The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

Posted: February 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria

The Royal Ballet: Rhapsody, Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Gloria, Royal Opera House, February 7

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sarah Lamb in Gloria with Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta @ROH/Bill Cooper 2011

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980. In the program notes Zoë Anderson relates a revealing anecdote about its creation. Baryshnikov was a guest artist of the Royal Ballet that summer and insisted on experiencing the Ashton style in a work created on him. Ashton, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to showcase a virtuoso dancer steeped in the Kirov tradition as a foil to his company. Baryshnikov later admitted to being disappointed: “I wanted English ballet and he wanted Russian ballet.” This evening it is Stephen McRae who takes on Baryshnikov’s role, standing at the centre of a large, sparsely decorated stage as the curtain rises. Clement Crisp’s effusive praise of McRae notwithstanding, his formidable technique is here in the service of somebody else’s distinctive style and steps. Ashton’s genius was to bring out the qualities of the person dancing, and in Baryshnikov he was evidently able to marry expression and technique to a high degree. Trying to recapture that undermines McRae’s ability to express himself in the technique and he is also at a stylistic disadvantage for he is very much English ballet, not Russian ballet. His partner in Rhapsody, Laura Morera, despite her Spanish origins, is very much English ballet, and she fits into Lesley Collier’s original quicksilver shoes and lovely sense of line with consummate ease (Collier was coaching the role). What she doesn’t have is the stylistic contrast in McRae to play against. With these misgivings and the six couples in pastel colours looking a little rough in their patterns and timings (especially the men), Rhapsody forms a rather under-cooked first course to an oddly assorted triple bill.

This kind of three-course menu in which a new work is sandwiched between two staples of the repertoire (82 performances each) is predominantly the responsibility of the chef and the chef at The Royal Ballet is not only the director but the one who provides the new work, in this case Wayne (‘dance doesn’t have to be the priority’) McGregor. It is his latest offering, Tetractys  – The Art of Fugue, that sits rather uncomfortably between the two classically-based works by his predecessors. McGregor stretches everything but the classical technique, and expressiveness in his dances takes a back seat to his latest intellectual construct. Seeing the work after reading the program notes about Bach’s Art of Fugue (here orchestrated by Michael Berkeley), its signs, symbols, mystical tetractys and association with the Pythagorean theory of numbers, overlaid by set designer Tauba Auerbach’s geometry of glyphs, and you feel heartened by the example of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The cast is stellar but even stars implode: the feline Natalia Osipova, whose first appearance with Edward Watson is pure sorcery, soon fades into the miasma of over-extended limbs and onerous partnering. Eric Underwood suffers temporary eclipse as he passes through the darker sections of the McGregor/Auerbach dark universe, leaving only the ghostly trace of his phosphorescent unitard, and the luminous qualities of Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson are wholly consumed. McRae, dressed in green but still radiating sparks from Rhapsody, appears out of place and Federico Bonelli is clearly suffering some kind of meltdown (he was unwell enough the following evening for the work to be cancelled, though Osipova’s concussion was an additional factor).

McGregor sums up in the program notes the link between Bach’s Art of Fugue (without the definite article) and Tetractys – The Art of Fugue: ‘I am thinking of this piece as a fugue in terms of my own structure: I have the Bach, I have the design, I have my choreography and I have Michael Berkeley’s version of the score. So there are four elements, each with a different logic, but which absolutely speak to each other.’ Speaking has never been a problem for McGregor, but finding a formal framework for his onstage dialogues and an expressive vehicle for his dancers has. It was all the spirits of Ashton and MacMillan could do to pull the evening out of its black hole.

Sir Kenneth Macmillan had been contemplating a ballet about the First World War for some time as his father had served in the trenches and like so many survivors had been unable to talk about the horror. The catalyst was a 1979 BBC dramatization of Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, describing the devastating impact of that war on an entire generation. Commissioned to create a new one-act work for the Royal Ballet in 1980 (the same year as Rhapsody), MacMillan brought his project to fruition, using Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G Major — a hymn to the glory of God — as a counterbalance to his vision of the devastation of war. He discovered Andy Klunder’s sculptural work ‘accidentally’ at the Slade School of Art and felt immediately a connection to what he wanted to express in Gloria. He asked Klunder to design the set — a stylised battlefield with the dancers appearing out of and disappearing into an unseen trench at the back — and the costumes: a decaying flesh unitard for the men with the familiar Brodie helmet and a fragile silver unitard for the women with wisps of fabric hanging from the waist and ‘close-fitting caps with coiled ear-muffs’ that give them, in Jann Parry’s poignant description, the semblance of ‘wraiths of young women cheated of their wedding day’.

