Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Ashton’

Mini-review – Swan Lake – Natalia Osipova at Royal Ballet

March 21, 2015

I really enjoy Swan Lake, so I make an effort to “collect” productions, noting the differences in them rather like one might do wine tastings (“Oh, this has been oaked! Oh, they collapsed the last two acts!”). It came to me as a bit of a surprise to realize that, after eight years in London, I hadn’t actually seen Swan Lake: on the other hand, given the price of the tickets – it looks like it’s been a recurring financial decision to pass as amphitheater seats alone were running 50 quid. But I was able to find a slightly restricted view seat in the stalls circle for around 55, which is a price I’m more than happy to pay to see Natalia Osipova dancing: I feel morally obligated to see her as many times as possible (or at least once per ballet) now that she’s performing regularly at the Royal Ballet. These brilliant dancers don’t stay at the peak of their career forever anymore than a cherry tree stays covered in pink blossoms all year round.

Sadly for me the Siegfried chosen for this production is Matthew Golding, who singularly impressed me with his complete inability to act during the production of Onegin I went to last month. He a strong dancer but in a story ballet you want someone to pull you in, to get the emotional commitment to the story, and not just see perfect jump (check) perfect landing (check) awesome lift (check) all done with the kind of facial expressions last seen on Luke Skywalker (slightly angry – check – determined to succeed – check). On the other hand, you can absolutely believe his Prince Siegfried is too stupid to tell the difference between Odette and Odile, so that’s one hurdle crossed.

The Royal Ballet’s production (mocked by a friend for being dusty) struck me as singularly deliciously costumed, with the first act done in a mixture of well researched 1870s styles with perfectly interwoven Russian traditional dresses. Were both worn at court at that time? Who knows, but the effect was grand, the colors as varied as leaves in the forest and I couldn’t gawp as much as I wanted to. Instead of the bizarre jester role I’ve seen in some Russian productions, Royal Ballet had some comic relief provided by “the tutor” (Alastair Marriott), who gets in a dance with some girls of about 10 or 12 (Manon Forssell Pyk, Emily-Rose Holland) in which they basically attempt to duck away from him. They were for me the highlight of this act as I rarely get the chance to see young talent on stage – future ballerinas of the Royal, represent! And while the pas de trois was well done, I was bored by the waltzing and generally ready to just move through this scene and on to the lake (oddly I could see a swan boat at the back of the stage from where I was sitting … deliberate? accident?).

Then we had act two, with all of the young men of the palace going into the forest a-hunting and a most peculiarly unfrightening Von Rothbart. However, there was terror aplenty to come as the swans finally came on stage and I realized: they had six young girls playing cygnets. With their whitened faces and blond(-ish) hair, they were like the terror twins of The Shining, only multiplied by three. They didn’t have a lot of dancing to do (and were mostly kept in the back), but they made everything seem more supernatural and just damned creepy – almost as creepy as Golding’s peculiarly immobile face. This is the emotional heart of the ballet and the make-or-break time for me as an audience member, and although Osipova danced well and her fluttering fingers as she slowly folded herself down on stage (with her front body and arms extending to her toes) tried to break my heart, it was impossible for me to buy any emotional connection between this Odette and Siegfried. The swan spell was broken and I felt grateful I hadn’t forked over the hundred quid plus for a proper stalls seat.

The first interval ended and I piled back into my seat, eager to see how the big palace scene was handled and, of course, Osipova being outrageous and outgoing and out there as Odette. I loved the costumes for this scene – it was all done as a masquerade and had a real feel of Masque of the Red Death about it, a feeling enhanced by Von Rothbart appearing with two children wearing death’s masks. He sat there petting him as if they were his evil monkey minions and he a latter day Elpheba. The upper edges of the ballroom all had giant mirrors on them – echoing the giant mirror at the back of the stage that Odette would appear in (or so I assumed: my blocked view cut this right off). Then we had the suite of dances that makes up the pre-choice of bride extravaganza in this act. The various Russian dances and the Spanish dance were adequate, but I was charmed by the Neapolitan dance, which featured flying tambourines, clever arms-like-ribbon catches, and stolen kisses – I think it’s the best version of this I’ve ever seen. It’s all a build up to the series of solo dances by Odile and Siegfried, which, well, were fine but just lacked emotional intensity for me. My heart was checked out and I could not connect. That said, I love it when Siegfried’s mistake was revealed to him and Odile was essentially snatched off stage in a ball of fiery smoke, practically as if she was being dragged back into the depths of hell. It all worked well with the extremely dark tone of this scene and I enjoyed it.

