Saturday 30 March 2013

Back among the palms

Signing in here with Easter greetings, to catch up with last Sunday's Bach cantata - the first for weeks, of course, after the Lenten near-silence - and to explain briefly where I've been: namely in Sicily, four glorious days in Palermo, a city of whose riches I had little inkling, and three roving in the Madonie mountains. Hard to say which was more breathtaking, the civic art or the country sweep.

What's for sure is that the Normans brought to Palermo an Arabic-infused art that no other Italian city can boast. In the Cappella Palatina of the original castle, in the competitive monumentalism of Monreale and in the more intimate beauties of the Martorana church back in the city are mosaics to rival, in my view to surpass, Ravenna. Oddly there are no crucifixion scenes in the stunning chapel, but of many detailed 'pictures' Christ's entry into Jerusalem above stands out. Below Jesus, Peter and the white ass are four children throwing fronds and laying their own clothes before him. The disciples follow behind, while three bearded priests stand at the gate with townspeople of Jerusalem.

We may not be there in Palermo for the wild celebrations of Easter - our last glimpse of Holy Week was trailing behind black-hooded crossbearers and a funereal band on our way to the airport - but we did catch Palm Sunday, which everywhere in Italy other than the Vatican is a matter of olive branches rather than palms.

This processional took place in the former convent adjoining Santa Maria degli Angeli (otherwise La Gancia). The choir processed chanting 'Hosanna, figlio di David, Hosanna, redentor' to the accompaniment of tambourines. Branches raised aloft

were then sprinkled from the priest's thurible. Most of the folk seemed more concerned to get this done and be off to the bosom of the family rather than to stay for the service, which was prefaced with a processional to the peal of bells. This 23-second film is no masterpiece, but hopefully it captures a sliver of atmosphere.

We were off too, touristically eager to catch the next processional in my favourite church of the Kalsa district where we were staying, the Norman Magiana - chiefly because only the cloisters and chapel had been accessible on our first visit, and now the doors of the wonderful church were open for a service too. Again, the majority of celebrants are heading away following the little ritual.

More on all this over the weeks to come (prepare yourself for Sicilimania). The Bach cantata for the day I chose (catching up, not too appropriately, on Good Friday) was 'Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen', BWV 182, written in 1714 when Palm Sunday coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation. The lovely sound of the recorder duets with solo violin against pizzicati as the opening Sinfonia begins; it's a wonderful moment when the collective strings swell their way into the picture.

Palm Sunday celebration (Giotto's peerless Padua fresco depiction above) continues in the vivacious crowd welcome and the bass's robust if unremarkable aria. Soulful preparation for the suffering to come follows in the next pair of solos: the alto's at the heart of it all, with the solo recorder's enfolding descents even more remarkable than the vocal line, and the tenor's determination to follow the stumbling Christ on his Calvary route caught in a continuo maze that several times loses its orientation.

Then it's back to choral celebration with a fantasia on a chorale and an almost ecstatic final dance. Gardiner (my listening choice, as often): 'it needs the poise of a trapeze artist with the agility of a madrigalian gymnast - and is altogether captivating'. Here's Harnoncourt's recording.

Good Friday was our first day back, and much as I'd have loved a day at home before gadding off again, the soloists and ensemble of a St John Passion at the Barbican proved too strong a lure. Almost too moved to write coherently after it, I struggled to put the experience into words here for The Arts Desk. I'm sending off my tenner to support the recording they still need to raise £5,000 for: such a line-up only happens once in a blue moon. Here, finally, is Lotto's sumptuous take on the Crucifixion, still a church altarpiece in a very out-of-the-way and extremely friendly village of the Marche, Monte San Giusto, which we caught on one of our May walking trips in the Sibillini.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Visceral theatre, bloodless opera

An extremely long culture-vulturey post here, with so much to catch up on: three plays, two musicals, two operas (and passing reiterated paeans of praise for an opera-oratorio and an early Wagner rarity). Still reeling from the welter of emotions stirred up by South African playwright Yael Farber's Strindberg adaptation Mies Julie at the Riverside Studios, I was happy to recollect her stunning production in relative tranquillity by reading the text, published by the admirable Oberon Books (cover illustrated above).

