Review: Royal Ballet - Ashton mixed bill - Royal Opera House

Performance: 18 October - 12 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 20 October 2014

Steven McRae and Artists of The Royal Ballet in 'Scènes de Ballet'
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton, 2014.

Scènes De Ballet / Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan / Symphonic Variations / A Month in the Country
Performance reviewed: 18 October

Although he died nearly three decades ago, Sir Frederick Ashton is still proudly proclaimed as The Royal Ballet’s Founder Choreographer. He created the form that is perceived to represent British ballet and – in the years since his death – there have been interminable debates about how well the integrity of that style is being maintained.

Dancing Fred’s steps will always be regarded as the touchstone of The Royal Ballet’s health and, in that sense, an all-Ashton programme of his mini-masterpieces must be seen as the company’s greatest challenge, now and if not forever, certainly for the foreseeable future. Ashton’s two greatest one act, non-narrative works are Symphonic Variations (1946) and Scènes de Ballet (1948), which stand to be measured favourably against anything choreographed by other master choreographers of the past two centuries.

Collectively, these two masterpieces have been performed around 450 times at the Royal Opera House, with the earlier work having the upper hand (250 against 197 by the current count). I only have the last 20 years’ for comparison, but from such limited perspective I’m pleased to say that these performances are up there with the very best, most notably in the strength of the male leads. In Scènes de Ballet, the complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s music have been interpreted by Ashton in multiple layers of movement, which are most beautifully articulated in the disciplined, yet flowing, precision and upright stature of Steven McRae. Both he and Vadim Muntagirov – in Symphonic Variations – appear to be twin Olympian Apollo’s in the final stages of their divine training. Just as Apollo climbs Mount Parnassus at the conclusion of George Balanchine’s eponymous masterpiece, so these young men are already occupying rarefied atmosphere in ascending the pinnacle of artistic excellence. These performances confirmed (if any such confirmation were needed) that The Royal Ballet – generally lauded for the quality of its ballerinas – currently commands two of the world’s best male dancers within its ranks.

And bye the bye, this is no sleight on the women because they were also outstanding. In Scènes de Ballet, Sarah Lamb elevated the most iconic costume in British ballet (André Beaurepaire’s glorious yellow and black tutu) to the appropriate heights of excellence; and – in her debut in the work – Marianela Nuñez was as crisp in her accuracy as she was delightful in her performance of Ashton’s complex arrangements for Symphonic Variations. An original cast member once told me that the six dancers laid down exhausted after the very first dress rehearsal (in 1946) and when they eventually stood up six perfect full-body silhouettes were marked on the floor in their sweat! It is a fiendishly difficult work to perform and credit must also go to Yasmine Naghdi, Yuhui Choe, James Hay and Tristan Dyer for integral contributions to outstanding teamwork. Similar praise is due to the corps in Scénes de Ballet (and their coaching staff) since I detected no lull whatsoever in the consistent high standards of harmony and sharpness.

These works are to be considered iconic as much for the masterful simplicity of their designs as the geometric fascination of Ashton’s choreography (Sophie Fedorovitch’s backdrop for Symphonic Variations cleverly suggests a disassembled musical stave). They were sandwiched around the brief interlude of Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, where, in just nine minutes’ of pure dance, Ashton’s genius eye for choreographic detail conjures an aura of the great pioneer of modern dance. Helen Crawford stepped up to replace the injured Lauren Cuthbertson with considerable aplomb, evoking the charismatic ideal of Duncan’s spirit with charm and free-flowing elegance, achieving aesthetically pleasing arched lines through the curvature of her spine and limbs.

A Month in the Country, which Ashton made in 1976, is based on the central romantic entanglements in Ivan Turgenev’s play, choreographed to Chopin’s lushly romantic music. Kate Shipway played the solo piano here (as she had done onstage in the Five Waltzes) with great feeling. Ashton’s clever concentration on the emotional heartland of the story enabled a long five-act play to be pared down to a 45-minute, one-act ballet. And, it is long enough.

The ballet showcases Ashton’s skill in developing expressive narrative through his principal characters in three duets that essentially unveil the whole story. Natalia Petrovna (Zenaida Yanowsky) is initially admired by a house guest, Rakitin (Gary Avis) but while the ardency of his interest is shown in their duet, we see that her mind is elsewhere; the last character to be introduced is her son’s tutor, Beliaev (Rupert Pennefather), who in turn is admired by Natalia’s ward, Vera (Emma Maguire) and their dance mirrors the first, since it is clear that the passion is uneven; when Beliaev and Natalia finally get together for their own ecstatic and climactic duet, we eventually see the true expression of requited love. This was an experienced cast, largely revisiting familiar roles, thus enriching the dramatic sophistication and ensuring that the story was conveyed with great clarity. Yanowsky, in particular, has a mature and convincing command of the many nuances in the central role.

The strength of such experience was mixed with the refreshing test of many dancers – in the earlier ballets – taking on the tough challenges laid down by the Founder Choreographer, in roles and ballets that were new to them. In recognising the unqualified success of these performances, I must conclude by congratulating the company for once more demonstrating a sophisticated and unparalleled command of the Ashton repertoire. All is at it should be.

In rep until 12 November 2014

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 and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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