This is a work in which all the elements do speak to each other eloquently and the superimposition of ideas and juxtapositions create a powerful formal unity. John B. Read’s lighting maintains the dreamlike timelessness of the set while creating with the dancers deep shadows on the floor that resemble dark craters. The mood alternates between hope and pity in a subtly understated choreography that recalls Wilfred Owen’s line that ‘the Poetry is in the pity’. MacMillan casts four principal characters (Carlos Acosta and Thiago Soares as brothers-in-arms and Sarah Lamb and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the two aspects — grieving and lighthearted — of their female companions) against a chorus of women and soldiers. After the first section of the Gloria in which the chorus slowly peoples the desolate stage, a lively quartet erupts with Hinkis being tossed freely among three men (on her own feet she dances with edgy abandon, a joy to watch). Acosta enters as if holding a rifle, a tragic figure who displays a powerful sense of weariness and despair; his turns gradually pull him down to the ground to sleep. Lamb and Soares perform the central duet to the Domine Deus sung by soprano Dušica Bijelic whose lovely voice is itself tinged with grief. Lamb is transformed here by the form MacMillan gives to the duet, her gorgeous lines complementing those of Soares in a spare choreography that fills the stage with redemptive pathos. In Domine Fili, the quartet returns with Hingis flying in over the trench followed by a trio of Lamb, Acosta and Soares. MacMillan creates masterly groupings of women like a protective fence or battlements to honour perhaps the lives of nurses like Vera Brittain herself who devoted themselves to the dying and wounded throughout the war. As Bijelic sings Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, the dancers make their inexorable way back to the trench of their death or mourning, while the trio remains as a vestige of the living. Soares and Lamb finally leave by the same path leaving Acosta circling the stage in a series of gallant leaps before coming to a halt by the trench to listen to the final strains of in gloria dei. On the uplifting Amen he drops suddenly from view to his own death and resurrection in the depths of the earth.

 


Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Posted: September 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection

Carlos Acosta, Classical Selection, London Coliseum, July 30

There is something about the dancers Carlos Acosta has gathered to celebrate his 40th birthday that reminds me of a band of players that puts on performances for the sheer joy of performing. Although Acosta is clearly the central figure there is a thoughtful egalitarianism in the various performances, an abandonment of star status for the delight of working collectively. In an interview with David Jays, Acosta says that ‘In my programmes, people are not just dancers — they are people who dance.’ It is an apt distinction, for what comes across in Classical Selection is the human element, the drama, the filtering out of any conceit to lay bare the person dancing.

Pianist Robert Clark is alone on stage in a pool of light, playing a Tchaikovsky nocturne. A second light picks out an empty chair in which Acosta, dressed in military attire, soon relaxes as if to start a rehearsal of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. He massages his foot, takes off his leggings, stuffs them in a bag, and puts on an overcoat. Any pretense of rehearsal evaporates as Marianela Nuñez arrives. Acosta throws off his coat (so soon after putting it on) and rushes to her. What follows is a duet of leave-taking between Masha and her lover Vershinin based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It is rich MacMillan territory in miniature, and the contrast between the exquisite Nuñez and Acosta’s bravado — she speaks in lines and beauty, he in clarity of force — keeps the drama alive in a passionate complexity of lifts and embraces that dissipate with his abrupt departure and her collapsing on the discarded coat.

In creating the programme for Classical Selection, Acosta wanted to ‘revisit some of the choreographers who have shaped and inspired me as a dancer down the years and to showcase some of the dancing talents with whom I have had the privilege to work’. Melissa Hamilton dancing Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan is clearly in the latter category, the first of three works in which she dances. Last year Susan Pritchard and Anya Sainsbury produced a book on Anna Pavlova (for whom Fokine created the solo) to mark the centenary of her moving to Ivy House. The old photographs show Pavlova at the height of her artistry but with a balletic line that appears less refined than that of today’s Royal Ballet. Melissa Hamilton has a precision in her wrists and arms that is swan-like but a high arabesque that belongs elsewhere. Unlike the musical interpretation (by Robert Clark on piano and James Potter on cello), Hamilton does not differentiate (as in a swan) the beauty and fragility of the upper body from the working of the legs, so we are drawn to her lines rather than to her heart: she is a swan, but she is not dying.

Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography is so deceptively simple perhaps because his language is so articulate and clear; his steps dance the dancers. In Rhapsody, to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Ricardo Cervera and Yuhei Choe are all freshness and light, and Choe is quite fearless as she launches herself into Cervera’s arms. Rhapsody is like a sketch in pencil with watercolour highlights in which the costumes amplify the movement to perfection.

