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Leigh Witchel

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

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Saturday, November 13, matinee and evening

“Scènes de Ballet” (Ashton/Stravinsky)

“Divertissements” (Ashton/Various)

“Daphnis and Chloë” (Ashton/Ravel)

“Scènes de Ballet” now joins the list of ballets I would happily cross an ocean for. I’ve now seen it five times; I don’t think I could ever tire of it. It’s a delicious vol-au-vent of a ballet; like puff pastry it has countless layers but still seems lighter than air. This set of performances I watched the steps less and the port de bras more. There are many times when the female or male corps seems to be working in unison but (with the women) one or two or (with the men) they are all in different poses. It gives the ballet a sense at times of being a series of tableaux speeded up and presented too fast for the eye to consciously register.

It’s apparent by glancing at André Beaurepaire’s viaduct at the back just how different the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House is than the Royal: The scenery needed to be extended by at least one branch in New York. The compression on the London stage is a good effect; it adds to the atmosphere. This could be the American in me, but in the same way, so was the slight push to the tempo.

The matinee cast was less senior than the evening cast. Yohei Sasaki, a First Soloist who had danced one of the four male demi-soloist parts made his debut in the lead partering Jaimie Tapper. The performance had more precision than scent; “Scènes” is a ballet that requires precision and can handle that sort of performance, but it could use a whiff of perfume as well.

Tapper is an athletic dancer, another sunny can-do girl. The can-do attitude got her in trouble at some points; it seemed her partnered pirouettes went awry because she tried to fix them herself instead of letting her partner do it. Sasaki is well schooled, but not that warm a performer. The four men in the corps were all First Artists; in New York this summer the management took no chances and cast more senior men. This cast (Kenta Kura, Ernst Meisner, Johannes Stepanek, Andrej Uspenski) acquitted itself very well; at the evening performance, Kura stepped into the senior cast as a substitution for Bennet Gartside and looked fine among them.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg led the evening cast. In her yellow tutu, Cojocaru was very much the golden girl. She’s interesting in the part by her sheer facility, but a bit too light. All her extensions tend to flick out to their height; there’s no resistance and it makes her look like she takes up no space. Kobborg did a fine job; he’s demi-caractère in a role originally created on Michael Somes, but somehow even the costume, a short-sleeved tunic in some ways cut like worker’s outfit, seems to allow for that possibility. He also did a series of sissonnes that switch legs to land better than anyone else I had seen; his trick was to use the landing of the first leg to slow down the momentum for the second leg so it didn’t land with a thud.

The divertissements presented several tidbits we saw in New York (the Awakening pas from “Sleeping Beauty”, “Thaïs” and “Voices of Spring”) with some tasty acquisitions. The Royal got “Five Brahms Waltzes” for Tamara Rojo (Iñaki Urlezaga whom she danced with in New York is on family leave in Argentina; thank heavens they did not saddle her with doing the final, unexceprtable, three minutes of “Ondine” again) and Frederic Franklin set the pas de deux and male variation from “Devil’s Holiday”.

We got to see a tremendous array of the company in this section at either Principal or First Soloist level. Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope took the matinee performance of the “Sleeping Beauty” pas for a disjointed performance. Bussell was in and out; Cope’s just not in shape to do this right now. Tapper danced the evening with Federico Bonelli; her sunny directness doesn’t work here. I saw her do a lovely Terpsichore five years ago in Toronto; her approach may be more suited to the Balanchine repertory.

The matinee performance of “Thaïs” was our first glimpse during the week of Sarah Lamb in a solo role, and it was auspicious. Newly imported from Boston Ballet, Lamb has Russian coaching and grooming. It works in Thaïs, though it changes the role to a bittersweet cousin of Nikiya. Lamb drew the movement out into long arcs punctuated with moments of stillness. It’s part of her presence, and she’s got that to spare. She threw herself into the part; her kiss of Bonelli at the apex of the ballet was as passionate a stage kiss as I have seen. The audience took to her warmly. In the evening, Mara Galeazzi also did a fine job; Thiago Soares (who joined the company in ’02 and is already a First Soloist) has the advantage over Bonelli in manly pectoral muscles; Anthony Dowell’s costume seems to be all about masculine décolletage.

“Devils Holiday” is titillating in excerpts, in spite of or possibly because they still leave the plot of the surrounding ballet completely opaque. It’s not summarized in the Royal’s souvenir program, so I will be left to see if I can find Denby’s contemporaneous review of it when I get home. The male variation reminds one a little bit of Balanchine’s in “Divertimento from Baiser de la Fée” especially in atmosphere. There’s a section in both where the man drops to his knees in a circle, but in the Ashton he does it not by kneeling, but by knuckling over both feet slowly. Martin Harvey was very impressive in the matinee cast, but he’s been impressive in character roles all week. In the same way, I’ve not completely warmed to Viacheslav Samodurov, who took the evening performance, yet. During the Kirov visit to New York he did a 1000-watt “Rubies” with Diana Vishneva. But the repertory this week seems to require characterization and acting that are not his specialty. He’s giving us virtuoso performances of the steps instead. Laura Morera joined Harvey, Isabel McKeekan Samodurov for the pas de deux. Again, it’s difficult to place in context, but Laura Morera and Harvey seemed to give us more period flavor. In her gown with her large face, Morera reminded me a bit of pictures I had seen of Markova in Les Rendezvous. Franklin is in town; it’s a joy to see him join the cast at the end for bravos from the audience.

