The Malta Independent 5 June 2023, Monday
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Movement Born Out Of Magic: “Woodland Toys”

Malta Independent Sunday, 8 August 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Olivia Dow School of Russian Ballet’s production of ‘Woodland Toys’ at Sir Temi Zammit Theatre last Sunday was a challenge which students of the school took up with verve, from the very youngest right up to the seniors. Choreographed by Olivia Dow with the assistance of Jessica Farrugia, Martina Zammit, Ivan Porochine and Natalya Makina, the production featured mostly classical ballet with the welcome insertion of some contemporary numbers.

The two-Act ballet tells the story of a woodcutter who tends the enchanted forest – a forest peopled with fairies – and carves amazing wooden toys out of the bark and branches of an old Oak Tree, magical home of the fairies. When these toys are sent to the village toyshop, the orphans from a nearby orphanage are called in to choose a toy each. Being the product of fairy bark, these toys carry with them the magic spark of their origin, and sure enough the magic revives with the stroke of midnight as all the woodcutter’s toys come to life and dance away until the break of dawn. The story closes on a happy note, with both the orphans and the magical toys content in their mutual store of happiness.

The magical aspect of the story was well conveyed by the production team and the visual effect was greatly enhanced throughout by the dazzling costumes which displayed both originality and a careful attention to detail. Floating and fluttering fabrics in natural colours were abundant in the first Act and effectively evoked the magical and mysterious atmosphere of the woods as well as the metamorposed aspects and changing hues of the forest throughout the cycle of the seasons. In Act Two, an equally dazzling array of costumes made the various toys and dolls recognisable at first glance - Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, a Spanish doll, and a host of others. Stage props were also intelligently used, particularly in creating the illusion of rustling leaves and thick foliage at the opening of the first Act.

The choreography was in general sensitive to the demands of the music and achieved an equitable balance between repetition and variation. Given that there is no music scored specifically for this story, the stringing together of various pieces of music must have required a careful process of selection and adaptation, and despite the fact that some pieces were juxtaposed with others from a very different repertoire, in the final product the pieces generally blended well one into the other, following a good editing job by Mro. Joe Brown. Perhaps as a result of the constraints which stringing together diverse pieces of music brings with it, the performance progressed as a sequence of distinct dances, particularly in the first Act. Group tableaux were also almost unintermittently resorted to after each dance, but the choreography made effective use of duos, trios, and pas de deux to supplement traditional corps de ballet, which ensured that the space available on stage was exploited to the full. The use of dancers in ‘freeze’ posture to provide a backdrop for the soloists’ performance was also effective.

Certainly, the division between the Acts provided a definite volte-face and hence opportunity for a striking contrast between the ambience of the two parts. With the change from the sylvan setting to the motley, colourful and more urban locus of the toyshop, there also came a most welcome use of mime (with distinct evocations of Act II of Coppélia), an outburst of bright colours in the light setting as well as in the costumes, the use of black-outs to offset fluorescent-coloured limbs in movement, and an enlivening touch of humour, particularly in the roles of the Harlequins and Pierrots, male roles executed by Seamus K. Vella Aloisio and Justin Micallef as guest appearances. The appearance of the younger dancers in this Act, in their endearing pink and white satin pajamas, was also particularly charming as the choreography was well adapted for their level.

Amongst the highlights of the show one cannot fail to mention the Spanish dance in the first Act, which was danced with gusto and an invigorating sense of performance, and the contemporary pieces, which were cleanly and rhythmically executed. The choroegraphy made genuine demands on the dancers and the senior students managed to execute all numbers satisfactorily - and, considering that all dancers had various numbers to perform, one has to add, with unfaltering energy. The younger performers were also well synchronised in their movements, although some were technically unprepared for the maturer demands of pointe work. In general, the dancers came across as dedicated to their dance studies and intent on developing flexibility and range of movement, although somewhat lacking in polished footwork.

The audience was thrilled with the star of the show, Martina Zammit, who performed innumerable solos, pas de deux and pas de trois, and gave a well-sustained performance from beginning to end. Ms Zammit, who appeared as fresh in the final scene of Act II as she had been, three and a half hours previously, in the opening scene of the first Act, was awarded the John Baldacchino Memorial Scholarship at the end of the show. Last November, Ms Zammit achieved Honours in her Soloist exam (Legat System). The performance also featured guest appearance Sarah Lanzon who over the next academic year will be attending her last year at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester where she is studying for a BA (Hons) in Professional Dance.

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