As the lights come up on Scheherezade, a story ballet from Diaghilev’s 1910 Paris season, it looks as if two oriental sleeping bags are on stage, a vestige of the exotic design of Leon Bakst’s original sets. The role of Zobeida was originally made for Ida Rubinstein, a beauty of her time whose power was in her mime rather than her dance. Nuñez is a beauty of our time, but she is also an exquisite dancer; she brings almost too much to the role. Acosta has all the animal quality and the overcharged energy of the passionate slave bolting into the harem for a brief, forbidden moment, with his large hands, like a Rodin sculpture, exaggerating his thrall. The extract is all expectation and suggestion: Nuñez is languorously supple and seductive, succumbing inevitably to the passion of Acosta who, after a final, brief climax, is spent. Unlike the murderous ending of Fokine’s full-length ballet, this is a ‘petite mort’.

In another kind of bedroom, an opulent four-poster dwarfs the set of MacMillan’s Manon. Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux is writing at a desk while Leanne Benjamin as his lover makes her sensual way from the sheets to his side, snatching his feather quill and, forgetting it is not a Parker fountain pen, tossing it away with a great deal of force for very little effect. Kish gets up not, it would seem, from any internal motivation but because the choreography dictates. She wants to play but he does not. She has the looks, the sinuous passion; he keeps well within his balletic shell. Their kiss at the end is, finally, believable, but the extract never really gets going, as it takes two and Kish’s motors are not turning over at Benjamin’s rate. He appears stilted: technically able, but without the emotional spark.

A musical interlude allows the orchestra, under Paul Murphy, to let rip on one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, directing the audience eastward from France to Russia.

Agrippina Vaganova’s choreography, Diana and Acteon, is a demonstration of the classical training for which Vaganova as a teacher is so renowned. And Acosta and Nuñez thrive on it. Nuñez already displays a lovely opening ballon before there is an audible ‘Aaaah!’ from the audience as Acosta flies in. Nuñez and Acosta are very calm together even though the choreography, on a bow-and-arrow theme, is highly charged and virtuosic. Nuñez’s split arabesque penchés are probably not in the original Vaganova conception but do not appear out of place as her entire performance is transposed to a consistently higher plane of performance. Acosta’s solo is beautiful, contained and centred, even if he has to put himself back on to his pirouette. Nuñez is ravishing in her solo with a breathtaking series of opening penchés. They are not all particularly feminine steps, but she brings together her strength and poise to create beautiful shapes. Acosta and Nuñez evidently inspire each other, and the coda is thrilling. There is a lovely moment when he partners her in pirouettes then takes away his hands to leave her to continue turning as if he were never there. This story of Diana and Actaeon has a happy ending: by the time this duet is finished, Diana’s desire for vengeance has metamorphosed into physical union. This is what we have come to see, classical ballet danced by two artists who are at the peak of their art.

The second half of the evening is more choreographed than the first, an almost continuous flow of works with the briefest of pauses and no bows. It is a more satisfactory format. In MacMillan’s Mayerling, Acosta pushes his interpretation of Crown Prince Rudolph to the edges of sanity. A three-panel screen at the back of the stage, a table and two chairs suggest Nicholas Georgiadis’s design for the hunting lodge where Rudolf and Mary Vetsera (Benjamin in great form) meet for their suicide pact. Cervera, as Rudolph’s driver Bratfisch, is delightfully at ease as he tries in vain to entertain the couple. Perhaps he senses something is not right and jokes away the quiet before the storm. MacMillan is at his most psychologically inventive, having the nervy Crown Prince move his own legs with his hands like someone controlled by an outside force. He craves the drugs that are evidently on the table. Vetsera has left the room to change and reappears in a light diaphanous gown as Rudolph reaches for the morphine. She circles her chair, he circles his and they meet to dance a tormented, passionate duet that gets rougher until he collapses on her. He draws himself up to the table with difficulty to get his fix. She climbs under his legs and reaches up his thighs. It’s heady stuff, and he is now out of control, throwing her around until he collapses on the floor, exhausted. They take each others’ hands. Rudolph then takes the pistol, goes with Vetsera behind the screen and shoots her. Staggering out, he raises the pistol, looks at it, and pulls the trigger just as Cervera returns. The applause seems out of place, a reminder of another tragedy: it was during a revival of Mayerling in October 1992 that MacMillan died of a heart attack backstage at The Royal Opera House.

