Review: Royal Ballet - Firebird / In The Night / Raymonda -Royal Opera House

Performance: 22, 29 December, 4, 9, 11 January 2013
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 28 December 2012

The Royal Ballet's Itziar Mendizabal & Bennet Gartside in 'The Firebird'. Photo Tristram Kenton courtesy ROH

Firebird / In The Night / Raymonda
Performance reviewed: 22 December

Covent Garden is always a festive place to visit in the Christmas season, and this year The Royal Ballet is supplementing its regular trip to The Nutcracker’s Kingdom Of Sweets with a triple bill of shorter repertory works. There’s a nice balance to the programme, with big Imperial classics bookending a more intimate modern piece by Jerome Robbins.

Fokine’s Firebird, a fairly regular visitor to the Covent Garden stage, has been given some love and attention for this latest outing. Itziar Mendizabal, making her debut as the Firebird, is both bewitching and animalistic, with fluid arms and darting, avian head movements. Tara Bhavnani is a winsome Tsarevna; her twelve lovely dancing ladies are delightfully graceful in the flirtatious apple-tossing dance that so beguiles the young Tsarevich (Bennett Gartside). But the real essence of Fokine’s electrifying ballet is the Infernal Dance at the centre of the work, in which the Firebird drives a mass cast to dance until exhausted. This section only truly works with a precision ensemble, and the well-rehearsed Royal Ballet corps meets the challenge of the pacey choreography with aplomb and near-perfect unison. A joyful performance is topped off with superb character dancing from Gary Avis as a bent and gnarly Kostcheï, who went down a treat with the younger audience members.

In The Night, Jerome Robbins’ 1970 piece for three couples and piano, couldn’t be more different from Fokine’s mass extravaganza. Set against a simple starry backdrop and, for much of its length, showing only one pair of dancers on stage at a time, it’s a delicate and reflective work that responds to the tantalising elegance of four of Chopin’s Nocturnes. Sarah Lamb, dressed in a lilac ballgown that evokes a young Grace Kelly, appears first on stage with Federico Bonelli. Theirs is an airy and buoyant duet swelling with the first flush of romance; she winds her body around his and flies into his arms, full of ecstatic amour. Their tender duet contrasts with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg’s tempestuous number – sparks fly as Kobborg grasps his red-frocked lady and tosses her high into the air, only for her to rebuke him and leave the stage altogether. Cojocaru can’t manage long without her fiery lover, however, and she runs back into his arms only for him to grow vexed and leave.

In between these sweet and spicy expressions of love appear Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish, representing a more mature twosome who match each other in measured steps across the stage, like the settled dinner-party couple who finish one another’s sentences. Visibly more down-to-earth than either of the other duos – Yanowsky and Kish wear simple bronze tones and spend much more time on the ground – the leaps and fish-dives are fewer and further between here, but perhaps more erotically charged for it. Pianist Robert Clark gives a sensitive performance of Chopin’s exquisite music.

Marius Petipa’s Raymonda is a real Christmas cake of a piece – rich, sweet, traditional, and in places really quite nutty. Here, the baffling chivalric plot involving Crusades and kidnap is sensibly ignored in favour of the third act’s joyful wedding celebrations, a series of divertissements gifted to the Royal in 1964 by star principal Rudolf Nuryev. Raymonda’s medieval French setting doesn’t appear to have overly bothered Petipa, who gives the eleven celebratory variations a thigh-slapping, toe-flexing Hungarian folk feel. There’s plenty to enjoy about this production: Zenaida Yanowsky sparkles in her two jubilant solos as Raymonda, and Barry Kay’s lavish courtly set gets a well-deserved round of applause of its own. The male pas de quatre, with its punishing tours en l’air, needs much more rehearsal, however, and the corps could attack their Hungarian ensemble dances with a bit more oomph. Like an iced fruitcake, Raymonda Act III has enough sugar to sink a ship, and to my taste a little of this sort of ballet goes a long way.

In rep until 11 January (returns only)

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher, as well as a regular contributor to & Arts Professional

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