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A week at the Royal - Nov 8-13, '04An informal journal

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 01:27 AM

A week celebrating Ashton at the Royal

The Ashton Festival in New York was a huge meal of Ashton for two straight weeks, the dishes served, delicious as they were, only managed to stimulate one’s appetite for more. Looking back, I can’t point to one pivotal evening (although Birmingham Royal Ballet’s run came close); it was rather the concentrated experience of going night after night – the complete immersion into Ashton to take him on his own terms.

If you wanted a coda to that experience it was apparent that this was the golden week to travel to London for the Ashton 100 Festival. One week, three programs, including all casts in “Sylvia”, and two separate triple bills. And so, here I am.

Monday, November 8.

“Requiem” (MacMillan/Fauré)
“A Wedding Bouquet” (Ashton/Berners)
“Les Noces” (Nijinska/Stravinsky)

The first program, rather than being all Ashton, was a mixture of major works associated with the Royal Ballet. “Requiem” was made in 1976 for Stuttgart Ballet as a tribute to John Cranko. In style and appearance (most of the women in painted unitards) it reminds one of Glen Tetley’s “Voluntaries”, but my associations were more strongly with the works of Jerome Robbins. The biggest association for an American is professional. Both have analogous relations with their senior choreographers; as if the major presence of a classical choreographer lays the ground for an more expressionist follower.

Like Robbins, MacMillan gets his biggest and most effective moments non-classically. The striking opening tableau, a massed crowd shuffling on the diagonal beating their fists towards the heavens, is where the heart of the ballet lies. They build the pressure in the work, and when it moves to a classical vocabulary, the ballet feels like watching the air being let out of a tire. “Requiem” also has a similar problem to most works to sacred music: sacred music is episodic, and that's a “weak” structure as opposed to the more massive unified attack of a symphonic work.

There are many similarities to Robbins for those used to the latter’s works. They both move crowds similarly (MacMillan’s floor patterns recall “Glass Pieces”. Both use unison work frequently; it gets a bit glazing in “Requiem”. Leanne Benjamin is lifted above the heads of the throng in a moment straight out of the Umbrella Dance in “The Concert”. There are associations with other choreographers as well. Benjamin is later brought in aloft by three men with the same lift as the final one in “Serenade”. The women are held aloft by their partners in slow lifts in intermediate positions – not quite an arabesque, not quite à la seconde, not quite with the leg straight or bent – and they are as striking as one of Paul Taylor’s slowly torquing and revolving lifts. Inevitably with MacMillan, though, there is always one lift with a woman held in some position resembling a carcass. This time it’s poor Darcey Bussell held upside down, but in a dubious blow for equality Ivan Putrov also gets some time as a carcass as well. The final tableau has Benjamin held aloft reaching in tentative benediction. It reminded me of still photos of Ashton's “The Wanderer”.

The Royal's version of Ashton’s delightful “A Wedding Bouquet” has the authority the Joffrey Ballet’s performances missed this summer, but the Royal had to have the advantage; it's their ballet. This is the version with a narrator as opposed to a chorus, and Anthony Dowell is graceful, clear and dry as gin. Using a narrator creates the same technical problem here as at the Met; trying to solve the need to be sure the narrator is heard over an orchestra at full volume. The sound system at Covent Garden started off crankily but settled down to behave far better than the one at the Met that turned poor Christian Holder to sludge.

MacMillan's difficulties come when he crosses between genres; Ashton does it effortlessly here. It's part of the joke and the delight of the ballet. Pepe the dog comes out to do a classical variation in a tutu; the bridegroom oils his way across the floor in a soft shoe variation. Guy and the bride are classical roles; the bridegroom is character, and so on. Ashton moves from character to folk to classical to soft shoe, and each one makes perfect sense integrally to the work at the moment.

If Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg as the bride and groom aren’t brilliant actors, they’re vivacious and game, plus they give you plenty to like in their dancing. Deirdre Chapman as Webster was differently officious than Julianne Kepley, the brightest spot in the Joffrey’s production during the summer. Kepley was a tough dynamo, Chapman sharp and suspicious. Zenaida Yanowsky was a very pickled Josephine, Tamara Rojo a forlorn Julia. For long-time BalletTalkers, James Wilkie was one of the two peasant boys.

