Deloitte Ignite 14 – Myth comes to the Royal Opera House

Over the weekend the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden launched its annual contemporary arts festival Deloitte Ignite, now in its seventh year, with a series of free public events. The month-long festival (5th-28th September 2014) brings together dance and the visual arts, leading to a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery’s Minna Moore Ede. For Deloitte Ignite 14, Ede uses her specialism in Renaissance art to explore the topic of Myth, its origins and various aspects of creation. Two years ago she was one of the minds behind the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 collaboration which resulted in an exhibition of Titian paintings, contemporary responses to those works, and a contemporary production at the Royal Opera House.

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Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan. Image via www.vam.ac.uk.

I attended the events on Sunday and was pleasantly welcomed by a mass-participatory yoga session led by Ross Rayburn in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. While this was happening, the Linbury Studio Theatre was screening extracts of Anna Pavlova’s soloes and performances, including a rare recording of her voice as she attempts to feed the swans. Pavlova was a Russian ballerina in the late-19th to early-20th centuries, usually synonymous with the image of a swan due to her role in creating The Dying Swan in 1905, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. Her legacy led her to become known as the Immortal Swan. This brings us to the first of two myths explored in the festival: Leda and the Swan.

Hanging along the sides of the Paul Hamlyn Hall were scaled-up reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings for their lost Leda and the Swan paintings, represented in the display by Cesare da Sesto and Peter Paul Rubens’ faithful copies. There was even a reproduction of an etching by Cornelis Bos of Michelangelo’s painting. Minna Moore Ede gave a truly insightful talk on these two iconic Renaissance paintings, exploring the myth and Zeus’ seduction of Leda, their histories and compositions, even the glimmer of a half-shut eye in Michelangelo’s head study of Leda.

Leda and the Swan paintings and sketches

Leonardo and Michelangelo grace the Paul Hamlyn Hall.

With Leonardo, I was drawn to notice Leda’s gaze towards her two sets of newly-born twins, highlighting the origins and creation of human life. Ede also told us about a curious annotation on Leonardo’s well-known drawing of a foetus in a womb which reads: “all about [the] Leda myth”. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Leonardo painted his Leda and the Swan at around the same time when he was exploring the female reproductive system and the anatomy of the human body.

Along the escalators was a sound installation by sound recordist Chris Watson which changes as the listener proceeds up and down the venue. At the foot of the escalator, the installation presents us with recordings of swans supposedly gathering around a lake, calling out to each other in a chorus of sounds. As one progresses up the escalator, the swans follow us (or we follow them) in flight.

Back in the Linbury Studio Theatre, two films inspired by the sensual myth were being screened. The first was Kim Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan, a two-part film offering different accounts of the encounter between the principle figures. Basing the concept around two poems by W.B. Yeats – Leda and the Swan and The Mother of God – the film explores “the shady territory between power and submission, active and passive, masculine and feminine.”

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Part one of Kim Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan.

In the first part, the swan (Tommy Franzen) seduces the helpless Leda (Zenaida Yanowsky) in an erotic dance which ends with her being lifted up by the former, her arms outstretched as if hovering – one might even read this as the moment of climax. In the second part, the roles are reversed. The swan is shown sleeping on a stone slab, stirring for a moment as Leda blows into his ears. The rest of the scene progresses with Leda in a dominant role, directing the half-asleep swan and resulting in him hovering above her, arms also outstretched, before slowly descending into an embrace and a fade out. Or have the dancers literally switched roles, with Franzen now as the helpless Leda, and Yanowsky as the overpowering swan?

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Part two of Kim Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan.

It is tempting to view this piece as a single, continuous event: the swan’s seduction of Leda, Leda’s climax, Leda’s guilt (expressed in the first 30 seconds of the second-half), and finally the swan’s revealing of himself as Zeus. This was certainly my interpretation of it for my first viewing, but I think the film’s multiplicity – as a narrative or a mere dance – makes it incredibly appealing and certainly adds to the tension of the myth itself.

The next film was Charlotte Edmonds’ The Indifferent Beak which uses nature as its primary source of inspiration. Edmonds wanted to have a scenic approach to her film, setting part of the choreography in a field and against a lake. The other part is on a dimly-lit stage. The impression I had as a viewer was one of competitive energy, almost like a dance-off. There is a pulsing dialogue between the dancers Claire Calvert and Eric Underwood, each no less dominant than the other. The dance is incredibly passionate, almost like a tango, and their individual displays of power are undeniable, each holding his/her own ground. The tension between them is further enhanced by the rhythmic ostinatos of the cellos. The dance is graceful, yet dramatic, and it really puts the narrative of the myth into perspective as a battle of emotions. After all, the scene itself was a rape.

