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Royal Ballet

Double Bill: 'Dances at a Gathering' and 'The Dream'

by Ana Abad-Carles

9 June 2008 -- Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Ballet presented a revival of Jerome Robbins’s masterpiece “Dances at a Gathering”. The work, while Robbins was alive, used to be a landmark that celebrated a company’s Golden Age. The Royal Ballet had it in its repertoire during the Nureyev, Sibley, Dowell, Wall, Mason, Seymour generation, and Paris Opera Ballet performed it right after Nureyev’s departure as director of the company, when Loudiéres, Platel, Guérin, Hilaire, Legris, and Lormeau were étoiles.

“Dances at a Gathering” is no ordinary ballet. It requires ten artists, rather than ten dancers. It tells no story, but it deals with those things that only dance can do -- feelings, human relationships as they come and go. In a way, “Dances” celebrates life as few ballets do. And, lest we forget, it celebrates dance and dancers as even fewer ballets do.

I did not see the old Royal Ballet production, though there are enough photographs to give testimony of what the work looked like in those days. I did manage to see the Paris Opera Ballet in the early nineties, and what I saw was one of those works that defies reason, logic and that transcends deeply into the mind of the viewer. Yes, Robbins created a ballet about human relationships, about how these relationships come and go, and yet how much they can mean at a specific time and place.

“Dances” was a manifesto for Robbins on the importance of friendship, love and the sense of connection between people. And even though the ballet was created in some sort of random order, the final result had such intrinsic logic to it that it was hard to believe the choreographer had not had it planned out from beginning to end before he began to choreograph. Such is the nature of life; such is the nature of art: it happens. And once it happens, it seems illogical to think how or why --  great art defies such categories and questions.

I saw two performances with two different casts in the present revival. They were both terribly disappointing, and, I’m sorry to say, far from the artistic standards one should expect from the Royal Ballet company. In the first performance, it seems a mistake from one of the dancers prompted a rearrangement of the music that completely destroyed the work. In the second performance (and I was told it was not the only one) a main pas de deux was taken out.

If only for that, the Royal Ballet company should really think about what they can and what they cannot perform at present. If a ballet is beyond their competency, perhaps it would be better if they did not perform it. After all, “Dances” is part of their history, and if they cannot celebrate and acknowledge this any more in the way they should, perhaps they should be more honest with themselves and their audiences.

The quality of the performances was so poor in so many instances that it was hard to believe this was the work that, not so long ago, was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece.

Granted, a work should adapt to new times and dancers. In this respect, “Dances” managed to do that. But, on the other hand, what it showed was that our times and dancers are not very deep in their understanding of what they are doing and that their coaches are failing to pass on to them the meaning of what they are supposed to be doing.

Friendship is not just giggling. Love is not just coy smiles. There is a depth in those emotions that was missing in both performances I saw. Also poorly conveyed was that wonderful sense of connection, of meeting and parting, and meeting again, and, at the very end, in pure Sondheim style -- "I'm still here", that moment in which the dancers simply return to the stage as an affirmation of life and its ever changing stages.

There were moments when one wondered if the dancers were listening to the same music as the audience. Why were they all smiling in the “Scherzo”? Couldn’t they hear the restlessness of the piece, the urgency that it brings?

I have little to say about what I saw because it goes beyond my comprehension that this company was allowed to present the ballet like this. I will refer to Robbins’s words, something that seems to have been forgotten when dancing or reviewing this piece, apparently. They come from Balanchine’s “Festival of Ballets”, from a very long interview originally published in “Ballet Review”.

Robbins said this:

I suppose that vast sky, it is almost like nature changing on you. You’re a little worried about what is going to happen next, it doesn’t matter if it goes up or down. It’s just that it changes. Everything changes.

[T]he ballet had to come out of the scherzo, that very restless piece which ends with them all sort of whoosh running out – disappearing like cinders falling out into the night, and it couldn’t end there, either. That’s not the end of it, that’s not how I feel about these people – that they went whoosh and disappeared. They are still here and they still move like dancers. They are a community….They may have felt a threat, but they don’t panic, they stay.

So coming back after the scherzo to the stage and the floor that we dance on, and putting your hand on it – if it’s the earth or a ballet dancer’s relationship to a wood floor – that somehow is the ending I knew I had to get to somewhere.

I would recommend that interview for anybody interested in the work. It explains Robbins’s ideals and ideas. It does not explain the work, but it gives so many cues as to what it was meant to be.

It was a really sad revival.

On a happier note, the revival of “The Dream” was a much better occasion. Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson gave intelligent, mature and layered interpretations to their roles. Their performances did justice to Ashton’s work and reminded me of what a genius Ashton was when dealing with narrative pieces.  In fact, was it a coincidence that both Ashton and Robbins, around the same year, decided to celebrate friendship in two of their landmark works—Ashton’s “Enigma Variations” (1968) and Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) ? Well, unfortunately both works have suffered terribly in the last few years. “Enigma Variations” has had very poor performances and so has “Dances at a Gathering”. It may be a sign of the times we live in.

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