“Requiem” mixes genres uncomfortably, “A Wedding Bouquet” effortlessly. “Les Noces” succeeds because Nijinska made the heroic decision to brutally restrict her palette of movements to a range of character jumps and poses, eliminating classical vocabulary. The single-minded intellectual pressure she builds is overwhelming and her tableaux burn into your memory. She even reinvents point work for her purposes, stripping away all decorative elements and leaving in its place a rapid utilitarian effect; stitching up an apron or crimping shut a meat pastry. “Les Noces” also gets more out of unison corps work because Nijinska is never distracted from the main thrust of her work. Unfortunately, it was not the tightest performance; the corps was having trouble staying in unison but an imperfect “Les Noces” is still worth an evening.

Up in the Amphitheatre, it was interesting to converse with neighboring viewers, who occasionally divide into factions. There are the MacMillanites; their idea of praising Ashton is to say that no one did light works better. They love the emotions of the Macmillan. Then there are those like me (often Americans as well) who consider Ashton the greater classical choreographer. If you think he’s light, it’s because you’re staring at the skin and not looking beyond to the bones.

#2 Estelle


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Posted 09 November 2004 - 02:51 PM

Green with envy... (But where is that green smiley when you need it ;) )

I'm looking forward to reading your other reviews.

#3 grace


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Posted 09 November 2004 - 04:01 PM

what a pleasure to read! you are quite a writer.

i laughed out loud at this:

Inevitably with MacMillan, though, there is always one lift with a woman held in some position resembling a carcass. ........in a dubious blow for equality Ivan Putrov also gets some time as a carcass as well.


thanks, leigh - and i too am most envious.

#4 Martha F

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 04:17 PM

Oh thank you so much for posting this! I can’t imagine a better way to spend a rainy week in London than going to ballet night after night! Sadly for me, though, I really overdid this last week (what’s with two debuts in Sylvia in the main house, Arc Dance downstairs in the Lindbury and Rambert at Sadlers’ Wells!) so it's now back to real life for me this week!

I saw this triple bill a couple of weeks ago and personally I found Requiem to be sublimely mesmerising. I am not familiar with many of the American works that you’ve mentioned, though, so I wasn’t thinking about their possible links. I read on the ballet.co board that there was applause in between the pieces in Requiem last night and I wonder if this broke the piece’s spell somehow?

I also enjoyed the Wedding Bouquet when I saw it, although I did not care too much about the narration.

When I saw Les Noces, the corps de ballet was a marvel- dancing the piece with absolute conviction and exhilarating energy- I am sorry to hear that they were not on top form last night but glad that you still enjoyed the piece nonetheless.

Now I’m looking forward to hearing more from you! I am very sorry that I have to miss Marianela Nunez’ debut as Sylvia tonight. I saw her in a master class a month ago and she already looked very promising then. Enjoy the rest of your week!

#5 Alexandra


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Posted 09 November 2004 - 06:00 PM

Thank you for this, Leigh -- I look forward to reading more!!

And welcome, Martha F. Thanks for your comments, and I hope you'll keep us posted on what you're seeing.

I need a "Les Noces" fix -- it's one of my favorites, and I haven't seen a live performance in about five years. Green green (Estelle, some of the emoticons didn't make the software upgrade, unfortunately.)

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 10:46 PM

Tuesday, November 9.

“Sylvia” (Ashton/Delibes) - Nunez/Pennefeather/Samodurov

I wish that I didn’t have to say that “Sylvia” was old-fashioned. Not because it’s outdated, but because the virtues it has in abundance should have remained in style. It is not a perfect ballet, but it’s a delightful one, and Ashton’s grasp of the pastoral and of the classical set piece are things I wish would come back into fashion again.

