The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Posted: April 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 30

Hofesh Schecter rehearsing The Royal Ballet cast in  Untouchable

Hofesh Schechter rehearsing The Royal Ballet corps and soloists in Untouchable

The history of a ballet is fascinating but it’s not what you see on stage. A work might be a masterpiece in the canon of ballet history but if it is not danced as a masterpiece what have we just seen? George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, with a brilliantly melodic, syncopated score by Paul Hindemith, is ‘a dance ballet without plot’, and is based on the ancient notion that the human organism is made up of four humours or temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric. Balanchine (who commissioned the score) said of his ballet that he had made a negative to Hindemith’s positive plate but as danced by the Royal Ballet this evening something seems to have gone awry in the darkroom. The positive aspect of the score is there, with pianist Robert Clark and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Barry Wordsworth, but the dancing, with one or two exceptions, is not as closely matched as Balanchine designed it. Writing in 1952 Edwin Denby described The Four Temperaments as ‘developing a ferocity of drive that seems to image the subject matter of its title: internal secretions.’ Apart from Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the second theme, a moment when Federico Bonelli comes alive in the second variation and Zanaida Yanowsky’s arresting performance of the Choleric variation, Denby’s ‘ferocity of drive’ is replaced by a pusillanimous parade of Balanchine steps; the jazz-inspired hip movements barely register, the wit is missing and the precision of the choreography abandoned in the execution of the steps. The production is credited as staged by Patricia Neary, but that was possibly when she first set it in 1973. I wonder when it was last visited by Neary or anyone else from The George Balanchine Trust. In its present manifestation, it feels like Balanchine by numbers — or in choreographic terms, by notation.

Hofesh Schechter’s Untouchable, his first work for the Royal Ballet at the invitation of director Kevin O’Hare, is borrowed from his previous work; rather than developing new ideas inspired by new dancers he has simply drawn the new dancers into the comfort of his own mould. Untouchable has costumes with a military theme by Holly Waddington and apocalyptic lighting by Lee Curran who uses industrial amounts of haze and banks of lights to create a total scenography from which the dancers emerge at the beginning and into which they disappear and reappear throughout the work. But Schechter’s swarming choreography and Nell Catchpole’s score (to which Schechter contributed) fuse so seamlessly that Untouchable lacks any contrast; it looks like the staging of something that should be happening but never does. One interesting aspect of the work is that Schechter works only with the corps and soloists: there are no officers in this army as the choreography emphasises. No doubt the administration is happy to have sold out these performances but the programming of Untouchable seems to have less to do with the future of ballet — a topic O’Hare is discussing at the Dance UK conference this weekend — than with making money from a popular choice of choreographer.

The psychological baggage of Untouchable may have a closer affinity to Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria than to his Song of the Earth but it is the latter ballet that the Royal Ballet choses to program this evening. Song of the Earth is, like Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a milestone in the choreographer’s creative output, a beautiful work that sets Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Song of the Earth to dance. It was not thought acceptable by the Board of the Royal Ballet at the time to choreograph Mahler so MacMillan had to create it on John Cranko’s company in Stuttgart. Happily the value of Song of the Earth has been vindicated since the Royal Ballet took it into its own repertoire 100 performances ago. Not all performances are equal, however. This evening, Laura Morera as the woman in white is the only vestige of transcendent beauty against a rather dense barrier of emotional inertia. Nehemiah Kish’s entrance as The Man — the very first entrance in the ballet — does not augur well and Edward Watson’s subsequent entrance does little to suggest he is the powerful messenger of death. The corps of men has a fey element or two that disturbs an otherwise grounded chorus into a discordant group; the women fare much better and Morera has some strong support in her chorus but she has to struggle too much to establish her emotional credentials with her Man and Death. In a score that is so thoroughly imbued with Mahler’s own struggle with love and death the conviction and sensitivity of this trio is essential to the success of MacMillan’s choreography. Morera’s force of character is convincing but the relationship is not.


