“Pavane”, “Duo Concertant.” "Symphony in
The highlight of the Royal Ballet’s latest programme came at the beginning: Ashton’s “Rhapsody” in new designs by Jessica Curtis. Created in 1980 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (a cherished friend of the choreographer), this was the last of Ashton’s big ballets and provided a virtuoso conclusion to the long series of pure dance works that had occupied much of his energies for half a century.
As always, the music was crucial in developing the ballet’s style and shape. He chose the most popular and possibly most vital composition of Serge Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), who wrote nothing specifically for ballet, but choreographers have used several of his scores, most frequently this Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—based on the last of Paganini’s 24 Capricci for solo violin, Op 1. The composer himself suggested it to Michel Fokine as suitable for dance and urged setting it as a portrait of Paganini. That production, with a mime in the title role, was staged in June 1939 at the Royal Opera House by Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe under the title “Paganini” (and I saw it in that same theatre during the 1947 season of Original Ballet Russe). Another work with the same title and music, but more abstract libretto and a dancer in the lead (choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky), was brought to Covent Garden by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1963. Both those works depicted Paganini’s life as a struggle to overcome various problems in a quest for immortality through his genius as a violinist, although at Rachmaninov’s wish the instrument was seen only in imagination. (We must remember that the solo part in these variations is written for the composer’s own instrument, the piano.)
Curiously, at the same time as Fokine’s “Paganini” in 1939, the rival Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo directed by René Blum and Leonide Massine had also planned a ballet about Paganini, to music (on themes by him) commissioned from Vincenzo Tommasini, and Ashton was invited to stage it, as his first creation for a non-British ballet company. But on discovering the clash of two works on the same topic scheduled for premiere in the same theatre less than three months apart, Blum’s company had a new scenario written by Tommasini for Ashton’s ballet, which turned into “Devil’s Holiday”. That, as we have been reminded lately, had its first night postponed by the war and transferred to New York, remaining unseen in London until extracts reached the Royal Ballet programmes only this season. Consequently, it was never seen on stage by its choreographer.
How much of this Ashton might have had in mind when making “Rhapsody” four decades later, we can only guess. There are only faint hints of Paganini in Ashton’s ballet—just a moment of playing an imagined violin. However, I suspected that the ostensibly plotless work contained a hidden theme. Compare that with other Ashton ballets such as “Symphonic Variations”, where he started with a subject in mind and eliminated it as he worked, but still conveyed a strong mood, or “Scènes de ballet”: again no story but a strong suggestion of the Imperial Russian ballet at its grandest. The idea of some concealed purpose underlying “Rhapsody” was strongest when given in its original form, set before a simple pavilion designed by Ashton himself. The leading role was created on Mikhail Baryshnikov (at the dancer’s own request, as a climax to his series of guest appearances with the RB), and with his personality at its heart, all gilded like a young Apollo at play, the ballet carried possible implications of the god dissipating himself with his muses. It lost that sense with new designs by Patrick Caulfield, not very satisfactory and fortunately now abandoned. The original costumes for the supporting men by William Chappell were not liked, but the new chunky square-shouldered ones by Caulfield were worse, and by setting it indoors (at what made me think of the entrance to a subway tunnel) Caulfield totally contradicted Ashton’s intention. When the Paris Opera Ballet mounted “Rhapsody” in 1996 they wanted to commission a redesign but were forbidden to do so, which may help explain why that production lasted only one season. Anyway, now the Royal Ballet has its third version, thanks to Monica Mason, who seems gradually to be getting rid of the ill-conceived decors ordered by Anthony Dowell. I’d have gone back to Ashton’s original setting, but at least this one by Jessica Curtis gets us in the open-air again, even if its backdrop in the style of paintings by Turner—clouds that go from sunset red through moonlight to early morning—is too dominant: combined with her pale costumes (the women’s too droopy) and Neil Austin’s often dim lighting, the dances are sometimes difficult to see.
As in most of his all-dance works, Ashton uses here a small cast, just six men and six women besides his two principals. And the supporting men feature almost as prominently as the women; a characteristic he acquired as far back as his earliest surviving ballet, “Capriol Suite”, in 1930. Time and again Ashton gave important sequences in his non-narrative ballets to a group of men: six of them, for instance, in “Les Rendezvous” and “Les Patineurs”, although both made in the 1930s when the company had few men. In “Rhapsody” again the six supporting men have quite demanding entries: strong and forceful dances which casts both old and new have sometimes struggled with. The six supporting women are perhaps even more prominent, with much delicate and inventive dancing.
The solo woman’s role was created on Lesley Collier, a leading dancer of exceptionally strong technique and clean, pure style, who sailed easily through the many fast and pretty passages she was called upon to perform (at times I wondered whether Ashton might even have taken inspiration from his early memories of Anna Pavlova, the great ballerina who, seen when he was as a boy, caused his decision to become a dancer). Yet fine as this role is, it remained secondary to the central part for Baryshnikov. This made full use of the Russian virtuoso’s exceptional fluency in all kinds of turning movements as well as his lightness. Some curiously twisted movements of the legs provided a sharp contrast to the easy, natural manner of the rest, and perhaps helped to suggest the demon possessing the artist who inspired the music and the ballet. Baryshnikov set his successors in the part a formidable challenge, performing with grace as well as strength, in a manner that was cool almost to the point of being phlegmatic. Yet a hint of humour underlay much of the invention, and an occasional wry quality, which was given specific expression in the final ironic gesture – the shrug with lifted hands that had been an Ashton motif for many years.
