Review: Royal Ballet - Ashton Mixed Programme - Royal Opera House

Performance: 12, 13, 15, 21, 23 February 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 13 February 2013

Tamara Rojo & Sergei Polunin in  'Marguerite and Armand'. Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtesy  ROH

La Valse / Méditation from Thaïs / Voices of Spring / Monotones I and II / Marguerite and Armand

Performance reviewed: 12 February

A retrospective tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton, commemorating the 25th Anniversary of his death became a destination for two very different return journeys. They marked The Royal Ballet’s much wished-for reconciliation with Sergei Polunin – the former Principal who walked out of the company thirteen months ago – and the belated farewell performances of Tamara Rojo, now the Artistic Director of English National Ballet.

There could have been no better vehicle for their mutual return than this revival of their triumphant interpretation of Marguerite and Armand (a ballet they first danced together in 2011). It was bound to be special and these two larger-than-life purveyors of grand charisma gave their all and more to this tragic tale, which – at just over the half hour – is a capsuled distillation of the essence in Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias. Ashton made the ballet specifically for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and for 30 years it was danced by no-one else. The age differential between Polunin and Rojo is four years’ shy of the 19-year gap between Nureyev and Fonteyn but it is close enough to give that special tint to the delirious, consumptive memories of the mature courtesan about her coltish young lover.

Rojo has served The Royal Ballet spectacularly for 12 glorious seasons and we should not overlook the historic uniqueness of an artistic director of one major ballet company performing with its main rival. It is unlikely to happen again! For Polunin it may hopefully open the page on a new chapter in his meteoric career. I don’t see him returning to Covent Garden in any permanent way but – thanks to the diplomatic efforts of new Director, Kevin O’Hare – the path is now clear for him to continue as an itinerant guest artist. In any event, this ballet draws a big, bold, black line under the two giant unresolved issues from 2012.

Polunin began cautiously, underselling his arm extensions and hopping out of a pirouette, but in each succeeding scene he turned up the dial, accelerating both the intensity of his dramatic impact and the precision of his dynamic technique. By the end, when Marguerite collapses dead, folded over his arms like a silk shawl, the performance of both these superstars of ballet is almost unbearable in its emotional power. Rojo – now more used to giving correction to other dancers – cannot have given a more complete and assured performance as she beats a soulful retreat from the Royal Opera House.

As on a world title boxing bill, where the rematch of Rojo and Polunin was the main event, the undercard was stacked with talent. Marianela Nuñez, Edward Watson and Federico Bonelli were an exceptional trio in Monotones II and the evergreen Leanne Benjamin melted like chocolate in the arms of Valeri Hristov during the ‘Meditation’ from Thais pas de deux; her unparalleled experience being brought to bear on taming a recalcitrant scarf that stuck to her headdress over several bars of music. We expect such quality from the leading principals but there were also delightful debuts from Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe, relishing the joyful pastoral pleasures of pure dance in Voices of Spring.

The programme had begun with La Valse: Ashton’s whirligig, roller-coaster round of ever-changing kaleidoscopic patterns, continually interweaving movements within the unremitting pace of his ensemble. It lasts for just 13 minutes but I feel sure that when those curtains fall, there are plenty of exhausted dancers lying spread-eagled on the floor! The contrast with the two Monotones trios is remarkable, exemplified by the luscious ballroom costumes and setting of André Levasseur in La Valse and the stark, androgynous body suits (designed by Ashton himself) for Monotones I and II. Where La Valse is all about group movement and overlapping harmonious rhythms, Monotones is an exercise in shape and the intimacy of contact in a reflective pair of sexless threesomes. Ashton’s work always provides a masterclass in musicality and in an intuitive empathy with his audience.

It is a pity that this programme has been overshadowed in its primary purpose by providing both the means for valediction and reconciliation of two great dancers. We do Ashton down when people talk of “his style” as if his work has some formulaic linearity. In these five perfect bite-sized morsels of dance we can see the remarkable diversity of a choreographer that truly deserves to be described as great. If only he had choreographed The Prodigal Son instead of (or as well as) Balanchine! It would have been such an apt narrative with which to welcome Polunin’s return.

Further performances of this programme: 13, 15, 21, 23 February 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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