Thriller: Live – 2,000th performance

Last night, Steve and I went to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see Thriller: Live, which was celebrating the show’s 2000th West End performance.

It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.

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Strictly Come Dancing: Why the new trailer is so good

People who know me – and many who don’t – know that I’m a big Strictly fan. In the battle of the Saturday night TV voting shows, I’m far more likely to be watching Brucie than Dermot. When we started TV Today at The Stage, the weekly blogs were more to do with encouraging the celebration of dance, which at that time was under-served on television. The notion of celebrity involvement was tolerated rather than embraced, I’d say – but my summaries always tried to look dispassionately at how well the amateur dancers were learning (or not), as a direct response to blogs and message boards which cultivated fandoms around the famous participants.

After a few years, I had to give up the weekly summaries as they just took far too long to put together. But I’ve never stopped loving the show, have been lucky enough to be in the studio once or twice, and have seen many of the live stage shows which have capitalised on the BBC show’s popularity, whether drectly under the Strictly banner or by virtue of the programme’s pro dancers gaining their own celebrity status.

And that’s at the heart of the new teaser trailer’s genius. In previous years, we’ve been shown coy shots of the celebrities – whose head is that the back of? Whose ankle? Whose midriff, improbably squeezed into a sequinned bodice?

This time round, the trailer team have focussed on the dancers. The clever visuals, which render each dancer’s celebrity partner invisible, highlights that we don’t yet know the full roster of amateurs for this year’s series. But the emphasis is on dance – professional dance at that. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of talent. And yet, it’s still a celebrity-laden trail, because one of the strengths of Strictly is that it brings professional dancers into the spotlight and and makes them nationally recognised figures.

Compare that with the X Factor, whose pre-series publicity always tends to emphasise the bitchiness of the judges, the toe-curling awfulness of the preliminary audition rounds.

I know which one I’ll be watching this autumn.

Resolutions for 2013

I’ve had these in my head for a bit. But when New Year resolutions are silent and hidden, it’s easy to break them without having to hold yourself to account.

1. Blog more and take more pictures

Apart from my Doctor Who post about the Christmas Day special, I haven’t really blogged for ages. I should do something about that.

I’m not one for sharing my innermost thoughts, though. That style of blogging just doesn’t appeal to me. However, I do enjoy photography but haven’t done much recently – so hopefully I’ll be able to do some form of photoblogging when I can.

2. See more dance and classical music events

I tend to gravitate towards musical theatre and straight plays when I go out to the theatre – it’s where I feel most confident and informed as an audience member. Dance is one area where I’ve often felt at my most adrift. At times I’ve felt hopelessly out of place (a dance piece at the Barbican remains one of the few events I’ve left at the interval with disgust at its ineptitude) – but it’s also been the source of some of the most thrilling performances I’ve seen.

Similarly, I do enjoy going to the occasional classical music concert, but I can’t remember the last time I went to one. So I’m hoping to rectify that absence in 2013.

3. Support my local theatres

I have been writing several blog posts about trips to my local large regional venue, the Aylesbury Waterside – but I’m going to try and do more, and that’ll involve going to more of their shows and one-off nights.

It’s important to remember that Aylesbury also has a smaller theatre, the Limelight, as part of the Queen’s Park Arts Centre – and I’m going to keep an eye on what’s going on there, too.

4. Be more active

Having a job, and hobbies, which require long periods of sitting down mean that it’s more essential to find ways of being active when not working. I prefer long walks to running, and my long daily commute gets in the way of joining a gym. Neither of these are valid excuses for not doing more exercise, but instead will frame the ways in which I get out more.

5. Finish at least one creative writing project

I have a couple of short story ideas germinating, one of which could potentially expand into a much longer piece. And after being on the Blogger’s Choice panel for the Off Cut Festival over the last two years, I’m intrigued by the festival’s 15-minute stage format. I’d be interested to see if I can transfer my belief about what can work in that timeframe, and what is best avoided, into a practical piece.

So those are my resolutions. What are yours?

Napoletango, London Coliseum

Editor’s Rating

A show about a ragtag group of Italians who come together through their combined passion for the tango to create the ultimate dance troupe should be the basis, if not for a feel-good Hollywood movie, for a superb night of dancing and theatrics. Instead, it is the basis for Napoletango, a bizarrely eccentric show which only really features two tango routines in amongst its endless parade of ramshackle attempts at physical theatre.