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Film still from Charlotte Edmond’s The Indifferent Beak. Image via www.roh.org.uk.

The return to the realism of the act is shown in the work of Tom Hunter, a photographic artist from Hackney, East London, who exclusively uses film. In a conversation with the National Gallery’s Colin Wiggins, his image Up Before the Beak (2003) is a direct confrontation between an angry swan blocking the way across a bridge and one of his female friends, depicted lying on the ground with the former on top. It doesn’t take too long to recall the composition of Rubens’ Leda and the Swan (after 1530) after Michelangelo.

Michelangelo and Tom Hunter

Left to right: After Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530; Tom Hunter, Up Before the Beak, 2003. Images via www.wikipedia.org and www.tomhunter.org.

References to classical works of art is a theme that runs through much of Hunter’s oeuvre. In his series Persons Unknown (1997) he takes inspiration from Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, setting out “to give status and dignity” to the residents on his street when they were facing eviction. In 2005 he exhibited his series Living in Hell and Other Stories (2005) at the National Gallery. They also have in their collection Murder: Two Men Wanted (2003) from the same series which references Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph (1495). A little more recently in 2012, Hunter’s Death of Coltelli (2009) was exhibited in their Seduced by Art exhibition to highlight its link with Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827) from the Musée du Louvre.

Our second myth is also present in Hunter’s photographs in the form of fire. I can only be referring to Prometheus, the Titan who famously tricked Zeus and stole fire from heaven to give to humanity. Fire is present in works such as The Vale of Rest (2000) and The Outlaw (2001). In the latter, some of his friends are depicted in the foreground while their truck is engulfed in actual fire below the arch of a bridge, reflecting the real event that they encountered as well as Hunter’s fascination for architecture.

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Tom Hunter, The Outlaw, 2001. Image via www.tomhunter.org.

On the Grand Staircase were Mat Collishaw’s images of burning flowers, entitled The Poisoned Page (2013) and Effigy (2013), which present the beauty of nature as it is engulfed in non-consuming fire, contrasting against fire’s destructive power. In the Crush Room nearby, Bill Viola’s Fire Martyr (2014) shows a brave individual undeterred by the flames that literally rain from above like the Holy Spirit during Pentecost in the New Testament. Derived from his four-panel installation Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St. Paul’s Cathedral, this single panel shows fire as a symbolic image of faith.

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Bill Viola, Fire Martyr, 2014.

Prometheus was also known for creating the first humans from clay. Masculine creativity is thus reflected in a new production by the exclusively-male BalletBoyz called theTALENT. The rehearsals for this production were open to the public as part of the Deloitte Ignite events, meaning I was finally able to see the Clore Studio for myself instead of through the lens of a camera. Choreographed by Royal Ballet Soloist Kristen McNally, there was a very intense mix of testosterone and dominance with something far more maternal, romantic and moving. Seeing these open rehearsals were a genuine treat and audience members came out feeling very impressed. It is sure to be a powerful performance when it is performed in the Linbury Studio Theatre on 16th-27th September.

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The BalletBoyz in rehearsal with Kristen McNally in the Clore Studio.

As the evening approached, most people were gathering in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. A poetry performance had just been delivered by Sabrina Mahfouz, a Sky Academy Arts Scholar for poetry. Soon the screen was showing Anna Pavlova’s performance of The Dying Swan, before we were presented with Calvin Richardson’s interpretation of it onstage, performed by dancer Matthew Ball.

To properly kick-start the evening, a live screening of Sampling the Myth was being broadcasted from the Linbury Studio Theatre to the Paul Hamlyn Hall. This was a mixture of films and live performances revolving around the concept of myth. Some ticket-holding members of the congregation had already made their way there to watch the performances live.

Exoticism kick-started the screening with a pas de deux (dance duet) from Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Yasmine Nagdhi’s impersonation of the coy Firebird made for a delightful and funny duet with Johannes Stepanek who played Ivan Tsarevitch. The costumes certainly made an impact with their vibrancy.

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Film-still from Robert Binet’s White Rush. Image via www.robertbinet.net.

Robert Binet’s film White Rush examined the relationship between the four adult children of Leda, played by dancers of the National Ballet of Canada. It began with a co-dependent dynamic between the children, as if looking to each other as role models to survive in the natural world. Actions were mimicked and moral support manifested in dance. Eventually, there was a greater emphasis on solo performances, exploring individuality and independent growth. It was a deeply powerful piece of visual performance.