The stage directions of the play, set on a farm out on the bleak, storm-plagued plains of the Karoo, confirm the elusive tenderness that punctuates the recriminations and the violence of a couple who would be right for each other in different circumstances. The human is always to the fore in Bongile Mantsai's angry boot-polisher John and Hilde Cronje as a bewilderingly multi-faceted Julie (if this performance doesn't win her a couple of Best Actress awards, there's no justice; but then there wasn't for Tracie Bennett's Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow). Yet Farber's subtitle - Restitutions of body & soil since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913 & the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927 - suggests that socio-political concerns dominate.

They don't, but the play makes it clear that they totally blight these fractured lives. 'What are we staying for?,' asks Julie. 'A pair of boots to polish and an ancestor beneath the floor?...Graves and soil?' Ultimately, familial Xhosa ties precipitate the tragedy. By making Christine not the servant John may or may not marry but his mother, Farber tilts the scales in his favour; he's a much more sympathetic character than Strindberg's arrogant monster Jean. But miraculously we feel even more desperately for Julie (Cronje pictured above with Mantsai by William Burdett-Coutts).

Enough; the rest is in the Arts Desk review. Another high drama of individual stature I knew I had to see at the new, purpose built St. James Theatre in Victoria was Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good (hurry - you only have four days left to catch it). Premiered at the Royal Court in a production by the same director, Max Stafford-Clark in 1988 - J saw it then, I didn't - it originally alternated in rep with  Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, the play which Wertenbaker's Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark gets selected prisoners from his shipful of convicts to act in when they arrive in Australia.

The debates about the transformative possibility of theatre and art in a hostile landscape, and among an initially hostile underclass who've had no exposure to this sort of thing, offers even more insights today, as the programme article about drama in prisons unpretentiously underlines. Stafford-Clark has assembled a magnificent line-up of Dickensian (or, more in keeping with the period, Hogarthian) faces. The production starts with a hint of student theatre in group speaking, but while among the performers the men are mostly more consistently good than the women, all tap into the emotions.

Dominic Thorburn's Ralph is a handsome presence and a good lines-man; Kathryn O'Reilly charts the huge change in violent Liz Morden movingly; there's comedy from Matthew Needham's stagestruck wide-boy Sideways (pictured above with Thorburn by Robert Workman; further up, Thorburn and Laura Dos Santos; below, Dos Santos playreading with Helen Bradbury and O'Reilly); and Ciaran Owens zips convincingly between soft-spoken Irish hangman and bullying major. The adaptable designs by Tim Shortall, originally for the Octagon Theatre Bolton where this Out of Joint production opened, fit the fine new St James's theatre space like an appropriately holey glove.

More creativity in hostile confines appears in Romanian-based Hungarian poet and playwright András Visky's I Killed My Mother, which on the invitation of J's colleague, the play's director Natalia Gleason (nee Nagy), we went to see in the Rosemary Branch pub theatre on - you've guessed it - Mother's Day. I have to point out what a different world we entered - not least at the end of the play, when fellow audience members showed Eastern European politeness by ushering me politely out of my row instead of shoving towards the exit. At the Royal Opera or the Royal Opera House British middle- and upper-class feral behaviour would stampede you flat if you didn't put up a fight.

Orsolya Csiki's Bernadette is a girl left to the mercy of a state orphanage after abandonment by a Roma mother. She forges a friendship with a boy who calls himself Clip, after the steel clips placed on their tongues for 'bad' behaviour. They share 'Clippish' as a secret language and his influence never wanes through Bernadette's later vicissitudes, including a sexual relationship with a woman who turns out to be her sister.

Based on Visky's real-life encounters with the model for Bernadette, the play has a poetic fluidity and the production captures a vivid sense of place (especially the horrifying scene, based on another true incident, in which a busload of would-be Romanian escapees is gunned down by police at the border). It's tough for Hungarian actors to speak in English, and the endings of Csiki's lines were sometimes lost. But she had intensity in spades, and so did the superb Antal Nagy as Clip (pictured with Csiki above), a charismatic actor. Here are director Natalia and author András downstairs after the play.

