writers on dancing


Bids for recognition

“Marguerite and Armand”, “La Fete étrange”, “Pierrot Lunaire”
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, U.K.
October 17 – November 1, 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

Fantastic. I guess that Tamara Rojo is around the same age that Fonteyn was when she developed from simply being the best of the Royal (or actually then still Sadler’s Wells) Ballet’s dancers into being a ballerina of true international standing. And now Rojo has staked her claim to eminence, as it happens, in one of Fonteyn’s great roles: in Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand”. In more than 40 years only Fonteyn and Sylvie Guillem danced the role; now it has a third great interpretation, as different from either of them as they were from each other, but again deeply moving. This past week at Covent Garden Rojo was luckier than Guillem, too, in having a credible, feelingly loving Armand in Federico Bonelli (no Nureyev, but personable, ardent and dashing), whereas Guillem, deprived of either Nicholas LeRiche (busy making a new ballet in Paris) or Jonathan Cope (stopping dancing) had to make do with Massimo Murru who proved feebly without impact. All the more a shame because she was showing even more heartfelt subtlety than before.

Rojo’s Marguerite is overwhelming because she does all Ashton’s choreography to perfection; because she obviously listens and responds to the music; because she has clearly thought about the role and understood it; and because (thanks to nature? to her teachers? to her own determined spirit?) she has the gift to make you believe completely in what she does on stage. Her face, neat-featured and framed in black hair, is expressive at every moment, but so are her hands, her arms, the angles of her trunk, and her delicious feet. Frederick Ashton thought that he had made a part uniquely for Fonteyn; but her successors have proved that, given another ballerina of sufficient quality, his ballet can still inspire performances of heart-rending emotion. A word of praise must go also to David Drew for a convincing account of Armand’s father in his encounters with the heroine.

Just one complaint: Ashton and/or his designer Cecil Beaton decided to have big photographs on the backcloth during the prelude and final scene to show the dying Marguerite’s thoughts of Armand, but Covent Garden didn’t bother about this with the new casts. Cheapskates.

Two unfamiliar productions were given with this, making three company premieres and one long-term revival in the season’s first two weeks – not bad going.

It’s as long ago as 1958-64 that the main Royal Ballet had Andrée Howard’s “La Fete étrange” in its repertoire, although the smaller touring company danced it over a longer period. This tender drama of lost adolescent love was created in 1940 for the small London Ballet, based by its author Ronald Crichton on a much adapted fragment of Alain-Fournier’s novel “Le Grand Meaulnes”. He had originally proposed it to the company’s founder Antony Tudor, but with the latter’s departure to join the new Ballet Theatre in New York, the production devolved upon Howard—a choreographer largely forgotten nowadays, but then respected enough to work for all the major British companies, and even for ABT’s first season, although she grew homesick and was glad to return.
Crichton, a leading music critic, chose the music too: piano pieces and two songs by Fauré. At the premiere, in the tiny Arts Theatre, London, these were played in a two-piano arrangement by the composer Lennox Berkeley, and it might be better even now to revert to that rather than the stodgy orchestral arrangement Berkeley made later—ignoring the advice of his friend Benjamin Britten that piano and strings alone would be more suitable if he really must enlarge the instrumentation.

All that is left of the themes in Alain-Fournier’s novel is that a French country schoolboy chances upon an engagement party, where the bride-to-be’s kind response to his interest leads her affianced to misunderstand and walk out on her. It needs to be cast much younger than it was this week. Neither Darcey Bussell nor Zenaida Yanowsky (although the latter acts marginally more involved) make the bride seem scarcely out of school, as was intended. And it’s absurd to put heavy-set, greying Christopher Saunders as her young bridegroom: the role was created on a 20-year-old beginner, and his inexperience should explain their separation. Gary Avis is a bit better suited, but not much. Both Ricardo Cervera and Brian Maloney dance brightly as the intruding boy, and maybe they might act him more touchingly in a more generally emotional cast. Still, the ensemble dances are wide-sweeping and lovely; nicely done, too, and the dancers look as though they rightly enjoy wearing the simple but gorgeous costumes designed by Sophie Fedorovitch. Too bad that her back-cloth, a snow-covered landscape, is lit an inappropriate pink and disfigured by dark splotches. And the singer, Mary Nelson, who delivers the two songs beautifully, ought to be given her costume too, brought out of the orchestra pit and put back on the steps at one side of the stage, where she belongs. The ballet itself is lovely and worth getting right.

“Fete” has been long absent here; “Pierrot Lunaire” is entirely new to the Covent Garden stage and to the Royal Ballet, although given often by other troupes. It has been mounted now to commemorate the forthcoming 80th birthday of its choreographer Glen Tetley, whose first significant creation it was in 1962. Its success first brought him to Europe, and since then his world-wide activities have included several ballets for the Rambert and London Festival companies, besides six for the Royal Ballet (three of them creations), among which I would especially like to see again “Dances of Albion—Dark Night: Glad Day” to music by Britten.

My first thought was that the Covent Garden stage was too large for it, leaving Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s compelling scaffold-tower isolated in massive space, but at a second viewing decided that perhaps I had over-reacted, although it still seems to me that the dancers’ faces are rather far off to read clearly, so the drama of Glen Tetley’s choreography suffers. His interpretation of Schoenberg’s 1912 music-drama for speech-song and five instrumentalists (but Covent Garden uses six! and achieves only a moderate performance) sets the moonstruck white clown Pierrot against the dark clown Brighella and the temptress Columbine. The action is mysterious, often comic, taking images from the three-times-seven poems by Albert Giraud which Schoenberg set. Out of the three performers, Ivan Putrov in the title role got the moon-shaped curves as he swung on the scaffold, and some reviewers thought him altogether outstanding (but I wonder how many of the—to my mind—more vivid past casts they’ve seen). He tended, perhaps, to go for pretty rather than emotional, but I’ll say that his second performance had more expression in it. Carlos Acosta gave a truly gripping account of the other male role, Brighella: darkly sinister but amused too, and as ever radiating personality. If the ballet’s essential sex appeal seemed in short supply, that’s only partly Putrov’s fault, since Deirdre Chapman’s Columbine lacked force and got rather lost under the enormous wigs she was given. Tetley’s strangely forgiving conclusion, however, with Pierrot embracing the adversaries who have tormented him, still thrills.

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005
copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on October 24, 2005