Kish is the soldier in Gloria (I can’t help remembering the image of Julian Hosking in the role), and Hamilton the sylph, his ideal image. It is a complex relationship, with Kish manipulating her body with care (his partnering is superb) yet at one point he holds her like a gun. It is Macmillan at his most spare, a poem of movement in memory of his father who suffered in the trenches in World War 1. Hamilton is gorgeous here, her line matching the purity of voice in Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G sung by the Pegasus Choir, and Kish is the perfect counterbalance.

Another ballet of leave-taking, MacMillan’s Requiem is his ode to John Cranko, friend and fellow choreographer for whose Stuttgart company MacMillan created Song of the Earth. The music is Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, with the Pegasus Choir once more in the pit. Chris Davey’s lighting creates an autumnal pattern of leaves in which Benjamin appears in angel mode, moving Acosta back from the abyss of his mourning; his body is finely attuned to the voice as he lies listening close to the ground. Requiem is a quiet, fundamental piece that has elements of stillness, as in Romeo and Juliet, that serve to focus the power of the music. There is something universal here as Acosta seems to search for a sign of outer presence, but it’s already in him. His poignant final shape as he lies down, with his feet raised sideways, is reminiscent of Song of the Earth. MacMillan was evidently inspired by the voice; Benjamin in the Pie Jesu is beautifully wedded to the soprano voice of Moira Johnston, showing the purity and sensitivity of the female form, requiring balance, poise and line. She has them all: a joy to watch.

For the Rubies section of George Balanchine’s Jewels, Cervera is joined by Meaghan Grace Hinkis. Though Cervera has danced this before with the Royal Ballet, it is a version that does not exercise the wit of the music and Balanchine’s playful, devoted response, with the result that the dancing and the music are separated like misaligned colours in a print. Unfortunately for Hinkis, for whom this is the only appearance, neither ruby sparkles particularly brightly.

With Apollo, in which Balanchine ‘laid the foundations of what was to become neo-classicism,’ we see the clarity and elegance of pure form and Acosta and Nuñez bathe in its light. In this central pas de deux, Apollo plays with Terpsichore with breathtaking sensitivity.

It is heartening to see a work of Christopher Wheeldon on the bill. Tryst is a quiet duet that carves space beautifully, as Hamilton does in a simple transition from flexed foot to a pointed one. Her tryst is with Eric Underwood who has the luxuriance and grace to complement Hamilton in shapes that collapse, melt and reform like James MacMillan’s music. Underwood and Hamilton work well together. Left gazing into space on a trumpet passage, they roll together to a kneeling position like two perfectly attuned individuals finding each other.

The evening ends with Acosta drawing on his Cuban roots in a sensuous and powerful work by fellow countryman and Rambert dancer, Miguel Altunaga, called appropriately Memoria, to music by Mexican electronica artist Murcof. Acosta appears at first in a conical light as if in a jar, his torso and arms dancing while his heart directs. Altunaga brings out all of Acosta’s abilities here: power, passion, and technical bravado in all directions, showing us a dancer who is more completely himself than at any other point in the evening. There is also a sense that Acosta is doing this for us, giving back with a generosity of spirit that lifts the audience with him.

In a symmetrical end to the evening, Robert Clark returns to play – this time Sweet Dreams from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young – while Acosta sits back in his chair, puts on some warmer clothes, relaxes, perhaps dreams of his life at 40 in ‘the circle of public solitude’. He puts his bag over his shoulder and walks offstage.

Three years ago I happened to meet Acosta on the tube as I was passing through Covent Garden station. We spoke for all of two stops; I just had time to tell him I hadn’t yet seen him dance. He responded with a self-deprecating, warm smile that I had better see him soon as he was becoming a dinosaur.

Some dinosaur. Happy Birthday.

 


The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

Posted: March 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Standing up to Ashton

The Royal Ballet, La Valse, ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, Monotones I and II, Marguerite and Armand: Royal Opera House, February 13

The beauty of line in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets is one of the defining characteristics of his work, even if the steps can be excruciatingly complex. What goes on in the feet is one thing, but in The Royal Ballet’s evening of six works by Ashton, there is ample opportunity — particularly in Monotones I and II — to see the lines of the body beautifully expressed with grace and precision. Unfortunately those qualities were not always in evidence the night I went, though the stretch body suits may have had something to do with it, deforming rather than streamlining the natural joints of the body. The real problem lies elsewhere, however.

