Chi-chi talks about Chineke!


Fascinating chat with the one-woman dynamo Chi-chi Nwanoku, double bassist, broadcaster and mover and shaker, about the new orchestra she has formed. Chineke! is Europe's first symphony orchestra made up entirely of black and minority ethnic players, devised to showcase and support the talent of these underrepresented musicians.

With a ringing endorsement from Sir Simon Rattle, and with Wayne Marshall on the podium, the orchestra hits the Southbank for its first concert on 13 September, opening the concert with the Ballade by the wonderful Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It also features the Elegy: In Memoriam - Stephen Lawrence by Philip Herbert, and concludes with the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn and Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

I went round to see Chi-chi (and her lovely cat) the other week and the article is in the Independent today. Read it here. Tickets for 13 September are going fast, so book soon.
Posted in Classical Pit

Orphée et Eurydice: grief and catharsis at the ROH

(This was originally for the Independent's Observations section the other day.)


The new season at the Royal Opera House opens with a collaborative effort unusual enough to seem a tad startling. Orphée et Eurydice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is an 18th-century classic of the first order, mingling singing, dance and orchestral interludes in the service of a timeless Greek myth. To realise it, the theatre is opening its doors to the Israeli-born, London-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and his company of 22 dancers; and also to the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra and chorus, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. The celebrated Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the title role, the British soprano Lucy Crowe is his Eurydice, and the production is co-directed by John Fulljames and Shechter.

It is Shechter’s first venture into opera – and he is on board because he simply fell in love with the Gluck. “I was offered work in opera before and refused,” he says. “I have to feel I’m connecting with the music when I make dance for it and when I heard this I felt there was something about the simplicity of it that seemed to lend itself to dance. Often operatic music can feel very busy, or doesn’t leave enough space for the imagination. Something about Orphée, though, is pure, spacious and open. I really love it and I was very curious about how my style of movement would fit with it and how it would bring other qualities and feelings into my material.”

This collaboration is a new departure for John Fulljames, too: “I have no choreographic training, and this is Hofesh’s first experience in opera, so I think there’s a good complementarity there,” he remarks. “One of the most important things about Hofesh is that he’s not only a choreographer; he’s a musician. He’s unique amongst choreographers at his level in that he not only makes his own choreography, but usually he also writes his own music – so it’s been fascinating for him to work with existing music and to respond to it in detail.”

When Orphée’s beloved Eurydice dies, the demigod travels beyond the grave to try to bring her back, aided by the power of his music. The story, suggests Fulljames, is at heart all about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

“I love this opera’s directness,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily undecorated. So much opera risks being sentimental or melodramatic – but this is the opposite. Gluck strips back everything in order to get to an emotional truth: he’s interested in exploring grief and the relationship of love to loss. You really understand love when you understand loss. I think the piece is an extraordinary study of the grieving process, going through stages of anger and betrayal and eventually reaching a point of acceptance about loss. Its consequence is coming to a much greater understanding of love.”

With all this to relish, the joy of hearing Flórez sing the aria immortalised by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier in translation as “I have lost my Eurydice” can only be a bonus. 
Posted in Classical Pit

1984: a love story

The other day I was talking to Northern Ballet's lead dancer Toby Batley about his new role as Winston in Jonathan Watkins's new ballet adaptation of 1984 and what shocked me was that he said people had kept asking him in anxiety if it wasn't going to be all dark and depressing.

1984? Of course it's bloody dark, I thought, and why ever not? What's wrong with dancing the dark? How has ballet reached a point at which if it's not all tutus and glitter and fairy-tales, people are anxious?

Anyway, dancer, choreographer and composer all told me that actually it's not too dark for ballet. It's a love story. A dark love story. So is Romeo and Juliet.

I've written a feature for The Independent on the new piece and it's in today's edition.

1984 opens in Leeds next week. See it!



If you go to a ballet that tells a story, chances are that you will see a fairy tale, a pastoral idyll, or one of an apparently endless stream of different Alice in Wonderlands. Dance does offer meatier dramas – Romeo and Juliet, Manon or Mayerling, for instance – but there is undoubtedly room for more, and especially for work that tackles gritty contemporary classics. 

At Northern Ballet a quiet revolution has been taking place in the past decade or so as the company – now 45 years old – has created a fount of new narrative works, most choreographed by its artistic director, David Nixon. Among these are Wuthering Heights, Cleopatra and The Great Gatsby. But next comes a very different production: a new adaptation by the choreographer Jonathan Watkins of George Orwell’s novel 1984

Tobias Batley as Winston. Photo: Guy Farrow
It portrays, famously, a dystopian society dominated by Big Brother’s surveillance, subjugating the individual mind and experiential truths to Party lines perforce. The hero, Winston, enters into a rapturous love affair with his co-worker Julia, only to find himself trapped for betraying the system; under torture his will is broken. Though the book’s concepts are household names – thought crime, Big Brother, Room 101 – it might seem a tough story to express in movement alone; and more disturbing is the idea that some might consider it too dark for dance. Has the medium been primarily associated with escapism for too long?

