Pleasures and Questions

“La Valse," "Enigma Variations," "Tanglewood," "Gloria"
The Royal Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
 June 20 and 21, 2006

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright ©2006, Alexandra Tomalonis

This year, Britain’s Royal Ballet celebrates its 75th anniversary. During much of those 75 years, the company set the standard for classical ballet in the West, preserving the 19th century Petipa ballets as well as classics from the Diaghilev era and presenting brilliant new ballets by its own choreographers that have since become classics. Ballet companies’ fortunes are as variable as those of corporations or football teams, and the Royal has had a rough go of it for some time now. Changes at the School and an influx of foreign-trained dancers that eroded the company’s style and identity, several seasons without its home stage when Covent Garden was under renovation, an unfortunate change in directorship — all took their toll. If the company isn’t quite back to its full former glory, its brief appearance in Washington this past week showed that the current director, Monica Mason, a former RB ballerina, is steering the ship with a sure hand.

While most of the interest centered on the new production of the company’s flagship ballet, “The Sleeping Beauty” (which has also had a difficult time of it, as the company’s last two productions have been disappointments), the mixed bill was an unusual, rich program consisting of major and minor works created by Ashton and MacMillan, the RB’s core choreographers, and a new neoclassical ballet by company member Alastair Marriott. Rather than being a collection of greatest hits and crowd pleasers, the program had a casual air: this is who we are, this is what we have to show, this is what a typical night at the Royal Opera House is like. What other company could dip into its repertory and come up with such a program?

The centerpiece was Ashton’s “Enigma Variations,” set to Edward Elgar’s music of the same name, and a ballet that is the most sophisticated depiction of adult relationships — not to mention musings on the loneliness of the artist, nostalgia for a bygone age, friendship and other matters — in the classical repertory. Ashton is seldom described as a revolutionary choreographer, yet he expanded the possibilities of the narrative ballet in nearly every dramatic work he created, and in “Enigma,” now nearly 40 years old, he tapped into a vein of the possibilities for classical choreography that no one has successfully mined since.

The ballet has two strands, which Ashton weaves into an extraordinary whole: the character studies intrinsic to the music (Elgar’s “Friends Pictured Within,” each variation given the initials of someone in Elgar’s circle whom Ashton characterizes in movement as Elgar did in music) and the slightest of stories. The program note to the original production, as given by David Vaughan in his “Sir Frederick Ashton and His Ballets,” explained: “Some time before the action of the ballet takes place, Elgar had sent the score of the “Enigma Variations” to the famous conductor Richter in the hopes of interesting him in the work. The characters, intimates and friends of the composer dance their individual variations, at the end of which a telegram arrives form Richter, address to their mutual friend Jaeger, agreeing to conduct the first performance.”  The ballet depicts Elgar’s anxiety about his career (if one has to be concrete about it) as he awaits word from Richter. Neither his wife, nor his friends, can comfort him. All of them know this, and the impotent empathy of Lady Elgar and Elgar’s friend Jaeger give the ballet a particular poignancy.

“Enigma” must be terribly difficult to stage. The roles are still associated with their creators, who seem to have been as carefully selected for their looks and lines as well as their dancing abilities. Ashton ballets may be primarily expressions of music through choreography, but they’re also about geometry: put a shortish dancer in a tall part, or vice versa, and the ballet is as changed as the “Mona Lisa” would be if someone gave her thick eyebrows and a button nose. Although there was some very ungeometric casting, the staging, by Christopher Carr, Mason, and Christopher Saunders (who danced the role of Elgar with great understanding) showed the work clearly. They set the ballet properly in its world, and it seemed as if everyone on stage had accepted that world, and the style in which the ballet was written. 

The ballet is constructed of classical, character and demi-caractere dancing, each variation composed in the style best-suited to the character. Some of the variations, especially Jonathan Howells’ Hew David Steuart-Powell (the one who cycles on and off); Brian Maloney’s William Meath Baker (who storms down the stairs so that his coat bellows out); Winifred Norbury (Vanessa Palmer, to whom Ashton’s style seemed as natural as breathing); and Sarah Lamb's Lady Mary Lygon were very well done. Others were less so, as some of the dancers weren't up to the technical demands of their variations. There were a few stylistic gaffs as well. On the second night, Edward Watson (substituting for Ricardo Cervera, who was apparently injured opening night) danced Troyte as though he were an enraged prizefighter, every movement punched out and huge. On opening night, David Makhateli, who looked like a glowering gigolo, seemed very miscast as Richard P. Arnold (the quiet contemplative scholar of the bunch) but his partner, Marianela Nunez as Isabel Fitton, was lovely.

The heart of “Enigma” is the beautiful “Nimrod” variation, which is described in the program: “This variation recalls a summer evening’s talk about Beethoven and, further, reveals the depth of friendship.” I wish someone would assign that as an exercise in a composition class! "Nimrod" is for the ballet’s three central characters: for Elgar, his wife (Zenaida Yankowsky, who caught the kindness, and sadness, of Elgar’s wife beautifully, though, for me, her height was a distraction), and his close friend Jaeger (Bennet Gartside, who had exactly the right tone), is constructed nearly completely of walking, glances, and gestures and is almost unbearably moving.