Geraldine Morris, in her book, Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography, spends some time discussing the ballet training Ashton would have received, particularly the Cecchetti system that was the basis of his technique. She quotes Cecchetti scholar, Toby Bennett: ‘Cecchetti-trained dancers not only have strength and flexibility in the torso, they also have an appreciation of the subtle rhythmic variations between different steps, coupled with a profound understanding of épaulement.’ Épaulement is not an intellectual concept that needs profound understanding; its profundity is in its manifestation in the body: it is as fundamental to classical form as the double helix is to the structure of DNA. In ballets like Monotones I and II, dancers who do not have ‘a profound understanding of épaulement’ — or who sacrifice it to flexibility — will not be able to maintain the purity of line Ashton’s choreography demands. Romany Pajdak possibly had an off night, but her difficulty in maintaining equilibrium in certain passages of Monotones I may have had its source in a failure to implement Ashton’s — and Cecchetti’s — indispensable ingredient. Mark Monahan in his discussion of Ashton in the evening’s program describes épaulement as ‘that irresistibly feminine angling of the head and shoulders.’ It is not; he is mistaking the flower for the stem.

A few pages further on in her book, Morris discusses the differences she sees in the way Ashton’s original casts performed his works compared with today’s. ‘What stands out is the speed at which the dances are performed. Today’s slightly slower tempo gives rise to an alteration of the choreography. While the steps are ostensibly the same, their appearance is not. What is lost is the sense of dancing. The poses, moments of stillness and turnout are emphasized in the later version but the sense of motion is absent and the dances are seen more as a set of links between positions.’ I cannot agree or disagree with Morris as I have not seen footage of the original casts, and she is not necessarily referring to any of the ballets on this evening’s bill, but her comparison turned a light on my own reaction to the evening’s middle section, which included ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Voices of Spring, as well as Monotones I and II. In ‘Meditation’ from Thais, Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather had a rather bloodless quality that put precision ahead of expression, shape ahead of form, position ahead of flow. The juice remained in the music under the direction of Emmanuel Plasson with concert master Vasko Vassilev playing the violin solo. The highlight of this middle section, however, was seeing Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe in Voices of Spring. With their sensitivity, exuberance and evident joy in dancing together, they were as close to spring as one could wish at this time of year.

The evening opened with La Valse and closed with Marguerite and Armand. After Ashton had choreographed the latter on Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, it remained, as David Vaughan writes in the program, the ‘exclusive property of Fonteyn and Nureyev for many years.’ It is a flawed ballet that can only be saved from a whimpering melodrama by the passionate interpretation and charisma of its two protagonists. But the sparks were simply not flying between Zenaida Yanowski and Federico Bonelli, if there were sparks at all. It is not a ballet in which there can be any notion of pretense. Bonelli’s passion needs unlocking so that Yanowski has a chance to spar. I wanted to shout out to him, Embrace her as if you really love her! Compare the photographs in the program: Bonelli and Yanowski are beautifully captured by Tristram Kenton, with foreheads passionately furrowed, but then look at the photograph by Anthony Crickmay of Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal and you see a world in which the entire body explodes in passion. Marguerite and Armand — and its creator — demand no less.


Royal Ballet’s Birthday Offering, minus the occasion

Posted: July 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Ballet’s Birthday Offering, minus the occasion

Royal Ballet: Birthday Offering, A Month in the Country and Les Noces, Royal Opera House, July 4.

Sitting in the stalls is a completely different experience from being on my usual perch in the top of the upper circle. The orchestra sound is emphatically full, and there is enough light from the stage to see the notes I am scribbling without overwriting them. When the curtain opens on Sir Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, I feel I am on the stage; seven couples enter the ballroom to a Glazunov waltz in a grand elliptical curve. From here they are fourteen people dancing rather than the fourteen figures dancing one sees from the upper circle. The facial expressions are clear, too, and there is one face that is not smiling during this grand opening, standing out like the proverbial sore thumb. The ellipse becomes two lines, the men behind and the women in front – the cream of the Royal Ballet’s ballerinas, please note. At least, that was the idea behind Ashton’s ballet: a party piece for the leading ballerinas to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company, and there were seven in the original cast: Elaine Fifield, Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Violetta Elvin, Beryl Grey and Margot Fonteyn. The Royal Ballet as of this evening has ten principal women, with one on maternity leave. Nine into seven doesn’t go, and Zenaida Yanowsky is dancing the lead role of the next ballet, but there are four principals missing from the present lineup (Marianella Nuñez, Alina Cojocaru, Leanne Benjamin, and Lauren Cuthbertson), three of whom one might have expected to see in this particularly show-off work. Their places are taken by three first soloists, so the whole nature of the work has shifted: the proud party piece becomes a challenging exercise without a celebratory occasion.