I’m not sure about the blowsy Isadora wig they have Rojo wear in “Five Brahms Waltzes”; it really doesn’t suit her. She gave a powerful performance – perhaps too powerfully Amazonian. I’m not sure that’s the impression we want to take away from Duncan Waltzes: Bacchante, sure, but Amazon? The lighting at the matinee was too bright at the beginning to provide any atmosphere; it seems they had adjusted by the evening.

Galeazzi and Samodurov did “Voices of Spring” at the matinee. Galeazzi gave a joyous performance, better than her outing in New York. Leanne Benjamin took the role in the evening with Carlos Acosta and she had the advantage of having a Human Crane for a partner. Acosta seems to revel in one-arm lifts and Benjamin is tiny. The smile on her face at the end seemed to indicate her pleasure.

It will take me time to come to “Daphnis and Chloë” but that’s less the fault of the ballet than sheer fatigue on my part. It’s a new ballet at the end of a very long week, and the impressionist composers are the hardest for my ears to parse for dance. To me, the ballet pushes Ashton’s pastoral instincts as far as they go – even farther than “La Fille Mal Gardée”. Even with a pirate abduction, the ballet still feels like an hour-long idyll. That’s as much the soft rolling textures of the Ravel music as anything else. Also oddly, though the ballet is in one act, it’s really three scenes presented with only interruption for changes, and is structured like a three-act ballet.

Cojocaru and Bonelli did the matinee, Miyako Yoshida and Edward Watson the evening cast. It’s our first close look during the week at both Watson and Yoshida. Watson is the only one who has to fight his casting. He’s a long-limbed dancer with difficulty fitting himself into classical port-de-bras, and it really shows when he leads group dances. He’s also a fine actor, and like Zenaida Yanowsky, probably presents a challenge in casting.

Other notes – I’m glad that Yoshida dispensed with the Dangerous Flower Ritual that seemed endemic this week at the Royal. Yoshida’s bouquet was small enough to carry; when it isn’t, the ballerina leaves the damn things in a heap in the middle of the stage so that people have to glance nervously backwards when returning from bows to avoid tripping.

For ticket buyers. The view at the front of the amphitheatre is quite good, but the acoustics are very live. Things you can’t hear in other parts of the house; footfalls and even breathing onstage can be heard very audibly here.

A final note at the end: I think my only regret about this week is, though I’m a even more familiar with Ashton’s choreography than I was at the start of the week; I’m no closer to an understanding of Ashtonian dancing style. The company is filled with international dancers and it’s not being cast; perhaps it doesn’t even exist in the company any more. It’s not that the performances are bad, but there is no dancer or dance I can point to and say, “I think that’s how Ashton envisioned it.” Eventually, that’s impossible with every choreographer, but Ashton is not so far off that we need to lose that veracity so soon.

And so ends the week – back to America tonight!

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Leigh, if you have David Vaughan's bnook on Ashton, it has the complete synopsis of Devil's Holiday at the back. It sounds rather a strange piece - the Devil, just for his own amusement, causes a nobleman's daughter to desert her fiance and fall in love with a beggar (disguised as a prince by the Devil). There's a ball, a foxhunt, a dream scene, a gypsy girl, and it ends with a carnival masquerade in Venice. One odd thing is that I can't tell from reading the story who the girl ends up with - her fiance or the beggar! It was all worked out before Ashton was asked to do the choreography, and on the page it sounds rather heartless - but from what I've read of the two extracts Franklin has restaged, it seems that Ashton managed to inject some real feeling into it.

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re ROH amphitheatre (front row) leigh writes:

Things you can’t hear in other parts of the house; footfalls and even breathing onstage can be heard very audibly here.
- wondering if anyone else has ever noticed this? not that i doubt you, leigh, as you have been so observant about so much, and have expressed it so well...but i am just curious about this, as i never noticed it, myself.

so i am wondering WHY i never noticed it myself!! :)

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The matinee performance of “Thaïs” was our first glimpse during the week of Sarah Lamb in a solo role, and it was auspicious.  Newly imported from Boston Ballet, Lamb has Russian coaching and grooming. It works in Thaïs, though it changes the role to a bittersweet cousin of Nikiya.  Lamb drew the movement out into long arcs punctuated with moments of stillness.  It’s part of her presence, and she’s got that to spare. 

Wow, Leigh. I'm so happy that you got to see Lamb, after all. I hope to see her during my trip...if only as an attendant to Sylvia.

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QUOTE

"Things you can’t hear in other parts of the house; footfalls and even breathing onstage can be heard very audibly here."

Yes, and on one occasion from my seat in the stalls circle, Miss Seymour telling the conductor, in fairly basic terms, exactly what she thought of his tempi!