Hardly visceral in the same way, Dear World still moved me to tears on a second visit - as clearly it did its star, Betty Buckley (pictured below by Eric Richmond), at the curtain calls. I wanted J to see it, and he was delighted, above all with the consummate music-theatre of the three 'madwomen' and their triple-counterpoint scene. This, like so much else, derives closely from the source, Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot; indeed, having now got hold of the play text, I'd say that at least 75 per cent of the lines go into the latest version of the musical. All the more pity that it didn't plunge straight into the skullduggery of the capitalist fat cats and their prospector planning to blow up a cafe to get at oil beneath the streets of Paris. I love the whimsy of both Giraudoux and Jerry Herman; this is a fantasy with its heart very much in the right place, all the more remarkable for both 1943 and 1969.

Sadly, if you want to catch the show, you can't; it finished a week and a half before the official end of the run. Rumour suggests that the American backer who was going to take it to New York pulled the plugs, and director Gillian Lynne ended up having to finance at least a week of performances herself. An undeserving fate for this excellent show, as for the equally wrongly maligned Lend Me a Tenor last year.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical, on the other hand, could run and run. I love the film, of course, had forgotten about its stronger meat and so took my mother on her 82nd birthday last Friday to see it on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. The circumstances were not promising: over lunch, ma told me that the cab driver she'd booked to drive us from Banstead to Wimbledon and back had said 'you'll recognise me when you see me: I'm your local UKIP councillor'.

An odd introduction: does anyone recognise ANY local councillors anywhere, unless they've fought a special cause? I certainly don't. He'd then gone on to harrass her about voting, and tried to pick up on this the minute we got in the car. 'I don't want to discuss politics' said my mother firmly, which didn't stop him sounding off about global warming as a conspiracy of 'those leftie scumbags', large-scale housebuilding on country land as a cure for unemployment and 'disgusting' minarets (as mum opened her mouth about the Morden mosque, I waited for the predictable blow to fall). We sat silently through all this as there was no point arguing with a maniac and it was supposed to be a fun birthday. Still, it was quite good for ma to see the vicious skull beneath the skin of 'friendly' UKIP - not that she'd vote for them, or I hope not anyway, though she doesn't even seem to know why she votes Tory.

All was at last well inside the theatre. The audience? The large majority middle-aged to elderly women (in contrast with the middle-aged to elderly men for the Wagner opera on Sunday, among which group I suppose I must be counted, though I'm not your Wagnerian 'strange single'). The musical? Disco songs subject to coarse amplification that made the dialogue incomprehensible (though some of the attempts at Aussie accents may not have helped). The drag frocks? Sublime, outclassing even the film in that respect. Performances? Not bad, led by Jason Donovan who turned out to be a good crooner and quite a touching actor. I loved the understatement of Richard Grieve's transsexual Bernadette, though Terence Stamp in the film is not to be equalled. Cue a still of the three 'cocks in frocks on a rock' scene (Stamp centre) which is its emotional climax.

Blushed a little for the parental in the scene where an angry Aussie outbacker threatening rape orders Grieve's elegant dame to 'fuck me!'. She sashays over, kicks him in the balls and says 'Now you're fucked'. Mum said she could never quite get used to the f-word, but that it was all good fun. Which indeed it was.

That was the light start to a heavy four days' theatre and opera going. We caught the last, Saturday matinee performance of Charpentier's Medea at English National Opera. It was clearly sold as a star vehicle for mezzo Sarah Connolly, a token of esteem from the director who adores her, David McVicar ('what's up with the mother complex?' said a colleague who shall remain nameless at the interval, adding even more waspishly that McVicar is 'the John Copley de nos jours'. Not a compliment). She was, of course, truly magnificent, pulling out vocal resources I hadn't thought even her capable of in the hellish invocation of Act Three (preceded by a rarity in any of the court operas for Louis XIV, a huge set-piece lament).

