The Royal Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s Serenade was a nice start to the afternoon but I couldn’t help thinking of Houston Ballet’s performances of Balanchine works last year. They managed to give them a touch of Hollywood – a very American touch of swing and swagger that would have improved this to. However, on to the big event: Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, inspired by the painter Walter Sickert’s obsession with Jack the Ripper. I missed its premiere a couple of years ago so was glad to grab this chance to see it. Unfortunately, not just the subject matter was dark, the stage was too. Although it was excellent, I almost fell asleep and heard a couple of people complaining that they had nodded off. It is possible to convey the necessary dark mood without lowering actual light levels this much. That left DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse which really woke everyone up. The music was commissioned from Michael Nyman to celebrate the French TGV trains. I’d never heard a full orchestra performing Nyman’s work live before, only his own band, and the textures were far more complex and fascinating. The choreography fitted the music perfectly, starting with a 6 Million Dollar Man/ Bionic Woman style of depicting speed through slow motion, then moving on with the music to more athletic action. It’s good to be back in London!
Yuhui Choe was just wonderful in the lead role. It is not an easy role to dance but she made it seem easy, as if that was just how she felt like moving. She was so good it made me feel a bit sorry for all the other dancers in yesterday afternoon’s performance. The production overall was a little lacking, without the punch of the ENB production I saw last year but the moment Yuhui Choe came on stage it was transformed. The choreography by Petipa was essentially the same but the set and costumes were all a bit fussy and the bad fairy, Carabosse, was played by a ballerina who was not a patch on James Streeter for the ENB.
This was an astonishingly intense production that deserves the five star reviews it has received. The set and the direction were stunning and it was certainly far more rewarding than The Drowned Man, based on the same story. I am not sure the balance between the orchestra and singers was quite right, with the latter sometimes overwhelmed by Berg’s use of brass but the music itself is wonderfully dramatic. Despite this, the man next to me spent 10-15 minutes sneezing and loudly blowing his nose before falling asleep for half an hour. Sometimes it can be kinder to the other members of the audience to go on sick leave.
An astonishing evening. No-one knew this would be Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru’s final performances for the Royal Ballet until about two days before. I probably couldn’t have got a ticket if it had been known about when booking opened. The true story is about Crown Prince Rudolf, his love of guns and passion for women leading to the tragic final night in his hunting lodge at Mayerling where he injects himself with morphine, shoots dead his girlfriend then himself – a sort of combination of Sid Viscious and Kurt Cobain with their fame but not their music. The music in this case is that of Liszt but, as arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. Its combination of pomposity, sweetness and musical fireworks may not be great music but it is perfect for this Austro-Hungarian melodrama.
The greatness of this ballet comes from astonishing choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, danced perfectly here by Kobborg and Cojocaro with two marvellous comic solos from James Hay as Prince Rupert’s cab-driver/entertainer Bratfisch. MacMillan takes classical choreography and adds less conventional moves to create a passionate intensity. Kobborg and Cojocaru, partners in real life as well as this ballet, danced with their own passion, adding an extra dimension for this final performance that drew a very long standing ovation, surrounded by heaps and heaps of flowers. I will be very surprised if I see any ballet performance this good for years. It has taken two days to write this review – it is still inadequate.
“36 minutes of pure joy,” said the woman beside me at the end of Symphony in C and I couldn’t put it better: Balanchine’s choreography is pure elegance. The first movement was slightly ragged but could be excused as both principal dancers were late substitutes – all the other three were perfect.
The new work I was looking forward to was Raven Girl. The story by Audrey Niffenegger is darkly, magical and the score by Gabriel Yared matched it well. Wayne McGregor’s choreography seemed good – from what I could see of it. A screen used for projection across the front of the stage, a grim, grey set and gloomy lighting combined to give the effect of standing in front of someone’s house, looking through their window and net curtains to see the ballet on a black and white television in the front room. The only time I could really see the dancers properly was at the curtain call. Maybe it was OK in the stalls.
This was the worst audience I have ever had to cope with, chattering over the ballet and drowning out the orchestra when they were playing during the scene changes: I almost left at the end of the first act but I am so glad I didn’t. I wasn’t sure whether the first act was poor, which was why people were talking, or whether people were talking because it was poor. On the whole, I think the noise spoilt a performance that I could have enjoyed. However, the second act (often performed in it own right) was stupendous and people stopped chattering. The biggest cheer was for the corps de ballet who were mesmerisingly good. The third, short, act was fine but the three acts almost seemed to come from three separate ballets. The music by Minkus was pretty feeble but the second act was well worth the price of admission on its own (the second day running I’ve had a great £12 ticket).
