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

Kings of the Dance. City Center, New York

19 February 2010, City Center, New York

Christopher Wheeldon’s comment was thought-provoking. In the film sequence that opened Kings of the Dance, Wheeldon remarked that the biggest challenge for choreographers working with the eight exceptional artists performing in this show was managing the different styles in which those dancers had been trained. Of the eight, Jose Manuel Carreño was trained in Cuba, Guilllaume Côté in Canada, David Hallberg and Desmond Richardson in the United States, Marcelo Gomes in South America, Joaquin de Luz in Spain, and Denis Matvienko and Nikolay Tsiskaridze in Russia. Wheeldon continued that it was a particular challenge when the dancers had to dance together in a single work, but noted that it had eventually worked well. In fact, it only worked sometimes.

The highlight of the show for me, as far as works involving more than one dancer were concerned, was Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which comprised Act III of the program. Remanso, a work made for three men in 1997, was performed by Hallberg, Côté, and Gomes on the evening I attended. Duato’s choreography is always distinctive and transcends particular methods of classical training. It allows an individual voice to emerge from the choreography rather than being pasted upon it or sublimated to it. Hallberg, Côté and Gomes responded brilliantly. They brought their undoubted talents to bear to present a thrilling performance that was both amusing and technically absorbing.

This kind of transcendence didn’t happen in Wheeldon’s own work, For 4, that followed the opening film. It was danced by Matvienko, Carreño, de Luz and Côté and, while each danced well, it was not the stylistically coherent piece that Wheeldon was obviously seeking. There were also eight distinct styles on show in the Finale when eight excellent dancers showed off their best tricks—a manège of turns or leaps or a series of grand pirouettes—although coherence was obviously not an aim here.

The middle act consisted of seven solos and one duet. They ranged from the quite cliched work by Igal Perry, Ave Maria, danced by Carreño, to the Mr Universe style of Dwight Roden’s Lament danced by Richardson.

Amongst these solos, however, was the sublimely beautiful short piece made by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell in 1978—Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It began with the dancer, David Hallberg on this occasion, standing on the top of a small platform with a few steps leading down to the stage floor. Hallberg’s body was lit to resemble a piece of sculpture in a gallery and his pose initially clearly recalled Michelangelo’s David. As Hallberg descended the steps and began to dance rather than to pose, the lighting came up to reveal choreography that was simple and yet in no way simplistic. It was an understated display of what constitutes the classical body, how that body moves and how with subtle twists of the arms and turns of the head it can become an innovation. Hallberg danced with classical perfection.

In the end, in a show of this nature it is the choreography that counts. On this occasion it was Ashton and Duato who gave this show its flair.

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2010

La Fille mal gardée. Paris Opera Ballet

14 July 2009. Palais Garnier, Paris

It was le quatorze juillet. The orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris began the evening with a remarkably stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. The audience applauded loudly and shouted Vive la France! It set the scene for an equally stirring performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.

Although Ashton’s version of Fille entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet only in 2007, the ballet has strong French roots that can be traced back to 1789 when a work called Le Ballet de la paille took the stage of the Grand-Théâtre of Bordeaux. Subsequently, a number of choreographers created their own versions before Ashton choreographed his production in 1960 for the Royal Ballet.

Ashton’s choreography gave the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet every opportunity to show their technical capacity for fast and precise footwork and their glorious adherence to the classical way of moving. On show too was their ability to give an individualistic interpretation of a role. The Widow Simone who, in what no doubt was a one-off patriotic moment on the French National Day, waved a tiny French flag as she made her first appearance was a case in point. Stephane Phavorin was to a certain extent the flustered pantomime dame but absent (thankfully) was the high camp interpretation that one often sees. Similarly, Simon Valastro as Alain gave a thoughtful portrayal in which he managed to convince us that he was not so much an imbecile as simply someone incompetent of functioning in the society in which he found himself. The difference is perhaps subtle but this Alain was not entirely brainless.

As Lise, Dorothée Gilbert displayed the brilliant technical capacity and the clarity and expansiveness of movement that one has come to expect from étoiles with this remarkable company. Coupled with her beautifully expressive upper body and her sheer delight in dancing, she was everything one could hope for as Lise. Her mime scene in Act II where she imagines herself married to Colas was tenderly moving and the pas de deux in this act was danced with just the right dreamy quality to display Ashton’s choreography to perfection.

Gilbert was partnered by Mathias Heymann as Colas who like his colleagues showed himself every bit an étoile. This is a company of outstanding artists.

Michelle Potter, 16 July 2009