It was a particularly good year for non-narrative ballet and ENB’s triple bill had to be my favourite dance programme of the year. I watched the matinee on 12 March and did rather expect the B team, so I was particularly thrilled to see dancers such as Tamara Rojo and Erina Takahashi in three superb examples of modern ballet. The Royal Ballet also thrilled with Connectome and Monotones, although both were repeats of recent productions.
Of the narrative ballets, Vienna Festival Ballet was as enjoyable as ever with Coppelia and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Carmina Burana was wonderfully spectacular. Apart from Onegin at the start of the year, it was not so good for the Royal Ballet, culminating with a Carmen that had me laughing for the wrong reasons.
Steven McRae tweeted that Act 3 inspired him to pursue a career in ballet. I’m so glad as he and Roberta Marquez were totally inspired in this performance, not just technically brilliant but emotionally enthralling. This is ballet at its most romantic and they were superbly supported, especially by Valentino Zucchetti as Lescault and Yuhi Choe as Lescault’s mistress. In fact, the dancers seemed far more genuinely romantic than the saccharine sweetness of Massenet’s music. Maybe the music contrasted poorly with the simple beauty of Handel’s Xerxes the night before which I sadly had to abandon after Act 1 due to ill health. This made me feel so much better – thanks to all involved.
It is impossible not to describe The Dream as magical. Frederick Ashton ditched the Athenian court, ditched Pyramus and Thisbe and centred the ballet around Oberon and Titania, parts created for Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, both of whom helped as lead coaches for this production. Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez danced beautiful and Bennet Garside managed to dance wonderfully and also be very funny as Bottom, with Paul Kay as a very mischievous Puck. Alastair Marriott’s Connectome could hardly have been more different, highlighting the brilliant dancing of Natalia Osipova accompanied by six male dancers. The other great star of the production was the lighting designer, Bruno Poet, who worked with Es Devlin’s clever set to astonishing effect, so good I could have happily watched it even without the dancers. Sadly, I decided to skip the final ballet of the evening to get home before midnight – shame there wasn’t a matinee.
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!
What a wonderful afternoon. This is the second full length new ballet composed by Joby Talbot and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, following their tremendous success with Alice in Wonderland and it is just as good. It is also important to mention designer Bob Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz who also worked on both ballets so effectively. Many people only remember the direction “Exit pursued by a bear” at the end of Act I so there’s always fascination to see how it has been done. I won’t give it away – it’s good but not as brilliant as the bear in the Terry Hands production for the RSC which I saw in the mid-80s. On that occasion, the entire stage was covered in white fur representing snow throughout the first act. At the end, the whole thing reared up and became an immense bear – fantastic but it wouldn’t be practical to dance on fur. I’ll give a clue that there are similarities in the two approaches. Christopher Wheeldon likes to develop his choreography directly with the dancers, so the matinee I saw was not danced by the ones who helped develop it. I am not sure this was any disadvantage as it gave them a chance to bring an extra something to the part. On this occasion, the star was Bennet Gartside as Leontes, an amazing performance as he replaced Thiago Soares who was supposed to dance it this afternoon. His dancing was superb and, above all, he captured the character of the king, as he moved from happiness through jealousy and tragedy to joy. My only regret is that I only booked for one performance and now it is sold out so it will probably be a couple of years before I see it again.
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.
Steven McRae starred as the soloist in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, an extremely demanding role that he made seem easy, putting terrific humour into the part. The music was fun too, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (that’s the theme that was used for the South Bank Show music). Wayne McGregor’s new work, Tetractys – the Art of Fugue, followed. As with Raven Girl, it was very dimly lit as if he was trying to hide the choreography and I just didn’t get it. If that was too abstract for me, Kenneth Macmillan’s Gloria was almost too literal in its portrayal of the horrors of the Great War, danced to Poulenc’s Gloria. If Steven McRae’s dancing was the visual highlight of the matinee, Gloria was definitely the musical peak, sublimely played and sung by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus. I wish I could credit the singer but there was a last minute change and I’m not sure of her name.