Even so, there wasn't as much original stuff here as I found, to my surprise, in the concert performance of Lully's Phaëton the other week. Within unerringly handsome sets by Bunny Christie, beautifully lit by Paule Constable, three of the four divertissements to mostly formulaic music were well enough done, though the breathy witch-nurses were alarmingly close to the zombie nuns of the Royal Opera Robert le Diable, while the second and campest ballet made one long for Glenn Miller and a swing band, not these courtly platitudes. Roderick Williams acted and sang his socks off as a decent, deceived warrior, and true bass Brindley Sherratt is always dependable, but none of the others came close to la Connolly (all production images by Clive Barda for ENO).

I got very irritated with the last act: absolutely no pity and terror here from Charpentier's score. Medea's love rival, Creusa (as a Grace Kelly clone reduplicated in creepy daddy Creon's Act Three deception) was seared to death by her poisoned ball gown with not an inch of 'ouch' in the music. Here are the oddly-cast, rather strenuous American tenor Jeffrey Francis as Jason and Katherine Manley, who came to life as the evening wore on, as Creusa.

Fine: this all left me clear-headed for what I suspected would be a real harrowing from John Adams in his new opera-oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican in the evening. And it was, despite the Born Again hysteria of Lazarus's raising (I'm a bit disconcerted to read that Peter Sellars, restrained in his production here, is a fervent Christian). But the Passion plumbed the depths and the meeting of Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden at the end left me speechless: chapter and verse here on The Arts Desk. Photo with the searing Kelley O'Connor by Keith Sheriff.

Sunday evening was suck-it-and-see time with good old Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of the 20-year-old Wagner's Die Feen: read about it here on The Arts Desk. Last night I vowed to attend Benjamin's much-vaunted Written on Skin at the Royal Opera last night with an open mind, in spite of the fact that this composer's irreproachably well scored orchestral works have never spoken to me in any way. But very early on it was clear this wasn't going to either.

How strange to approach a horrid story - which hardly has much to offer to us today, surely? - of lust, murder and cannibalism with such ice-cold restraint. Is this the 'cold fascination with disaster' mentioned towards the opera's close? The beginning promised something, though what started out as - we thought- tension-building in long single and double lines just turned to glue after the several stormbreaks (for which Benjamin has only one mode, cliched modernist brass discords; at least the frantic woodwind trills in the killing began to say something for a moment). Photos of Vicki Mortimer's well-lit sets for Katie Mitchell's business-as-usual production by Stephen Cummiskey for the Royal Opera House.

They say there's a strong feminist streak here; but the rebellious woman still ends up killing herself; plus ca change for operatic heroines. The cast were strong and clear of diction, and at least Benjamin mostly lets them be heard; but their roles are hardly clear even as archetypes and as for the music-drama, apart from a moment's haunting in glass harmonica-led sounds towards the end, I was left interested but unstirred. Good production? Yes, though I like the 'angel' clinic no more than Martin Crimp's cringeworthy 21st century framework for the medieval tale. Fine singing? Absolutely, especially from Christopher Purves - despite suffering from uncharacteristic hoarseness last night - and Barbara Hannigan, though her hardly rock-solid soprano wasn't quite as amazing as the hype suggested it ought to be.

Great opera, though? Certainly not. I'm in a minority here, though friend Debbie York, hotfoot from Berlin for more Messiaenic coaching in London, agreed vehemently with me and we echo every word about the score written by my pal Igor on The Arts Desk. Still, it had to be seen, and those £4 standing places were worth every penny.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The only way is Essex - 2

It's thanks to people power, civic pride, call it what you will, that anything substantial remains of Waltham Abbey. Founded by Harold Godwinson in 1060 before he was king and a mere Earl of Essex and East Anglia, it became an Augustinian abbey - and another building was erected - during Henry II's penance for the killing of Thomas à Becket. Henry VIII loved coming here, not least to discuss his divorce issues, which sealed the abbey's doom but also explains why this was the last of the monasteries to be dissolved. The churchwardens saved the nave from destruction on the grounds that it had always been the parish church.

This exterior shot shows a jumble of styles: the spacious 14th century south (now Lady) chapel makes a very prominent addition to the Norman nave, the west tower is even later - a post-Dissolution afterthought - and the east wall with its wheel window dates from the Victorian era. 

The 16th century rescue explains why the building is only one third of its original length, 100 feet - I still can't think in metres - of nave with chisel-patterned Romanesque columns uncannily close in design to those of Durham Cathedral (there was probably a connection).

