La Valse; Invitus, Invitam; Winter Dreams; Theme and Variations. The Royal Ballet

15-30 October 2010. Royal Opera House, London

Frederick Ashton’s La Valse—what a swirlingly beautiful opening to the Royal Ballet’s recent mixed bill program. Ashton’s choreography seemed slightly idiosyncratic with its unexpected shifts in épaulement, swift lifts of the arms, quick bends of the body and a range of nuanced movement. Yet it was perfectly attuned to the changes of colour and rhythm in the Ravel score. In addition, the Royal Ballet dancers performed with such aplomb and brilliant attack not to mention a beautiful classical technique based, as it should be, on turned-out, centred movement.

The two works that followed were both exceptional distillations of involved narratives. Kim Brandstrup’s new work, Invitus, Invitam (Against his will, against her will) essentially compressed Racine’s play Bérénice into three pas de deux, while Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams distilled Chekov’s work The Three Sisters into one dramatic act.

In Racine’s version of part of Suetonius’ history of the Roman emperors, Titus is forced by the senate to send Bérénice, his mistress, away, against her will and against his will. In Brandstrup’s work we see three encounters between Titus and Bérénice: in the first Bérénice is aware that Titus has a concern that he is not speaking openly about; in the second Bérénice knows what is to happen and is devastated, as is Titus; and in the third they part in mutual sorrow. Leanne Benjamin is perfectly cast as Bérénice. All her maturity as an artist comes to the fore as the inevitable parting approaches. Edward Watson is her partner and he too captures the sense of impending drama.

Choreographically Brandstrup’s three pas de deux draw the two protagonists together and at the same time separate them from each other. Both Benjamin and Watson gave exceptional performances, strong yet tremulous with emotion. Benjamin’s dancing was faultless and her portrayal of the role was vulnerable in the extreme. Richard Hudson was responsible for the costumes and minimal setting, so in empathy with the distillation of the story. His screens and scrims and his use of computerised writing and sketches, which appeared sporadically on the screens, added just the right sense of location. The contemporary score by Thomas Adès was based on the work of Couperin and again was empathetic to Brandstrup’s overall conception. Invitus, Invitam was intensely moving and certainly deserves further performances.

Winter Dreams was led by Sarah Lamb as Masha and Thiago Soares as Vershinin with minor principal roles being taken by Mara Galeazzi as Olga and Roberta Marquez as Irina. Together they provided a strong performance of this bleak story.

The closing work on this generous program, the pièce de resistance in my mind, was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. I was not at the opening night’s performance when, I am told, Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin took the leading roles and when Alicia Alonso, creator of the ballerina role for Ballet Theater in 1947, was in the audience. But I was more than happy to see a radiant Marianela Nuñez partnered by a dashing Nehemiah Kish dancing with all stops out in this ferociously demanding work. From the opening moments when the ballerina and her partner present themselves to us, to that wonderful moment as the work comes to a close when grands battements merge into high-kicks, this is a work to be savoured for the remarkable display of the classical technique that it is. And again the entire complement of dancers showed what an outstanding company the Royal is at the moment.

I could, however, have done without Peter Farmer’s set for Theme, which to my mind suffers from a surfeit of draperies. Simplicity is all that is needed as a foil to Balanchine’s intricate weaving of bodies across the stage. But what a pleasure it was to see such beautifully trained bodies dancing with such a secure sense of classicism.

Michelle Potter, 27 October 2010

2 thoughts on “La Valse; Invitus, Invitam; Winter Dreams; Theme and Variations. The Royal Ballet

  1. This is what I call brilliant programme building. Apart from the generosity of the sheer amount of dancing in one programme, there is the variety of choreography on display, giving opportunities to the corps de ballet and soloists and principals alike.

    I am intrigued by Michelle’s comments regarding the Brandstrup work. My only contact with the Racine “Berenice” was through a Depardieu film version of the play, done in a very stately and longwinded manner. Were you able to garner the details of Brandstrup’s reduction without resorting to a programme note ? I ask because of my experience with Tim Harbour’s latest work for the AB which takes the Halcyon myth as it’s basis. This is a complicated piece of intrigue which certainly wasn’t clear for me either before I read the note and viewed or after I had read it and then viewed it again. I have no quibble with works that need a note to fully bring out all elements of what is being viewed. From Michelle’s comments it would appear that Brandstrup has made a superb distillation of the issues at the heart of Berenice.

  2. First the programming. Yes, it was a wonderfully put together program. It always amazes me that there is a perception that audiences don’t like mixed bills. I think it has become a myth that is just constantly perpetuated, especially in Australia. This particular program was so enticing in its variety and so intelligently presented by the dancers that I simply cannot imagine how it could be seen by anyone as inferior to a full length work. In any case the Royal Opera House looked pretty full to me. Such a program does require a lot from the dancers (and from all kinds of support staff) but the dancers of the Royal Ballet looked as though they were in their element, dancing! Coaching is king and I suspect that the Royal has great coaches. Without a great coaching program any mixed bill, even this one, would fall flat so bouquets to the coaching and teaching staff at the Royal.

    I haven’t seen Tim Harbour’s Halcyon yet so can’t comment but I did read Kim Brandstrup’s program note (less than a page). I had no idea what the title meant so had to get some kind of a clue. In his notes he didn’t try to explain the machinations of the Berenice plot just the simple fact that she had to leave. I think it is a mark of a mature choreographer that he (or she even) can seize upon a single theme from something more complicated and make a work that doesn’t have to tell every tiny detail. If it arouses curiosity and sends us off to find more then that is brilliant in my opinion. I think Brandstrup was lucky to have such mature artists to work with as well.

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