Natalia Osipova in Royal Ballet’s Onegin

Posted: February 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Natalia Osipova in Royal Ballet’s Onegin

Royal Ballet, Onegin, Royal Opera House, January 30

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in John Cranko's Onegin (photo: Alastair Muir)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in John Cranko’s Onegin (photo: Alastair Muir)

It is the first time in recent years that I have been gripped by the dance drama on the Royal Opera House stage and it is the interpretation by Natalia Osipova of Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin that is responsible. From my seat in the upper amphitheatre, each gesture she makes is clear, however subtle, and when she throws herself at her Onegin — as she does frequently — the effect is like wearing 3D glasses: she flies into the auditorium. I am too far away to see her eyes but I know exactly where they are focused at each moment. Her performance has the naturalness of improvisation — like her plonking down on a bench as she gazes at Onegin in Act 2 to her child-like intensity of stabbing the pen in the inkwell before writing her letter — and the rigour of a beautifully crafted, flawless interpretation of the steps.

Perhaps it is Osipova’s Russian soul responding to Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, but Cranko was not a Russian choreographer and the role was created on Marcia Haydée. There is something nevertheless universal in Tatiana. In his biography of Cranko, Theatre in My Blood, John Percival observes that Haydée’s Tatiana was ‘a character who grew through the work and was in every moment entirely convincing as a portrait of an exceptional but credible person.’ He could have been writing about Osipova last Friday night but I can’t help feeling she was able to infuse the role with a spirit that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky would have recognized.

Because Osipova lives the character of Tatiana so fully, her relationship with Onegin requires a heightened sensibility from her partner. Matthew Golding acts his part with less dimensions than Osipova; he appears to remain quite tightly locked into his role — more prince than profligate. He is most at home in the beginning of the first act because he is setting up his character but in the bedroom scene where he is transformed into the dream-like persona Tatiana desires, he cannot leave his aloofness on the far side of the mirror. Osipova is superb here and Golding partners her brilliantly but he never seems to enter into the dream. In the second act Golding fails to colour Cranko’s gestures with a degree of willful petulance that will give Lensky no choice but to challenge him to a duel; we are left wondering what all the fuss is about. And while Tatiana’s stature has risen by the opening of the third act, Onegin’s hasn’t descended which creates an imbalance because the pathos of Act 3 is in the intersection of their divergent paths. At the end Golding runs off and Osipova runs after him, checking herself as she reaches the door. What I didn’t know is that Pushkin never finished his verse novel, and neither does Osipova clarify her emotional state at the end of the ballet. It is left floating in turmoil; however kind and distinguished Count Gremin may be (played with grateful devotion by Bennet Gartside), Tatiana’s heart is more her master than her mind.

There are just five principal characters in Onegin who are responsible for the development of the plot. Cranko paints Tatiana’s relationship to her sister Olga (Yasmine Naghdi) with the lightest of touches; the opening scene where the two are introduced in Jürgen Rose’s idyllic country setting reveals a tender competition, with Olga the more effusive of the two; she dances a lovely solo full of joyous bouncing steps surrounded by friends while Tatiana relaxes with feet up on a wicker bench devouring her romantic novel. Olga’s fiancée Lensky (the elegant Matthew Ball) is a finely drawn character, a romantic suitor whose attention is devoted entirely to pleasing Olga. There is no indication of any flaw in his character that will make his jealousy explode so violently in Act 2, nor is there any trait in Olga, apart from her natural ebullience, that suggests her willingness to flirt with Onegin. All this has to be whipped up at the party, and it is left to Cranko’s choreography to make this happen without the full emotional investment by these three characters. These may seem minor details but with an artist of Osipova’s calibre in the cast the standards are set very high.

I can’t imagine the ballet Onegin being created to Tchaikovsky’s opera score; what Kurt-Heinz Stolze created with his orchestral arrangements of some of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known piano compositions and orchestral poems allows the choreography to weave together the characters of Pushkin’s novel seamlessly and leaves the beauty of Cranko’s choreography to match Tchaikovsky’s arias.