However, I was pretty much ready to go home at this point, but came back anyway hoping for a bit more niceness in the act four dancing. What I got was some black skirted swans … a nice chance to break up the rhythm of the costuming … and the most unconvincing evil Rothbart scene ever. He seemed utterly powerless, less of an evil sorcerer than the Wizard of Oz. Just to mock me further, whatever actually happened to Odette and Siegfried was utterly hidden. They disappeared from my sightlines, then reappeared on a swan-shaped boat. Did she plunge of a cliff and he dive after her? Death seemed unlikely given that they’d already beaten Von Rothbart (could have done it with a feather duster, really, he was so wimpy), so I have no idea what actually was supposed to have happened in the ending. All I wanted to do was get home, and I dashed out the door. Natalia would never know.

(This review is for the performance that was filmed for broadcast in the Royal Opera House live cinema season on Tuesday March 17th 2015 and I’m pleased to say that from where I sat the cameras were not a distraction. I just discovered that the Neapolitan dance was choreographed by Ashton. How wonderful! It did really have a La Fille Mal Gardee feeling about it. Note: this is the final use of this production, per this article by Judith Mackrell: if you’d like to see a proper critic’s response to the production, it’s worth a read.)

Review – Triple Bill (Limen, Marguerite and Armand, Requiem) – Royal Ballet at Royal Opera House

October 9, 2011

It’s been two years since I first saw Limen, and the newness of it has worn off well enough for me to appreciate it more structurally. Saturday afternoon I was amazed by the lighting much more – the opening, with the animated, digital clock-font glowing numbers floating around on a scrim while dancers stepped into the numbers and then disappeared into the darkness just a foot or two away from the screen … the very cool white box of light that had the dancers in a negative space in the middle … the colored lights that at one point made a box border that matched the dancers’ shirts (crayon primaries) and then later sliced straight across the stage (in a recreation of the Mount Olympus scene from Xanadu – am I the only one who saw that?) … then the final scene with the great blackness at the back of the stage with little blue lights flickering around it that the dancers all eventually went to stand in front of, completely disappearing in the gloom. It all seemed a metaphor for how we have such brief moments of life and then it’s snuffed out. And yet … the one thing in this ballet that just really kills me is the Yin Yang duet Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood perform just past the halfway point. He is pure power, she is tiny and (seemingly) fragile, and he moves her with the grace and strength that I think is one of the mind blowing things about sex, that two humans who could be destroying each other instead are so careful and vulnerable together. It’s a pas de deux that makes you hold your breath and I feel lucky I was able to see it again with the originators of the roles.

No such luck with Marguerite and Armand, but given that Fonteyn and Nureyev were performing it until the late 70s, I almost could have (if I’d been living in England thirty years ago). But it was wonderful to have it be my debut as an audience member, with Rojo and Polunin instead, letting me revel in thirty minutes of unfiltered Ashtonian sap. Now, I am not a fan of Traviata (based on the same story, Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias), as I don’t care for heroes or heroines who are willing to let social norms dictate their actions. Yet somehow as a ballet, with so much of the irritating moral conflicts stripped away, the story moved on to a higher plan of abstracted feelings; love, longing, betrayal, duty, rejection, regret. Ashton wrote the emotions and relationships wonderfully through movement; Marguerite’s weakness captured by Armand lifting her using his legs; her heart and body broken as she shuffles offstage in toe-dragging pointe. I still wanted to hit Armand at the end for not being able to forgive Marguerite (for what I am still not sure; something about a necklace) in time to be able to enjoy what little of her life there was going to be for them to spend together; why must people dwell on the faults of those they love while they live only to suffer so much regret when they die – when a little less rigidity could have led to such a different outcome? Ah well, midway into my forties I see Armand’s pigheaddishness is just as contemporary as ever. Women may not be dying of consumption like they used to but oh, it was just a lovely little thing, this ballet was.

This brought us to the third ballet of the afternoon, Macmillan’s Requiem, something I’ve been interested in seeing because of its place in his ouvre both as a critical one-act and as a historical moment as a choreographer’s tribute to his mentor. What does a ballet constructed of pure grief look like? At the start, as the white-clad dancers paraded, hunched over, on stage, it looked a whole lot like Ashton’s Rite of Spring; there was even a body being carried aloft by the crowd. But then, as we listened to the just beautiful choral work (Fauré’s “Requiem”), I realized … we were watching pretty little angels being carried around on stage! The message was, “Don’t be sad! They’ve moved on to a better place and we’ll get to see them again.” Maybe that’s what the dancers of the Stuttgart ballet needed to hear but I found it just as candy-coated as the ribbon dance in La Fille mal Gardee. Grr. More grief! Ah well, it wasn’t badly danced, the music was very good, but my heart was not touched.

