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'Checkmate', 'Symphonic Variations', 'Song of the Earth'
by Ana Abad-Carles
June 4, 2007 -- Royal Opera House, London, UK
The Royal Ballet presented their last mixed programme for the season in early June with three ballets representing some of the company’s most distinguished choreographers.
The evening opened with “Checkmate”, originally choreographed in 1937 by the founder of the company, Ninette de Valois. The ballet still looks interesting, though a bit long in certain parts where the choreography seems too static and heavy. However, as there are not many ballets that have survived from this period and that are heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movement of their time, it was a welcome revival. Marianela Núñez as the Black Queen was an impressive character and, especially in her last moments killing the Red King, she was superb. The male characters, though, left a lot to be desired, especially in the technical aspects of their roles.
Next in the programme came “Symphonic Variations”, Ashton’s masterpiece. This ballet keeps looking better every season, but still needs more work in style and projection in order to create the full dramatic and musical impact that it should achieve. Sarah Lamb as the lead female dancer had the necessary elegance of line and serenity that the part requires, but some of the epaulement seemed to elude her at times. Rupert Pennefather as her partner had the clarity of execution that the steps require, but lacked the ability to project this clarity into the context of the piece.
Last but not least was MacMillan’s “Song of the Earth” in what became a very long programme. MacMillan’s work, however, is so wonderful that it managed to make the evening a total success. The lead roles were taken by Leanne Benjamin, Edward Watson and Valeri Hristov. This is one of the best casts I have seen since Johan Kobborg took the role of the Messenger of Death years ago. Edward Watson has proved to be a revelation at the end of this season. His dancing has become assured and his dramatic expression is finally coming across since his performances of Mayerling. It has taken him a long time and many opportunities in order to prove the Royal Ballet casting directors right, but it has paid off. His Messenger of Death made full use of his overextended lines, and his dark presence came across strongly.
Leanne Benjamin as the Woman was very good, both technically and dramatically. When danced like that, “Song of the Earth” is one of those ballets that manages to affect the viewer deeply as it is a poignant piece based on the eternal idea of death and renewal. The loneliness expressed by the Woman, her despair and final acceptance of her fate was totally heart breaking. Valeri Hristov as the Man was more than an acceptable partner and he complemented the cast beautifully.
Once again, the main roles were let down by a corps de ballet that at moments lacked synchrony and timing in their movements and it was a shame that some of the dancers are still not technically strong enough to cope with this choreography. Even the recording of the piece made for television to showcase Darcey Bussell’s last performance displayed this lack of unison in the group movements.
It was a very long programme indeed, but also a very good one. It would have definitely gained from a shorter ballet as the opener of the evening, but nevertheless, thanks to very good performances by the company soloists and principals, the evening was truly inspirational.
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