Tobias Batley, who dances Winston, partnering Martha Leebolt as Julia, insists that 1984 is not all gloom. “Many people have voiced their worry that it’ll be a dark and depressing ballet,” he reflects, “but it depends what you take away from it. We’re focusing strongly on the central love story. When I read the book for the first time, years ago, that was the most important part for me. 

“There’s something incredible about this secret love between Winston and Julia,” he adds, “but it has so much power behind it because it’s uplifted by the contrast with all the darkness outside. Of course it ends tragically – but Romeo and Juliet is also terrible at the end. The saddest thing is that Winston and Julia are at the absolute height of this love, feeling it’s perfect and they’re safe, and then the floor just drops out from under them. It’s heart-wrenching when you realise that they have been watched all along. It’s a very touching role to play.”

Watkins himself first told Batley about 1984 when they were both teenagers at the Royal Ballet School: for this young Barnsley-born choreographer, the novel has been a long-standing obsession. “I wasn’t a great reader when I was young,” Watkins says, “but I was somehow drawn to this book and I remember reading it on the train on my way back from Yorkshire to White Lodge [the Royal Ballet’s junior school in Richmond Park] of my own accord. It inspired my earlier work in a wider sense. This idea of realising it in a narrative ballet has been bubbling away and I knew I was going to be doing it sometime.” 

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia. Photo: Guy Farrow
Then came the perfect opportunity: an approach from Northern Ballet, which encountered Watkins’s dance version of Kes (based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave) when it was staged last year at the Sheffield Crucible. “I thought 1984 would be a really good fit for them because of their dancer-actor capabilities,” says Watkins. “They’re an amazing group of artists and they’re very committed to it.” For the company’s 45th birthday gala earlier this year, he also created “a much more light-hearted piece, based on some Stanley Holloway monologues – a really quirky celebration of the north.”

“I feel that narrative dance can appeal in a much more reflective, modern way, with resonance for the times in which we’re living,” Watkins says. “That’s why I wanted to use 1984. And in the book there is that mass control of groups of people by the Party, that military uniformity of a group – what better way to show that than in dance? For me there’s lots of scope in that balletic platform.” The single most difficult thing, he remarks, was deciding which elements of the book to leave out.

“It’s nowhere near ‘too dark’,” he comments. “I don’t understand why we can’t approach a ballet like a newly written play. Why can’t it be relevant to our times now? It’s great to have escapism, but it’s also great to see something that we can reflect on. As for the times we’re living in, everyone knows there’s surveillance up to the hilt, so it feels like the concepts it touches on already can relate to your life now. That makes sense to me as an artist and a creative, regardless of whether it’s dark. Life is dark.”

Watkins began his career with the Royal Ballet in London, but left two years ago for freelance pastures new. His work draws on a cocktail of influences, mingling his first-rate ballet training with the impact of film and theatre. On his website you can watch several short dance films that he made a few years ago for Channel 4, bringing the language of ballet right into the here and now. One, entitled Sofa, portrays a dance epiphany for a beer-bellied bloke during a solitary night in; another visualises the interior world of a young man listening to music while waiting for a bus. His Kes (“Everyone in Barnsley knows the Ken Loach film,” he remarks) made a powerful impact, not least for the sheer audacity of the idea. 

Through his passion for spoken drama Watkins got to know the composer Alex Baranowski, who was working on a range of productions at the National Theatre, as well as writing music for films such as Hamlet, starring Maxine Peak, and the BAFTA-nominated McCullin. The pair have collaborated on several projects, including Sofa amd Kes; for 1984 Baranowski has created a new 100-minute score. 

He and Watkins worked intensively together on the scenario, he says, batting musical and dance ideas back and forth by email and in coffee shops for a good year. “Musically we were very conscious of not being big and down and dark, especially with the cells before Room 101,” says Baranowski. “There’s a relatively long scene with the prisoners who’ve been accused of thought crimes and so on, whom Winston meets. We chose to be quite minimalist, using textures of sounds and noises – rather than, for instance, relentless minor chords and big drums. We rewrote each scene about three times, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. Sometimes Jonathan would send me a video of the movements he was working on and it’s amazing to find that when I’ve put in a little beat or a drum or a clarinet flourish, he’ll work that into the movements. It’s wonderful to work with a live orchestra and I’m using it for all it’s worth, with all its different noises and textures.” 

And so a new generation of choreographers and composers like Watkins and Baranowski may now reinvent narrative dance for the 21st century, unafraid to engage with the grittiest and darkest of dramas. Bring it on.



1984 opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 5 September, then tours. For full details and booking, visit http://northernballet.com/?q=whats-on
Posted in Classical Pit