In Carlos Acosta the RB at last has a leading man with personality and technique to match Baryshnikov (you should just see his turns and his runs); his alternate Ivan Putrov isn’t bad but not in that class—although he excels in the tricky wide rivoltades, a Baryshnikov speciality. Their women were, respectively, Leanne Benjamin, very good, and Miyako Yoshida, even better: I think her smooth, tranquil elegance probably make this Yoshida’s best current role.
Thanks to the high spirits of the music—sweeping, passionate, sometimes tempestuous, although with calm interludes—“Rhapsody” is wilder, more free, and richer in texture than Ashton’s other plotless ballets. What could live up to it? Nothing on this bill, I’m afraid.
It was meant to include one of only two creations (fair enough, given the welcome emphasis on celebrating Ashton’s centenary) planned for the whole season, but now we have lost one of those. Christopher Wheeldon apparently started work on his new ballet but was taken ill and couldn’t complete within the time available. So instead we had two short works, revivals of George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant” and Wheeldon’s “Pavane pour une Infante Défunte”.
The latter is a minor piece made in 1996, his first for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, commissioned as part of a complete Ravel programme. The music is notably quiet and serene. Ravel said he invented the title because he liked the sound of it, and that it must not be dramatised as a lament for a dead Infanta; he saw it rather as evoking a pavane which a little Spanish princess, such as Velázquez painted, might have danced. No Velázquez about Wheeldon’s “Pavane”. He made it as a duet for Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope and they danced this revival. They don’t have much to do: high extensions and teetering promenades for her, a few high jumps for him. A giant arum lily hanging over the stage provides Bob Crowley’s setting, so why is her long skirt, which echoes its petals, discarded almost at once?
Wheeldon has generally shown a liking for the duet form, but this instance, given its small scale, and music more gentle and spacious than many of his later choices, does not have the dramatic intensity he often provides to embellish the movement. In fact it is so slight that I imagine the warm applause is owed to the popularity of the dancers.
Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg met at least equal enthusiasm for their debuts in “Duo Concertant”, staged by Sean Lavery and Eve Lawson. Balanchine’s creation for two dancers, listening and then moving to two on-stage musicians (here Peter Manning violin, Philip Gammon piano), should be too familiar to need detailed comment from me. This couple danced it with exact precision and very prettily, but I missed the depth that the original NYCB cast, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins, used to give the finale.
Another Balanchine ballet, “Symphony in C”, concluded the evening; rather unevenly danced, I thought, with Kobborg (first movement) and Tamara Rojo (fourth movement) outstanding.
Not yet reaching his centenary, Robert Cohan is, nevertheless, 80 this month, and for nearly half that time has been based in Europe: worth celebrating. Now living in France but a British citizen, he was born in New York and became a dancer as the result of seeing the Sadler’s Wells Ballet while on leave during war service with the US Navy. Martha Graham’s school and company were his first affiliations; he and Bertram Ross were the leading men in her earliest London seasons. While still dancing he began teaching and choreography, and when the great visionary and benefactor Robin Howard set up the Graham-inspired London Contemporary Dance School in 1966 (and, a little later, its affiliated company) Cohan was appointed director. About the same time Ballet Rambert, under Norman Morrice’s leadership, converted to a contemporary style, and we had already begun (again thanks to Howard) seeing the companies of Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey. Thus began the postwar modern-dance movement in Britain.
Cohan’s contribution to that has been immense: not only as a teacher and director, but as an inspiration to others. Within London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the choreographers and future directors he developed included Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies and Robert North, He pioneered residencies all over the country that established a wider interest in dance, and was indispensably involved in starting and running the annual International Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers. This summer two British companies and one from Germany will unite in a gala honouring him at Sadler’s Wells Theatre (9 May). Meanwhile the Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre, directed by one of Cohan’s former protégés, Darshan Singh Bhuller, is including a revival of Cohan’s ballet “Forest” in its spring tour.
I wish I could enjoy Cohan’s choreography as much as many others do, and as much as I admire his total achievement. Some of his works I would relish seeing again, most particularly the dramatic “Cell” from 1969, the highly amusing “Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction” (1974) and the virtuosic “Class” (1975). “Forest” (1977) was never a favourite of mine, but Bhuller obviously likes it and thought it would suit his dancers who have, he says, “benefited greatly from working with such a generous and inspirational artist”. And a respected colleague sitting next to me said “It was good to see that again”.
“Forest” has a lot of movement; I remember especially turns with the arms outstretched, and a couple whose leaps invert each other’s. For me, its many entrances and exits, and its repeated criss-crossing of the stage, lacked development and floor patterns to provide interest, and the droning score by Brian Hodgson was too much of a sameness. Well, that’s just me; everyone else seemed to enjoy it.
The show included a new work by Bhuller: “Eng-er-land” (the title comes from a chant by football supporters). This relied very much on video projections by KMA, who, I read, explore “how new technology can be used to share experiences” and are examining, with Leeds University, “the relationship between physical movement and kinetic scenery”. So the background kept changing, and there were jokes, much laughed at, about showering, urinating and getting caught in the rain. Dance? More like acting, I’d say, and none too original. There was also a work by Didy Veldman on the bill, “See Blue Through”, first made for Ballet Gulbenkian, but thanks to a dire shortage of taxis (40 minutes I had to wait, would you believe, on a busy central London street, before one came along) I was able to watch only part of it, and only on a small dark video screen, so I can’t comment.