Anyone still maintaining that opera is posh will lose their argument the moment they walk into the Arcola Theatre this month. This East London venue plays host to Grimeborn Opera Festival – a month-long feast of brand new works, modern takes on old classics and fresh looks at forgotten ones. Originally a finger up to the frippery of Glyndebourne, the festival is now a platform for emerging artists in its own right. One look at the ticket prices (around £8 per show), a peak into the narrow studios or a visit to the plywood portaloos is proof enough that we don’t need opulence to enjoy opera.
Poised at the podium in Studio 2 to conduct the first notes of the festival is Leo Geyer, artistic director of Constella Ballet & Orchestra – an eclectic troupe of dancers, musicians and actors who perform such a wide mix of styles you’d be hard pushed to box them into a single genre. Founded in 2012, the company has risen swiftly through the ranks; they performed earlier this year with the National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, and Geyer conducts at the Royal Ballet.
Part one of their new double bill, The Clown of Clowns, is the haunting Pierrot Lunaire – a notoriously abstract song cycle devised in 1912 by Arnold Schoenberg for mezzo soprano and quintet. Constella’s version comes with three ballet dancers, choreographed by Alfred Taylor Gaunt – not so much to explain the narrative (if there even is one) but rather to illustrate the subtle nuances of the music.
The sounds are sparse and eerie, with jarring melodies and abrupt, atonal clashes. I wouldn’t listen to it at home. And yet seeing the dancers express themselves to the music suddenly transforms it into something beautiful. Their softly moving limbs lures an emotional response out of me against my better judgement. I can’t tear my eyes from Matt Petty as Pierrot, twirling, leaping, writhing to singer Emma Stannard’s enigmatic poetry, almost as though hypnotised by her. Stannard’s confidence makes the experience all the more unnerving for us, as her voice slides mockingly through the notes, her eyes piercing ours provocatively.
It’s the first time I’ve seen ballet on the fringe, and I’m taken aback by the level of emotion that can be conveyed with no words. I almost envy the dancers as I look around at our own stiff, expressionless bodies. And as Pierrot sways beneath a spotlight at the end, clawing white paint from his face as petals spill down from the ceiling, it’s remarkable how profound an effect can be made with so little backdrop or costume.
Things take a turn for the rather more unhinged in the second half, with Leo Geyer’s Sideshows – a theatrical, jazzy, circus-inspired, musical spectacular. There’s really no shorter way to describe it. Geyer ushers the audience back into the studio, clad in full Ringmaster regalia (it’s hard to believe this is the same man who, moments earlier, was solemnly luring Schoenberg from his musicians). The violinist, cellist, clarinettist and pianist, meanwhile, are now clowns, who mosey onto the stage in character and don’t for an instant drop the facade.
One by one we’re introduced to a handful of characters from the circus, including the bearded lady (a wonderfully flamboyant boogie from the Royal Ballet’s Peter Moir), the palm reader (a sultry performance from Rachel Maby, who would be at home on London’s top jazz stages) and the snake charmer (a stand-off between clarinettist Antanas Makstutis and nimble dancer Amelia O’Hara as the snake, who shimmies around causing uproar amongst the terrified clowns). There’s an intelligence to the slapstick – Geyer has everything under control, even when portraying the exact opposite – and the audience are snorting with laughter the entire way through.
But it’s the musicians who shine in Sideshows. Not every violinist can pretend to walk a tightrope whilst running their fingers along the strings; nor can most cellists accompany their own playing with an elephant’s walk, or clarinettists scour a room for a snake whilst playing with the tone of a concert musician.
Geyer is a masterful creator: dipping his paintbrush into a colourful palette of art forms and making unfamiliar music fun by using drama, dance and theatricality as tools to draw audiences in. As for Grimeborn Festival, it’s a necessary reminder of the beauty of fringe theatre – given the lack of illustrious set or gilded theatre to ‘get you in the mood’, the onus is on the performers to make you believe. When they do, the achievement is all the greater.
Grimeborn continues at the Arcola Theatre until the end of August. Click here for more information.
By Francesca Wickers
Photos: Rhian Hughes