The challenge for the dancers is not only in the steps. In creating Birthday Offering, Ashton worked closely with each of his ballerinas, moulding steps to their respective technical abilities and responding to their individual characteristics in order to show them off in their best light. It is effectively an intimate portrait of the seven ballerinas with whom Ashton worked in 1956; it is not a portrait of the seven ballerinas on stage this evening, who are dancing the portraits of the seven original ballerinas. So however well they dance the steps, they do not have the confidence that the variations are tailored for them; they can shine, but they cannot show off.

After the seven couples repeat the opening mazurka, the women leave and the men walk elegantly to the back of the stage to watch the variations, the very core of this work.

Yuhei Choe dances the first variation, originally created on Elaine Fifield. Choe has above all a refined, delicate quality, and an ability to turn, notably in a sequence of a quick turn to the left, then a turn to the right followed by a double. Laura Morera enters backwards on pointe to begin the second variation, created for Rowena Jackson, a vivacious and smiling performance, bright and fast. Sarah Lamb assimilates the qualities of Svetlana Beriosova in a generous offering of beats, balance and renversé turns ending with the lovely, expansive gesture of offering to the audience. Roberta Marquez, who stood out in the opening for her dynamic épaulement, is full of exuberance, shining in the spirit of Nadia Nerina’s fourth variation with ease and warmth. She finishes the variation calmly in arabesque. Hikaru Kobayashi has control over some difficult adage steps in Violetta Elvin’s tricky fifth variation, but lacks sufficient juice this evening to mould them together seamlessly. I sense Helen Crawford has an affinity with the spirit of Beryl Grey’s pizzicato variation: she has a strong, dramatic quality, a quiet jump, and executes the piqués and difficult beating steps brilliantly.

The men now disappear, signaling the arrival of the ballerina of the ballerinas, Tamara Rojo, who bourrées in like a doll – a teasing reference by Ashton, according to Zoe Anderson’s program notes, to Margot Fonteyn’s weak feet. Rojo has the assurance of the prima ballerina, but is quite business-like, generous but constantly monitoring her own performance. We know if she is doing well, and we also know if she knows she is doing well. She takes an expansive bow and looks back at the audience as she walks off, her last classical variation for the Royal Ballet.

The men reemerge in a mazurka, with Federico Bonelli taking the lead once danced by Michael Soames. He is barely stretched by the series of double tours, pirouettes and beats.

In the grand pas de deux – a presentation within a presentation – Bonelli and Rojo begin with a shaky, almost nervous grip. The violin must have caught the same chill for one brief moment. Bonelli partners Rojo in barely supported bourrées on a diagonal. She has a perfect poise and balance, but looks this evening as if she is working at it, so the overall impression is not as open as one would like.

To the final music, the ballerinas arrive with their respective partners, first Choe and Morera, then Kobayashi and Marquez, Lamb and Crawford. Rojo enters on her own path from the back, like an entrance from one of the classic ballets, and joins Bonelli and the other six couples for a grand, smiling finale.

When the curtain opens on Ashton’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s play, A Month in the Country, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s wonderfully detailed period design, lit beautifully by William Bundy, sweeps us instantly, actively into the Yslaev home; the choreography has started before anyone has made a move (the effect is the same with Oman’s design for Enigma Variations). A footman (Sander Blommaert) serves drinks. On stage right, Natalia Petrovna’s husband, Yslaev (Christopher Saunders), is sitting in a chair reading a newspaper, and their son, Kolya (Ludovic Ondiviela), is sitting writing at a desk behind his father. On stage left, Petrovna’s admirer, Rakitin (Gary Avis), is lounging on a divan at her feet engaging her in idle conversation, and the Yslaev ward, Vera (Emma Maguire), is at the piano in an alcove. The music is by Chopin, admirably played throughout by Kate Shipway in the orchestra pit. As we look at the stage, the active protagonists of the story are on the right, and the passive victims on the left. All the introductions are made in those first moments and the scene is set: provincial life at the country house, languid, slightly bored. The maid (Sian Murphy) enters, and curtsies. She invites Yslaev out into the garden. He crosses the room to give his wife a kiss on the forehead and leaves by the patio doors at the back of the room. Petrovna (Zenaida Yanowsky) gets up from her divan impatiently, unable to contain her emotions, launching into a spirited, lyrical dance that is both flirtatious and sensual. Rakitin, unsettled and unsure of the source of her unfamiliar emotion, tries to forestall it by taking her hand and kissing it, bringing the dance to its conclusion. It is now Vera’s turn to dance her own emotions on the same musical variation, a young girl with huge spirits, on the verge of womanhood, with dreams of love. Maguire, who looks the part, and for whom the role seems tailored, expresses it all with natural grace and joie de vivre. Kolya watches her until she finishes sitting in Yslaev’s empty chair, dreaming, perhaps, of being mistress of her own house one day. Yslaev returns, fussing over having lost something. Everyone starts looking for whatever it is, roused by the physical contact, bumping into each other, stepping over Kolya who is on all fours, lifting each other out of the way. It is like a delightful game to relieve the building tensions. Only Petrovna and Rakitin seem uninterested but they soon join in and it is Petrovna who locates the keys and Yslaev leaves once again.