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Napoletango, London Coliseum1Scott Matthewman2011-08-05 16:14:18A show about a ragtag group of Italians who come together through their combined passion for the tango to create the ultimate dance troupe should be t…

Shoes, Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre

You can probably tell the target audience for this music and dance show, a transfer from Sadler’s Wells’ Islington base, by the fact that front of house staff were handing out complimentary copies of Grazia magazine to any audience member that wanted one.

This is not a show for traditional lovers of dance. It is, however, accessible to people who can’t tell their Manolo Blahniks from their Jimmy Choos. That said, an interest in footwear will help sell some of the very weak jokes that Richard Thomas’s score extends into full three-minute songs.

A sequence of musical numbers each inspired by shoes, this is a hit-and-miss montage that will probably improve over the course of the run — we saw the first night of the Peacock transfer, which has an almost completely new cast and was also suffering from at least one of the principals being off sick.

There were some technical faults — most notably a UV routine which lacked any UV lighting, reducing the whole routine to a blacked out pointlessness — but the real problem is with the scrappiness of the whole thing. Some dances go one for far too long, comic interludes with a soloist coming on in comedy footwear tend to fall flat, and the street dance segments lack either precision or enthusiasm.

There are bright spots, though: several dance numbers lift the whole production. In particular, the second act segments looking at how Cinderella and Prince Charming fared after the glass slipper fit, and how a new bride becomes convinced her grandmother’s shoes are responsible for a family curse, lift the post-interval show tremendously. The sight of a troupe of dancers tap-dancing in platform shoes and of a very cute swimwear section also contribute to the more pleasurable aspects.

I’m sure Shoes will improve steadily as the run progresses (performances continue until April 3) but, for all the fun bits, it’s not a show I’d be willing to return to see.

The video below includes performances from the original Sadler’s Wells cast:

To the Ones I Love, Barbican

A couple of weeks ago, I went with a couple of friends to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Nearly Ninety. None of us enjoyed it: not so much because it was an emotionless experience, but also because the dancers were so sloppy. There was no confidence in their footwork, which made the whole experience feel more like an amateur group than one founded by one of America’s foremost choreographers.

It was so bad that, for the first time in years, we left the show at the interval. I had gone to try and expand the range of shows I go to, and open my mind to more dance. As a first experience of modern dance, it was a supremely unhelpful one. 

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to the Barbican last night for another dance work, this time by Belgian Thierry Smits’ company, Compagnie Thor. 

Thankfully, I was rewarded with an hour of exquisitely performed dance that showed me what the medium can be capable of. 

Nine dancers and a series of bench-like blocks populate a sparse white stage, which in turn takes on new hues as the lighting moves through the colour spectrum. There is no story at work, only the expression of emotion through movement. 

The audio accompaniment varies between a haunting soundscape and a selection of short pieces by J. S. Bach. As one might expect, the Bach pieces provoke sequences that are closer to ‘traditional’ ballet, but throughout the choreography draws on multiple dance disciplines, with many Capoiera-inspired moves that would not look out of place in a B-Boy street dance. 

The dancers change T shirts as the show progresses in synchronisation with the changing lighting, almost fetishising the act of dressing and undressing. It helps to add to the intensity of sensuality on display. 

As you can probably tell, my vocabulary for modern dance is somewhat limited. All I can say I that I enjoyed it immensely, and helped me believe that Nearly Ninety was a sad aberration when it comes to quality dance. 

Northern Ballet: Swan Lake, Aylesbury Waterside

I’m not a huge ballet fan, I must admit. Indeed, last night was the first time I’d attended a full length ballet at the theatre, as a guest of the new, rather beautiful, Aylesbury Waterside theatre on its opening night.

I suppose, as first ballets to attend, Swan Lake is pretty usual. And as the first full scale production in the Waterside, Northern Ballet‘s interpretation feels particularly appropriate. Not only is it a show that could not have been staged in the old Civic Centre, but Act I’s gorgeous countryside set worked well with the theatre’s wood-clad interior, while the lake shore setting added an additional waterside resonance.

There have been some tweaks to the more traditional Swan Lake story. Set in an early 20th century land, Prince Siegfried becomes Anthony, who loses his brother to the lake during the ballet’s prologue. As the first act progresses, young man Anthony cavorts with his friends Simon and Odilia.

