Review: Royal Ballet in Scenes de ballet / Voluntaries / The Rite of Spring at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 11 June 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 31 May 2011

Royal Ballet 'The Rite of Spring', featuring Stephen McRae as the Chosen One.
Photo: Johan Persson.

Reviewed: 28 May

***The Royal Ballet* closed its roster of productions for the 2010/11 season at the Royal Opera House (although we still have *Romeo & Juliet* _to come at the O2) with easily the best triple bill of the year, bringing together three of the company’s great treasures: Frederick Ashton’s monumental _Scènes de Ballet (not seen since 2004); Glen Tetley’s aching requiem lament in Voluntaries and Kenneth McMillan’s earthy, aboriginal The Rite of Spring. There were no risky premieres and no computer graphics to bedazzle us, just glorious dance that had been tried and tested many times before with these three works having had 300 prior performances at Covent Garden between them.

If there was a risk, it came with a trio of major debuts in leading roles as younger dancers emerged to claim these significant aspects of the Royal Ballet’s heritage for themselves. In Scènes de Ballet it was Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin who graduated into the roles originally made on Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in 1948; and in the boldest move of all, the role of the Chosen One in The Rite of Spring was to be danced by men, beginning in this first cast with Steven McRae (with Edward Watson to follow).

From the opening bars of Stravinsky’s jazz-infused score to Scènes de Ballet (originally composed for a dance divertissement in a wartime Broadway Review), Sergei Polunin stamped an indelible mark with simple, yet masterful dancing: slicing the air with crisp entrechats, then holding an achingly long arabesque before letting loose strong quadruple pirouettes into double tours. His impeccable technique was studded with Ashton’s postures and sharp turns of the head, and elegantly framed by four cavaliers. They give way to a corps de ballet of twelve ballerinas, gorgeously dressed in André Beaurepaire’s sumptuous tutus, with iconic Toreador hats and pearl necklaces, heavily influenced by the ‘New Look’ couture that had swept Paris in the previous year.

Back in 2004, Lauren Cuthbertson was in this corps de ballet but now she has graduated to the star role. If Polunin roared his confident acquisition of this most iconic of ballets, Cuthbertson took control more demurely, but with no less success. Wearing Beaurepaire’s iconic yellow & black tutu, she gave one of her most dazzling performances to date, announcing – if any further statement were needed – that she is the star British ballerina at the Royal Ballet, a role that has been vacant since Darcey Bussell’s retirement in 2007. Cuthbertson had shown great potential (it is now several years since her debut as Juliet) until an illness temporarily derailed her career, but she has emerged from that unhappy period stronger and more determined, tackling this role – made on Fonteyn at the height of her powers – with great maturity. Her gloriously crisp and detailed footwork and expressive dancing spoke volumes in Beaurepaire’s plotless and desolate landscape. .

Tetley’s Voluntaries (1973) was made in memoriam to his friend and fellow choreographer, John Cranko (who died tragically young on a transatlantic flight) and is now regularly performed by the Royal Ballet. The lead pairing brought together the company’s longest-serving and newest Principal dancers, with Leanne Benjamin partnered by Nehemiah Kish (who joined the company earlier this season). Kish is a powerful, broad, muscular dancer and Benjamin a tiny, sinuous performer and while both did all that they could, I felt that they were ill-matched, like chalk and cheese, in their pas de deux. The enigmatic Benjamin floated across Poulenc’s dramatic Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion, capturing the exhilarating aspiration of the music, while Kish lifted and carried effortlessly but laboured to match Benjamin’s evanescence. Years beyond the age at which most other dancers retire, Benjamin continues to dance to the very highest standard and long may it continue. Excellent support was provided by the ethereal Sarah Lamb, Ryoichi Hirano and an uncredited Valeri Hristov (a late replacement for Thiago Soares).

The much anticipated debut of Steven McRae as the Chosen One in The Rite of Spring turned out to be the disappointment of the day. The paradox being that McRae danced superbly well and was technically as solid as Polunin had been in Scènes. But, the Chosen One simply doesn’t work as a man and however well McRae danced; he doesn’t exude the vulnerability and despair that, for example, inhabits Mara Galeazzi’s interpretation of this role (for me the best of the chosen people in modern times). Instead, one had the feeling that McRae’s Chosen One was playing a game in these Rites; and one that he was knowingly – even arrogantly – winning, which meant that the dénouement of his death was a surprising anti-climax instead of a long slow, build towards the stunning concluding crescendo. At the curtain call, McRae looked hardly out of breath, whereas Galeazzi would have been dead on her feet. It makes a difference. The 46-strong tribe of Royal Ballet dancers were, however, triumphant in delivering one of the most astonishingly visceral ensemble performances in the company’s repertoire, thus bringing to an end an excellent programme with which to close Dame Monica Mason’s penultimate season as the company’s Director. Since she was the original Chosen One, 49 years ago, it seems a fitting way to segue into her final year at the company’s helm.

Continues 2, 8, 9, 11 June

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