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Royal Ballet

'Tombeaux', 'Enigma Variations', 'Rite of Spring'

Dim lustre

by Ana Abad-Carles

March 30, 2005 -- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Royal Ballet presented its new programme of works by David Bintley, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton at the Royal Opera House. It all seemed to hope for a celebration of British choreography at its best, as the three works chosen were highlights in each one of the choreographers’ careers. On the 30th March, the company presented the second cast, though I had already seen the first cast some days before.

The programme opened with David Bintley’s "Tombeaux" (1993). In an Insight Evening a couple of weeks before the actual performances, Bintley himself gave some important background information on the piece when rehearsing the second cast – Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli – in the central pas de deux. It has to be said that the previous rehearsals during the Evening had been far from “insightful”. Carried out by Christopher Saunders, they consisted of nothing but an open rehearsal in which no background information was given as to the characters, the ballets themselves and their importance in the repertoire. There were even some seriously misinformed comments given by the Royal Ballet coach, such as the description of "Enigma Variations" as a “pure classical ballet”. Ballet it is, but “pure classical” it certainly isn’t!

Bintley explained how the whole ballet had been inspired by his vision of the "Fred Step" while he was listening to the music and he told the audience that to this day the ballet remained his most autobiographical ballet. A definite sense of mourning for Ashton and perhaps a nostalgic view of his position at the time within the Royal Ballet establishment, "Tombeaux" shows the choreographer at his most inspired.

The choreography is plotless, but, unlike many other Bintley’s plotless works, there is a gentle and eloquent mood that pervades the whole piece. Created originally for Viviana Durante and Bruce Samson, it is not difficult to see the role creators’ strong imprint. Cuthbertson and Bonelli tried hard with the difficulties of the choreography, but perhaps too hard, as none of them managed to capture the atmosphere and mood of the piece, something that Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru had achieved to perfection on opening night. Not only had Bintley provided interesting choreography to both his soloists, the evolutions for the corps were equally inspired. There were many instances when echos of "Scénes de Ballet" were more than evident. Even the structure of the piece – ten female soloists, four male soloists and main couple – is reminiscent of the Ashton masterpiece as is the ever present variations of his "Fred Step" in a myriad of uses and transformations. Bintley’s last image of a ballerina left alone on stage turning was a melancholic view of a fading time.

The second ballet for the evening was "Enigma Variations" (1968). Ashton created this work just prior to his leave as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet – another point in contact with the previous ballet?  And the ballet is a profound and nostalgic reflection of friendship as no other ballet, with the exception of Robbins’"Dances at a Gathering", has ever achieved. On the first night, I was lucky to be sitting next to a balletomane who had been coming to the ballet for 41 years … his words to an American member of the audience after seeing the ballet with the new generation of dancers were masterful: “well, you see, you have just seen dancers doing this … But this ballet was created for artists, real actors!”

Though I never saw the original cast live on stage, I had seen the ballet 16 years ago and the memories I kept of it were so vivid that the present revival made me realise how much has been lost. The steps were there, but the mood, the inexplicable power of the ballet to move you and stir your feelings are gone. Saunders was good as Elgar, but he did not seem to capture Derek Rencher’s stage presence and complex personality when playing the role. Yanowsky as Lady Elgar gave maturity and stage presence to her difficult role.  It is to their credit that the Nimrod variation was ecstatically danced except in their last run towards the audience, where they seemed to lose their nerve in their questioning.

Isabel McMeekan as Lady Elgar in the second cast was just too immature for the role. She played the role of a suffering wife instead of joining in a relationship that, like most relationships, is made up of silences and misunderstanding as much as love. Ashton’s work is a masterpiece in the exploration of human feelings and it should not be forgotten that it was the only British ballet chosen by Lincoln Kirstein for his book on masterpieces of the choreographic art [Four Centuries of Ballet: Fifty Masterworks (Dover 1984) -- ed.]. Nowadays it looks like a period piece. There is not enough magic. Perhaps it says something about the way society has lost its touch with deep emotions and complexity of feelings.

There were some good performances, though, in both casts. Sarah Lamb as Lady Mary Lygon managed to convey her disembodied presence on stage in that most difficult variation consisting mainly of runs through the stage. Roberta Márquez was a beautiful Dorabella, though again, more magic to her variation would be welcome. Brian Maloney as William Meath Baker was excellent, though the entrance of the character with a powerful jump onto the stage should set the pesonality in an instant. Both Ricardo Cervera and Edward Watson were good as Troyte. Cervera was better technically and Watson character wise, a combination of both might be the solution for the interpretation of this masterful solo.

Still, the final moments of the ballet need a lot of character work. The reading of the telegram, the arrival of Elgar back onto the stage and the entrance of Lady Elgar need more magic, musicality and eloquence. Like "Dances at a Gathering", the ballet simply needs artists who can breathe and live their characters, not like a period piece but as one of the most beautiful explorations into the human soul.

The final ballet, "Rite of Spring" (1962) was choreographed by MacMillan in what at his time was seen as ground breaking choreography. Though I would not put this piece on the same ranking as his "Song of the Earth", the ballet is still a powerful piece. I, for one, welcomed the revival of the piece in their old designs. They are fascinating and the whole piece gains from them in atmosphere and pathos.

The choreography itself may look a bit dated in some respects, but it has to be borne in mind that there are not many successful stagings of Strawinsky’s masterpiece around. I personally much prefer MacMillan’s version to the one reconstructed by Millicent Hodson claiming to be Nijinsky’s original. Perhaps the steps if isolated may be old fashioned, but there is something in the overall piece when seen from the proper distance that holds it all together and makes it as powerful as the audience seemed to perceive it.

Perhaps it’s a very basic instinct that it conjures up, when seeing so many people on stage dancing together in some sort of primitive ritual. Both Tamara Rojo and Zenaida Yanowsky were impressive as the Chosen Ones. But credit must go to the whole company for dancing this piece in particular with total commitment. There were many choreographic moments that one can see in later MacMillan works. It seemed as if the choreographer was putting together a series of leitmotifs that he kept developing throughout his career. Monica Mason in a seminar at Roehampton years ago explained MacMillan’s fascination with certain positions of the arts that are the leitmotif, not only of "Rite of Spring", but of most of his ballets. One can see these positions as early as in his "Danses Concertantes", the “Ψ” positions of the arms that seemed to deconstruct the basic round arms in ballet.

Overall the programme was a curious disaster. Three great works were offered and yet the whole programme as such failed to move the audience by not making justice to the individual works in their own artistic terms. Perhaps it was too ambitious, perhaps the moods were too contradictory, perhaps the styles were too different. However, these three works are an important part of the company’s heritage and it is a shame that they are not given their due greatness.

 

Edited by Staff.

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