“Darcey Bussell Farewell”
George Piper Dances
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
15 – 18 May, 2007

“Swan Lake”
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
12 May – 1 June, 2007

“Checkmate”, “Symphonic Variations”, “Song of the Earth”
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
2 – 8 June, 2007

by John Percival
copyright © 2007 by John Percival

My goodness. Five photographs of Darcey Bussell all across the front page of The Times. Further pictures, in that and other papers, of her both weeping and smiling during curtain calls. And a live television broadcast of her dancing on the last night of the season (has that happened before since Natalia Makarova's reconciliation with the Kirov Ballet in London?). Anyway, she has very publicly and, she says, irrevocably retired from ballet (although she does have some different shows lined up). She is going rather young: her Royal Ballet career lasted only twenty years. But some of us felt she never fully lived up to her early promise, although her many fans might want to kill me for saying so, and her uniquely industrious publicity never ceased. She says she wants to care for her two young children, and anyway perhaps a touch of strain could be seen lately.

She chose not to perform in “Swan Lake” this season; who can blame her? I saw two of the recent casts; a delicious showing by Marianella Nunez with Thiago Soares, and a debut by Lauren Cuthbertson, not the most brilliant and a bit eclipsed by the stylish young Rupert Pennefather as her Siegfried. Still, I guess Cuthbertson will soon be promoted to principal, otherwise the company will have not one British leading woman.

Bussell was clever and/or lucky in getting Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, directors of George Piper Dances, to arrange a Farewell programme for her at Sadler's Wells. Ingeniously combining film with live performance, they contrived to represent her entire career, from when they were students together twenty years ago right through to rehearsals for her latest new ballet, Christopher Wheeldon's DVD. Six or more choreographers were included, and Bussell's reminiscences nicely linked the items.

Besides obvious choices, there were some unexpected novelties, notably an attractive adolescent fragment by her from the “Swan Lake” pas de trois. Bussell was seen at her best in the only complete ballet given, “Winter Dreams”, which Kenneth MacMillan created in 1991 starring her as one of Chekhov's Three Sisters. The work gives her, as Masha, a touching tragic intensity, something rare among her roles. The strength and subtlety which Irek Mukhamedov originally brought to her would-be seducer Colonel Vershinin is sadly missed, but this new cast included some other fine performances, notably from Jonathan Cope persuaded out of retirement to play her husband (this was another farewell), Edward Watson as the brother, also Nunn and Trevitt themselves as the suitors of Tamara Rojo's delightful Irina.

In classic mode, Bussell came off best in the duet (alas, without its solos) from Frederick Ashton's “Sylvia”, handsomely partnered by Roberto Bolle, and we had other contrasting fragments, the best of them elegiac by Wheeldon from “Tryst” and energetic by William Forsythe from “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”.

A further farewell followed for Bussell in Covent Garden's last ballet programme of the season. It's been an odd year for the Royal Ballet, above all because, having lately established that the dancers are seen in their finest form when given lots of Ashton ballets, they now had nothing by their founder choreographer except four performances of “Rhapsody” and six of “Symphonic Variations”. This latter formed part of what read on paper as an interesting triple bill representing Ninette de Valois, Ashton and MacMillan. But with many cast replacements (why does the RB have so many injuries?) the works didn't look too good.

In de Valois' “Checkmate” the best individual performance came from Alexandra Ansanelli as the brave, loving Red Queen — a small but important role. Nunez danced beautifully as the Black Queen but more drama could have helped (just the opposite from her alternate, Zenaida Yanowsky). Was it miscasting or mediocre coaching that made the leading men, the Red Knight (two casts, both substitutes) and Red King, so negligible?

“Symphonic Variations” was underdone by two casts. The nearest to satisfactory were Pennefather as the central man, Belinda Hatley and Steven McRae as a side couple. And I wasn't bowled over by “Song of the Earth”. Neither Gary Avis nor Valeri Hristov has the physical or metaphorical weight for the leading man, although Carlos Acosta is astounding as the Messenger of Death. I admired Leanne Benjamin very much in the ballerina role: excellent dancing, wonderfully meaningful. For me, Bussell proved just slightly remote in that part, but others found her excellent, so let's forget my reservation and concentrate instead on the stageful of bouquets and the impassioned cheers that bade her farewell.

Photos, all by Dee Conway:
Top: Darcey Bussell and Carlos Acosta in MacMillan's "Song of the Earth."
Middle: Darcey Bussell in MacMillan's "Song of the Earth."
Bottom: Belinda Hatley, Federico Bonelli, Laura Morera, and Roberta Marquez in Ashton's "Symphonic Variations." Photo by Dee Conway.

Volume 5, No. 23
June 11, 2007

copyright ©2007 by John Percival

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