(This review is for the matinee performance of Saturday, October 8th, 2011. This triple bill continues through October 20th and like all of the Royal Ballet’s triple bills is a spectacular bargain. I highly encourage you to attend.)

Mini-review – Royal Ballet – Mixed Rep: La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations

October 25, 2010

To my delight, my season at the Royal Ballet opened with not a triple bill, but a previously not-experience “quadruple bill,” with the ever-mysterious “new work” forming the star at the apex of the crown. Ooh ooh! What ever would we get to see? In this case it was a new Brandstrup, which I had hopes for, and a Balanchine, woo hoo! Then there was … duh duh DUUUUUUHM! … a long MacMillan. Damn. I had just swore him off forever after seeing Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, but I had to stick through it to get to the Balanchine. Damn, damn and damn.

Fortunately the night got off to a sparkling start with Ashton’s La Valse. I was fascinated by the music – not some cheesy Strauss stuff (I’ve had a lifetime’s worth courtesy of Paradise Found) but Ravel, pulling us into the music with a bunch of dissonant noise, as if all was not right with the world. The dancers, men in formal wear and women in fluffy, mid-calf dresses in varying pastels, looked straight out of a 1950s girl’s bedroom (my companion described it as “looking like a perfume ad”). The dancing didn’t knock my socks off, but the coordinated movement was lovely to watch, though … truth be told … the coordination was a bit off. I got a sudden whiff of “oh, so this is the Royal Ballet B cast,” but, still, I got a guilty pleasure out of it. It even wound up to a sort of “Masque of the Red Death” like fury at the end as the music got all dissonant again, and I felt RAH yes, good start to the night.

Then we moved into “Invitus Invitam,” the new work by Kim Brandstrup. This has got to go down as the best use of projections I’ve ever seen on stage: they were used to change a flat wall into a brick one, show the movement of the dancers as planned out on a computer program (I think), give us titles to the various movements, and (in the one naff bit) show the shadow of someone running offstage. We were led into it very gently, with the lights still up and people guiding set pieces onto the stage while the orchestra tootled a bit … then the two people directing the set pieces started acting like dancers trying to figure out a bit of movement … then the lights went down and we were suddenly sure that yes, this was the ballet happening. Then suddenly we had dressed up dancers, a man and a woman (Christina Arestis and Bennet Gartside, I believe – though the man did look like Ed Watson so maybe it was Leanne Benjamin) in court dress, moving around in ways I found … well, not emotionally engaging. He appeared to be trying to entice or seduce her, she appeared to be holding out – and then the man would run away, and the woman would look bereft. Then the lights would change dramatically, and the stage manager looking couple would come back on. In the final movement, it was the man who was left alone and the woman who ran away … and though it was an intelligent piece and pretty to watch, I’m afraid it just left me a bit dry. Still, my enthusiasm for the evening had not waned.

But … next up was the medicine to accompany the sugar: a 53 minute long MACMILLAN piece based on … wait for it … CHEKHOV. His play Three Sisters was the first Russian play I ever saw, and the theme of whinging people doing nothing to fix their lives, of the pathetic passivity of the bourgeoisie, left me dead inside. I had some hopes that the “music by Tchaikovsky” bit would rescue it … but no. It dragged. And dragged. The audience coughed, they dropped things, the man next to me checked the time on his phone FIVE TIMES, time stopped. The men were generally dancing quite well in a way I do see as typical of MacMillan, but … well, there was one beautiful bit: a duet between Vershinin (Thiago Soares) and Masha (Sarah Lamb) as he decides to leave her. It had the power of the little excerpts you often see in galas, of all of the heart and passion of the entire thing wrapped up in one little perfect bit of dance; and I hope some day I will see this in a gala. Shortly thereafter, two soldiers met for a duel. One of them was shot and died. My thought: “The lucky bastard. I have to wait until this is over before I get to leave.”

Still, I was more than eager to come back for the last bit, “Theme and Variations,” and what a lovely little meringue it was. To be honest, I think the corps dancers were continuing to be sloppy, but I was unwilling to let that detract from my overall enjoyment. It’s kind of embarassing, really, that I was just reveling in all of the shiny tutus and glittering tiaras and all of the utterly most shallow stuff about ballet, and enjoying the movement and just kind of letting myself go. I hadn’t brought my notebook because I really just wanted to be in the moment, and I was, and while Ibi and I both agreed the dancing was not as good as it should have been, still, we left the evening happy and satisfied and looking forward very much to our next ballet excursion, when, with luck, we will finally pick the A cast and get what we are really hoping for: perfection, without any gloomy, bum-numbing MacMillan to take the fun away.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 22nd, 2010. The final performances are October 28th and 30th, and I highly recommend you book for this really solid night of dance. Even Clement Crisp loved it, it had to be good!)