The romantic triangle at the heart of this relationship is the strongest and most successful part of this production. Anthony and Odilia are friendly, a little flirtatious, but when she moves in for a kiss his sudden recoil embarrasses her. Likewise, when Anthony’s boyish horseplay with Simon threatens to break into more romantic territory, he too is pushed away, the spectre of the lake preventing Anthony from exploring his emotions with anybody – until the swan appears.

To be honest – and this is probably more as a result of my own tastes, rather than of the production or the dancers – the extended sequences with the swans and cygnets tired a little. Compared to the powerful evocation of a love triangle on land, the swan dances contain little plot or emotion. The story, such as it is, seems to be “Look at me! I’m beautiful! I can jump high, but higher if you support me! And look, I’m still beautiful after 15 minutes of dancing!”

As the second act progresses and his parents host a party for Anthony’s coming of age, the focus returns to the Anthony/Odilia/Simon triangle, before a return to the lake in the concluding act which sees Anthony seemingly take a decisive move to join the swans. Again, it’s the emotions of the “humans” that makes for my favourite elements of this production, but I guess that’s again down to my preference for story, story, story.

Despite my own tastes, there’s no denying that the production is beautiful throughout, and I have more problem with anachronistic bicycles than I do with a corps de ballet performing classic routines. It’s a fine production to kick off what deserves – and, given how much the theatre cost to build, needs – to be a successful first season for the Aylesbury Waterside.

Burn the Floor, Shaftesbury Theatre

Since it brought ballroom dancing back to Saturday night telly, Strictly Come Dancing has taken many a celebrity and attempted to get them to learn to dance. And while that education process has always been an enthralling watch in itself, I have always thought that the exhibition dances from the professionals were a much more exciting form of entertainment.

Strictly has produced its own live shows, of course, but the public appetite for ballroom dancing is extending beyond the BBC’s own brand. Burn the Floor, which is returning to the West End for a limited run, capitalises on the appetite for Strictly spin-offs by headlining Brian Fortuna and his 2009 celebrity dance partner, Ali Bastian.

While it’s an understandable stance in terms of marketing the show, anybody who turns up expecting this to be the Ali and Brian show are in for a surprise. Bastian & Fortuna pop up infrequently, allowing instead the troupe of highly trained, foot perfect professionals from around the world to exhibit some blistering displays of dancing prowess.

There’s a relaxed attitude from the off, as two of the dancers engage in some light flirting with the front row of the stalls before jokily demonstrating that cameras and phones are not acceptable. Throughout, the action frequently moves offstage and into the aisles of the stalls. At one point, one of the male dancers manages to perform a spectacular somersault from the stage into the central aisle with hair-raising precision.

Most of the repertoire focusses on the more showy, Latin dances in the ballroom repertoire. By comparison, the elegance of performing beautiful waltzes in full evening dress feels out of place in a show that’s a lot less buttoned-up (quite literally — in the first act especially, it seems the male dancers are either topless or wearing unbuttoned shirts for most of the time).

It’s during the ballroom sequence that Ali Bastian and Brian Fortuna make one of their brief appearances. It does serve to highlight that although Bastian achieved a high standard of dance compared with her fellow celebrities, she has still some way to go if she ever hopes to reach the quality of performance of the professionals with which she shares a stage.

That said, her performances in Act II are excellent. Unlike her Strictly Come Dancing, where she showed an aptitude for the ballroom disciplines and struggled with Latin dances, here it’s the other way around — during the high octane party dances, she shimmies, cha chas and Charlestons like she was born to it. It’s still obvious that, of all the performers on stage, she is the one who has been dancing for less than a year, but with the standard of those around her it’s completely understandable.

At a little under two hours including an interval, Burn the Floor runs much longer than Tap Dogs, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. But with a greater variety of dances, far better music (including some superb live vocals from Ricky Rojas), the evening flies by.

I attended the July 21 opening performance with complimentary tickets provided by Burn the Floor’s marketing agency, AKA. Official press night is Monday, July 26.

Tap Dogs, Novello Theatre

If you go to Tap Dogs expecting a dance show with a great story, you’re not going to get one. It’s six guys tapdancing. You’re more likely to get a story from the gaggle of women sitting next to you who, reasoning that the show on stage contains no dialogue, consider it perfectly acceptable to chatter away to each other throughout the show. (Seriously. When you go to the theatre, does it never occur to you that the hundreds of other people in the theatre are not interested in what you think?)

Instead, we get Adam Garcia and five strapping men, clomping in workmen’s boots on a variety of surfaces – wood, steel and water – with gusto.

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