writers on dancing


Classics and Contrasts

“Three Songs – Two Voices”/"The Dream"
May 12 – June 11 2005
“Swan Lake”
May 7 – June 1 2005
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

I have almost always enjoyed Christopher Bruce’s ballets, so the non-appeal of “Three Songs – Two Voices” is a puzzle as well as a disappointment. This is his first creation for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden although as far back as 1974 he did make “Unfamiliar Playground” for the RB’s smaller touring company. Since he began his career in 1962 the Rambert Dance Company in its various manifestations has been Bruce’s chief sphere of action, as an outstanding dancer, choreographer and director, but he has worked besides with at least a dozen other companies, including the Houston Ballet, which in 1989 appointed him resident choreographer, and further leading troupes such as London Festival Ballet (later English National Ballet), the Cullberg Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre and the Royal Danish Ballet. So unfamiliarity with the Royal dancers should not have been the problem. I believe, and I know many others agree, that Bruce’s choice of music was to blame.

Over the years he has tackled successfully a range from Handel and Bach to John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, besides making ballets with no music. For years the songs of Jimi Hendrix have appealed to him (his dancer-choreographer son Mark started his interest) but he settled on an adaptation by the violinist Nigel Kennedy for his own solo instrument with backing group. I am not familiar with the Hendrix songs chosen (“Third Stone from the Sun”, “Little Wing” and “Fire”) but I will assume that they have more attraction than appear in the arrangements and improvisations in the recording published as “The Kennedy Experience”. In fairness I must add that Bruce would not agree; he writes, in a programme note, of responding to two great musicians, but even on a second hearing it sounds to me like wallpaper music. Another programme note, this time by Kennedy, says that Hendrix embodied the discords of the disillusioned Vietnam decade, raw energy with a tender underside, so I take it that’s what the ballet tries to show.

Bruce begins with three long-haired, dark-dressed, hippie-style women close together amid the huge dark stage (costumes are by his ex-dancer wife Marian). Soon their quietness is disturbed by groups of men and women, a dozen altogether, in belligerent mood and bright military jackets typical of the period. Each solo woman in turn gets a partner for intense duets with much involved floorwork: Tamara Rojo with Johannes Stepanek, Zenaida Yanovsky with Gary Avis, and climactically Deirdre Chapman with Ricardo Cervera. (Bruce has cast a mix from principals to coryphée for these roles.) Deirdre Chapman also has a long solo as the ballet’s centre-piece. Complex linking, frequent off-balance poses and an air of earnest seeking make up the mood. Section three begins with the three leading women again alone and quiet on stage, which makes so strong an effect that I misremembered it, first time round, as the ballet’s ending, but in fact the whole cast gets back on and the actual finale has everyone facing forward and suddenly just stopping. The choreography all through seems to aim at mixing the emotional and dramatic qualities of Bruce’s characteristic expressive movement patterns with the Royal Ballet’s keen energy; but although excellently danced it doesn’t really do anything for me.

“Three Songs” is, since an announced new work by Christopher Wheeldon fell through because he fell ill, the RB’s only creation this season. It lasts almost half an hour and is the centre-piece of a long, three-hour programme starting with Ashton’s “The Dream” and ending with “Rite of Spring” (quite a few people left before this last; thanks be that in June it will be replaced by “Symphony in C”). “The Dream” is one of Ashton’s funniest, most touching, inventive and prettiest works. Too bad that David Walker’s designs are humdrum; Peter Farmer did a better version for the touring company, so why not use that? Also, I found the opening performances largely mediocre, except for José Martín’s sparkling Puck and Jonathan Howells as a finely puzzled, eagerly pointe-stepping Bottom. Johan Kobborg’s Oberon has been ecstatically praised by some reviewers, but it seemed to me that his legs looked too short to suit the choreography, and he over-acted like mad. Edward Watson also took the role (a debut); again, heavy acting, and he has to work hard to get an approximation of the virtuoso solos. Their respective Titanias, Alina Cojocaru (debut) and Leanne Benjamin, got a bit lost in the context of a production that looked either miscast or under-rehearsed by comparison with the season’s other Ashton ballets. Perhaps these latter had more attention because they have been more rarely seen of late.

One of the virtues of Monica Mason’s programming as director of the RB is that we are getting more chance to see different programmes concurrently, as used to happen long ago. A further run of “Swan Lake”—this season’s only 19th century classic—overlapped with the new mixed bill; it brought several debuts, among whom I much preferred the bright, polished Marianella Nunez as Odette/Odile to the staccato, undramatic Sarah Lamb. Their Siegfrieds were interesting, respectively Thiago Soares and Viacheslav Samodurov, both of them real persons on stage. More good work in supporting roles from the valuable José Martín, ebullient at the matinee with Laura Morera in Ashton’s demi-caractère Neapolitan Dance, and robust that evening leading the czardas. But we have put up with Anthony Dowell’s dreary, silly production for 18 years now; time for a change, surely, ideally restoring as much as possible of the old touring version (with its Leslie Hurry designs), since that staging derived, via one by Ninette de Valois, from what Nicolai Sergeyev taught of the old St Petersburg original.

Volume 3, No. 20
May 23, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on May 23, 2005