On stage and screen, it’s generally the words and lyrics that tell a story, however the use of dance can be an effective way of expressing emotion, illustrating a scene and moving the action forward. In West Side Story, the ‘dance-off’ sequences are a powerful way of showing the conflict between the rival gangs; in last year’s BBC hit Giri/Haji the finale, told via interpretive dance, brought about a dramatic yet beautiful conclusion to the story; and in opera, much like musical theatre, we can use dance to illustrate a particular element of the story.
However, dance in musicals, whether in film or theatre, plays a much greater role than the purpose it generally serves in opera. As The Washington Post puts it in an article on the best dance scenes of all time: ‘In making my choices for the best dance scenes, I looked at several factors: mastery of technique, imaginative choreography, quality of the music – this is very important – and design and storytelling. …dancing that moves you is great dancing’. (Just picture Gene Kelly swinging his umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain!)
Movies have always used dance, from the silent era via Hollywood’s Golden Age to 2016’s La La Land. If you’ve enjoyed watching the big Busby Berkeley numbers; Fred and Ginger; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone… then you are not alone – many of these stories have made their way onto the stage following movie success, and many more films have been inspired in one way or another by them. Likewise, opera has not missed out on the fascination.
Our curtailed Spring Season featured two productions that included dance: Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and Bizet’s Carmen. The former including a ballet, a divertissement; in our production danced by National Dance Company Wales; and the latter, which usually features the Flamenco, in Jo Davies’ Central America based production it was a more a case of the funky Tango. In both, the director decided to not only entertain the audience, but to use the elements of dance to add something to the production. David Pountney used the especially created ballet in vêpres to tell the story of Henri’s mother; reusing the dancers throughout the production to enliven the relatively staid action. Whereas Jo Davies incorporated a pair of dancers as an integral part of the cast, leading dances throughout the production to represent the hot-blooded Latin spirit of the world of Carmen.
WNO has also performed Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate (again directed by Jo Davies); but it is not our only production with great dance in it. Many operas include pivotal or memorable dance scenes, from Verdi’s La traviata with all its parties; to the ball in Eugene Onegin when the roles of the two leads are reversed and Onegin is desperate to get Tatyana to fall for him; and even The Cunning Little Vixen features two dancers as dragonflies, alongside a whole forest of dancing animals. Then coming up in our Spring 2021 Season, Der Rosenkavalier is often seen as an ode to the Waltz and although in our production, actual dancing is at a minimum, Strauss’ music with all its dance connotations, is still very much centre stage.
In these times, especially, make yourself feel better: have a little dance, and hopefully it won’t be too long before we can bring some to a stage near you. Dance like no-one’s watching – it’s great for stress relief and is an allowable lockdown pleasure.