This was absolutely magical. The music, scenery, choreography and special effects all blended to create my most enjoyable visit to the ballet this year. There were five cast changes, including the key roles of Alice and the Knave of Hearts. It says a lot about the overall quality of the Royal Ballet at the moment that I could’t have cared less; Yuhui Choe and Nehemiah Kish were both excellent! The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon is particularly fascinating, blending classical ballet with a Busby Berkeley style routine for the Waltz of the Flowers and even a tap-dancing Mad Hatter (danced superbly by Donald Thom). A real classic and ten times better than the RB’s recent Swan Lake.
Ravel’s “la Valse” which opened the programme is a rich, intoxicating piece of music, matched by equally intoxicating ensemble dancing:
After this cocktail, Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais was a teaspoon (just six minutes) of sweet, soothing cough medicine, a beautiful pas de deux from Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. We then had the equally short, fizzing Alka Seltzer of Voices of Spring with Alexander Campbell and a very mischievous Yuhui Choe who seems to have become my favourite principal dancer. I had not expected to enjoy a dance to the music of Johann Strauss this much; his music may be slight but it’s perfect for dancing to. After the interval came the first of the longer works, Monotones I & II set to the wonderful music of Erik Satie. The orchestration did elaborate unnecessarily on Satie’s very simple music but, particularly in Monotone II based on the well-known Gymnopédie 1, the abstract simplicity of the dancing almost had me in tears. Then came Marguerite and Armand by Liszt:
I don’t think I am a true balletomane (ugly word for the love of something so beautiful) as I cannot enjoy a ballet if I do not like the music and, as I said on my blog yesterday, I cannot appreciate Liszt. Ideally, I want music that I could enjoy in concert. This very much applied to the Ravel and I would have been quite happy to listen to the Massenet and Strauss as short pieces in a mixed programme. The Satie would also be worth listening to in concert, although I think I prefer the original solo piano version. I admit I am in a small minority on this; thinking back to concerts I have loved, this one by Nissennenmondai leapt to my mind as one of my all time favourites. Imagine a ballet to that!
It was Mozart who wrecked music, not Schoenberg. I heard Goodall attacking Schoenberg on Start the Week a while ago as making music inaccessible to people like me with no musical education. However, he speaks as someone with such an education and has no idea what music sounds like to us. I grew up thinking classical music was boring but gradually came across music that had some of the excitement of pop music, such as Mahler’s symphonies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then in the sixth form we watched a series by Peter Maxwell Davies on modern music. His ensemble, Fires of London, played Schoeberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and I was knocked out. I later discovered that there was some wonderful music before classicism too after a friend took me to see Monteverdi’s Orfeo and I’m really looking forward to Charpentier’s Medea from the ENO on Friday.
I was thinking about this after noticing that tonight’s Ashton mixed bill by the Royal Ballet includes ballets by both the wonderful Satie and his antithesis Liszt – will the latter send me to sleep like the Chopin nearly did? Satie was one of the first to break out of classical formality, abandoning keys and time signatures for much of his music. He made sure every note mattered whilst Liszt never made do with a single note when he could squeeze in five. Goodall’s list of ten great pieces of music includes Liszt but not Satie. To give him credit, he does include Stravinsky’s wonderful “les Noces” which I saw last year and went back to watch again the following evening.
What a gorgeous ballet which I’d never seen it before. Frederico Bonnelli was excellent as Eugene Onegin, brilliantly haughty in the first act, gradually realising his mistake as he ended up killing his friend Lensky (Nehemiah Kish providing a very good replacement for Valentino Zucchetti) in a duel after flirting with his wife Olga (the always very enjoyable Yuhui Choe).
Picture by Bill Cooper with permission of ROH
Finally, he realises he has lost the woman he had loved after all – Laura Morera as a beautiful Tatiana, shown above dancing with her new husband, Prince Gremin, cleverly danced by Gary Avis to show the age of the character while losing none of the grace of his duet with Laura Morera. I am not a fan of Tchaikovsky’s music in its own right but it works beautifully as an accompaniment to ballet. The production was faultless but other aspects left a couple of little niggles. Does a 95 minute ballet really need two 25 minute intervals and, given that so many of the seats that us ordinary people sit in have restricted views, was it necessary to make so much use of the front corners of the stage? All in all the Royal Ballet remains the best value night out in London.