The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

Posted: February 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria, Royal Opera House, February 7

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. In the program notes Zoë Anderson relates a revealing anecdote about its creation. Baryshnikov was a guest artist of the Royal Ballet that summer and insisted on experiencing the Ashton style in a work created on him. Ashton, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to showcase a virtuoso dancer steeped in the Kirov tradition as a foil to his company. Baryshnikov later admitted to being disappointed: “I wanted English ballet and he wanted Russian ballet.” This evening it is Stephen McRae who takes on Baryshnikov’s role, standing at the centre of a large, sparsely decorated stage as the curtain rises. Clement Crisp’s effusive praise of McRae notwithstanding, his formidable technique is here in the service of somebody else’s distinctive style and steps. Ashton’s genius was to bring out the qualities of the person dancing, and in Baryshnikov he was evidently able to marry expression and technique to a high degree. Trying to recapture that undermines McRae’s ability to express himself in the technique and he is also at a stylistic disadvantage for he is very much English ballet, not Russian ballet. His partner in Rhapsody, Laura Morera, despite her Spanish origins, is very much English ballet, and she fits into Lesley Collier’s original quicksilver shoes and lovely sense of line with consummate ease (Collier was coaching the role). What she doesn’t have is the stylistic contrast in McRae to play against. With these misgivings and the six couples in pastel colours looking a little rough in their patterns and timings (especially the men), Rhapsody forms a rather under-cooked first course to an oddly assorted triple bill.

This kind of three-course menu in which a new work is sandwiched between two staples of the repertoire (82 performances each) is predominantly the responsibility of the chef and the chef at The Royal Ballet is not only the director but the one who provides the new work, in this case Wayne (‘dance doesn’t have to be the priority’) McGregor. It is his latest offering, Tetractys  – The Art of Fugue, that sits rather uncomfortably between the two classically-based works by his predecessors. McGregor stretches everything but the classical technique, and expressiveness in his dances takes a back seat to his latest intellectual construct. Seeing the work after reading the program notes about Bach’s Art of Fugue (here orchestrated by Michael Berkeley), its signs, symbols, mystical tetractys and association with the Pythagorean theory of numbers, overlaid by set designer Tauba Auerbach’s geometry of glyphs, and you feel heartened by the example of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The cast is stellar but even stars implode: the feline Natalia Osipova, whose first appearance with Edward Watson is pure sorcery, soon fades into the miasma of over-extended limbs and onerous partnering. Eric Underwood suffers temporary eclipse as he passes through the darker sections of the McGregor/Auerbach dark universe, leaving only the ghostly trace of his phosphorescent unitard, and the luminous qualities of Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson are wholly consumed. McRae, dressed in green but still radiating sparks from Rhapsody, appears out of place and Federico Bonelli is clearly suffering some kind of meltdown (he was unwell enough the following evening for the work to be cancelled, though Osipova’s concussion was an additional factor).

McGregor sums up in the program notes the link between Bach’s Art of Fugue (without the definite article) and Tetractys – The Art of Fugue: ‘I am thinking of this piece as a fugue in terms of my own structure: I have the Bach, I have the design, I have my choreography and I have Michael Berkeley’s version of the score. So there are four elements, each with a different logic, but which absolutely speak to each other.’ Speaking has never been a problem for McGregor, but finding a formal framework for his onstage dialogues and an expressive vehicle for his dancers has. It was all the spirits of Ashton and MacMillan could do to pull the evening out of its black hole.

Sir Kenneth Macmillan had been contemplating a ballet about the First World War for some time as his father had served in the trenches and like so many survivors had been unable to talk about the horror. The catalyst was a 1979 BBC dramatization of Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, describing the devastating impact of that war on an entire generation. Commissioned to create a new one-act work for the Royal Ballet in 1980 (the same year as Rhapsody), MacMillan brought his project to fruition, using Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G Major — a hymn to the glory of God — as a counterbalance to his vision of the devastation of war. He discovered Andy Klunder’s sculptural work ‘accidentally’ at the Slade School of Art and felt immediately a connection to what he wanted to express in Gloria. He asked Klunder to design the set — a stylised battlefield with the dancers appearing out of and disappearing into an unseen trench at the back — and the costumes: a decaying flesh unitard for the men with the familiar Brodie helmet and a fragile silver unitard for the women with wisps of fabric hanging from the waist and ‘close-fitting caps with coiled ear-muffs’ that give them, in Jann Parry’s poignant description, the semblance of ‘wraiths of young women cheated of their wedding day’.