There are also a Victorian replica of the zodiac ceiling at Peterborough (I like it) and a rather remarkable remodelling of the east wall in 1859-60 by William Burges. Pevsner dismisses its 'robust ugliness' and finds it 'astonishingly loud after the silent severity of the nave'; Norman Scarfe in the Shell Guide, much fonder of Victoriana, thinks it was 'brilliantly remodelled', and again I tend more to his opinion.

No disagreement seems to flare about the glass in the wheel window and the three single lights, among Burne-Jones's finest. Sadly my handful of details won't stand up to close inspection.

The abbey church has its fair share of individual treasures. Chief is the Denny memorial. It can only be seen as a whole from the seats one side of the sanctuary (I got told off by a charmless warden for putting aside the rope very briefly to do so).

Sir Edward (d.1599), privateer turned rebellion-suppressor alongside Raleigh, clasps the sword he swished about so infamously in Ireland and is recumbent above his wife Joane in the central niche. The repainting of 1965, by a Miss Northolt, may be a little crude.

Below them are six sons to the left, looking like little Camerons (could Miss Northolt be sure that four had reddish-brown hair?)

and on the right three girls and a boy apart, apparently the twin of the sister whose arm he clasps.

Above are the appropriately balanced figures of Fame

and Time.

Beyond the monument is the markedly different 14th century south chapel. I'd hardly agree that the Doom/Last Judgment painting from the same period is 'very faded', as Pevsner insists; you can see exactly what's going on with the blessed souls on the left

and the monster into whose maw the damned are heading.

Another monument is well worth examining, this time in the north aisle. Scarfe does the words for this: 'Captain Robert Smith's white marble-altar tomb, 1697, carved with cherubs in tears, displays his ship, Industria, sailing through a sea full of dolphins'.

Heading west, you pass the bust of a Romanized Henry Wollaston, JP (1670) on one side

and a pretty Stuart pulpit on the other, restored to its rightful place since Pevsner wrote of its removal.

On the way out, I admired the beasts inside the west tower, though I suspect they may be Victorian: very splendid in what little light there was by late afternoon.

There's plenty to see in the abbey grounds, chiefly intriguingly embedded walls and the proposed site of Harold's remains. I suspect it must all be rather beautiful in fine spring and summer weather. A solitary budding gave promise of things to come:

On that bleak February day, though, it was too freezing to linger. I walked to the 14th century gatehouse

but we abandoned our plan to do a circuit round this part of the Lee Valley. Instead we had a very late comfort lunch in a pleasingly old-fashioned cafe looking out on the abbey grounds, gaping through a window with a bullet hole in it (!) at various folk exercising their whippets and pitt bull terriers. A quick spin up a high street with a surprising number of occult and witchy shops, and then we made our way back along the desolating busy road to Waltham Cross station, the view on the return journey even less promising than the outward journey since at least there had been Waltham Abbey's tower to lead us onward.

I must at least insist that we've seen a bit of sun and warmth since then. One day of it, in fact, last Tuesday, when spring was in the air before blizzards and ice struck again. I shifted my work around, having been told it wasn't to last, and cycled down the river to that wonderful free amenity for all, Chiswick Park. I've written about this perfect - and more recently beautifully restored - 18th century landscape garden here as well as here (comparing it with William Kent's work at lovely Wotton) and here, but the spring light and attendant blessings have to be recorded. Above all the circular patch of crocuses to the south of Burlington's villa,

the beauty of bare branches against blue sky and the white house exterior,

steam rising from the pool in front of the Ionic Temple,

and more promise of blossom to come, this time against an almost azure rather than a grey background.

Everyone was in a benign, friendly mood given our one day of grace. The only thing that irked was the huge admission fee being charged to catch camellia blooming time in the Victorian greenhouse (once free). Anyway, it can't be too long before the robins nest again now, can it?

Monday 11 March 2013

Archangel of the arts?

