Royal Opera House
16th January, 2003
and Winter Dreams
The first time I saw MacMillan’s “Winter Dreams” I was bowled over. It was a video recording made in 1992 of the Royal Ballet in studio rather than on stage. It is a video I cherish and to which I return, time after time after time. The one hour ballet is based on Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters.” Darcey Bussell as Masha, the middle sister, is at her most lyrical. Her Colonel Vershinin is Irek Mukhamedov. The ballet was created on the pair and, as far as I am concerned, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is very much ‘their’ ballet although I suppose we shall not see the (almost) retired Mukhamedov dance it again. Masha is a woman torn between her lust-love for Vershinin - a virile soldier who represents the excitement and exhilaration of Moscow life – and her duty-love for her husband, Kulygin, danced by Anthony Dowell – a plodding schoolmaster with no aspirations towards the social advancement that she so craves. Masha falls off balance and off pointe into Vershinin’s solid and virile arms. MacMillan’s choreography, as ever, is the psychological narrative, perfectly illustrating the inner turmoil of the protagonists.
The video recording is well worth buying for many reasons. Firstly one sees Mukhamedov at his peak. MacMillan handcrafted the choreography on the Russian to illustrate exactly who the dancer was at that point of his career in his early thirties: Bolshoi-style big jumps, reminiscent of Mukhamedov’s “Spartacus,” blended with MacMillan’s hallmark expressive lyricism. Secondly, MacMillan explains in interview his motivations for creating the ballet in that form: he based it on the play but didn’t follow the narrative to the letter. Whilst at times he ‘has’ followed the narrative, much of the ballet expounds the inner dramas of the characters. The actress Lynn Redgrave then explains how the ballet moved her and revealed to her more about the internal life of the characters than she had gleaned herself in performing the role of Masha in the stage play. This is followed by a documentary about Mukhamedov that in turn reveals more about the dancer, and captures more of his essence and the challenges he faced in making the transition from Bolshoi big star to MacMillan dance-actor, than was achieved by Melvyn Bragg in the South Bank Show interview last week. And, most importantly, the video allows you to fast-forward through the superfluous comic scenes that surround the main drama. Instead one can concentrate on the powerful duets of Vershinin and Masha, on the pitiful attempts by Kulygin to cheer up his wife after she has parted from her lover, and on the interactions between the three sisters – Olga, the matronly older sibling danced by Nicola Tranah, Masha (Bussell) and Irina, the idealistic younger sister danced by Viviana Durante.
The twenty-fifth live performance of the ballet last week at the Royal Opera House spectacularly brought together much of the original cast. Eleven years on, Bussell looked as fresh as ever as Masha, but she did not have the appropriate foil in Inaki Urlezaga (substituting the injured Cope) as Colonel Vershinin. Although technically pulling off Vershinin with big, manly jumps, (in particular there is a spectacular jump where Vershinin leaps forward than manoeuvres into second in mid-air and seemingly is suspended there for a few seconds before landing on his original path), Urlezaga just wasn’t the virile solder with whom Masha could irresistibly fall in love. Whereas Mukhamedov looked her up and down like a hungry wolf when she danced for him, showing that he was a man of the world who knew how to seduce a married woman, Urlezaga looked at her like a doting puppy. There was no danger in him. Mukhamedov is, of course, clearly Russian and clearly virile and so the transition to Vershinin was no doubt very easy. But because Bussell isn’t convinced by Urlezaga’s attempts on her virtue, we are not.
With her sisters, Bussell was more convinced and so more convincing. Nicola Tranah received great applause for her perfect Olga. The diminutive Tamara Rojo as Irina had to act well to convince us that she was Bussell’s biological sister, so great the differential in height and colouring between the two. She is extremely good as the young carefree sister whose flirting provokes the death of her suitor in a duel. At the end of the ballet each of the three sisters takes it in turn to kneel in the snow and tenderly embrace the other two. It is a beautiful and poignant close.
Dowell, much greyer at the temples these days then he was at the time of the video, was perhaps even more convincing in his attempts to win back the affections of his young wife. It is heart-rendingly pitiful to watch him now, as a clearly much older husband, don a red plastic nose to make Masha laugh as she lies broken and unresponsive face down on the stage, clutching Vershinin’s military cape. I wanted to reach out and comfort him and slap her for being so heartless a cuckold.
Many of the critics have been ungenerous about the ballet. I agree that it is a touch too long whilst the comic scenes with, variously, cavorting nanny, flirtatious maid and drunken doctor are rather pointless to the central action. The duel scene has none of the tension of Cranko’s Onegin killing his young friend. Yet there is much to celebrate and appreciate in this ballet. Masha’s succumbing and pulling back from Vershinin is so beautifully and accurately incarnated. MacMillan understood so well that feeling of “I yearn to, yet I shouldn’t…” The arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s music, interspersed between Russian folk music, is much criticised but I find the passages selected emulate perfectly the emotions on stage – touching when Dowell is at his most pathetic in his attempts to comfort Masha and tense when Masha in turn, gives herself to Vershinin and then denies him.
I would gladly go to see this on stage again. I am sorry that I missed Guillem and Le Riche as Masha and Vershinin. I am sure that Le Riche would make a great impact as the powerful Russian soldier who descends on the sisters’ house and changes their lives. I would, however, feel compelled to hold my breath through the comic scenes.
As a footnote: the video has one feature that only a close-up recording could reveal. As Mukhamedov lifts Bussell above his head just before he departs, her diaphanous chiffon dress falls across his face but the light shines through from behind to reveal the outline of his face contorted in pain. It may have been accidental but it is a great dramatic moment.
<small>[ 26 January 2003, 06:00 PM: Message edited by: Emma Pegler ]</small>