Review: Royal Ballet - Afternoon of a Faun/ In the Night/ Song of the Earth - Royal Opera House

Performance: 29 May; 1, 4 June 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 1 June 2015

Royal Ballet - Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson & Ryoichi Hirano in 'Song of the Earth'. Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH, 2015

Performance reviewed: 29 May

Ordinarily, one might regard this as a rather lacklustre finale to a Royal Ballet season: just four performances of a triple bill that seemed devoid of any special intent. Nothing new (or even newly borrowed); no anniversaries to celebrate; just a programme of proven mini-masterpieces from the company’s back catalogue of imports, one of which had already appeared in another mixed bill that ran its course only recently. It seemed that The Royal Ballet was finishing the 2014/15 season with a whimper, perhaps because the ‘bang’ had come earlier in this month with the world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, a controversial full-length ballet that has divided both the public and the critics.

It could be argued that the programme is a celebration of the American artistic polymath, Jerome Robbins, a winner of two Academy Awards and five Tonys; a choreographer best known for directing a blockbuster movie musical (West Side Story) – although he was fired before the production was finished and shared the Best Director Oscar with his successor, Robert Wise. There is, however, no particular “milestone” anniversary to commemorate, associated with either Robbins’ birth, or death. His choreography occupied two-thirds of the programme although their combined running time of 34 minutes fell well short of the hour-plus length of the concluding piece, Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth; the ballet doing double duty since it appeared earlier in the season, closing the programme that had featured Hofesh Shechter’s first work at The Royal Opera House.

Afternoon of a Faun was Robbins’ 13th completed choreography and it proved to be a lucky number for the American. His contemporary allegory of Nijinsky’s L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, utilising Debussy’s intoxicating score, has been danced continuously around the globe in the 62 years’ since it was made. Like Nijinsky’s original, Robbins’ faune is a flyweight champion of modern ballet: slight – just ten minutes’ long – but possessing a devastating punch. This faune is not the mythological man-goat satyr enjoying a lazy sunny afternoon lying on a rock, as envisaged by Debussy and Nijinsky; but a dancer that we first encounter stretched out on the floor of a warm contemporary dance studio, bathed in sunlight.

Federico Bonelli gets a break from his usual princely, danseur roles to let loose with some erotic, hot-blooded Latin passion; turned on by the long-haired, blonde, narcissistic nymph who comes to share his space. Jean Rosenthal’s unique design concept is to complete the studio by turning the “fourth wall” into an imaginary floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror; so that in staring out into the audience we come to realise that the two dancers are examining their own beauty and technique in the imagined reflection. Sarah Lamb portrays the “nymph” dancer with an empty, self-absorbed vanity that excludes any acknowledgement of the dancer who occupied the studio before she came, even when he begins to partner her. It is only when his arousal leads into the presumption of a kiss that she appears aware of his presence and promptly leaves.

It’s a ballet that Robbins made, quickly, while under investigation by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his former partner and biographer, Christine Conrad, has said that his brutal experience in testifying before HUAC ‘ignited an even greater need….to prove himself’.

Similar circumstances prefaced In the Night, a sequel to Robbins’ hugely successful Dances at a Gathering, made some eight months previously. The first of these ballets began life, in 1969, as a pas de deux to Chopin’s piano studies but grew like topsy to incorporate a large ensemble. George Balanchine loved it so much that Robbins determined to make another ballet to Chopin but in between the two works he suffered serious personal and health problems (including the break-up with Conrad, a snapped Achilles’ tendon and an almost fatal LSD experience). For all this, In the Night developed a melancholic, dimly-lit feel in its exploration of three heterosexual relationships through dance to Chopin’s night-time (nocturne) music for piano alone (here, dutifully and sensitively played by Robert Clark).

The first dancers are clearly in the early throes of romance. The man (Alexander Campbell) appears caring and respectful, with only slight and occasional hints of flirtation with his clearly-adored (and adorable) partner (Emma Maguire). The second pair is more mature, perhaps a married, aristocratic couple dancing together confidently (appropriately under a chandelier) at a ball; formal in every respect (not unlike Prince Gremin and Tatiana in Onegin) but still mischievous enough to slip in an upside-down lift (perhaps when no-one else is watching). Nehemiah Kish and Zenaida Yanowsky are splendidly cast. And, finally, there is the couple whose relationship is feisty, if not fiery, their tempestuous affair given due urgency by Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares. The Royal Ballet dancers rose to the significant musical challenges of both these Robbins’ ballets with universal distinction.

They have also improved upon the delivery of Song of the Earth over the past two months. In particular, the six songs of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde were gloriously performed. The singers have changed from the earlier run and although I found it difficult to hear Thomas Randle at the beginning of the opening song, both he and Katherine Goeldner sang beautifully.

Edward Watson presents a sinister, sinuous Messenger of Death, dancing with his trademark intensity of feeling; and in the support cast, Yuhui Choe, Ricardo Cervera and Campbell were also outstanding. Ryoichi Hirano replaced Rupert Pennefather, at very short notice, as the man targeted by death and he performed worthily in such difficult circumstances.

In the end (- we might even say ‘at the death’), we found that reason for a very special celebration since this ballet marked Lauren Cuthbertson’s return to the stage after eight months off through injury (including 16 weeks unable to walk). She returned from this enforced exile to dance divinely. That final haunting song – Der Abschied (The Farewell) – is as long as the previous five put together. It needs a special performance to keep fatigue at bay and, aided and abetted by Watson and Choe in particular, Cuthbertson kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. If the ballet fairy is able to grant us one collective wish, let us hope it is to give this wonderful, expressive dancer a full and injury-free season to come.

So, what looked on paper to be an inauspicious end to The Royal Ballet’s season turned out to be rather special, after all!

Continues on 1 & 4 June

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Lead photo: Edward Watson, Lauren Cuthbertson & Ryoichi Hirano in Song of the Earth by Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH, 2015

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On