It is difficult to come to terms with one’s memories when ballets are not seen for a long period of time. My memories of Rhapsody went back to 1989, when a renowned critic reviewed the programme under the headline “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” in an obvious reference to the fact that the company had performed this ballet very well indeed.
Rhapsody was created in 1980 to celebrate the Queen Mother’s birthday and it is the only ballet that Ashton created on the great Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was a joyous occasion and the ballet came across as such. My memories of the ballet as performed in 1989 were of a ballet that sparkled from beginning to end, like opening a bottle of champagne. The costumes and sets also provided that feeling and, unlike many critics, I did not find them in need of change. Luckily, I never saw the costumes and sets that followed the originals, except in photographs.
Rhapsody was whimsical and fun. The virtuosity was a homage to Baryshnikov’s impact in the West and I was shocked to find some of the signature steps in the ballet, as part of Vestris, the solo that Jacobson had created for the young dancer in the Soviet Union and that had been a highlight in Baryshnikov’s tour with the Kirov in the West. Once again, Ashton had borrowed ideas from other choreographers and reworked them in his mind for the occasion.
On opening night this season, Carlos Acosta and Leanne Benjamin were dancing the leading roles. The curtain went up and the first sight of the new designs and costumes made it clear that, though an improvement from the previous ones, the new designs had once again missed the point. An over romantic landscape, gloomy lighting and pale costumes did not help dancers to convey the fun and capriciousness of the piece. Moreover, Acosta seemed to be at a total loss in the piece. Somebody should have warned him that this ballet was not Études. Benjamin, simply lacked the qualities of an Ashton ballerina and her footwork was muddled and her epaulement forced. The corps was utterly serious and overall the ballet was a totally different piece from what I had seen years ago. Even the final gesture from the dancer, his “that’s all folks!” had become a grand gesture of “here I am!” Very sad indeed.
That is why, it was wonderful to see the ballet again on the 2nd of April, led this time by Miyako Yoshida and Ivan Putrov, and to find the whole company raising to the challenge and showing a much better understanding of what they were doing. The ballet became alive and praise has to be given to the whole ensemble for that. Against all odds –sets and costumes- they managed to recover the sense of fun and joy. Putrov was magnificent, not only technically, but most importantly in making his technique serve the purpose of the choreography, by not overstating it but underplaying it and emphasising its nuances and contrasts instead. There was light and shade, not just a series of class enchainments. There was a sense of madness in some of the things that he did and in the way these are connected to capricious changes of direction and sudden stops. Yoshida had all the qualities that the ballet requires from the ballerina: quick and clear footwork, emphasis on the torso and a beautiful use of the arms and hands. It was wonderful to see the climax of the pas de deux restored to those simple wrist movements for the hands that act as sparks within the musical framework and remind us all of how musical Ashton was! It was a great performance that set the tone for the evening. Audiences appreciated what they saw and the dancers must have felt that they got it right this time.
The second piece of the evening was a rather insipid pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldom, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte. The choreographer seemed at a loss with the music and the mood it evokes. He obviously tried to do a romantic, atmospheric pas de deux, but he did not succeed in any of those things. Wheeldom is a very good choreographer, capable of very inventive and clever choreography, but Ravel’s score I believe, calls for a totally different sort of thing. The obviously expensive set and costumes added nothing to the piece and one wonders if they were really necessary for the five-minute ballet. Neither Darcey Bussel with Jonathan Cope or Mara Galeazzi and Federico Bonelli managed to save the piece. It just lacked depth.
Duo Concertant was a clear homage to Strawinsky by his friend and colleague George Balanchine. It is a most personal piece in which Balanchine made his dancers listen to the music for some very long passages. This can lead to very awkward moments in the piece, but as danced by Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru it was a wonderful occasion. Both dancers interpreted the volatile response to the music as if they were improvising each step. A rare accomplishment as the mechanics of the choreography are far from “improvisational”. I would not rate this first class Balanchine and would much rather see Violin Concerto if it comes to paying tribute to Strawinsky. Still, it was a last minute addition to the programme after Wheeldom had to pull out his new work due to illness, and the dancers performed it with such understanding and musicality that it was a very good piece to revisit.
Last in the programme was Marguerite and Armand. After an evening of such wonderful choreography, it was a great end. Sylvie Guillem as Marguerite has made the role so much her own that comparisons with Fonteyn’s portrayal are out of the question. By performing the steps, yet managing to give to these a totally different interpretation, she has escaped from imitation and turned her interpretation into a totally acceptable reading or the story. Jonathan Cope as Armand was more dramatically involved than he usually is and though, perhaps at the end, I always long for the moment when she reaches up for some unknown ideal to be as heart breaking as in Fonteyn/Nureyev’s interpretation, their performances were vivid and dramatic.
Overall a very good programme which showed that the company can cope with different styles and technical requirements. Perhaps for those in charge of repertoire decisions within the company there should be an important message to bear in mind after all; that it is not helpful to have certain ballets absent from the company’s repertoire for so many years. Having to teach these ballets from scratch to a whole new generation of dancers is a gruelling task and, as shown in the last programmes, it does not always pay off. Luckily, on this occasion, the Royal Ballet presented the works with the brilliance that can make them inspire a new generation of choreographers.