Kolya lets off steam, his boyish sense of fun expressed in a playful dance, juggling and bouncing a ball. The lace curtains flutter in the breeze as a premonition of the storm about to burst on the family: the entrance of the new tutor. Beliaev (Rupert Pennefather) appears at the open door with a kite he has built for Kolya. He is tall and elegant, with blonde hair and a moustache, but looks as if he has been over-exerting himself with the kite, as there is a weariness in his face and in his demeanour. He salutes Petrovna, Vera blushes, and Rakitin, who is still trying to piece together the puzzle of Petrovna’s recent capricious humours, eyes him with disdain. Petrovna engages Beliaev in conversation and the latter responds with dance language that has all the suppleness and romance that Rakitin lacks. The arabesque is used to beautiful effect, a purity of line emerging from the surrounding turmoil. Petrovna does not watch but notices every nuance. Rakitin leaves abruptly on some pretext, leaving Petrovna and Beliaev to dance together to a polonaise, evidently cherishing the moment. Vera comes in and immediately joins in the dance with Beliaev, while Petrovna disengages, collects herself and observes Vera’s innocent love bubbling over. Kolya joins in, making everyone laugh, and all four dance together, searching for the relationship each craves. Beliaev shows off in the heat of embarrassment and attention, while Petrovna is carried away by her feelings. All but Petrovna leave, and the applause is well deserved not only for the performance of the four characters, but for the clarity and emotional power of the choreography.

Rakitin returns, sees Petrovna alone in a flush of emotion and checks to see if the tutor is anywhere nearby. He takes her shoulders from behind, a gesture Petrovna misinterprets as that of the returning Beliaev. Her reaction encourages Rakitin to continue his amorous pursuit and to share in her aroused state, but once she realizes her mistake, she will have none of it. She goes through the movements, but without a trace of passion. She breaks off. Rakitin stubbornly or perhaps desperately redoubles his efforts, frustrating Petrovna more. On hearing the footsteps of Yslaev they break apart, but entering the room, Yslaev sees his wife out of sorts and wonders what is wrong. Rakitin reassures him it is nothing and escorts Yslaev into the garden. Petrovna leaves and Kolya, the one who is innocently unaware of the storm descending, runs in from the garden and rushes around the room with his kite and out again into the air, a beautifully eloquent choreographic moment. Vera arrives, evidently in love, and Beliaev, noticing Vera, quickly checks to see if Petrovna is around. Vera offers herself to him for a kiss. Dancing together, Beliaev tries to keep her occupied and happy, going through the actions as Petrovna had just done with Rakitin, but Vera sees his involvement as acquiescence to her wish. As the duet becomes more entwined, we know Petrovna is going to arrive at any minute. Vera gives Beliaev a hug, and he puts his arms tentatively around her.

Petrovna sees this as she enters in a serious, overwrought, dramatic state. She lectures Vera, but Vera is naive, and head over heels in love. She admits to Petrovna her love for Beliaev, kneeling in front of her and crying on her lap. Maguire’s emotional power here is utterly convincing, bringing tears to my eyes. Petrovna, however, is moved differently; she is aghast, and slaps Vera’s face. Vera runs out into Rakitin, who is clearly reeling from the events that have overtaken his tranquil, if slightly unusual way of life. Have some tea dear, no come for a walk, he seems to say to Petrovna: anything to get her out of the house. They step together – the Fred step – out into the garden. Beliaev appears, clearly exhausted. He sees Rakitin and Petrovna walking arm in arm in the garden, and sits in Yslaev’s seat, musing on his fate. Another complication is about to arrive in the form of the maid, Katia, with a basket of raspberries. We see her outside the window with the footman, who thinks he is on to a good thing, but once she sees Beliaev, the maid pushes the footman away and rushes to flirt with the tutor, feeding him raspberries one by one. They dance together, in more peasant mode, to a polonaise. Sian Murphy is ecstatic and shows it. Without any unwelcome interruptions, the dance finishes; she picks up her basket of raspberries and runs off, leaving a pensive tutor to dance his heartache, beautifully expressed in his body and arm movements. Petrovna arrives, unseen. She approaches Beliaev and pins a rose to his tunic, then backs away as if to leave. Now it is Beliaev who takes her hand to stop her. This is the beginning of their duet to the Andante spiniato, all emotion and interlocking arms, hands searching each other’s bodies, lifts with opening legs and skirt flying, elongated lines and willing submission. She melts in his embrace. She pulls away; she goes to kiss him, then changes her mind again and runs to the garden door. He stops her, gently bringing her back into the room in a series of gliding bourrées on shallow diagonals down stage. She responds and they embrace, his head resting lovingly on her chest when Vera rushes in and the dénouement begins, to Chopin’s Grande Polonaise.

