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.