London has happy feet with stellar dance productions & exhibits
London's irresistible. True, the rain can seem endless this time of year. But umbrellas are plentiful in England, and there's nothing like the intensity of a crowded metropolis with a sharp, serious, centuries-old dedication to art.
Some while back, I spent a year in Brighton, just a short 50-minute ride from London. That year I couldn't get enough of the theater. I hopped the train as often as possible to see just about anything that was playing in the West End: William Shakespeare and Noel Coward, Beautiful Thing and Broken Glass.
I was a student then, so the tickets were embarrassingly cheap. Sometimes the view was obstructed, I admit, but the theaters themselves were fantastically ornate and you could always get ice cream at intermission. Did I mention the plays? It's hard to complain about paying $15 to spend several hours a few feet from Vanessa Redgrave playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra.
On a recent trip, the shows I saw at the Barbican and the National Theatre were expensive and rather disappointing, though the venues are extraordinary and often feature notable productions. But the real discovery for me was that London dances.
Sure, aficionados of ballet have known this for some time, but my time at the Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells, and at a couple extraordinary dance-focused gallery shows leave me calculating exchange rates to see when I can get back.
Ballet may have emerged at the Italian Renaissance courts and matured in France and Russia, but when Ninette de Valois left the Ballets Russes and founded the Royal Ballet in 1931 she put London on the map. It's hard to describe the magic of seeing ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
This wasn't my first time at the ballet. Last winter brought me visions of the most perfect Sleeping Beauty with the great Marianela Núñez as an ideal Aurora. This time I was treated to a riveting production of Frederick Ashton's Sylvia. It's an odd, mythological work based on Torquato Tasso's pastoral drama Aminta and therefore chock full of gods, goddesses, nymphs, a moving statue, an orientalist villain, and the best dancing goats you'll ever see on stage. Once the movement starts, you forget all about the absurdities of plot.
It's heartening to see the legacy of Ashton and the Royal Ballet alive in Bayou City. Houston Ballet framed its 40th anniversary season with startling performances of Ashton's masterpiece La Fille Mal Gardée and Manon, the work of Ashton's protégé Kenneth MacMillan. We can only hope they'll continue with the works fo Ashton and MacMillan and bring the work of Wayne McGregor, current resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet whose company, Random Dance, is based at Sadler's Wells.
The founding of the Royal Ballet was always tangled up with Sadler's Wells. Now one of the best venues in the world for contemporary choreography, Sadler's Wells hosted ballet and even opera. Indeed, Sadler's Wells hosted in 1945 the premiere of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, recently and magnificently performed by Houston Grand Opera.
It was as if Sadler's Wells was hosting a festival of contemporary Israeli choreography with astonishing works by Sadler's Wells associate choreographer Jasmin Vardimon and Emanuel Gat. Vardimon's 7734hits Sadler's Wells soon. I was fortunate to see this harrowing piece of dance theater at a small venue in Exeter. Gat's Winter Variations was a spare, strange evening-length work, a section of which I had seen in Boston at the Institute for Contemporary Art. You wouldn't believe what two men in ordinary clothes and an almost telepathic awareness of one another can accomplish on a bare stage.
After the CAMH's wonderful Dance on Camera exhibition here in Houston, I was hungry for more. I was in luck. Even the museums in London seemed to be crying out for dance.
I hadn't visited the marvelous Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for some years. Their everyday collection is overwhelming, especially their holdings in fashion. But their special exhibitions put even the Met in New York to shame. "Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929" runs through January 9, 2011, and offers the best crash course in the birth of modern ballet you could hope for.
The extensive array of costumes and correspondence of the Ballet Russes and the paintings and sketches of artistic partners like Picasso, Matisse, and Cocteau give a real sense of how Serge Diaghilev's often-bankrupt brain child set an example for artistic innovation and collaboration. An entire room of the exhibit features the original backdrop for Stravinsky's Firebird, a beautiful cityscape full of Russian turrets.
And while I'm not one for museum shop kitsch, I nearly followed the Ballets Russes into bankruptcy when I got to the gift shop. The exhibition catalogue is beautiful and informative, but you can also order images from the exhibits. Don't miss the V&A online shop for reproductions of Ballets Russes photographs and publicity posters. You can even search the V&A prints website collection for gifts for the art lovers in your life.
If you have any energy left after what seems like miles of fascinating material, head across the Thames to the Hayward Gallery, where through January 9, 2011, you can also catch the wonderfully interactive "Move: Choreographing You," with installations like William Forsythe's fascinating maze of gymnastic rings or Lygia Clark's playful "The House is the Body," which forces you to move through an often discomfiting and dark playground like space.
Often the best gifts aren't tangible. It's fun to hunt for the perfect fragrance or the perfect tie for someone you love, and the holidays are approaching fast. But the best gift is experience and nothing beats experience abroad. So skip the lines at the Galleria and book a trip to London. If you avoid certain holiday days — try traveling after Christmas and returning after New Year's — the fares are bearable. And with several direct flights daily from Continental and British Airways, you shouldn't have trouble finding a seat.
For dance lovers especially, London promises a break from the hackneyed procession of Nutcrackers that afflict American ballet this season. Most companies depend heavily on Nutcracker revenues, so their lack of imagination can be excused to some extent. But is this really the only holiday show designed with children in mind? Apparently not.
Sadler's Wells promises two treats — a Cinderella by Matthew Bourne, the choreographer famous for his all-male Swan Lake, and a balletic piece called The Snowman. This latter may be fluff, but you don't have to be a kid to stampede over to the Royal Ballet for the irresistible Tales of Beatrix Potter.
So if the drone of Christmas carols has "Let it snow" ringing in your head, go on and head to London. You'll be singing in the rain.