Review: Royal Ballet in Isadora / Dances at a Gathering at Royal Opera House

Performance: In rep 11, 12, 18, 20 & 21 March.09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 13 March 2009

A world premiere of a ballet by a choreographer who died some seventeen years ago must seem rather odd. The fact is that Kenneth MacMillan made ‘Isadora’ originally as a two-act ballet in 1981 to no great acclaim. In her history of the Royal Ballet’s first 75 years, the dance writer Zöe Anderson writes it off as an ‘ambitious mess’, a reasonable summary of most critics’ reactions at the time. But MacMillan was a master and his ballets have generally grown and prospered over the years to become the major part of the company’s core repertory; and it’s generally acknowledged that his concept for an impressionistic narrative based on Isadora Duncan’s tumultuous life was – like so much of his work – ahead of the times. So, the Royal Ballet – enabled only by the direct artistic participation of MacMillan’s widow, Deborah – has breathed new life into ‘Isadora’ so that it can reappear as an hour-long, single act ballet.

It works. Certainly to the extent that it’s no longer ‘ambitious’ or a ‘mess’. The shorter format enables the vignettes of Duncan’s crazy life to be told in scenes that are punctuated by twelve minutes of evocative film of the era (no film is known to exist of Isadora dancing) and extracts from her posthumous autobiography are read in a voiceover by the actress, Nichola McAuliffe. The best of the original choreography has been retained, including the desperately poignant pas de deux following the death of her two children (drowned when the car in which they were travelling went into the Seine). But the misnomer of making a ballet to tell the life story of a dancer who hated ballet is still writ large throughout the work.

The whole overview is made better by the thrilling tour de force performance of Tamara Rojo who throws herself into the role of Isadora with a sensual, life-affirming ebullience that seems mightily appropriate for a woman that tore around the world dancing – and living – freely. Male support comes in two main roles, as the fathers of the two dead children; with Ed Watson as her artistic soul mate, Gordon Craig, and Gary Avis as the millionaire lover, Paris Singer; with two more supporting parts for episodic and unnamed male admirers. Watson and Avis stand appropriately in strong contrast to each other as the artist and business heir. But despite their undoubted strengths, this is absolutely a one-woman show, as it probably should be.

‘Isadora’ will never be regarded amongst the best of MacMillan’s ballets but it is definitely a worthy – and interesting – addition to the repertory, within which Jerome Robbins’Dances at a Gathering’ is now firmly established amongst the gems of the Royal Ballet. It exemplifies the Americanisation of ballet classicism that developed in New York from the mid-20th Century and ‘Dances‘ is unquestionably Robbins’ masterpiece. This non-narrative collection of dances to 18 solo piano compositions by Chopin was supremely danced throughout by its ten-strong cast, with special mention to Yuhui Choe (deputising for the injured Alina Cojocaru) and an undoubted a star in the making; and for the sublime performance skills of Johan Kobborg and Leanne Benjamin. But, no dance accolade can hope to match the vitality of Phillip Gammon’s masterful piano playing – 66 non-stop minutes of Chopin’s Mazurkas, Waltzes, Nocturnes and Etudes.

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