La Valse, Divertissements, Homage to the Queen
Royal Opera House Covent Garden
8th June 2006
For a Royal Gala, this was a very low-key affair as testified by the clumps of empty seats throughout the lower part of the theatre and particularly in the stalls. No doubt many of the corporate crowd assembling in the Floral Hall for the slap up dinner afterwards at tables piled high with ornate floral arrangements (must admit the scent was glorious) had decided to give the first half a miss and show up in time for their meal at the end. But that’s the Opera House for you these days. For those of us that were there for the ballet, the evening can’t be chalked up as wholly memorable as the art of assembling dance items to make an exciting evening seems to be a lost one. The best I can say about the evening is that it got better as it went along and if the start was rather dispiriting the end was anything but.
The opening work was “La Valse” a piece best described as ‘minor Ashton’. I suppose it was chosen because it gets a sizeable corps onto the stage, but even the fact that the dancers were led by the stylish Marianela Nunez didn’t bring it to life as far as I was concerned. The long Divertissements section consisted of one inappropriate piece after another as whoever organized this failed to comprehend that taking a pas de deux or solo completely out of context hardly ever works, even though some of the items were well danced. Stand outs for me were the two modern works “Two Footnotes to Ashton –1” a witty piece for two wrangling lovers by Kim Brandstrup with Cojocaru and Kobborg; and “Two” (I imagine the title to be ironic), a solo for Sylvie Guillem confined within a small square of light, choreographed by Russell Maliphant.
The gala atmosphere that had been so sadly lacking finally arrived with a bang when charismatic Carlos Acosta leapt onto the stage in “Le Corsaire” and together with his partner, Darcey Bussell, danced in a manner that was so self indulgent, so unashamedly brazen and so lacking in restraint that I thoroughly enjoyed ever second. This was followed by the reel from “La Sylphide”, energetically led by Viacheslav Samodurov with the entire company dancing at a speed I wouldn’t have thought them capable of not so long ago. Bournonville is always perfect gala material and I was particularly happy with the inclusion of this recently acquired classic.
They kept the best until the end: “Homage to the Queen” was nothing short of a triumph. In theory a revival of this Ashton ballet not seen in decades, more than half forgotten and consequently filled with interpolations by modern day choreographers didn’t look promising. How wrong I was! With new sets and costumes by Peter Farmer designed in a convincing approximation of the more ornate styles of the 1950’s the stage looked wonderful to start with and the music of Malcolm Arnold, completely new to me, turned out to be perfect for this elaborate celebration of both the company’s and the queen’s birthday.
Sadly most of the original Ashton choreography is lost, what remains is the opening and closing of the work with the queens of the elements and their entourages assembled on stage and the fourth section for the Queen of the Air. The first three sections are therefore choreographed anew by three choreographers with past links to the RB: David Bintley, Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon. Clearly each choreographer wanted to outdo his rivals and the result is choreography of the very highest standard.
Bintley has the advantage of Leanne Benjamin as his Queen of the Earth, a dancer who always appears ravishingly beautiful in everything she does. Not by temperament what I would describe as an ‘earthy’ dancer, she has a sensual quality that makes her resemble a wood nymph in her earthly realm. Well supported by Federico Bonelli, their pas de deux had more romantic overtones than the others.
Water, the second section, is slightly longer than the other three and has a very catchy waltz theme. Apart from the water nymphs that run on in a rippling formation at the start, Corder has wisely avoided any watery clichés and instead concentrates on interpreting Arnold’s music, full of nostalgia for the past. Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dance regally and their courtiers Cuthbertson, Morera and Tuifua danced impressively in an engaging pas de trois.
Fire, the Christopher Wheeldon contribution, is musically apart from the other sections with the otherwise lush score turning dramatic and almost stark to portray the arid qualities of fire. As the Spirit of Fire young Steven MacRae comes close to stealing the show with his easy virtuosity and gripping stage presence. His queen is the lovely Sarah Lamb, all elegance and grace but with an underlying sense of danger and regal as hell. Her partner, Gary Avis, confidently plays with fire.
Finally Air: this is pure Ashton and every movement indicates the hand of a master. The rest of the ballet was good, more than good in my opinion, but Ashton’s contribution is inspirational. Created for his beloved Fonteyn, the work is full of her signature steps and poses and the illusion of flight is repeatedly evoked as the Queen of the Air, danced by Darcey Bussell reaches towards the heavens while draped across the shoulders of her partner, David Makhateli. I’m never totally convinced by Bussell in Fonteyn’s old roles as I always imagine her having more in common physically with a Beryl Grey or Violetta Elvin, but she still gave a very pleasing performance.
The audience response to “Homage to the Queen” was very warm, though from my seat I couldn’t see if the queen enjoyed it too. Hopefully she enjoyed the closing tableau of the evening when the curtains rolled back to reveal the entire company and staff together with the ballet school. Monica Mason stepped forward to announce that the company had danced for the queen and would now sing for her and the orchestra began playing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ while those sitting in the stalls were showered with glitter from on high. But I’m still wondering if that glitter was supposed to be a tribute to the company or to the queen.