Royal Ballet: Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet: Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Royal Ballet in Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, broadcast live in Trafalgar Square, July 16

Minna More Ede, curator of the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery, had a clear idea of what she wanted – if not what to expect – when she suggested a collaborative project with the Royal Ballet, but I am not sure the Royal Ballet did: there are three paintings, three artists, three composers, three dances and seven choreographers.

The idea for contemporary artists together with a group of choreographers and composers to collaborate on three dances in response to three paintings by Titian was, as the French say, géniale. The three paintings – on display for the first time since the 18th century – are Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and the Death of Actaeon. The voluptuous, vengeful Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, is common to all three.

The exhibition is a delight, full of colour, humour and poetry. Chris Ofili’s paintings on a theme of Ovid are stunning, and his stage setting for Diana and Actaeon is a forest of bright colour and luscious forms. Mark Wallinger’s voyeuristic meeting with the bathing Diana makes us all Actaeons peeking into forbidden territory, though this Diana cannot see us and is sufficiently constricted within her locked bathroom not to do us any harm; we survive the confrontation though not, perhaps, the stigma of peeping. Conrad Shawcross has refurbished an industrial robot once used in the manufacture of cars to be his Diana, with lightning rod eye carving out a pair of antlers. It takes a little adjustment to associate this with the Titian paintings, but that is the beauty of such an experiment: one never knows where it will lead. There is an excellent film of the dancers in rehearsal but apart from the piano excerpts in the film, we do not hear sufficiently from the composers – Nico Muhly, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Dove (with librettist Alasdair Middleton) – to bring their contribution into equal focus.

So how does all this response to Titian, so enticingly displayed and suggested in the exhibition, translate into the choreographic works? Dance is an ephemeral medium, so the effect of choreography has to fuse all the elements together immediately. Whatever program notes there may be, or however volubly a choreographer may talk about his creative process, it is ultimately the completeness of what we see on stage that counts.

All three works focus on the story of Diana and Actaeon. Titian’s painting of the banishment by Diana of the pregnant Callisto was ignored, which has something to do, perhaps, with the all-male creative team. It’s a bit of a mystery how these fourteen artists were matched into three teams, and how they developed their collaborative ideas within those teams. The principal metamorphosis seems to have come from the visual artists, who ran with the idea and came up with four distinct ideas (Wallinger’s Diana locked in her bathroom was for the exhibition only). The composers provided a vital, expressive link between the artists and the choreographers, though it is not clear who was negotiating these interactions and at what point in the process they started. Since this is a choreographic project, however, it falls to the choreographers to bring together the various inputs and ideas in the final collaborative metamorphosis to be presented on the Royal Opera House stage. The seven choreographers are Will Tuckett, Jonathan Watkins, Liam Scarlett, Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Alastair Marriott, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Only the Shawcross/Muhly/McGregor/Brandstrup collaboration on Machina offers a work that has a cohesion of elements from beginning to end. Muhly’s lovely score situates itself in Titian’s sixteenth century Venice, Shawcross’s robot is programmed to the movement of the dancers through data transmission – right up McGregor’s street – and in using Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson and Tamara Rojo, the two choreographers have an appropriately contrasting and expressive quartet of principals. Costa and Watson appear to represent two qualities of Actaeon, and Benjamin and Rojo two qualities of the goddess Diana. Costa’s opening duet with Benjamin is a sinuous and powerful coupling, with his bull-like body dominating her, his arms wrapping around her vulnerable form, sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, but never forced. Their qualities contrast with the Shawcross Diana, though Rojo’s steely-black presence hints at that implacable, don’t-mess-with-me side. Watson’s Actaeon is more innocent that Costa’s, more inquisitive, and more likely to get into trouble. He wants to melt on Rojo’s Diana, but she won’t melt. Costa’s solo and his duet with Watson are other conspicuous moments, but there is a lot of movement from the ensemble that seems to escape both the music and the scope of the work.