This is a work in which all the elements do speak to each other eloquently and the superimposition of ideas and juxtapositions create a powerful formal unity. John B. Read’s lighting maintains the dreamlike timelessness of the set while creating with the dancers deep shadows on the floor that resemble dark craters. The mood alternates between hope and pity in a subtly understated choreography that recalls Wilfred Owen’s line that ‘the Poetry is in the pity’. MacMillan casts four principal characters (Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares as brothers-in-arms and Sarah Lamb and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the two aspects — grieving and lighthearted — of their female companions) against a chorus of women and soldiers. After the first section of the Gloria in which the chorus slowly peoples the desolate stage, a lively quartet erupts with Hinkis being tossed freely among three men (on her own feet she dances with edgy abandon, a joy to watch). Acosta enters as if holding a rifle, a tragic figure who displays a powerful sense of weariness and despair; his turns gradually pull him down to the ground to sleep. Lamb and Soares perform the central duet to the Domine Deus sung by soprano Dušica Bijelic whose lovely voice is itself tinged with grief. Lamb is transformed here by the form MacMillan gives to the duet, her gorgeous lines complementing those of Soares in a spare choreography that fills the stage with redemptive pathos. In Domine Fili, the quartet returns with Hingis flying in over the trench followed by a trio of Lamb, Acosta and Soares. MacMillan creates masterly groupings of women like a protective fence or battlements to honour perhaps the lives of nurses like Vera Brittain herself who devoted themselves to the dying and wounded throughout the war. As Bijelic sings Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, the dancers make their inexorable way back to the trench of their death or mourning, while the trio remains as a vestige of the living. Soares and Lamb finally leave by the same path leaving Acosta circling the stage in a series of gallant leaps before coming to a halt by the trench to listen to the final strains of in gloria dei. On the uplifting Amen he drops suddenly from view to his own death and resurrection in the depths of the earth.

 


The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

Posted: March 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

The Royal Ballet, La Valse, ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, Monotones I and II, Marguerite and Armand: Royal Opera House, February 13

The beauty of line in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets is one of the defining characteristics of his work, even if the steps can be excruciatingly complex. What goes on in the feet is one thing, but in The Royal Ballet’s evening of six works by Ashton, there is ample opportunity — particularly in Monotones I and II — to see the lines of the body beautifully expressed with grace and precision. Unfortunately those qualities were not always in evidence the night I went, though the stretch body suits may have had something to do with it, deforming rather than streamlining the natural joints of the body. The real problem lies elsewhere, however.

Geraldine Morris, in her book, Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography, spends some time discussing the ballet training Ashton would have received, particularly the Cecchetti system that was the basis of his technique. She quotes Cecchetti scholar, Toby Bennett: ‘Cecchetti-trained dancers not only have strength and flexibility in the torso, they also have an appreciation of the subtle rhythmic variations between different steps, coupled with a profound understanding of épaulement.’ Épaulement is not an intellectual concept that needs profound understanding; its profundity is in its manifestation in the body: it is as fundamental to classical form as the double helix is to the structure of DNA. In ballets like Monotones I and II, dancers who do not have ‘a profound understanding of épaulement’ — or who sacrifice it to flexibility — will not be able to maintain the purity of line Ashton’s choreography demands. Romany Pajdak possibly had an off night, but her difficulty in maintaining equilibrium in certain passages of Monotones I may have had its source in a failure to implement Ashton’s — and Cecchetti’s — indispensable ingredient. Mark Monahan in his discussion of Ashton in the evening’s program describes épaulement as ‘that irresistibly feminine angling of the head and shoulders.’ It is not; he is mistaking the flower for the stem.

A few pages further on in her book, Morris discusses the differences she sees in the way Ashton’s original casts performed his works compared with today’s. ‘What stands out is the speed at which the dances are performed. Today’s slightly slower tempo gives rise to an alteration of the choreography. While the steps are ostensibly the same, their appearance is not. What is lost is the sense of dancing. The poses, moments of stillness and turnout are emphasized in the later version but the sense of motion is absent and the dances are seen more as a set of links between positions.’ I cannot agree or disagree with Morris as I have not seen footage of the original casts, and she is not necessarily referring to any of the ballets on this evening’s bill, but her comparison turned a light on my own reaction to the evening’s middle section, which included ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, as well as Monotones I and II. In ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather had a rather bloodless quality that put precision ahead of expression, shape ahead of form, position ahead of flow. The juice remained in the music under the direction of Emmanuel Plasson with concert master Vasko Vassilev playing the violin solo. The highlight of this middle section, however, was seeing Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe in Voices of Spring. With their sensitivity, exuberance and evident joy in dancing together, they were as close to spring as one could wish at this time of year.

The evening opened with La Valse and closed with Marguerite and Armand. After Ashton had choreographed the latter on Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, it remained, as David Vaughan writes in the program, the ‘exclusive property of Fonteyn and Nureyev for many years.’ It is a flawed ballet that can only be saved from a whimpering melodrama by the passionate interpretation and charisma of its two protagonists. But the sparks were simply not flying between Zenaida Yanowski and Federico Bonelli, if there were sparks at all. It is not a ballet in which there can be any notion of pretense. Bonelli’s passion needs unlocking so that Yanowski has a chance to spar. I wanted to shout out to him, Embrace her as if you really love her! Compare the photographs in the program: Bonelli and Yanowski are beautifully captured by Tristram Kenton, with foreheads passionately furrowed, but then look at the photograph by Anthony Crickmay of Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal and you see a world in which the entire body explodes in passion. Marguerite and Armand — and its creator — demand no less.