Review: Royal Ballet - Ballo Della Regina/ La Sylphide at Royal Opera House

Performance: 21, 22, 24, 26(Mat/Eve) May, 7, 12, 15 June 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 22 May 2012

The Royal Ballet - Alina Cojocaru in 'La Sylphide' Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH.

Reviewed: 21 May

Much is said about the Royal Ballet style, a cocktail of details in schooling and performance that has built up over 80 years to create a British character for ballet. But here is a programme where the company has to put that home tradition aside to show how well it can absorb and portray the national styles of America and Denmark in two ballets that are the epitome of these essential and very different attributes. The elegant Danish character of August Bournonville’s choreography in La Sylphide shone out as polished and refined as a piece of Georg Jensen silver while Balanchine’s breakneck speed in Ballo Della Regina reminded me of a yellow cab hurtling in and out of traffic on the streets of New York, albeit one complete with a few dents and scuffs to the paintwork!

La Sylphide has much in common with its more famous contemporary, Giselle. They are the surviving illustrations of the golden age of romanticism: ballets that are named after their heroine, both of whom tragically entrust their futures to duplicitous men. One begins as an ethereal, white spirit with wings and the other ends in the same condition. Bournonville’s work has been produced and staged, with some additional choreography, by the Principal Dancer Johan Kobborg and his intrinsic attention to detail makes this 180 year-old ballet fresher than a just-baked Danish pastry. The simple story of a wedding interrupted by the groom’s encounter with a sylph (a fairy that lives in the forest) – a mutual infatuation which leads to a fatal embrace and the fairy’s death – is an ideal introduction to ballet for anyone keen to dip their toe in the water. With two acts at just over 30 minutes each, it is a bite-sized introduction to beautiful, story-telling ballet.

And this cast is truly exceptional. No-one portrays the vulnerability of dramatic, romantic tragedy better than Alina Cojocaru, the divine mistress of this art. Her Sylph is a virtuous sprite with a mischievous inquisitiveness that leads her from the woodland glade into the manor house to gaze lovingly at the sleeping human she adores. But, of course, it is an adventure with tragic consequences and Cojocaru lives that journey of doomed infatuation with a translucent beauty that makes one believe she really has drifted through the window on a warm highland breeze. She dances exquisitely, tracing her ethereality with subtle, fragile, descriptive finessing of her arms and hands, which appear not to be made of flesh and blood but woven from the finest gossamer thread. And for all that Cojocaru IS a sylph, then Steven McRae is equally convincing as James, the young Scotsman we first encounter snoozing in the comfy armchair on the morning of his marriage. McRae’s vivid red hair coupled with an apparent ancestral familiarity with the kilt oozes evocativeness of a highland fling. He also embraces so completely the gentle, graceful epaulement of Bournonville’s technique with darting, quick but unhurried, footwork; strong, springing legs; and a disciplined placement of the arms and upper body carriage. Bournonville steps should be danced, nobly and gently, without betraying the effort, no matter how high the jumps, and McRae does this superbly.

The leads are excellently supported throughout the cast. At first, I thought that Kristen McNally’s Madge is too young and still obviously pretty under all the witch’s stage makeup but – on reflection – it seems right to show that the old fortune-teller was once herself a beauty. McNally is one of those rare performers who can reach every corner of the auditorium with a raised eyebrow and she is set to become one of the Royal Ballet’s great character artists. Credit also to Emma Maguire’s spirited portrayal of Effie, the bride spurned by James, who then marries his rival (Valentino Zucchetti); and for Annabel Pickering, who made every second count in this most memorable of all occasions for a child dancer. There is nothing one can quibble with in this excellent five-star production with five-star performances to match.

The difference between La Sylphide and Giselle is that the latter two-act ballet is just long enough to stand on its own. La Sylphide, however, needs an hors d’oeuvre to make a full evening of ballet, although in this case Ballo Della Regina was more like a fizzy, pink cocktail. At just 18 minutes, it is a whirlwind of steps, designed by Balanchine in the late 1970s to show off the speed and attack of Merrill Ashley, the last of his ballerina muses. Watching her on film, one can easily see how Balanchine was inspired to fit dance on this athletic dynamo with her musicality unimpaired by whatever allegro magic her maestro ordained. The trouble is that The Royal Ballet has no-one capable of matching the disciplined speed of the New York dancers, not even those who hail from across the pond. Marianela Nuñez gives the Ashley role her very best shot – and it is probably the best that The Royal can do – but it is only Nuñez and Yuhui Choe that are convincing in this severest of Balanchine tests.

This ‘Ballet for the Queen’ is part of the Royal’s Diamond Jubilee celebration but regrettably this tiara is not looking its best. I would love to warm to Nehemiah Kish – the lone man in this extended interpretation of a grand pas de deux- but the absence of personality in his performance makes this very difficult. In a company where dramatic expression is vital, Kish needs a transfusion of charisma from somewhere; I’m sure that McNally can spare a drop or two. But for all these concerns, there remains a breathless charm about the work and a few glitches in the timing, harmony and musicality (in places the score resembles incidental music from a ‘Carry On’ film) seem somehow irrelevant – a bit like those dents and scratches on the New York taxicab.

Continues: 22, 24, 26 (Mat/Eve)May, 7, 12, 15 June 2012.

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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