Wallinger’s idea of surprising Diana in her bath was an idea worth pursuing, but for whatever reason, its challenge was not taken up. His analogy of the moon landing works well for the set, but the team of Wheeldon and Marriott don’t seem to have followed it through; they have rather superimposed their own interpretation of Titian’s paintings on the moon landing idea, as if trying to pull Wallinger into their own orbit. Trespass is thus a muddle of ideas and inputs with an interesting mirrored set, a jazzy score by Mark-Anthony Turnage and an all-too familiar vocabulary of contemporary classical ballet in body tights, pointe shoes and swept back hair. Nehemiah Kish and Stephen McRae are the two Actaeons, though they could be two squeaky-clean brothers, and the two Dianas – Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton – look like twins. This narrowing of the dramatic possibilities inherent in Titian’s light and shade, his nuanced poses, the passion of the flesh and the destructive force of Diana’s fury are rather lost in this etiolated space drama.

The Ofili/Scarlett/Tuckett/Watkins/Dove/Middleton team’s Diana and Actaeon presents Marianella Nuñez as Diana and Federico Bonelli as Actaeon, though the mythological story of Titian’s couple has been reinterpreted here as an on-again-off-again love duet with a mordant ending. The Chris Ofili backdrop is beautiful, sensual and colourful: not a world of arabesques, extensions and classical mime – a point lost on the choreographers and, needless to say, an opportunity missed. As the curtain rises, Nuñez stands with her back to us in a long robe and red bonnet, almost unidentifiable, a cross between Carabosse and the Firebird. One painted root rises, Nuñez leaves, and Bonelli walks out in purple with a quintet of dancers as his pack of hounds, their puppet heads a little too small to be effective (but wonderful in filmed close-up). He commands them like servants, in classical mime: Go! And there in the giant, Freudian-symboled forest he performs a solo straight out of Royal Ballet’s book of princes. Where is the princess? Nuñez is in red, so we can see her in discreet abandon, bathing in blue light. Four lines of nymphs protect her (no such lines in Titian). Bonelli arrives, and Nuñez is not happy: she screams, then jumps into Bonelli’s arms. Titian is scratching his head. A pas de deux follows with a square of nymphs close by. Nuñez puts her hand to Bonelli’s eyes, then pushes him away and mimes No, then ends up in his arms being lifted: more partnering, a love duet. She bourrés, he runs off like a distraught prince. Nuñez has a brief respite with her nymphs, cogitating in the undergrowth with wrapped arms, looking sexy and disdainful. Arguably she is aroused by Actaeon’s uninvited gaze, but has to balance that with her role as keeper of the virgin nymphs. No double standards here, but inner confusion nevertheless. Her water nymphs are rippling in her defence. Bonelli returns. Who knows what he’s been doing amongst the steamy plants. Move aside, I see her, he commands. He lifts her on his shoulders, puts her down, slides her. No no, she says (lift). They are reaching their climax and embrace. Exit Bonelli, while Nunez walks around again with her nymphs, deliberating, arms crossed, hands either side of head, feet expressing a no no no bourrée (but so beautifully). No wonder Bonelli keeps coming back – as he does now – but that’s the danger. She backs up; she’s made up her mind: no no (hold me). More lifts; she is sitting on his shoulder. She is mad, there is one more lift and then she throws water in his eyes. The nymphs run in diagonals then a circle; he lifts her again, and pirouettes to the floor. His dogs come in. Bonelli looks worried. His dogs mistake him for a stag (though they have to have imagination because he has no antlers) and are at him. The pack jumps, kicks, swings. Bonelli jumps with them; part of his costume comes undone (flesh ripped and hanging off) and he falls. He gets up: arabesque! Turning his back, crumpling to the floor, he dies a dramatic death. Nuñez is triumphant, gesticulating and undulating over him, which momentarily wakes him up before he slumps to the ground for good. She turns in a perfect arabesque, and walks forward as in a funeral march, asking in a final gesture, what have I done?