The ballet is set in a mythological time and place populated by shepherds, huntresses, nymphs, gods and goddesses. Aminta, a shepherd, loves Sylvia, who, as one of the goddess Diana’s nymphs, has sworn off love. With the help of Eros, the God of love, and arrows both misfired and true to their target, the two are fated for one another. Orion, a hunter infatuated with Sylvia, has other ideas. There are twists and turns to the plot, none of which are as hard to follow as the libretto would suggest. At the end, as you might guess, the lovers are united.

Both Balanchine and Ashton were masters of the classical set piece; dances that first seem like nothing more than a pleasing group dances but manage to also explore or distill the themes of the entire work. The dance of the Wilis in “Giselle” is a perfect example; Balanchine’s second act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an example of how he would use the set piece for narrative. “Sylvia” is set pieces from beginning to end. Nymphs first, then shepherds and shepherdesses dance and so on. The group dances in “Sylvia” are clear, felicitous and feel organic to the ballet even in their artifice. There is a minimal amount of mime in the ballet, almost no mime speeches and certainly no mime scenes. In that balance of pure dance to plot it resembles Russian productions of “Don Quixote”, which also flow from number to number with the plot told as quickly as possible. I would say that the difference is that Don Q evolved to that and “Sylvia” was planned that way; but I need to remember that “Sylvia” is a reconstruction.

The mythological setting means that Ashton shamelessly, deftly, uses one of the oldest theatrical devices in the book, the deus ex machina, and not just once, but once per act (note: the Act II appearance of Eros was created by Christopher Newton during the reconstruction). Eros is a sort of Lilac Fairy, only armed and dangerous. Joking aside, I wonder how many years it has been since any ballet has dared to have either that or an apotheosis. As for the reconstructions in Act II, it seems most of them are other than steps: Peter Farmer creating new scenery in the style of the old, Newton altering mise-en-scène rather than choreography. It’s in far better shape than I was worried it might be; somehow I was expecting something in shreds akin to Act II of “Napoli”. New York audiences will be most familiar with the music from Act III from the bits and pieces of the score scattered through New York City Ballet’s repertory.

Rupert Pennefeather, promoted to First Artist this year, got a huge opportunity to replace Iñaki Urlezaga as Aminta. I gather it’s his first major role and he’s understandably green and a bit blank, but he’s tall and quite musical with fine lines. This was a major break for him and he just needs more chances. Orion is a good role for Vyacheslav Samodurov; he cuts loose in high multiple jumps without turning it into an egregious showpiece. Joshua Tuifua is Eros; Laura Morera a wonderfully angry Diana – the sort I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alleyway.

Marienela Nunez danced the title role choreographed for Margot Fonteyn. She’s Argentinean and a can-do girl; her style would be familiar to the audience of American Ballet Theatre, but she isn’t as careless as Paloma Herrera. We saw Nunez briefly in the Ashton Festival in New York, but she had an off night in “Birthday Offering”. She’s of middle height, strong and sunny - a gifted turner as well. There’s nothing Ashtonian about her, but I felt the role could handle her. She offers it virtuosity and warmth; what’s missing is the depth of vulnerability. Still, and this may be perverse; I’ve often liked stronger, sturdier women in Ashton. I want to see the choreography, and I’d argue that the attenuated model now being bred and trained can’t always get through it.

The role of Sylvia is technically hard as hell. It’s filled with tricky balances, changes of direction and turns to extended positions rather than safe finishes. It was made on Margot Fonteyn, and unless Ashton was a sadist or blind, is it perhaps time we admit that she might just have had a bit of technique as well as a pretty face? Ashton isn’t afraid to expose his dancers with steps that are rigorously demanding and unlike Balanchine, don’t move naturally with the fall of the body. I love the natural flow of Balanchine’s movement; the little I got to dance while training was a joy to dance. It’s heresy to suggest it, but is it possible that Ashton was making these more exposing steps not because he was less deft, but because he was the one working with more thoroughly schooled dancers?