An exploration of Leda and the Swan would not be complete without a pas de deux from Act II of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Using a male-only ensemble, Bourne’s concept makes for an unusual, but no less moving, take on the traditional female ballet. This paired well with Edmonds’ The Indifferent Beak which was screened immediately after.

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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Image via www.new-adventures.net.

Before the interval, a performance of Miguel Altunaga’s Dark Eye brought us to a different set of myths, those of the Fates. Almost exclusively fixed at the number three, these incarnations of destiny have taken on many names throughout human history: the Moirai in Greek mythology, the Parcae in Roman mythology, the Norns in Germanic paganism, and most famously the Three Witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Altunaga’s piece presents them as the archetypal creatures we have been accustomed to: sinister, delusional, uncanny, crooked, and certainly not of this world. The choreography is ritualistic and dramatic, yet dissonant at times, backed by a tribal-sounding arrangement of a viola, cello and percussion. There are moments of solo intervention but their roles as a coordinated unit in the lives of mortals quickly suppresses their individuality.

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Miguel Altunaga’s Dark Eye. Image via www.dancetabs.com.

Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan opened the second-half of Sampling the Myth with a tense and intimate dynamic, later reinforced by a pas de deux from Act III of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Ondine. Palemon’s death (Nicol Edmonds) caused by a kiss from the water sprite Ondine (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) became a gateway to Melissa Hamilton’s solo performance of The Dying Swan. It was graceful, serene and light, characteristics of a swan’s movements. But it also exploited the experience of dying – the shortness of breath, the lack of strength – all intricately reflected in Hamilton’s stuttered movements near the end.

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Melissa Hamilton in The Dying Swan. Image via www.johnrossballetgallery.co.uk.

To continue the theme of birds, Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl was created in collaboration with Audrey Niffenegger, the author of The Time Traveller’s Wife. A selection of Niffenegger’s illustrations for the production form an exhibition in the Amphitheatre Gallery alongside photographs of the production itself. Sadly, the iconic wings worn by Sarah Lamb were not present during the pas de deux performed for us that night. It was an incredibly sensitive performance, down to the gentlest touch of her foot on the stage. Supported by the Raven Prince (Eric Underwood), the dance was a spectacular display of lifts, en pointe techniques, and highly envious stretches, resulting in a wonderfully romantic dance that left me wanting more.

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Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in Raven Girl. Image via www.dancetabs.com.

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Audrey Niffenegger’s illustrations for Raven Girl. Image via www.roh.org.uk.

Male creativity comes forth once more in George Balanchine’s Apollo, which shows the birth of the lute-bearing god and his education by the Muses. The performance was an interesting one, juggling between an egotistic appraisal of the musical instrument and a comedic representation of the young god (Rupert Pennefather) with much to learn. There were many times when the lute was placed in just the right area to be able to interpret it as euphemistic.

Finally, the evening ended with a visual display of Chris Ofili’s body-painted costumes in Aakash Odedra’s Unearthed. The performance’s underlying narrative appears to be based on the Prometheus myth. There is the hammering of clay, the emergence of a new being, and even a scene of punishment towards the creator. Surrounding the principal figures were a group of vibrant dancers performing ritualistic acts. The atmosphere is one of coordinated tribalism and it really takes one back to the days of primitivism. Just as exciting as the first person to create fire, so was the creation of life. But everyone knows one should never test the wrath of the gods and Prometheus certainly paid the price – the constant plucking of his liver was embodied in a dramatic act of elbow-bashing from all directions, as if he were a giant bell in the tower of a monastery.

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Aakash Odedra’s Unearthed with Chris Ofili’s body-painted costumes.

I found Deloitte Ignite 14 an entertaining and immersive experience. By exploring these two myths from multiple viewpoints and approaches, we were addressing real-life issues as well as their romanticised representation in various art forms. By combining dance with the visual arts, this festival seeks to create new modes of expression and it succeeds in its attempts. Two years ago, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 brought contemporary dance to the main amphitheatre stage and it was enlightening, especially for someone like me seeing live ballet and opera for the first time. This year there was a return to more traditional dancing styles but from differing approaches. It’s fantastic that the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery are producing these kind of events and productions, breaking away from traditional, rigid structures and taking a step into contemporary arts. A truly wonderful concept and I hope it will continue to flourish and inspire future creative.

Deloitte Ignite 14 runs until 28th September 2014 at the Royal Opera House, London, www.roh.org.uk.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Carolyn says:

    Very nice review!

    “but I think the film’s multiplicity – as a narrative or a mere dance – makes it incredibly appealing and certainly adds to the tension of the myth itself.” – Absolutely.

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