It is a question the choreographers of the last two works should ask of themselves, for whatever metamorphosis had previously taken place has in their hands metamorphosed back into standard ballet vocabulary and gestures taken from the Giselles, Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties, Balanchines, from the princes and princesses, from the court and its attendants. It is as if the Royal Ballet has drawn Titian into their mould and squeezed him dry.

I saw the performance not at the Opera House but at the live broadcast in Trafalgar Square. The camera can get close up to the dancers, which is like having the best (if not the most comfortable) seat in the house, but you are subject to the eye of the cameraman, and if he wants to follow the women, then the men simply vanish from the stage. The broadcast is also susceptible to technological hiccups, of which there were one or two, but otherwise the performance transmitted really well.

At the end of the screening, the girl sitting next to me on a BP poncho offered me a glass of red wine (thank you), something that could never have happened in the Opera House. Cheers.

Royal Ballet’s Birthday Offering, minus the occasion

Posted: July 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet’s Birthday Offering, minus the occasion

Royal Ballet: Birthday Offering, A Month in the Country and Les Noces, Royal Opera House, July 4.

Sitting in the stalls is a completely different experience from being on my usual perch in the top of the upper circle. The orchestra sound is emphatically full, and there is enough light from the stage to see the notes I am scribbling without overwriting them. When the curtain opens on Sir Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, I feel I am on the stage; seven couples enter the ballroom to a Glazunov waltz in a grand elliptical curve. From here they are fourteen people dancing rather than the fourteen figures dancing one sees from the upper circle. The facial expressions are clear, too, and there is one face that is not smiling during this grand opening, standing out like the proverbial sore thumb. The ellipse becomes two lines, the men behind and the women in front – the cream of the Royal Ballet’s ballerinas, please note. At least, that was the idea behind Ashton’s ballet: a party piece for the leading ballerinas to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company, and there were seven in the original cast: Elaine Fifield, Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Violetta Elvin, Beryl Grey and Margot Fonteyn. The Royal Ballet as of this evening has ten principal women, with one on maternity leave. Nine into seven doesn’t go, and Zenaida Yanowsky is dancing the lead role of the next ballet, but there are four principals missing from the present lineup (Marianella Nuñez, Alina Cojocaru, Leanne Benjamin, and Lauren Cuthbertson), three of whom one might have expected to see in this particularly show-off work. Their places are taken by three first soloists, so the whole nature of the work has shifted: the proud party piece becomes a challenging exercise without a celebratory occasion.

The challenge for the dancers is not only in the steps. In creating Birthday Offering, Ashton worked closely with each of his ballerinas, moulding steps to their respective technical abilities and responding to their individual characteristics in order to show them off in their best light. It is effectively an intimate portrait of the seven ballerinas with whom Ashton worked in 1956; it is not a portrait of the seven ballerinas on stage this evening, who are dancing the portraits of the seven original ballerinas. So however well they dance the steps, they do not have the confidence that the variations are tailored for them; they can shine, but they cannot show off.

After the seven couples repeat the opening mazurka, the women leave and the men walk elegantly to the back of the stage to watch the variations, the very core of this work.

Yuhei Choe dances the first variation, originally created on Elaine Fifield. Choe has above all a refined, delicate quality, and an ability to turn, notably in a sequence of a quick turn to the left, then a turn to the right followed by a double. Laura Morera enters backwards on pointe to begin the second variation, created for Rowena Jackson, a vivacious and smiling performance, bright and fast. Sarah Lamb assimilates the qualities of Svetlana Beriosova in a generous offering of beats, balance and renversé turns ending with the lovely, expansive gesture of offering to the audience. Roberta Marquez, who stood out in the opening for her dynamic épaulement, is full of exuberance, shining in the spirit of Nadia Nerina’s fourth variation with ease and warmth. She finishes the variation calmly in arabesque. Hikaru Kobayashi has control over some difficult adage steps in Violetta Elvin’s tricky fifth variation, but lacks sufficient juice this evening to mould them together seamlessly. I sense Helen Crawford has an affinity with the spirit of Beryl Grey’s pizzicato variation: she has a strong, dramatic quality, a quiet jump, and executes the piqués and difficult beating steps brilliantly.

