writers on dancing


Ashton and others

“Marguerite and Armand,” “Enigma Variations,” “Rhapsody,” “La Fille mal gardée,” “Tombeaux”
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
March 11 – April 16 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

The latest additions to the Royal Ballet’s Ashton repertoire this season have been “Enigma Variations” and “Marguerite and Armand”. The latter demonstrated that there are still dancers around who can do justice to Sir Fred’s big acting roles. Well, with Sylvie Guillem and Nicholas Le Riche as guests in the title roles, we would only expect that. No, they do not look like Fonteyn and Nureyev used to, but what they share with the ballet’s originators is that each of them has a belief in what they are doing, and conveys the character movingly in movement, whether dance or mime; also that their interpretations go beautifully together. This ballet is, as Ashton said, a vehicle, and they know how to ride it. The audience went wild for them, and rightly so. Some of the supporting gents (“admirers of Marguerite”) have lost a little nuance by comparison with early days, and there is no way I can pretend that Christopher Saunders matches the reticent authority with which Leslie Edwards endowed the small but vital role of the Duke who reckons Marguerite’s attentions really belong to him. On the other hand, I want to record that David Drew brings real command and subtle detail to the role of Armand’s father which was created on Michael Somes. Drew is officially retired on grounds of age, but continues guest appearances as a principal character artist; I wonder how his biography got omitted from the programme notes.

Standards of performance are more variable in the revival of “Enigma Variations”, in which Ashton with his first cast in 1968 vividly evoked the natures of Sir Edward Elgar and the friends he pictured in his score of that same title. Unusually, the performance history in the programme names all 14 of the original dancers instead of, as customary, only the principals—and they deserve it because even the smallest parts were perfectly done. No longer. Christopher Saunders as Elgar and William Tuckett as his publisher and friend Jaeger both received some rave notices, and both were probably seen at their best thanks to the expressive choreography of their roles, but their enthusiasts must either have forgotten or never experienced the greater depth and affection with which Derek Rencher and Desmond Doyle (an amazing artist in many new and old parts) once invested their entries. Zenaida Yanowsky wasn’t at all bad as Lady Elgar, Isabel McMeekan another night probably even better, but again, Svetlana Beriosova set an unmatched standard. Edward Watson and Ricardo Cervera both worked zestfully at Troyte’s intricate fast solo, but even Anthony Dowell used to be hard stretched by it, so what do you expect? Among the other roles, the rather junior Bethany Keating gave a promising account of Antoinette Sibley’s old role, the gay, flirtatious Dora Penney, and Marianella Nunez was radiant as Isabel Fitton. Also, the speed, vigour, precision and sense of fun which José Martín brought to the G.R.S. solo—portraying a bulldog falling in the river and joyfully escaping—were every bit as good as Wayne Sleep’s masterly dancing in the original cast.

Martín also unexpectedly took the lead in Ashton’s “Rhapsody” one night when Carlos Acosta had to drop out through injury. This young man’s build, including a somewhat short neck, probably unfits him for romantic leads, but he partnered Leanne Benjamin smoothly and gallantly in this ballet, besides dancing the virtuoso solos very strongly (his training was from Victor Ullate in his native Madrid plus the School of American Ballet and the San Francisco school). Let me stray here to mention here the liveliness Martín showed as Alain in “La Fille mal gardée”. A corps de ballet boy, Paul Kay, in only his second year since graduation, also stood out in that role; both of them rightly made the character simple, silly but not crazy. Other new role assumptions in “Fille” have included Roberta Marquez as Lise—not bad, but maybe a little on the sharp side—and Thiago Soares as Colas (partnering the subtle but slightly too mature Belinda Hatley). Soares not only dances admirably, but catches the essential nature of the character as a confident young farmer, well suited to Lise’s love.

Back to the mixed bills. On the programme with “Enigma” were revivals of works by David Bintley and Kenneth MacMillan. The latter’s “Rite of Spring” is far from my favourite treatment of that score, and even some who have liked it better than I do found it not to be wearing so well this time, despite the superb playing of Tamara Rojo in the lead. Zenaida Yanowsky, who also took that role, proved totally miscast: too tall, too slender. Bintley’s “Tombeaux”, a plotless ballet to William Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, didn’t come off too well either. Although there is no ostensible drama, the original leading couple in 1993, Viviana Durante and Bruce Sansom, brought out a sensibility and hints of feeling in the choreography which neither of the new casts, Alina Cojocaru with Johan Kobborg, and Lauren Cuthbertson with Federico Bonelli, seemed aware of. And over-dim lighting killed the effect which Jasper Conran’s dark designs once had. Two conductors from St Petersburg, Valery Ovsyanikov and Mikhail Agrest, got only so-so playing in the two mixed bills: Elgar, Rakhmaninov, Stravinsky and Walton deserve better, but with no music director or permanent conductor, the Royal Ballet needs a much stronger hand in charge of the orchestra it shares with the Opera.

First, Alina Cojocaro and Johan Kobborg in "Tombeaux." Photo: Dee Conway.
Second: Tamara Rojo and The Royal Ballet in "The Riite of Spring." Photo:  Dee Conway.

Volume 3, No. 14
April 11, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival


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last updated on April 11, 2005