Many ballet dancers, writes Jennifer Homans, 'are suspicious of words, and understandably so: they spend their lives working with their bodies and with music, and words are simply not their trade'. All the more impressive, then, that two former dancers write so beautifully about their art. The first lady remains Royal Ballet trained Julie Kavanagh, with her compelling and superbly researched biographies of Ashton and Nureyev. Now Homans, who started out at the School of American Ballet, ticks many of the literary boxes with an ambitious popular history of the art, Apollo's Angels.

She has enlightened me about so many aspects of ballet that I'd barely given a thought: the intellectual rigour with its roots in the classical belief of human perfectability through the body's geometric proportions, the striving to reach the heavens and 'the great Ballet-master' (as the Abbé Mersenne called 'the author of the universe' in 1636). Later the Jesuits taught the 'mute rhetoric' of dance, gesture and declamation. But it was at the court of Louis XIV, of course, that ballet reached its first, painstakingly stratified plateau. Like his predecessor but with far greater discipline and devotion, the future roi soleil devoted himself to the art and appeared in some 40 ballets. There's no escaping the celebrated image of Louis as Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit, with suns great and small all over his costume (I fear this image is back to front, but as it's wikifree, it'll have to do).

Just how lively the court ballets could be we heard on Friday night in an orchestrally and chorally superb performance of Phaëton, Lully's 1684 tragédie lyrique, zestily conducted and played at the harpsichord by that great animateur Christophe Rousset: there's a chaconne to conclude the second act which you feel could go on for ever. Homans tells us how the gravitas of Louis's beloved Courante gave way to the toujours gai Minuet preferred by Lully. Around 1800 we get the waltz, but that's to jump over the Enlightenment development of story-ballets and the French Revolution.

Homans is brilliant, at first anyway, in connecting the art to the times. There's a chapter on the democratisation of dance with the advent of the Revolution. Its later artistic celebrations with women in white as paragons of reason and virtue were a far cry from the scabrous Carmagnole caricatured here in Fred Barnard's Victorian illustration for Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

There are portraits where Homans goes straight to the anecdotal heart of the matter: of Marie Sallé hitting London in the 1730s, according to one witness 'without hoopskirts , or corps, dishevelled and with no ornaments in her hair...just draped in chiffons on the model of a Greek statue'; and of Marie Taglioni, no beauty, using rigorous self-discipline to steer the dance away from male domination in the 1800s with her embodiment of sylphdom and Gautier's romantic maxim that 'ballets are the dreams of poets taken seriously'. Here's her Sylphide appearing to Scots dreamer James in the French ballet that Bournonville was to immortalise in Denmark with his own special style (it still has a conservative hold, in the best sense, on ballet in that country today).

Diligent in her coverage of how ballet advanced, or not, in other countries through the 19th century, Homans gives us fascinating insight into the proto-Fascist pageants of Luigi Manzotti in Italy: the hugely popular Excelsior (1881), an allegory of Progress, 'boasted a cast of more than five hundred, including twelve horses, two cows and an elephant'.

In Homans's Russian chapters, we are back on the serious tack. The imperial bolstering wasn't news to me, but I hadn't appreciated quite how much Tchaikovsky's later scores 'brought out a whole new range and tone-colour in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus and Pugni could never inspire'. All this, in The Sleeping Beauty, in spite of the essentially court-dictated spectacle of it all (photo from original 1890 production).

As Homans moves into the 20th Century, she is less ready to take the rough with the smooth, the earthy with the idealistic. On the plus side, there's a pitch-perfect journey through the highs and lows of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with a special pleading for Nijinsky both as dancer, bringing a 'fragrant androgyny' to redefine male dancing 'and put the danseur back at the centre of ballet' (below, in Le Dieu Bleu)

and as choreographer; Le Sacre du Printemps was 'a bleak and intense celebration of the collective will...a coldly rational depiction of a primitive and irrationally charged world...the first truly modern ballet' (Roerich's costume design for the Chosen One below).

Can you believe Le Sacre only had eight performances before being lost to the world? In her epilogue, Homans excoriates Millicent Hodson's 'reconstruction' as 'a travesty' rendering 'a radical and shocking dance...tame and kitschy'. How she could be so sure about the original I don't know, but 'kitschy' was certainly my experience of a recent Maryinsky performance.

