writers on dancing


Celebrating Royally

"A Wedding Bouquet" (with "Requiem" and "Les Noces")
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
October 22 to November 8, 2004

“Western Symphony” and “The Orpheus Suite”
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
October 26 to 30, 2004

By John Percival
copyright © 2004 by John Percival

What a difference: when New York City Ballet celebrated Balanchine’s centenary earlier this year, they gave some unfamiliar pieces, but in the context of a repertoire always heavily featuring his work. On the other hand the Royal Ballet, now commemorating its own founding choreographer with a season titled Ashton 100, has long neglected him. Since the Covent Garden opera house reopened five years ago, they had given I think only eight Ashton ballets, none of those very often; and much the same was true for a long period before. Unsurprisingly, we hear that dancers rehearsing his unfamiliar choreography find it difficult. Good: they should end the season better dancers. I hope the audience—and critics—will benefit likewise. I hope, too, that these ballets are not left in a ghetto for special occasions, but are retained (as in the days of founder Ninette de Valois) as part of a more balanced programming.

Could Ashton 100 have a jollier start than the long-awaited revival of the great man’s witty extravanganza “A Wedding Bouquet”? What a collaboration that was in 1937. Lord Berners, composer, painter, writer, diplomat and wit, who had already written two ballet scores for Balanchine, started it by getting permission from the outrageous American author Gertude Stein to set music to extracts from her play “They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife”. The settings and costumes are his too, brilliantly adapted from a French provincial wedding. Then not just one but two of his friends, Ashton and the Vic-Wells Ballet’s music director Constant Lambert (another noted wit) joined in adapting the plot, based on clever comments from the play which define its vividly self-seeking characters. The use of these in the score is part of the fun; they could have been more audibly and incisively spoken than Anthony Dowell managed, but Lord Berners’s exhilarating music was jubilantly conducted by Barry Wordsworth, and Ashton’s amusing dances animated a cast all new to their roles.

Outstanding was Tamara Rojo, bringing a wide-eyed tragicomic exuberance to the dementedly forlorn Julia, who can’t get over the fact that her lover is ditching her to marry someone else, and tries desperately to cling to him. Even Fonteyn, the role’s originator, scarcely made more of it. All the other lady guests at the wedding seem also to have had affairs with their host but they are more calm about this. Zenaida Yanowsky got great fun out of the tipsy Josephine, likewise Christina Arestis in another cast, and Federico Bonelli soared cheerfully through the virtuoso solos invented for Michael Somes as Guy (a nice reminder that the often denigrated Mr Somes was actually a notable dancer). We could do with a sharper character than Deirdre Chapman offers as the bossy housemaid Webster (de Valois’s role originally), and Alina Cojocaru’s Bride would be funnier if played straight; Roberta Marquez, second cast, probably gets nearer. Johan Kobborg is pretty well on the ball as the lecherously panic-stricken Bridegroom, although even he could beneficially try less hard; his alternate is Jonathan Howells, as a character dancer a surprising choice for what has almost always been a premier danseur’s chance to let his hair down. Howells actually does reasonably well, but desperately needs to put his hair up: he has been given a monstrously excessive black wig. I had forgotten how much ensemble dancing the whole cast has; what with that, and the opportunity to build lively characterisations into even the small roles, the company should gain a lot from even the disappointingly short run allocated, six performances.

Another wedding, Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”, deserved its place alongside, since it was Frederick Ashton when director of the Royal Ballet who preserved Bronislava Nijinska’s masterly but until then neglected choreography by getting her to revive it for the company. Maybe we’ve seen the long, crucial ensembles more strongly cast (Laura Morera is an honourable exception) but the ballet itself is welcome, and would be even more so if John B. Read’s lighting plot were less gloomy. I can’t share the widely expressed view that Kenneth MacMillan’s staging of Fauré’s “Requiem” was a good choice to complete this mixed bill; its effect is depressing. And anyway the performance lacked fervour. The result of less than ideal preparation, perhaps, since even such dancers as Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta in the leads needed more depth. But altogether I was left missing the passion which the ballet’s first Stuttgart cast gave it in 1976, when it really impressed me. Out of two Royal Ballet casts in the five leading parts this time, only Tamara Rojo looked to me truly convincing, second cast for the “Pie Jesu” solo. To be able to match Fonteyn in one ballet and Marcia Haydée in another at the next performance, Ms Rojo genuinely proves herself a ballerina.

Overlapping Covent Garden’s opening programme of Ashton 100 came a brief one-week season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre by the RB’s sister company, Birmingham Royal Ballet. New York audiences lately saw their Ashton programmes, so all I need say about the major work they brought to London, “The Two Pigeons”, is what a joy many of us found it. However, BRB has quite a few Balanchine works in its repertoire too and this year has been paying tribute to the double creative centenary, even offering an enjoyable gala “Sir Fred and Mr B” with participation from Joffrey Ballet Chicago and Dance Theatre of Harlem. (The guests danced Sir Fred’s “Monotones II” and “Thais” pas de deux, while the home team’s contributions included a thrilling account of Mr B’s “Tarantella” from Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao, taught by Richard Tanner.)

One of BRB’s current presentations is “Western Symphony”, brought to London on a double bill with “Pigeons”. Unseen here, I think, since NYCB gave it in 1965, this showed off Birmingham’s male dancers rather well, and also two of their best women, Nao Sakuma in the second movement and Asta Bazaviciute in the fourth. Less enjoyable, many of us thought, was a triple bill in which director David Bintley paid homage to Duke Ellington. (Should I have mentioned earlier that Lord Berners, unlike “the Duke”, really was a lord?) An earlier version of this jazz programme toured America, with the Bintley/Ellington “Nutcracker Sweeties” and “Shakespeare Suite” joined by the Balanchine/Richard Rodgers “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”. Now he has dropped this last-named and substituted a new work, “The Orpheus Suite” with music specially written by an admired jazz composer Colin Towns (well known, inter alia, for his film scores). Messrs Bintley and Towns have tried to tell the Orpheus story in terms of Ellington’s own life, but it doesn’t work. In fact they hardly manage to tell a story at all. There’s a very rowdy score played by Mr Towns’s own orchestra, and a lot of very violent activity well done by the male dancers apparently representing Orpheus’s band, The Argonauts. There are three casts; the two I saw were excellently led by Robert Parker and Chi Cao as the modern-dress Orpheus. But I wouldn’t want to see it again; better, I think, if Bintley had stopped his Ellington explorations after the first of them, the parodic version of “Nutcracker”, which can still prove entertaining with the right cast. Bintley runs a good company, and many of his own ballets are fine, but his creative level is not consistent, and on this showing I’m not sure that there will necessarily be a celebration of his centenary in 2057.

First: Johan Kobborg as the Bridegroom Alina Cojocaru as the Bride #2 in A Wedding Bouquet photo by Johan Persson
Second: Christina Arestis as the Bride and dancers of The Royal Ballet in Les Noces photo by Johan Persson
Third:  The Orpheus Suite: "Aristaeus & Moisteurisers," Iain Mackay as Aristaeus and Angela Paul, Victoria Marr & Samara Downs as Moisteurisers. Photographer: Bill Coope
Volume 2, No. 41
November 1, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by John Percival


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last updated on October 25, 2004