The men now disappear, signaling the arrival of the ballerina of the ballerinas, Tamara Rojo, who bourrées in like a doll – a teasing reference by Ashton, according to Zoe Anderson’s program notes, to Margot Fonteyn’s weak feet. Rojo has the assurance of the prima ballerina, but is quite business-like, generous but constantly monitoring her own performance. We know if she is doing well, and we also know if she knows she is doing well. She takes an expansive bow and looks back at the audience as she walks off, her last classical variation for the Royal Ballet.

The men reemerge in a mazurka, with Federico Bonelli taking the lead once danced by Michael Soames. He is barely stretched by the series of double tours, pirouettes and beats.

In the grand pas de deux – a presentation within a presentation – Bonelli and Rojo begin with a shaky, almost nervous grip. The violin must have caught the same chill for one brief moment. Bonelli partners Rojo in barely supported bourrées on a diagonal. She has a perfect poise and balance, but looks this evening as if she is working at it, so the overall impression is not as open as one would like.

To the final music, the ballerinas arrive with their respective partners, first Choe and Morera, then Kobayashi and Marquez, Lamb and Crawford. Rojo enters on her own path from the back, like an entrance from one of the classic ballets, and joins Bonelli and the other six couples for a grand, smiling finale.

When the curtain opens on Ashton’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s play, A Month in the Country, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s wonderfully detailed period design, lit beautifully by William Bundy, sweeps us instantly, actively into the Yslaev home; the choreography has started before anyone has made a move (the effect is the same with Oman’s design for Enigma Variations). A footman (Sander Blommaert) serves drinks. On stage right, Natalia Petrovna’s husband, Yslaev (Christopher Saunders), is sitting in a chair reading a newspaper, and their son, Kolya (Ludovic Ondiviela), is sitting writing at a desk behind his father. On stage left, Petrovna’s admirer, Rakitin (Gary Avis), is lounging on a divan at her feet engaging her in idle conversation, and the Yslaev ward, Vera (Emma Maguire), is at the piano in an alcove. The music is by Chopin, admirably played throughout by Kate Shipway in the orchestra pit. As we look at the stage, the active protagonists of the story are on the right, and the passive victims on the left. All the introductions are made in those first moments and the scene is set: provincial life at the country house, languid, slightly bored. The maid (Sian Murphy) enters, and curtsies. She invites Yslaev out into the garden. He crosses the room to give his wife a kiss on the forehead and leaves by the patio doors at the back of the room. Petrovna (Zenaida Yanowsky) gets up from her divan impatiently, unable to contain her emotions, launching into a spirited, lyrical dance that is both flirtatious and sensual. Rakitin, unsettled and unsure of the source of her unfamiliar emotion, tries to forestall it by taking her hand and kissing it, bringing the dance to its conclusion. It is now Vera’s turn to dance her own emotions on the same musical variation, a young girl with huge spirits, on the verge of womanhood, with dreams of love. Maguire, who looks the part, and for whom the role seems tailored, expresses it all with natural grace and joie de vivre. Kolya watches her until she finishes sitting in Yslaev’s empty chair, dreaming, perhaps, of being mistress of her own house one day. Yslaev returns, fussing over having lost something. Everyone starts looking for whatever it is, roused by the physical contact, bumping into each other, stepping over Kolya who is on all fours, lifting each other out of the way. It is like a delightful game to relieve the building tensions. Only Petrovna and Rakitin seem uninterested but they soon join in and it is Petrovna who locates the keys and Yslaev leaves once again.

