Dances at a gathering. The Royal Ballet Digital Season 2020

New York-based dance writer, Joan Acocella, whose critical writing I much admire, has spoken of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering, along with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Mark Morris’ Gloria as ‘benchmark works of the sixties/seventies youth cult, with their gangs of fresh-faced young folk skipping and running and falling to the accompaniment of high-art music’ and as being ‘in exaltation of what is plain and openhearted and innocent as opposed to what is fancy and fake.’* The featured image above shows Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s production of Dances at a gathering, and it seems to me indicative of the human qualities that Acocella describes. As the work progresses those qualities become more and more obvious.

Dances at a gathering opens and concludes quietly, introspectively perhaps? In the opening sequence, Alexander Campbell enters quietly from the downstage Prompt side and dances a solo in which swinging arm movements and expansive jumps across the stage predominate. He exits on the OP side, but before doing so makes a questioning gesture with one hand. Where is the gathering? At the very end the cast of ten, five women, five men, stand on stage, often in stillness, before they leave arm in arm. The gathering has concluded.

In between there is so much beautifully poetic choreography, sometimes with the flavour of character work, the mazurka in particular. This of course befits the Polish rhythms that permeate much of the selection of piano music by Frederick Chopin (spelled Fryderyk Chopin on Royal Ballet publicity) to which the work is performed. Often the movement seems simple, deceptively so I hasten to add. There are no noticeably ongoing, or clearly defined relationships between the dancers and Robbins is recorded as saying, ‘There are no stories to any of the dances in “DAAG” There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.’** But there is much scope for us to see personalities. We see it through movement and through facial expressions, and through the recognition the dancers show to their fellow performers throughout. It is indeed a gathering, and the individuality of each dancer is very clear.

If I had to choose a favourite section from the astonishingly good performance by the entire cast, I would go for a section led by Laura Morera. The section begins with a solo by an effervescent Morera. She is playful and sexy, and performs with beautifully timed highlights. The sequence has those overtones of character dancing but is equally strong in classical movement. Morera appears to be playing to an invisible partner. Towards the end of the section two prospective partners appear, but neither shows the interest she hoped to generate within them. With a shrug and a smile she leaves the stage. Transfixing I thought.

The duet between Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, which led into the finale, was another highlight, full as it was with caring touches, longing glances, and clear admiration for each other. Yasmine Nagdhi also had some wonderful moments of fast and detailed movement. Then from Bonelli there were those fabulous double tours ending in a full plié in first position. What an elegant and exciting performance from the entire cast! They explain why in the video clip below.

Dances at a gathering was made by Jerome Robbins in 1969 for New York City Ballet and entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 1970. The stream we were offered during the Royal’s 2020 digital season was recorded during a performance this year, 2020. It featured ten of the Royal Ballet’s star dancers, Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi, Laura Morera, Fumi Kaneko, Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Luca Acri and Valentino Zucchetti. The varied selection of Chopin’s piano music was exquisitely played by by Robert Clark.

Dances at a gathering has never been part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and, as far as I am aware, has never been shown live in Australia. I paid £3 to have access to this stream, and it was worth every penny and more, especially given that viewing was possible a month (it is available until 25 October)! Perhaps in the future David Hallberg might consider adding it to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire? On the other hand, I can imagine it sitting very nicely on Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 8 October 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in a screenshot from Dancers at a gathering. The Royal Ballet, 2020

* Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1993), p. 87.
**Deborah Jowitt. Jerome Robins. His life, his theater, his dance (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004), p. 387.

Jowitt, in the book mentioned above, gives an excellent account of the development of Dances at a gathering in chapter 16, pp. 381-388.

The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet. Digital Season 2020

I have often wondered about Ninette de Valois’ 1946 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened up Covent Garden after World War II. My interest was sparked after examining dance in wartime London while undertaking research for my 2014 biography of Dame Margaret Scott.* More recently I have been interested in Oliver Messel, who designed that 1946 production, given that Kristian Fredrikson, as an emerging designer in the 1960s, admired Messel’s work, and in fact some of his 1960s designs are indebted to Messel.** So, it was interesting to be able to watch a recent revival of the de Valois production, a revival staged by Monica Mason and repetiteur Christopher Newton, originally in 2006.

The streamed production was a performance from early 2020 and featured Fumi Kaneko as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. I had not seen Kaneko, a Royal Ballet First Soloist, dance before and for me the most startling feature of her dancing was her exceptional sense of balance. It showed itself throughout the performance and, in fact, was more startling outside the Rose Adagio than within it. I also admired her characterisation as the 16 year old Aurora In Act I. She was full of youthful joy and excitement, although I would have liked a little more contrast in her Aurora of the last act, which would have strengthened her overall performance. She was, however, absolutely enchanting in this last act in her solo variation from the grand pas de deux. Her beautifully expressive arms and hands, for example, told us of the process of her becoming an adult.

Bonelli is a dab hand at playing princely figures and did not disappoint. I especially admired the emotional quality he brought to Act II as a lonely prince looking for love. Then, as with Kaneko, his solo variation in Act III was beautifully danced with exceptional control of those assorted leaps and turns. In fact, the grand pas de deux was thrilling from start to finish. Of the other characters, Elizabeth McGorian was an outstanding Queen, full of love and then concern for her daughter, while Kristen McNally was an individualistic and highly theatrical and flamboyant Carabosse. Thomas Whitehead developed the character of Catalabutte well and Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball showed off their excellent techniques as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird. I especially enjoyed Naghdi’s understanding of what is behind that particular dance, that is she is listening to the Bluebird teaching her how to fly.

But how things have changed since 1946, at least from where I stand. This production had so much more mime than what I am used to seeing. Has it been lost in later productions? If so, why I wonder because in the Royal Ballet production it made the story much stronger, and there were no problems in understanding what was being ‘said’. And there were moments when certain aspects of the story were opened up. We know that the King banned all spindles from his kingdom after Carabosse declared that Aurora would die from pricking her finger on such an item. But I can’t remember seeing a production where three village women, trying to hide their spindles, were brought before the King who wanted to execute them. Such moments fill out the story and give back the narrative to what is essentially a narrative ballet. I loved it.

All in all, and as ever, the Royal Ballet gave us an exceptional performance from every point of view.

As for the Messel costumes, I thought many were just too much. Too much colour, too much decoration. I’m not sure why the Lilac Fairy had those bright pink layers of tulle to her tutu. It was only in the darkness of the forests of Act II that the glints of lilac could be seen peeking through the lolly pink. But it was interesting to see those characteristics of Messel tutus that Fredrikson picked up on in his early work—wide decorative shoulder straps, and an overlay of feathery (or leafy) patterns spilling down from the bodice onto the tulle skirt of the tutu, for example. This style was exemplified by the tutu for the Lilac Fairy (danced by Gina Storm-Jensen). Those few of Fredrikson‘s designs that are still readily available for Peggy van Praagh’s 1964 staging of Aurora’s Wedding, his first Australian Ballet production, show a similar approach. Fredrikson acknowledged his interest in Messel’s work when he said he admired Messel’s ‘extraordinary richness and imagination’.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2020

Featured image: Fumi Kaneko in a still from Act I, The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet, 2020

*Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014)
**Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2020)