The classical set piece is close to a dead art. It’s expensive, as it requires a trained corps de ballet, so the market isn’t calling for it. But choreographers like MacMillan and Cranko who could have used it didn’t. “Eugene Onegin” is all pas de deux with a corps de ballet that streaks or waltzes through for décor. “Romeo and Juliet” has the occasional friend in a nightie; the rest is character work or street scenes. If we lose the ability to make and understand the classical dances that Ashton or Balanchine provides us with, are we missing the point of classical ballet?

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 11:03 PM

Martha - welcome to Ballet Talk! I'm afraid Requiem just doesn't do it for me; I barely noticed the applause.

#8 Natalia


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Posted 10 November 2004 - 11:16 AM

Marienela Nunez danced the title role choreographed for Margot Fonteyn.  She’s Argentinean and a can-do girl;


Leigh, from your description of Ashton's choreography for Sylvia, it's good that Nunez "can do"! Thanks for the journal. I'm thoroughly enjoying it!!! My mouth waters with anticipation at seeing this production very soon. Wheeee!

Just curious: Does newcomer (to London) Sarah Lamb have any part in Sylvia, beside understudying the title role? Do report on her progress, if you think it appropriate.

#9 grace


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Posted 10 November 2004 - 07:45 PM

i am imagining faces like this
:o :D :glare:
in response to my questions, but please leigh:
- could you tell me what 'deus ex machina' actually means? i HAVE heard the term before (but rarely), and have never bothered to find out.
- and presumably 'apotheosis' is just the extra bit at the end, to resolve a story or tell you what happened next?

thanks in advance for answers! :blush:

#10 Alexandra


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Posted 10 November 2004 - 08:05 PM

If Leigh doesn't mind, since I'm here, I'll give some answers. I'm teaching ballet history this year, and we just had to grapple with both of these.

1. Deus ex machina was, literally, a device in Greek and Roman theater that lowered a god down from the "heavens" to the stage, at the time when the heroine was tied to the railroad tracks, so to speak, to resolve an unresolvable situation. During the 18th century neoclassical period, this custom was revived, and the term has come to mean that when someone is in an impossible predicament, Fate or the gods, or whoever, intervenews: oh, you're late on your taxes and owe the government $10,000 and, just at the very moment you're about to pick up the phone and tell them to come and take you away, a tidal wave hits the government building, destroys all records, and a general tax amnesty is issued.

2. Apotheisos meant to deify, and came to mean an exemplar -- He was the apotheosis of honor. I don't know how it got into ballet, but one example is the very ending -- as you divined, grace! -- of "Sleeping Beauty" when, originally, Apollo descended from the clouds, surrounded by all the fairies, to bless the wedding and give the broad hint that Louis XIV (the Sun King) had a strong connection with the current Tsar of Russia.

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 November 2004 - 12:27 AM

Thank you for answering Alexandra - my keyboard is crotchety so it took me a while to do last evening (and if I disappear, fear not, that's why - but I think I'll be OK)

Natalia - Sarah Lamb is one of Sylvia's attendants, but I don't know the company or her well enough to pick her out. I apologize!

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 November 2004 - 12:29 AM

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

“Sylvia” (Ashton/Delibes) – Bussell/Cope/Soares

More thoughts on Ashton and dance genres.

Ashton’s understanding of classical tradition was innate, but he had to almost invent it for himself; unlike Balanchine, he didn’t have an academy education to learn the conventions and rules by osmosis. His distinctions between character and classical work seem fluid. The peasants in “Sylvia” are classical dancers, with the women in pointe shoes. So are the Gypsies in “The Two Pigeons”, so are the court dancers in “Cinderella”. In Russia, they might have been in either character or heeled shoes. Character dancers also mix with classical ones as in the first dance where the male satyrs are character and the female naiads classical. Ashton blends them felicitously and with dramatic purpose, though. He adds character and folk flavor with the occasional prance or flexed foot. It’s his own solution – his folk touches are uniquely English. You have to love a choreographer who can take a scene where a peasant is calling in the rest of the group to observe a man dying of an arrow wound and have the group come in by fours, in classical sautés and make it work. That’s his language; that’s the way he speaks.

