writers on dancing


School Days

The Royal Ballet School
"Raymonda Act III," "Monotones," pas de deux from "La Fille Mal Gardée," “Uneven Ground,” “Piano Concerto #2,” "Eyes That Gently Touch"
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY
February 18, 2005

By Leigh Witchel
Copyright 2005 Leigh Witchel

Watching a graduating performance of any of the major dance academies involves a bit of calculus and science fiction; you’re no longer looking at three dimensions on the stage, but also the fourth: time. You watch the stage and see the young dancer onstage overlaid with the dancer five years hence; how will she develop, where will he be? It’s a tender thing; even though they are strangers to you, they are so young, and on the cusp. You only want the best for all of them.

The Royal Ballet School presented their graduating crop of dancers as part of an exchange program with the ABT studio company. The students look carefully handpicked. There’s more consistency than expected; the men are long-legged and spidery, but strong for their size. Excerpts from Act III of “Raymonda” showed off their schooling. The version is credited to Petipa, but what provenance isn’t made clear. It’s closer to the Russian versions I have seen. with long shoulder sits during the grand adagio, than any of the versions derived from Balanchine.

“Raymonda” showed the best aspect of their training: its consistency. The Royal Ballet School isn’t just a school; it’s a School. Even when things went slightly awry and a leg went into attitude or an arm went en haut a bit late, they all went there the same way. Technical demands were met. The men in particular have clean technique and long arabesques. The women also have well-formed legs and feet, but for some pointe work is a bit inarticulate. Their feet seem trapped in the shoe; the ankles work more than the toes. I’m guessing that’s not training, but age and strength.

Milena Sidorova danced the female lead in "Raymonda" with soul and fire as well as strong and consistent turns. There were a few times that she momentarily lost focus through lack of experience, but her intent gaze to the audience in her clapping solo said as much about her hopes and ambitions for the future as about the moment onstage. She imitated a ballerina in order to become one. Her partner, Alexander Jones, is one of the long spidery boys who still manfully pressed their partners over their heads. He distinguished himself in several ballets throughout the performance.

If one ever had doubts about Frederick Ashton’s choreography being as mercilessly exposing to dancers as an x-ray, one need only look at talented students coming to grips with it to dispel them. First one needs to be able to do the individual steps. Then one needs the stamina to do all of them together. Then one needs to make it look coherent. Then one needs to give it style. The only way to mastery is repetition in performance; these kids aren’t doing Ashton for us, but for themselves. Watching them try to tackle it has a poignancy all its own. They probably never blow a manège in the studio, but there’s a difference between being there and being on an unfamiliar stage, in another country, jetlagged. We cheered Joseph Caley, who looks even younger than he probably is, as he soared through his solo in the difficult “Elssler” pas de deux from “La Fille mal Gardée” with hardly a wobble, but somehow, it was those few tiny wobbles that made his performance special; a glimpse of who he is shadowed by who he wants to be. Unlike other performances I have seen, “Monotones II” was cast for proper heights; the woman on pointe was the same height as both men on flat. This gives it the line and proportion essential to the work. The dancers fought for the sustained legato of the dance that will come in time.

The evening opened with Kirk Peterson’s “Eyes That Gently Touch”. It demands mature partnering skills from the young dancers, perhaps the reason it was programmed as part of the exchange. A work like “Uneven Ground” by Australian choreographer Paul Boyd also fulfills a purpose in a school performance. Where the Ashton and Petipa challenge and expose the students, “Uneven Ground” allows them to look good. The work is a series of songs by the Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa and the choreographic style is part Christopher Bruce, part Nacho Duato; a sleek, loosely balletic style that shows off classical training without requiring classical line, so the dancers look less daunted by it. The work is a monolithic—almost all-unison work for eight men—but at the point where one desperately wished for any sort of variation, one got it in a big way. The shortest "man" pulled off her baseball cap to let her long hair tumble free. The transition came as a surprise to me. Jade Payette, who did a double air turn right after revealing herself, danced with all the men but even though now partnered like a woman never became their prey; she still was one of the boys.

Robert Hill’s “Piano Concerto #2” is a large-scale work to a jagged concerto by Lowell Lieberman. It’s an enigmatic work; unlike Boyd or Duato, Hill is working classically, but it’s not immediately obvious what model, if any, he’s following. The dance is an abstract work in minimally embellished leotards and tights. It seemed to pass laterally across the stage and no one dancer or couple was at its center. If the work reminded me of anyone’s it was Clark Tippet’s, for its muscular and powerful attack that eschewed symmetry. It’s interesting that very few of Hill’s choreographic devices resolved themselves; it was also occasionally unsatisfying. Yet with this work, one gets the sense that what seemed enigmatic might simply be unfamiliar. I don’t think I could understand Hill’s work from a single ballet; there are other choreographers I feel I could. There was the sense there was something larger he was working towards that would take six or seven ballets to reveal. As with the dancers, sometimes we need to time-travel to look at a choreographer to see not only what is there, but also what will be there.

Photo on front page: Clare Morehan and Mark Biocca in "Eyes That Gently Touch." Photo: Bill Cooper.

Volume 3, No. 8
February 21, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel


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last updated on February 21, 2005