Kolya lets off steam, his boyish sense of fun expressed in a playful dance, juggling and bouncing a ball. The lace curtains flutter in the breeze as a premonition of the storm about to burst on the family: the entrance of the new tutor. Beliaev (Rupert Pennefather) appears at the open door with a kite he has built for Kolya. He is tall and elegant, with blonde hair and a moustache, but looks as if he has been over-exerting himself with the kite, as there is a weariness in his face and in his demeanour. He salutes Petrovna, Vera blushes, and Rakitin, who is still trying to piece together the puzzle of Petrovna’s recent capricious humours, eyes him with disdain. Petrovna engages Beliaev in conversation and the latter responds with dance language that has all the suppleness and romance that Rakitin lacks. The arabesque is used to beautiful effect, a purity of line emerging from the surrounding turmoil. Petrovna does not watch but notices every nuance. Rakitin leaves abruptly on some pretext, leaving Petrovna and Beliaev to dance together to a polonaise, evidently cherishing the moment. Vera comes in and immediately joins in the dance with Beliaev, while Petrovna disengages, collects herself and observes Vera’s innocent love bubbling over. Kolya joins in, making everyone laugh, and all four dance together, searching for the relationship each craves. Beliaev shows off in the heat of embarrassment and attention, while Petrovna is carried away by her feelings. All but Petrovna leave, and the applause is well deserved not only for the performance of the four characters, but for the clarity and emotional power of the choreography.

Rakitin returns, sees Petrovna alone in a flush of emotion and checks to see if the tutor is anywhere nearby. He takes her shoulders from behind, a gesture Petrovna misinterprets as that of the returning Beliaev. Her reaction encourages Rakitin to continue his amorous pursuit and to share in her aroused state, but once she realizes her mistake, she will have none of it. She goes through the movements, but without a trace of passion. She breaks off. Rakitin stubbornly or perhaps desperately redoubles his efforts, frustrating Petrovna more. On hearing the footsteps of Yslaev they break apart, but entering the room, Yslaev sees his wife out of sorts and wonders what is wrong. Rakitin reassures him it is nothing and escorts Yslaev into the garden. Petrovna leaves and Kolya, the one who is innocently unaware of the storm descending, runs in from the garden and rushes around the room with his kite and out again into the air, a beautifully eloquent choreographic moment. Vera arrives, evidently in love, and Beliaev, noticing Vera, quickly checks to see if Petrovna is around. Vera offers herself to him for a kiss. Dancing together, Beliaev tries to keep her occupied and happy, going through the actions as Petrovna had just done with Rakitin, but Vera sees his involvement as acquiescence to her wish. As the duet becomes more entwined, we know Petrovna is going to arrive at any minute. Vera gives Beliaev a hug, and he puts his arms tentatively around her.

Petrovna sees this as she enters in a serious, overwrought, dramatic state. She lectures Vera, but Vera is naive, and head over heels in love. She admits to Petrovna her love for Beliaev, kneeling in front of her and crying on her lap. Maguire’s emotional power here is utterly convincing, bringing tears to my eyes. Petrovna, however, is moved differently; she is aghast, and slaps Vera’s face. Vera runs out into Rakitin, who is clearly reeling from the events that have overtaken his tranquil, if slightly unusual way of life. Have some tea dear, no come for a walk, he seems to say to Petrovna: anything to get her out of the house. They step together – the Fred step – out into the garden. Beliaev appears, clearly exhausted. He sees Rakitin and Petrovna walking arm in arm in the garden, and sits in Yslaev’s seat, musing on his fate. Another complication is about to arrive in the form of the maid, Katia, with a basket of raspberries. We see her outside the window with the footman, who thinks he is on to a good thing, but once she sees Beliaev, the maid pushes the footman away and rushes to flirt with the tutor, feeding him raspberries one by one. They dance together, in more peasant mode, to a polonaise. Sian Murphy is ecstatic and shows it. Without any unwelcome interruptions, the dance finishes; she picks up her basket of raspberries and runs off, leaving a pensive tutor to dance his heartache, beautifully expressed in his body and arm movements. Petrovna arrives, unseen. She approaches Beliaev and pins a rose to his tunic, then backs away as if to leave. Now it is Beliaev who takes her hand to stop her. This is the beginning of their duet to the Andante spiniato, all emotion and interlocking arms, hands searching each other’s bodies, lifts with opening legs and skirt flying, elongated lines and willing submission. She melts in his embrace. She pulls away; she goes to kiss him, then changes her mind again and runs to the garden door. He stops her, gently bringing her back into the room in a series of gliding bourrées on shallow diagonals down stage. She responds and they embrace, his head resting lovingly on her chest when Vera rushes in and the dénouement begins, to Chopin’s Grande Polonaise.

