Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

‘Anastasia’. The Royal Ballet

12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.

I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.

I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.

As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in 'Anastasia', Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in Anastasia, Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.

Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in 'Anastasia' Act II. -© ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in Anastasia Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.

The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia, Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.

Scene from QL2's 'EAT', 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2016

  • EAT

Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance, runs an annual project for younger dancers in Canberra and beyond. This year, with a program called EAT, the theme was food, including marketing issues associated with what we eat.

For various reasons, I looked with different eyes this year and was impressed with how the choreographers, all professionals working with contemporary dance, handled the situation. With technical capacity varying so much between the dancers (they ranged in age from 8 to 18), it was illuminating to see the theatrical concepts that were being taught to these young people—how to make entrances and exits, how to occupy the performing space, how to be in line and so on. In fact, young people in Canberra are lucky to have the opportunities that QL2 offers. May it continue.

  • The Royal Ballet’s Australian tour, 2017

The Royal Ballet will tour to Australia (Brisbane only as part of QPAC’s International Series) in June and July 2017 with a contemporary repertoire of Woolf Works from Wayne McGregor and The Winter’s Tale from Christopher Wheeldon. Further details are on QPAC’s website.

The Royal last visited Australia in June 2002 when Ross Stretton was the company’s artistic director. They brought Swan Lake, Giselle, and a mixed bill comprising Tryst, Marguerite and Armand and The Leaves are Fading. For that tour I wrote a piece for DanceTabs (sadly a link is no longer available) subtitled ‘Some personal reflections on the recent Royal Ballet tour to Sydney…’.  Here is what I wrote as a conclusion:

The highlights

To die for: Alina Cojocaru’s double attitude turns in Giselle. So turned out, so light, so controlled. Divine.

Partnership of the season: Alina Cojacaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle and Leaves. This partnership looks good physically and Cojocaru draws out a tenderness in Kobborg that adds an emotional dimension to the technical strength of the partnership.

Favourite moment: Belinda Hatley giving an audible whoop of excitement before launching into a joyous, absolutely irresistible Neapolitan dance in Swan Lake.

Australian moment: Leanne Benjamin’s deliciously playful but very mature interpretation of the central pas de deux in Leaves.

Non-dancing moment: The backcloth/lighting in Tryst, which had the dramatic and expressive qualities of a Mark Rothko painting.

Most annoying comment: ‘Darcey Bussell fell over in the fouettes in Swan Lake on opening night.’  (What happened was that she turned 27 or 28, went for a big finish, did a triple pirouette, had too much momentum but couldn’t go for four, finished slightly off balance and ended the sequence with a bit of a hop as she put her back foot down). But what attack! She was ferocious.

Favourite comment: ‘I had the two best cries I’ve had for years.’ (On the Cojacaru/Kobborg Giselle).

Disappointment: Neither Jonathan Cope nor Massimo Murru as Armand could match Sylvie Guillem’s Marguerite.

Dancer to watch: Corps de ballet dance Lauren Cuthbertson who made her presence felt in a soloist role in Tryst.

What an astonishing season that was! But recent viewings of the Royal in London suggest we can expect something spectacular this time too. In the meantime, I found the two images below from Les Patineurs. They are from a much earlier visit from a touring arm of the company, when the company was, in fact, in a state of flux (which I won’t go into now)!

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stringer-les-patinweurs-1958-2

Royal Ballet tour, Melbourne 1958, Les patineurs. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2016

Featured image: Scene from EAT, QL2 Dance. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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Christopher Wheeldon triple bill. The Royal Ballet

10 March 2016, Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In this triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon from the Royal Ballet, it was especially pleasing to see the full version of After the rain. Its visually arresting choreography for three couples in the first part, performed to Tabula rasa by Arvo Pärt, shows Wheeldon as his sculptural best as arms and legs swing from pose to pose and dancers move in unison and counterpoint. Dressed in grey practice clothes the six dancers perform in front of a geometric lighting design (59 Productions) consisting of of two squares of light. A central one, blue-ish white in colour, sits inside a larger one of grey-ish blue. Simple but effective, these two squares echo the colours of the costumes and also the formally structured choreography.

The pas de deux that follows, often danced without the opening movement, was a disappointment for me. Perhaps I needed to be sitting closer as I missed the quiet emotion that I have seen in performances by other companies? But then a seat in the theatre shouldn’t affect such things if the work is well performed. Perhaps too the physiques of Zenaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke, who danced the pas de deux, were not far enough apart from each other to highlight what I think are the qualities of this section, danced again to Pärt, this time to the gently reflective Spiegel im Spiegel? The work was made originally for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet and together, with their very different body shapes, they suggested an entrancing strength and frailty that was not apparent, and that I missed, with Yanowsky and Clarke. In fact I’m not sure what their performance suggested beyond a dance for two.

Wheeldon’s newest work, Strapless, a one act narrative ballet centring on the scandal surrounding the showing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mme Gautreau in Paris at the Salon of 1884, was a mixed blessing. When the curtain went up on an empty picture frame attached to a grey-coloured screen I was consumed by curiosity. How would this work unfold? And the opening moments, as Mme Gautreau took her time choosing her wardrobe for the unveiling of Sargent’s portrait while her husband fussed at her slowness, was very nicely choreographed with movement that defined the two characters. Strapless returned in its closing scene to that opening picture frame, which this time was not empty but contained the finished portrait, although now Mme Gautreau was broken in spirit by the scandal that emerged when the portrait showed that one strap of her black gown had slipped off her shoulder. Without the trappings of her former life, and dressed only in a skin-coloured, body-hugging costume, we watched as she sought to make sense of her situation.

In between the opening and closing scenes, the work felt like a cross between a Broadway musical, with a ‘chorus’ of dancers representing Parisian society performing choreography that seemed like it had come from a Busby Berkeley show; and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend when that same chorus started to look like tight-lipped parishioners. The score from Mark-Anthony Turnage didn’t help either as it hardly sounded like the era of La belle époque.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Mme Gautreau was not having one of her best nights, unfortunately, and was a little unsteady on occasions. And with so many changes of scene in a one act ballet—the work began in 1884, slipped back to 1881, came forward to 1883 and ended where it began in 1884—there was a need for moveable scenery (screens, door frames and the like), Unfortunately again, the scenery was trundled on and off very noisily and so many people (characters and scene changers) constantly slipping on and off stage was decidedly disruptive to the smooth unfolding of the storyline. I also found it hard to follow who was who among the male principals. The printed program, like all Royal Ballet programs I have encountered, was excellent, full of explanatory notes and articles, but any work for the stage needs to be easily understood, I believe, without having to resort to reading a convoluted story in a program.

Circumstances were such that I was unable to stay for the final Wheeldon work, Within the golden hour. But perhaps it was just as well. I am able to retain, as a result, an image of a work I enjoyed immensely on a previous occasion in San Francisco.

Michelle Potter, 12 March 2016

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 detail

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 (detail)

The image above is a detail of an unfinished version of the Sargent portrait, which I saw in the Tate Britain and which has no strap at all on Mme Gautreau’s right shoulder. In the version that was shown in the Salon of 1884, and which caused the scandal, the right shoulder strap was painted as having fallen off the shoulder. The final version, in which Sargent repainted the fallen strap into its regular position, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.