She separates the couple, and calls everyone in, openly accusing Petrovna of leading on ‘her’ lover, Beliaev. Petrovna denies it: Vera must be crazy. Vera accuses her of lying, but Petrovna shrugs it off as fanciful, dancing distractedly between her husband and her admirer. Unable to contain her deception and anger, Vera rushes from the room, followed by everyone but Rakitin and Beliaev. Rakitin points to the flower in Beliaev’s lapel, at which Beliaev has nothing to say, and Rakitin understands what he has to do. It is the one moment in the ballet where Ashton resorts to conversational mime. They leave the room together and Petrovna returns alone, aware of the speed at which her life is unraveling. Yslaev comes in and tries to console his wife, partnering her briefly in her fraught steps until she faints in his arms. Rakitin and Beliaev return dressed in overcoats and with packed bags and say goodbye to a non-plussed Yslaev; Kolya is bewildered and angry at the imminent loss of his tutor. Beliaev looks back for Petrovna but she enters too late to see him go; she dances a final, anguished solo, powerful in its simple choreographic structure, but it proves the one weakness in Yanowsky’s performance: adept at masking her emotions in the presence of others, she is unable in this most private moment to let them go. As she cries on the back of the chair, Beliaev returns, unseen, takes her trailing dress ribbon and kisses it. She doesn’t notice. He wants to say something but can’t. He takes the flower from his tunic and casts it on to the floor beside her and rushes out. She sees the flower and picks it up, runs to the door, but too late. She lets drop the flower that once symbolized Rakitin’s love for her, then her love for Beliaev, as she walks forward lost in her own loss. “Surely it is possible to love two people at once?” she asks in the play. “… I don’t know, though . . . perhaps it only shows one doesn’t love either.”

Ashton’s choreographic action follows the structural pattern of the play: short lines of dialogue, full of detail. The only long passages are Beliaev’s four pas de deux with Petrovna, Vera and Katia. Ashton has cut from the play any characters and situations that are not essential for the telling of the story, and that cannot be translated clearly into choreographic language. Oman’s design and the music of Chopin complete this unity to perfection.

Bronislava Nijinska’s choreographic setting of Stravinsky’s Les Noces closes the program. Created in 1923 for Diaghilev’s company, the abstract, ritual wedding festivities make for a stark and rather incongruous contrast to A Month in the Country, but Les Noces is, in its own right, a powerful work. Its geometric construction and grounded, massed choreographic language, as well as its percussive score, make it unique in the ballet repertory. It is also an unemotional work for those dancing: Nijinska did not want expressive faces, but expressive body shapes, and the power of the work derives from the ensemble working rigorously and harmoniously together. The designs of Natalia Goncharova are simplified, abstracted architecture that serve to enhance the primitive rituals of the four tableaux: Consecration of the Bride, Consecration of the Bridegroom, Departure of the Bride, and the Wedding Feast. Ryoichi Hirano is the stoic bridegroom, and Christina Arestis as the bride has just the right enigmatic look that seems to convey the mystery and fear of what she experiences, without attempting to express it. Indeed, there is no room for personal expression apart from Nijinska’s calculated movement. There are some weaknesses in the performance. In the second tableau, none of the men seem quite sure where to look, so their ensemble work lacks its maximum force. There is also an unevenness in the men’s physical engagement with the grounded leaps: to keep on the music, the form in the air is sometimes incomplete, and the dynamics not sufficiently brutal to convey the primitive nature of the ceremony. There is one curly-haired dancer – I wish I could identify him – who is clearly giving it his all, and is a pleasure to see. Les Noces is a work that demands such total concentration and dedication from everyone. The third tableau is beautiful, and during the fourth the ensemble really begins to work as one, finishing the work on a magical high.