Review: Royal Ballet - triple bill - Royal Opera House

Performance: 30 June, 3, 4, 6, 7 July 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 2 July 2012

Royal Ballet 'Les Noces' Christina Arestis & members of the company. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 30 June

Three classic short ballets, each of which is an essential ingredient in the uniqueness of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, comprised the penultimate evening of work chosen by its long-serving Director, Dame Monica Mason. Fifty four years of full-time service is about to come to an end, the last decade of which has been at the helm. Many other women have had long associations with the company, notably the Company’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Dame Margot Fonteyn, and it’s Founder, Dame Ninette de Valois. Although de Valois retired from a full-time commitment, 32 years after starting the business, she remained wholeheartedly committed (and largely in the foreground) throughout her life: she died, three months short of her 103rd birthday and just weeks away from the company’s 60th Anniversary, in 2001

These facts are an important backdrop since the programme opens with Birthday Offering, Frederick Ashton’s sumptuous homage to the traditions of nineteenth century classical and virtuosic ballet – and, in particular, to the Imperial Russian choreography of Marius Petipa. It was made, in 1956, to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which preceded the award of a Royal Charter and the change of name to The Royal Ballet. Mason came to the company as a 16 year-old, two years’ later, and so a half-century loop is closed by her programming of Ashton’s mini-masterpiece to open the last of her conventional triple bills (her Directorship will formally come to an end with three new ballets in the ‘Metamorphosis:Titian 2012 programme as part of the London 2012 Festival).

De Valois once said that ‘Fred was always much better with the women’ and never is this more the case than with Birthday Offering , which relies upon the disparate strengths of seven ballerinas, each of whom has a fiendishly difficult variation. By contrast, their seven cavaliers have little to do (although in revisiting the work over later years, Ashton added some extra work for the men) which is why the in-house nickname for the piece became ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’.

Whenever it is revived, the question is always whether the current roster of ballerinas can match the handed-down qualities of the original cast and the answer here is resoundingly affirmative. Four accomplished Principal dancers (Laura Morera, Sarah Lamb, Roberta Marquez with Tamara Rojo in the lead role) unsurprisingly match all our expectations but the lesser-ranked trio who make up the group shine with an equal lustre. Yuhui Choe set a superb benchmark with the doll-like precision of the opening variation; Hikaru Kobayashi caught my eye with her gentle flowing waltzes in the fifth variation; and then Helen Crawford conquered the seventh variation by demonstrating remarkable fleetness in these fast terre-á-terre steps. It is the best solo dancing that I have seen from her yet. Ashton deliberately bucked the trend of the time by excluding any lifts from a lyrical pas de deux and despite a cautious beginning, Rojo and Federico Bonelli looked tremendous together in André Levasseur’s glittering costumes. Most birthday presents would have reduced to dust after half a century but this one is wearing surprisingly well.

Exactly 20 years’ after Birthday Offering, Ashton made A Month in the Country and although he followed it with some other bits and pieces, it was to be his last masterpiece. I confess to have always struggled with Turgenev’s play being over-distilled into barely 40 minutes of action. This complicated set of romantic intrigues is not a romantic triangle, but doubled into a hexahedron with no less than four of the cast of eight infatuated with either of the two principals: the air-headed, languorous Natalia Petrovna; and the tutor, Beliaev: although where on earth he gets the time to do any tutoring in amongst all his amorous liaisons is questionable.

Petrovna has a husband and a long-time admirer but adores Beliaev, who is also coveted by both Petrovna’s young ward, Vera, and the maid, Katia. It all sounds like the ingredients for a theatrical farce, which were all the rage in the west end theatre of the 1970s when this ballet was made, and, unfortunately this is exactly how I see this rushed distillation of the tale. When Petrovna over-dramatically opens double doors inwards and then with a flourish flounces out, the audience laughter could not have been better claimed by Alan Ayckbourn or Brian Rix.

All this compacted action – the work is effectively played out in five solos and five duets, minimally linked by contextual narrative – is the more ironic for dance that is set to describe the events of A Month in the Country. These are clearly just the whistle-stop highlights. For all my concerns, there is a lyrical, gentle quality that reflects the similar setting of Ashton’s Enigma Variations (made some eight years’ earlier). These performances are universally good, not least in the effectively bemused interpretation of Beliaev by Rupert Pennefather (undoubtedly one of his best leading roles); the butterfly neurosis of Natalia is given strong dramatic resonance in an excellent performance by Zenaida Yanowsky; Emma Maguire is just right for the ingénue role of Vera; Gary Avis pitches his delivery of Rakitin (Natalia’s ardent admirer) perfectly to capture the mix of robust confidant covering the vulnerability of an unrequited love; and a final bouquet for Ludovic Ondiviela who had even the most battle-hardened critics loudly applauding after his virtuosic variation as the boy, Kolia. I may have some reservations about the cut-down narrative but I have no complaints with these excellent performances.

There is nothing much that I can say to do justice to the evening’s superb climax in Les Noces. This is one of the greatest works of dance to one of the greatest musical masterpieces ever composed. Thanks to Ashton, the Royal Ballet has the unique privilege of presenting a version of the ballet passed on by the coaching of Bronislava Nijinska herself. Nijinska is often first referred to as the sister of Nijinsky but it would be more appropriate to speak of her as the world’s first great woman choreographer and certainly one of the greatest modernist dancemakers of the twentieth century. The integration of all the elements of dance theatre just doesn’t come any better, especially in the remarkable dances, celestial music and constructivist setting of the final scene at the Wedding Feast.

It is one of those rare ballets where the whole company is the star. If there is just one dance work to see, one more time, then this version of Les Noces by The Royal Ballet would easily be on my short list. It is certainly a wonderful flourish to Mason’s final signature as Director.

Performances of this programme continue on 3, 4, 6, 7 July

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