Another Ashton work, “La Valse,” created for La Scala’s ballet company in 1958, opened the evening. It’s as unusual as “Enigma Variations” in Ashton’s oeuvre, though for different reasons. “La Valse” is an ensemble ballet, for 18 couples and 3 soloist couples, that’s very much a ballet of music and atmosphere — the choreography boils out of the music. Several people found it disappointing compared to Balanchine’s ballet of the same name: not deep enough, no Death figure, etc., but I think there’s depth aplenty if you let the ballet’s chill fingers get to you. Death is all around, as the couples swirl, or rush on and offstage as though trying to outrace death—or embrace it. Perhaps they’re dancing despite death, like the men on the Titanic who played cards when the ship went down. There are several times in the choreography where the dancers shiver — just for an instant, but it’s there — and then rush back into the dance. I thought perhaps this is all these people knew how to do, and they were going to do it as the world exploded under their feet.

The three couples are not individualized, and seem to be there primarily to present a visual contrast to the large ensemble. Of the three women (Alexandra Ansanelli, Isabel McMeekan and Deirdre Chapman) my eye was drawn to Chapman’s elegantly desperate dancing. The ballet is a primer of Ashton style, and many of the dancers didn’t seem totally comfortable with its extensive use of épaulement or its speed; the corps' lines were raggedy, although less so at the second performance. It’s a good work to have them dance, especially in a year in which the company has revived its signature work, “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Alastair Marriott’s “Tanglewood” is also a ballet of atmosphere. It’s set to Ned Rorem’s “Violin Concerto,” and Vasko Vassilev, the Royal Opera House Concermaster, was the excellent violin soloist. The score’s six sections are titled to suggest the passage of time (starting with “Twilight” and ending with “Dawn”) but I couldn’t work that out from what happened on stage. "Tanglewood" seemed like a serious, neoclassical abstract work that referred to ballets in the company ’s repertory. The opening grouping for three couples was reminiscent of “Symphonic Variations” (as are the costumes) and I thought I caught glimpses of “Daphnis and Chloe;” I’d guess there were others. These were references, rather than quotes, and the work struck me as an able, well-structured piece in which Marriott was teaching himself his craft, attempting to find a new neoclassicism that fit into the company’s choreographic line.

There are three principal dancers (Leanne Benjamin and Martin Harvey, with Marianela Nunez as an odd woman out) and six couples. Perhaps a dancer with a stronger personality than Benjamin could have pulled the work together, but even after two viewings it remained a collection of movements. Harvey is a fine dancer and a strong partner, and Nunez gave the work some mystery. There are some interesting images, especially the ending to the penultimate movement, where Benjamin is lifted high by three men, who pass her up to three more behind them. Marriott has a good sense of how to deploy groups and how to build a ballet, and I'd like to see more of his work.

I had liked MacMillan’s “Gloria” when the company brought it here years ago, but this time the ballet seemed just another one of those “War is Bad, Death is Sad” pieces. It leans heavily on Poulenc’s beautiful music for its emotional impact, but take that away and the work would be bare. There are some striking moments — soldiers standing or sitting in silhouette, perhaps ghosts, turning their back on their still-living comrades. There are women, who look like mid-20th century Wilis, in white dresses that suggest shrouds and bathing caps (or perhaps white helmets), but they have very little to do except patter about, do an arabesque or three, and be lifted. Are they nurses, girlfriends, or angels of death? Alina Cojocaru, with her silken line, was the central woman. Carlos Acosta as one of the leading male soloists, the beautiful, muscled body stretched out in sorrow and longing, gave one of the most impressive performances of the season, and I wish we'd seen more of him.

"Gloria" was decidedly the audience's favorite, though I was surprised how warmly "Enigma" was received, especially on opening night. By the end of the evening, I felt I had gotten at least a glimpse of most of the company's dancers but I didn't have a clear view of the company's style. It looked appropriately Ashtonian in "La Valse" and "Enigma Variations," or at least it looked as though the dancers understood what Ashton style was, even if it was no longer second nature, and it looked convincingly MacMillanish in "Gloria." But what is the style Marriott and other young choreographers are to work with? In classical ballets, Royal Ballet style was Ashton's style (MacMillan never developed a comparable classical style; his interests lay elsewhere) and Ashton is gone from "Sleeping Beauty" now. The detail, the richness and three-dimensionality that epaulement provides (and was so evident in "La Valse" and "Enigma"), the beautifully free neck and head, wasn't there. The basic company style seems cautious, plain vanilla, nothing to offend anyone, but nothing special either. It's a neat style, although ragged corps lines and badly-sized dancers in corps work (two short girls next to one considerably taller, then two of medium height, etc.) detract from that neatness, as do differences of opinion on the height of arabesques and the way to hold the upper body. In the Ashton ballets danced here, the epaulement was beautifully clear, but in "The Sleeping Beauty," often dancers, especially the men, merely nodded their heads from side to side, without moving the shoulders. If the Royal is to again be a powerhouse in classical ballet, these are stylistic details that will need to be sorted out — or in today's ballet world, is "no style" the necessary style, necessary so that an Ashton piece doesn't look like a MacMillan work, and vice versa? The Royal could be the company that decides that question for this generation.

Volume 4, No. 25
June 26, 2006

copyright ©2006 Alexandra Tomalonis



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