The Bussell and Cope cast started off authoritatively, but things got shakier as the night went on. Suprisingly for me, Bussell whacked her arabesque all through the ballet (I saw her Sleeping Beauty pas during the Ashton Celebration where every arabesque was as pure as gold). At first I took the loose extravagance as a choice: her way of getting the Amazon nature of the character. These nymphs are heartless cousins of those warriors; they dance triumphantly as Aminta lies seemingly dying. But as the night went on she didn’t modulate it, and lost more control in the final act. It may be she was running out of steam; she’s been off for maternity leave. Also, from the steps it feels like the role made for Fonteyn was also "built short"; it just takes that much longer for Bussell to get to her extension and go on to the next thing. The fast releves at the end of her variation in Act III had her frenzied. She’s got in some ways the right temperament in the wrong body. There’s something remote about Bussell’s virginal quality (“Noli me tangere!”) but it makes the false seduction in Act II convincing in an odd way - you can tell she'd never enjoy Orion’s advances. Nunez looked a bit more game with her sunniness.

Jonathan Cope projected more than Pennefather the night before, but again, had difficulties with stamina (he’s also been off from injury). Pennefather stuck things in the variations that Cope fudged. Pennefather appeared again tonight in the smaller role of Jaseion in the divertissement in Act III – he’s young enough that it would have been kind to take this role away from him when saddling him with that demanding a role in a last-minute substitution, but there he was, looking mildly overloaded.

I preferred this evening’s Orion and Eros to the previous nights. Samodurov exulted in the choreography; Thiago Soares also dance well but exulted in Orion’s malevolence. He seemed to be twirling an imaginary moustache: Snidely Whiplash. Martin Harvey had more authority as Eros. He filled the slow port de bras with noble weight and handled the comic sections with gentle humor.

Other thoughts – It’s interesting to note the Orientalism in Act II. Appropriate to the time, Ashton has Orion and his entourage come from an imaginary and non-specific East, something out of 1001 Arabian Nights. Looking again at the final transformation in Act II that Newton added (the mountains part for Eros and he shows Sylvia a vision of Aminta) I recognize more its advantages and disadvantages. It’s respectful; the ideas in it are all related to other effects in the ballet, but that also means it anticipates and undercuts other moments.

Eva Natanya watch: The Royal does not credit the full corps de ballet in the program, and since I was quite fond of Natanya at New York City Ballet I tried to spot her. Was she one of the naiads in green (the first I think) in Act I and one of the muses in blue in Act III? I was far enough back (first row Amphitheatre) that I could have mistaken her for someone else.

Every night so far this week I have happily noted that there have been nothing more than scattered seats free in the house, and ruefully noted that tickets are double the price that they are in New York, and our houses are half as full. If only we could get this sort of attendance. It’s not just high ticket costs that keep Americans away from the theater; it isn’t preventing the British. We’ve got to change the culture at the root.

There’s a photo exhibition of Ashton throughout the theater. Up in the amphitheatre there is a telling picture of Ashton watching a stage rehearsal of “Birthday Offering”. He is seated at the front of the stage with de Valois, who is regarding the affair with sharp sunken eyes and a dubious look. I think no one would have ever dared mark a step for that woman. There are also three priceless pictures of Symphonic Variations by Baron - two of the men and one of all couples that show clearly the style of port de bras and épaulement that Ashton.

And on an entirely off-topic note, cider in the United Kingdom is much, much stronger than one thinks.

#13 ami1436


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Posted 11 November 2004 - 05:04 AM

Dear Leigh,

Thank you for your reports! I completely agree with your thoughts on Darcey Bussell as Sylvia, on opening night I also thought she didn't pull off the Act III variation, and was rather disappointed by this. I look forward to seeing Nunez!

Who was Eros in the Nunez cast?

A note on attendance - it is not always so, and often by mid-way through the year you will find more empty seats, especially for Mixed Bills. I think right now people have missed the Royal over the summer and are all excited to have Darcey back! It also varies - they have been doing specials via their email mailing list for Sylvia with other casts.