She separates the couple, and calls everyone in, openly accusing Petrovna of leading on ‘her’ lover, Beliaev. Petrovna denies it: Vera must be crazy. Vera accuses her of lying, but Petrovna shrugs it off as fanciful, dancing distractedly between her husband and her admirer. Unable to contain her deception and anger, Vera rushes from the room, followed by everyone but Rakitin and Beliaev. Rakitin points to the flower in Beliaev’s lapel, at which Beliaev has nothing to say, and Rakitin understands what he has to do. It is the one moment in the ballet where Ashton resorts to conversational mime. They leave the room together and Petrovna returns alone, aware of the speed at which her life is unraveling. Yslaev comes in and tries to console his wife, partnering her briefly in her fraught steps until she faints in his arms. Rakitin and Beliaev return dressed in overcoats and with packed bags and say goodbye to a non-plussed Yslaev; Kolya is bewildered and angry at the imminent loss of his tutor. Beliaev looks back for Petrovna but she enters too late to see him go; she dances a final, anguished solo, powerful in its simple choreographic structure, but it proves the one weakness in Yanowsky’s performance: adept at masking her emotions in the presence of others, she is unable in this most private moment to let them go. As she cries on the back of the chair, Beliaev returns, unseen, takes her trailing dress ribbon and kisses it. She doesn’t notice. He wants to say something but can’t. He takes the flower from his tunic and casts it on to the floor beside her and rushes out. She sees the flower and picks it up, runs to the door, but too late. She lets drop the flower that once symbolized Rakitin’s love for her, then her love for Beliaev, as she walks forward lost in her own loss. “Surely it is possible to love two people at once?” she asks in the play. “… I don’t know, though . . . perhaps it only shows one doesn’t love either.”

Ashton’s choreographic action follows the structural pattern of the play: short lines of dialogue, full of detail. The only long passages are Beliaev’s four pas de deux with Petrovna, Vera and Katia. Ashton has cut from the play any characters and situations that are not essential for the telling of the story, and that cannot be translated clearly into choreographic language. Oman’s design and the music of Chopin complete this unity to perfection.

Bronislava Nijinska’s choreographic setting of Stravinsky’s Les Noces closes the program. Created in 1923 for Diaghilev’s company, the abstract, ritual wedding festivities make for a stark and rather incongruous contrast to A Month in the Country, but Les Noces is, in its own right, a powerful work. Its geometric construction and grounded, massed choreographic language, as well as its percussive score, make it unique in the ballet repertory. It is also an unemotional work for those dancing: Nijinska did not want expressive faces, but expressive body shapes, and the power of the work derives from the ensemble working rigorously and harmoniously together. The designs of Natalia Goncharova are simplified, abstracted architecture that serve to enhance the primitive rituals of the four tableaux: Consecration of the Bride, Consecration of the Bridegroom, Departure of the Bride, and the Wedding Feast. Ryoichi Hirano is the stoic bridegroom, and Christina Arestis as the bride has just the right enigmatic look that seems to convey the mystery and fear of what she experiences, without attempting to express it. Indeed, there is no room for personal expression apart from Nijinska’s calculated movement. There are some weaknesses in the performance. In the second tableau, none of the men seem quite sure where to look, so their ensemble work lacks its maximum force. There is also an unevenness in the men’s physical engagement with the grounded leaps: to keep on the music, the form in the air is sometimes incomplete, and the dynamics not sufficiently brutal to convey the primitive nature of the ceremony. There is one curly-haired dancer – I wish I could identify him – who is clearly giving it his all, and is a pleasure to see. Les Noces is a work that demands such total concentration and dedication from everyone. The third tableau is beautiful, and during the fourth the ensemble really begins to work as one, finishing the work on a magical high.