writers on dancing


New—and Good
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
November 28 – December 12, 2005
by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

Three established British choreographers, David Bintley, Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon, will contribute to the new production of “Homage to the Queen” forming part of the Royal Ballet’s 75th anniversary celebration next June, but the company’s only complete new works this season are both by comparative newcomers, company member Alastair Marriott and the Canadian Matjash Mrozewski. Marriott’s “Tanglewood” is being given only five showings on a mixed bill; the new work deserves more but I wouldn’t say that of the two MacMillan ballets which end the evening. I remember liking “My Brother, My Sisters” at its creation with the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 (in spite of its misuse of disparate scores by Schoenberg and Webern cobbled together), and it had some good early performers on entering the RB repertoire in 1980, but in this latest revival only Tamara Rojo as the second sister (the bespectacled one who seems to be killed) comes up to the proper standard.  Are the others all miscast or badly taught? I do observe some errors in the staging of “Gloria”, the other MacMillan revival, but I always thought its strong point was Andy Klunder’s fine designs, so I can’t say I was actually disappointed this time.  The programme also includes, as curtain-raiser, Ashton’s version of “La Valse”: not one of his best works, but useful for giving the male corps de ballet some prominence. It could, however, do with some more glamour in performance.

Marriott is already 37.  He joined the  RB in 1988, was made a soloist only four years later and is now a principal character artist, taking roles such as Dr Coppelius, Widow Simone or an Ugly Sister. Although he first tried choreography as a junior student at the RB School, his interest went until recently into performing. But since 2001 he has made pieces for workshop programmes in Covent Garden’s two studio theatres, and one for the School’s 2003 performance on the main stage. Their quality led to the present commission for the company. He has been drawn to modern(ish) composers—Schnitke, Schoenberg, Britten, and now Ned Rorem: his Violin Concerto of 1984. Former RB music director Barry Wordsworth conducts as ably as ever, with the orchestra’s concert master Vasko Vassilev responding as the violin soloist. Marriott does not explain the title he gives the ballet, “Tanglewood”, but it must be associated with the American composer or the score, so let me quote Rorem’s own comments that his six titled sections “imply a narrative”, although he says further “As to the story, if there is one … let the sounds divulge it”.  So for the ballet, if there is a story (and I suspect that in Marriott’s mind there is), let the movements divulge it.

For this is very musical choreography, in shape, timing and atmosphere.  It is made for a cast of fifteen—that’s small by the company’s resources, but more than many modern ballets—made up of a leading couple, a solo woman, and six further featured dancers plus another six in support. Only rarely are more than a few of them deployed at once. We start with three women, then three lively men; the two principals dance with these before having their own quiet duet. Now the solo woman has her turn in the spotlight. And so on through sequences featuring the various combinations, all except the solo woman who just has a surprise entry, simply running across the stage with her arms out, right before the end—striking and effective.

The choreography isn’t imitative. Marriott has emulated both
Ashton and Balanchine in making his ballet all dance with no mime; and I think Ashton must have inspired the importance he gives to the upper body and arms.   But he has discovered his own movement style, both in what the dancers do and how they relate to each other, and he manages to sustain the interest pretty well, with often a striking start to his dances, well maintained in their development.   He has made good use of two collaborators too. RB soloist Jonathan Howells, a programme note tells us, “has assisted on all his works, providing Marriott with the opportunity to step back and evaluate throughout rehearsals”. And the designer Adam Wiltshire, who has otherwise worked on opera and drama, previously designed Marriott’s “Being and Having Been” for the Linbury Studio’s “Inspired by Diaghilev” evening last year after they had met through the Linbury Trust’s design competition. For “Tanglewood” he has conceived simple, handsome white costumes with delicate patterns on the trunk, and two backcloths (one lifts out partway through) with attractive rectangular patterns in their centres. These help make the ballet look good.

Above all, though, we must note how well Marriott has used his dancers and how good he makes them look. Drawn from all levels of the company, they blend well together in their trios and duets. Principal dancer Leanne Benjamin brings a lovely mixture of sharp and smooth to the lead role, where her personality glows warmly. Federico Bonelli, scheduled to partner her, was unwell or injured during the rehearsal period and replaced by Martin Harvey, in whom Marriott has evoked a new brightness of technique. As the solo woman, I saw Marianella Nunez, and I cannot imagine that the first night’s Darcey Bussell could have outmatched her for grace, clarity and radiance. “Tanglewood” fully earns further performances and Marriott deserves further opportunity.

Photos by Dee Conway.

Volume 3, No. 45
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on December 5, 2005