hair just stands on end, and goosebumps blossom on your arms. He explained that this would be like that, only better. About a thousand times better, I added in my head, because these are extensively trained, incredibly talented singers that have honed their craft professionally for years.

We filed into the Howard Assembly Room and took our seats down one side of the balcony to watch the set up. At the end, in the gallery, sat the chorus, and opposite us were the main cast members. Below us, the main room was teeming with people, setting up double basses taller than me, lugging in drums that took two people to carry and arranging more chairs than I imagined could ever be necessary. Disappointingly, there was no triangle player – the keyboard player had to multitask. The trills and scales as the players tuned their instruments and warmed them up were divine – I had to just take a quiet moment to soak it in and bask in the presence of all that sheer talent.

Soon it was time to get started and the orchestra launched into their opening number, the instrumental Carousel Waltz. The sound of a whole orchestra filling the room was incredible, and I felt absolutely privileged to be in the room for this experience. They played the piece straight through, and I felt transported away from the rainy Leeds day and straight to a 19th century fairground in a seaside town in Maine. It was absolutely beautiful, and couldn’t be improved upon in any way. Or, so I thought – turns out the conductor had other ideas. He barked a few instructions to the flautists, and painstakingly went through the whole piece again, stopping regularly to discard a pianissimo or throw in a mezzo forte. I had thought the piece was impeccable before, but it just got better and better as we listened, and I left with a brand new appreciation for the work and the vision that goes in to productions like this.

Next, we moved on to one of the big numbers, June is Bustin’ Out All Over. This was the first time we heard the singers at work, and it was worth the wait. The chorus, a group of about fifty people populating the gallery, suddenly stood and started singing, and it was just a wall of exquisite sound that blew me away. The individual cast members were just as impressive, with voices that effortlessly spanned the octaves and produced notes that thrilled when they could just as easily have chilled.

At this point we were summoned; 3.30 had arrived and it was time to leave. As we left I felt resentful that we’d been dragged out after just two songs, but actually tit was perfect – I was left desperately wanting more.

Carousel is running at Leeds Grand Theatre until 19th May. Tickets are available here.

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We Are Poets at Leeds Town Hall

As many of you will know, the Leeds Young Person’s Film Festival has just begun we’re now well in the throes of the 13th Leeds Young Person’s Festival the 13th Leeds Young People’s Film Festival is now almost over (it took me a while to get round to writing this, okay?). It’s just one more of the many exciting events that our fair city bestows upon us each year. I’m a bit tardy in blogging this, but last Friday I went along to one of their first events, We Are Poets. It involved the screening of a documentary, hosted by the fabulous Benjamin Zephaniah, supporter of the documentary and poet extraordinaire, and followed by a Q&A session with some of the people covered in the documentary.

The film is about a group of teenagers who belong to Leeds Young Authors, a performance poetry group in Chapeltown. A group of these teenagers were chosen to go to Washington DC to compete in Brave New Voices, the world’s most prestigious slam poetry competition.

Benjamin Zephaniah gave some short opening remarks before the film which were beautiful, and which prepared us for the experience perfectly. I loved some of the things he said, and I desperately wish I knew shorthand so I could have got them down more accurately. Among other things he told us how great he thought it was not that these kids were getting familiar with the great poets of the past, but that they were learning to write their own poetry. And not just for the sake of it, not just for something to do on a Tuesday night, but because these teenagers have something deep and something important to say.

He said that despite today’s children being the Twitter generation, young people’s voices are not being heard. But no matter what technology is developed, no-one can stop us from returning to the first art form, the spoken word. This is so true and I hope it’s something that the young people ofLeedswill remember: that they do have important things to say, and no-one can ever stop them from saying them. This linked really nice with a scene in the documentary with another respected performance poet, Saul Williams. He reminded the young poets that although people will try to label their art as street poetry or slam poetry, what they are doing is poetry, pure and simple. They are performing their poems in front of people, just as the ancient poets did before the advent of literacy, and they shouldn’t feel that they are anything less than poets.

Zephaniah’s final words reminded us that the film itself was as much an art form as the poetry, and it was true that as we watched, it was obvious how much had gone into telling a beautiful, inspirational story. Not only did the film get across the incredible talent that each teenager has, it shows us each of their personalities, their political opinions, and most of all their journey as they go from writing poets with their mates in a conference room in Chapeltown to performing at Brave New Voices to standing on a stage in front of the White House.

I was pretty much blinking back tears the whole time I was watching this. Not only was the story of the Leeds Young Authors incredibly inspirational and moving, but there were gorgeous dashes of poignant humour, and a distinctly humbling reminder that our city is packed with wonderful people who give constantly of their time and talents to help our young people. As we watched the poets struggle with obstacles such as fund raising, nerves and censorship, there were always figures in the background urging them on; not telling them what to do, but telling them that whatever they chose to do, they would be supported.

As we flocked out of the cinema, there were collection buckets for donations to help this year’s team raise enough money to compete at Brave New Voices. I put everything I had in my purse in that bucket, and was thrilled to see £5, £10 and £20 notes being thrown in left right and centre. Leeds Young Authors, as far as I’m concerned, deserves every penny anyone throws at it. Arts and creativity may not matter to our government, but so many of us have seen the good things they can do within a community.

I honestly can’t recommend this film enough. Keep an eye out on the website for future screenings, or alternatively you can pre-order the DVD on Amazon now.

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