Scènes de Ballet
A good triple bill, it is said, should resemble a meal, with an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. The Royal Ballet’s triple bill is a meal, but the courses are served is a somewhat peculiar order: main course, dessert, and appetizer. But a meal of Ashton is so rare, the audience ate it up anyway.
“Scènes de ballet”, one of Ashton’s greatest works, was the astringent, densely packed opening. It is set to Stravinsky’s astringent, densely packed score, and illuminates it perfectly. The sets and costumes, by André Beaurepaire, have gone in and out of favor, but, considering the recent unfortunate redesigns of so many Ashton works, it is, I suspect, a Good Thing that they have remained constant. The set, which Ashton insisted on simplifying, still looks a bit peculiar to modern eyes (a fairly drab viaduct with some “I’m so clever” gewgaws painted on), but the women’s costumes now appear chic, glamorous, and very appropriate. The black and white cubist designs on the female corps bodices have the right sort of off-kilter feel of the music, and their wonderful hats, pearl chokers, and bracelets delicately emphasize the little quirky moves Ashton gave them. The ballerina bursts in like a bright yellow buttercup, a rather untraditional color, but one that suits the shine of the music.
The men’s costumes, though, still look like they could use some work. The four corps men have longish, somewhat unflattering tunics, and purple tights—never a good color for tights. The lead man does get white tights, but again, has that tunic. Johan Kobborg, who danced with Alina Cojocaru, is somewhat short and stocky to begin with, and though his dancing was gracious and elegant, he did not cut an effortlessly princely figure.
Cojocaru was a porcelain princess, a bit too lightweight for the majestic choreography, but appealing in the way a younger girl who is trying her hardest to honor the grand manner is—it may not be perfect but you can see the outline. The choreography, though, was the real star. It is witty, with unexpected little wristy accents, classical, with allusions to Petipa’s corps work, and extraordinarily inventive and varied. Wherever they eye turned, there was something wonderful to see; four girls lined up at the front of the stage, each with a slightly different arm position. Look away for a second, and the picture disappeared. There was an amazing “Did they really do that?” moment, when the ballerina did a series of pirouettes starting the turn with one partner and ending with another so smoothly and musically that it only registers after it is over. It is a thrilling, beautiful, and immaculate ballet.
The series of divertissements made for a somewhat disjointed centerpiece, but it did allow the audience to see a number of the current Royal Ballet dancers. The men, most of whom are not Royal Ballet trained, it must be admitted, weren’t up to much, though the choreography certainly favored the women. The “Sleeping Beauty” awakening pas de deux was choreographed by Ashton for the Pre-Raphaelite 1968 production; the pas de deux has lasted much longer than that concept, though it was danced in those slightly medieval costumes. It was made for Sibley and Dowell and no one who saw Dowell’s plush and magnificently scaled arabesque can forget him in that choreography. The choreography, to the music Balanchine interpolated into his “Nutcracker” for the sleeping Marie, is a little gem. It begins formally, with Aurora and Désiré walking side-by-side and bowing in unison, and builds gradually, soaring into lifts, and then finally walking out, eyes glued to each other. Jaimie Tapper was a sweet-natured Aurora, and Federico Bonelli, though he does not have Dowell’s line, was a deferential partner.
The “Voices of Spring pas de deux” does not call for deference, since it was intended as a showstopper. (It was originally choreographed for a production of “Die Fledermaus”.) But there are echoes of Pavlova in the costume and many of the poses, so it should be an elegant showstopper, not, for all its lifts and spins, a Sovietized warhorse. Leanne Benjamin and Iñaki Urlezaga were great fun, and the audience was captivated from the first, when he ran in, carrying her in the inelegantly but descriptively named butt-lift, as she dropped rose petals from her hands.
The “Thaïs pas de deux”, too, was made for Sibley and Dowell, as a one-off gala offering, but its delicate oriental mystery (to the top ten classical Massenet Meditation music) has proved quite durable. Mara Galeazzi, as the veil-encrusted beloved was all delicate poetry, and David Makhateli somewhat unobtrusive as her partner. Darcey Bussell and Thiago Soares danced the main pas de deux from “Birthday Offering”, another somewhat costume-challenged work. The ballet was made for the twenty-fifth birthday of the Royal Ballet (or rather the company that had just become the Royal Ballet), and was a set of classical variations to music by Glazunov, as New Yorker ballet goers now know, a very danceable composer. The costumes, by André Levasseur, have rather generous, almost mutton-chop sleeves for the men, with an inordinate amount of glitter, though the cut of the women’s costumes, an homage to the longer Imperial Russian tutus, are absolutely beautiful and very flattering. Bussell got to show off her pure, lush arabesque. She also, to my mind, showed a bit too much of her extensions; 120 degrees doesn’t go with those longer costumes, but at least the dress didn’t flop over her head.
Ashton reportedly didn’t want to have “Marguerite and Armand” danced by anyone except Fonteyn and Nureyev, but the Royal Ballet revived it for its Permanent Guest Star, Sylvie Guillem. It is essentially a series of pas de deux which start at Marguerite’s death bed, and which populate her memories as she lies dying. Guillem avoided the temptation to chew the scenery, and tried to make Marguerite’s illness the focus. But I think a little less coughing and a little more emotion might have been more effective. She has a small face, and so much of the effect came from Fonteyn’s eyes. The Italian Massimo Murru replaced the British Jonathan Cope (it seems a shame that the company had no one suitable). He made Armand very young and almost diffident, very different, of course than then passionate Nureyev, but it was an interesting approach. When they meet he just opened his arms as if offering her, in all innocence, the world. But he threw the money in her face with the same inoffensive manner. In the end neither had the passion to make the vehicle as effective as it might be. However, its revival brought Anthony Dowell as Armand’s father, a mimed role that he performed with power, subtlety and a stiff and awkward dignity. I couldn’t take my eyes of his hands, fluttering insistently as he held his cane, as if all his care and anger were centered there. As he grew to understand Marguerite, he laid his cane aside, and his hands became still, though stiff, as he was unable to console her. And then by the ballroom scene, his hands were shaking again, this time in anger at his son. In those few moments, Dowell gave us everything we needed to know or to feel—a complete meal as it were.
Sylvie Guillem in "Marguerite and Armand." Photo: Bill Cooper.