Also on the plus side is Homans's delightful potted history of Ashton's progress, growing out of the surprising intellectual beginnings of British ballet proper in the 1920s - Ninette de Valois's Rout, for instance, kicked off with a dancer reciting a poem by German political activist Ernst Toller - and experiencing a miraculous sweet renaissance against the spirit of angrier times with  La Fille mal gardée in 1960. On the minus side is her disapproval of Kenneth MacMillan's later plunge 'into the depths of his own damaged personality and dark obsessions'. Shattering Mayerling, for instance, is dismissed with implied disapproval in a sentence (pictured, Johan Persson's image of Mara Galeazzi with the astounding Edward Watson in a recent Royal Ballet revival) .

The same problem arises with the chapter on Soviet ballet from Stalin to Brezhnev. Homans is excellent on the communist reinvention of the classics, but when she comes to the 1960s, she is more concerned to be down on the 'tasteless and bombastic' aspects of Grigorovitch's Spartacus than to give credit to its colossal energy, still wowing us in the latest personification of Russian masculinity, Ivan Vasiliev (photo by Damir Yusupov for the Bolshoi Ballet, originally included in the Arts Desk review to which I've linked).

Homans rises to the challenge of surveying three great American-based careers: those of the violence-prone Anthony Tudor, of whom I knew little, of Jerome Robbins and above all of the great archangel George Balanchine: such a career that was, from his first great choreography of Stravinsky's music, Apollo, in 1927 - you might see why he changed the look of it in later years -

 to the dying man's 1981 vision of the Adagio lamentoso in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.  Detailed reflection on Agon (1957), with Stravinsky's musical time-machine whizzing us from the court dances of Louis XIV through to the dodecaphonic era, returns us full circle to the intellectual beginnings of ballet.

Then the epilogue has to go and spoil it all. Sure, there have been no giants like Balanchine since his death. But nor has ballet itself snuffed it, as Homans implies. What, not a word of today's choreographers, like Ratmansky revitalising the Russian tradition or our British-based live wires, like the pair who have so enchanted my hard-to-please colleague Ismene Brown in her review yesterday of the Ballet Boyz? Homans also has not a word to say about recent hybrids which, it's true, have an eye on the market (why shouldn't they?) but keep their integrity, like the companies of Alvin Ailey (his troupe's phenomenal Samuel Lee Roberts pictured by Paul Kolnik) and Matthew Bourne?

It seems to me that Homans's anxiety to keep her ballet chronicle tied to a cultural history, which is frequently a strength, leads her to see black and white patterns where the truth is somewhere in the middle. Still, hers is a gripping, readable study, which everyone with the slightest interest in ballet should read.

I've been slow to catch up on writing about other reading here. January and February saw a pleasurable return to Iceland. First was Halldór Laxness's typically skewed wit and (I suspect very native) sense of fantasy in The Fish Can Sing, a tale of growing up and falling under the spell of a 'world singer' - or not - in the developing days of Reykjavík's history. Who could fail to be enchanted by this?

It's neither as long nor as sombre as Independent People, which is of course a more epic kind of masterpiece, and infinitely more readable than World Light, which I had to give up on. No readability problems, though, with the thrillers of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Since being engrossed by My Soul to Take - covered in that same blog entry where I referenced Laxness for the first time - after falling under the spell of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, I'd been longing to catch up on her three others to date. I began this time with Ashes to Dust, a magnificent - and educational - mix of the gruesomely personal with the volcanic eruption on Heimaey, the largest of the Westmann Islands, back in 1973 (slightly grainy picture from that time below).

The result of which is, of course, I'm itching to visit the island. Just as evocative in its sense of place is the latest thriller, The Day is Dark, with its baleful evocation of an isolated part of Greenland and its people.  Then I went back to the first of Sigurðardóttir's books, Last Rituals, set mostly in the capital but with a creepy investigation into witchcraft on Iceland.

Indeed, you learn a lot about the country. But the best thing about these books is the disparity between the utterly down to earth, likeable and only mildly dysfunctional protagonist, attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, and the bizarre and often stomach-churning cases with which she's involved. There's plenty of mileage in the character yet, so I look forward to more.