writers on dancing


Re-reading the classics

Royal Ballet
Covent Garden Opera House
November 4 – December 3, 2004

“The Hard Nut”
Mark Morris Dance Group
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
November 12 – 27, 2004

by John Percival
copyright © 2004 by John Percival

It has been interesting this past week to see Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut” arrive at Sadler’s Wells coinciding with the Royal Ballet’s Ashton festival at Covent Garden. This isn’t the occasion to attempt a full comparison of the two choreographers, but one thing to remark is that with both of them the work is more influenced by music than most of their contemporaries. And you can see quite a lot of similarities between Sir Fred’s “Sylvia” and Mr Morris’s reinterpretation of the “Nutcracker” theme: both telling a story chiefly through dance and combining many different moods and styles into a harmonious whole. (Interruption; how many people remember the 1951 Ashton “Two Scenes from Casse Noisette”—the nutcracker always had its French title back in those days. He left out all the story and simply starred Svetlana Beriosova as the Snow Queen and Elaine Fifield with David Blair as Sugar Plum and her Prince. This was a year before “Sylvia”, and it was shown on Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet’s first American tour.)

Anyway, one big difference between the two works this week has been the dancing. People tend to stay quite a while once they have joined the Mark Morris Dance Group, and several roles were danced this week by the same performers as at the ballet’s 1991 creation, while pretty well all the others have a fair experience of his choreography. That explains why they give so coherent and convincing a reading of it. At one time, in spite of the Royal Ballet’s more diverse repertoire, we could have expected its members to have a reasonable acquaintance with the Ashton style, but latterly there have been too few of his ballets on show. Hence, encountering a long neglected and particularly demanding example of them, naturally the dancers look hard pressed. Luckily, this intensive season should help a lot.

There’s another relevant problem. Even after all these years, there are still a few of us around who remember the early casts of “Sylvia” for (inevitably invidious) comparison. I remarked, when reporting on this revival’s premiere, that even in the good old days, it was not easy for other women to vie with Margot Fonteyn in a role made for her many special qualities. I could have added that the comparatively small role of Eros, made for Alexander Grant, used so brilliantly his unique mixture of vivid character dancing and pure classic style that nobody else—even much stronger and more senior dancers than are currently given the role—has ever matched him in it.

Nevertheless, there have been some rewarding attempts at the ballet this time round, and interestingly, I found the third cast the most satisfying. This was led by the young ballerina Marianella Nunez, who combines a strong technique with a serious wish to get the style and purpose of any character right. The sheer delight she made Sylvia show in her first entries was especially enjoyable. Nunez has crammed a lot of roles into her brief experience so far, but her partner Rupert Pennefather, also young, has been given fewer opportunities, and fewer still that prefigured a role like this. However, he has an elegant, slender physique (looking somewhat like Philip Chatfield, an excellent dancer who also had his big break in this same role way, way back). He partnered with attentive care, got through the solos presentably enough, and gave the first signs of what could become not a bad characterisation. These two also had the benefit of Laura Morera as Diana—she gave the role a sharp authority that the more experienced Mara Galeazzi and Gillian Revie had lacked. Also in this third team, Viacheslav Samodurov brought strength and power to the villainous Orion.

The Royal’s corps de ballet have made not a bad showing at the performances I saw (although other observers thought they fell off a bit after that, perhaps through the stress of many shows and a heavy rehearsal schedule). One or two of the other soloists I choose not to mention, on the “nil nisi bonum” principle, but altogether it has been good to see the ballet again, and company director Monica Mason has assured me that it will recur in future seasons. I should hope so, too.

Volume 2, No. 43
November 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by John Percival


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last updated on October 25, 2004