Keep 'em coming!


#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 November 2004 - 06:36 AM

Ami - Joshua Tuifua was Eros in that cast. He wasn't bad, I just preferred Harvey.

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 November 2004 - 03:34 PM

Thursday, November 11, 2004

“Sylvia” (Ashton/Delibes) – Yanowsky/Makhateli/Avis

The third cast for Sylvia, led by Zenaida Yanowsky, is a mixed bag. Yanowsky is tall and powerful; for POB watchers, she resembles Marie-Agnès Gillot. What she does well, she does better than the others, but she’s fighting the part the whole way. She's by far the most thoughtful of the Sylvias, but the role is the least congenial to her technically. Act I was the roughest; she scaled back many of the turns and had to save the ending of several that threatened to go out of control. She was much better beginning from Act II with a beautiful expansive waltz and moving on through soaring jumps into a very fine pas de deux in Act III. You have to take Yanowsky on her own terms, and she’s interesting enough a dancer to merit it, but she can’t make the curved shapes one hopes for in Ashton; her body is just too long. The hops on pointe and relévés in her Act III variation don’t suit her highly arched feet, either, but that seems to be endemic to modern dancers with the foot type now prevalent; it’s not at all unique to Yanowsky.

Yanowsky’s acting is her strong point. She’s the only one of the three Sylvias that tries to give texture and transitions to the part. In Act I, she creates a moment for herself right after her variation, pausing at the fountain of Eros in regret; letting us know that she has renounced love, not that she does not feel it. Along with her rejection of the Orion’s offering of a necklace in Act I and her prayer to Eros (she gets down on her knees and almost curls herself into a ball); one can see that Yanowsky is trying to find ways to make herself vulnerable even though she’s naturally powerful. It’s impressive how well she succeeds. The role is a major challenge for her, and she’s very watchable even when miscast. I’d like to see her find her way to the role.

Her partner, David Makhateli, is strong, tall, and an excellent partner, but dances very pose-to-pose. He had difficulty with his Act I variation because he kept trying to punctuate the end of the phrase instead of moving through it. Of the three Amintas, Pennefather has danced the role the best.

Gary Avis is another good Orion, similar in approach to Soares, but even more in love than in lust. All the Dianas (Mara Galeazzi with Bussell and Gillian Revie with this cast) also take the role similarly – delightfully affronted.

Joshua Tuifua was one of the slaves in the Oriental dance and he made a very fine impression in this role. The final position of the slave's duet resembles the male duet from the second pas de trois in “Agon”, but Ashton has the men support each other standing only on one leg. It's only a matter of time before they fall over, so not a good way to end a bravura number.

Three viewings of a ballet reveal both its joys and problems to you, and “Sylvia” does have its problems. The continuous thread of dance leaves little room for character development. Aminta doesn’t appear at all in Act II, making him almost opaque. One of the most important transitions, Sylvia’s literal change of heart after being pierced by Eros, happens offstage. We see her leaving Aminta for dead and almost inexplicably coming back to mourn him. Ashton also indicated to Christopher Newton that he wanted to return to the original score and delete two interpolations from “La Source”. This makes musical sense, but it leaves a whole phalanx of allegorical figures on stage in Act III with precious little to do because their music was cut.

The dance invention will stay with me, particularly the corps numbers: The rocking ballotés of the nymphs as they dance to triumphant horn calls and a second rocking dance of the corps in Act III that curves alongside the temple and anticipates the arrival of Eros and Sylvia on the waves. The corps dances are often very demanding; the Act I peasant dance is all tricky little beating steps done while crossing each other that present major traffic problems unless drilled and re-drilled.

And at the end, as worthy as this revival has been, one has to ask one question of the directors. Each dancer cast as Sylvia was only partially successful in the role and that was not their fault, but the fault of casting. Could they not have cast one dancer who was truly appropriate for the role?

A postscript: I’m pretty sure I was wrong about spotting Eva Natanya in the corps de ballet of Sylvia.

There is no ballet performance tomorrow, so you have a respite as well! Until Saturday!

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