Apart from being very dry, the acoustic at Covent Garden has always been odd so you do hear breathing and the odd grunt, and the refurbishment hasn't done a great deal to improve it - likewise the sightlines. I'm glad you enjoyed your Ashton week though Leigh.

Noli me tangere does come in a poem - I can't remember the author (I thought it might have been Thomas Wyatt), but the line goes something like "noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am and wild for to hold, though I seem tame". I think it refers to a lady who was, shall we say, available, but is no longer so.

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Leigh...Alymer: you both may already have doubled checked by now...but in case not, it is Thomas Wyatt, "Whoso list to hunt..." with hunting as a metaphor for sexual pursuit. The transposition of "noli me tangere" (whose Christian reference Wyatt's original audience would have gotten) is, I suppose, deeply ironic. I can't quite decide if Bussell has struck me, in the past, as having a "noli me tangere" quality--she seems a little too sweet and approachable, even if the sexuality is under wraps, but I haven't seen her in all the same roles as Leigh. (Farrell did sometimes...and Balanchine seems, in certain roles, to have envisioned her that way.)

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The lady that Wyatt is referring to in the poem is usually supposed to be Anne Boleyn - hence the reference to Caesar i.e Henry VIII. Not relevant to anything at at all, really, but it is a lovely poem.....

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is that the famous "faster, ashley!" ??

From where I sat it was more like "What the *****!!!!". I'll say no more.

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Thanks for all these reports, Leigh!

I was going to say that thepoem is Wyatt's "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek" -- but Drew's right, it is "Whoso list to hunt...." But "They flee from me" feels like a companion-piece to it. Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first great poet since Charucer,; he was a courtier of henry VIII.

And yes, "Noli me tangere, for I Caesar's am" is such a striking line it's tempted people to think the lady who used to seek him and doesn't any more was Ann Boleyn, though I don't think there's enough evidence to substantiate it.

"Noli me tangere" is not really a Christian reference many Christians would be familiar with -- it's not like the lamb of God or the Old Rugged Cross, something millions of people would recognize, but it IS familiar to students of Renaissance poetry and even more of the paintings.

There were a lot of paintings of the "Noli me tangere" moment, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, looking remarkably refreshed and gorgeously approachable. It was a great counter-Reformation subject (they loved pictures with the subtext 'Can you believe how these Puritans are bad-mouthing our darling Mary Magdalene?') -- but it was also painted earlier by Giotto, Breughel, and there's a GREAT version by Titian

http://www.magdalene.org/nolimetangere3.htm

So Leigh, it's perfectly reasonable that a nice Jewish boy with a humanist college education should have heard the phrase.

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Yes, and on one occasion from my seat in the stalls circle, Miss Seymour telling the conductor, in fairly basic terms, exactly what she thought of his tempi!
:lol:

thanks for the info, alexandra and leigh. i hope i remember these things, and don't ask them again. paul parish, thank you very much for the link to the titian painting, to make my understanding visual. i am really enjoying your descriptive writing, leigh. i admire your ability to observe and articulate these things. thanks. :thumbsup:

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could I ask you to eflect again on scenes de ballet -- or was it danses concertantes? what's it feel like in your muscle memory after giving it your kinesthetic identification?

There's some reason, something metaphoric, implicit in what you're saying about facetings and postions cascading through the troupe, from one person to the nest... (there's some kind of fascinating process going on, what is it?

I've never seen the ballet, sure wish I had. Please. Help me out.

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I don't know if this is going to make sense, but looking at Scenes de Ballets with dancer eyes . . . it's analagous to Balanchine for that generation and training of dancer because Ashton was taking the classroom training and pouring it out onto the stage - but he's speaking with the upper body - epaulement and contraposto. In some Balanchine works you feel like your legs are "stating" positions - tendu to tendu, hit fifth, hit tendu, extend, close - etc. Imagine that in the upper body. En haut, third position, torque, listen to your shoulder, incline, bend and bend again. Third arabesque, a la lyre. But showing the enchainement rather than the position. I'd think you'd really need chops and a solid, old-fashioned training with lots of port de bras exercises to dance it.

Did that make any sense, or even touch on what you were asking?

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It's a beginning.......

sounds exhilarating, like (for a pianist) being able to play Mozart well enough to hear the music without getting so drunk on hte music you can't keep going....

actually, it also sounds like a tree in a wind must feel... i.e., the excitement generates so much tension it's hard to stay relaxed enough to reconfigure as fast as you must without snapping....

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I was also in London last week, and here are my thoughts on Sylvia —

In the ballet world, 2004 will undoubtedly go down as the Year of Sylvia. To start with, we had Mark Morris’s highly acclaimed new version for the San Francisco Ballet. Then the National Ballet of China teamed up with the Paris Opera Ballet to revive Lycette Darsonval’s 1979 staging. And now the Royal Ballet has brought Ashton’s version, which premiered in 1952, back from the dead.

It was a risky undertaking, given the unavailability of any dancers who had actually performed the work to stage and coach it and the consequent necessity of using only notes (not notation), scraps of film, and memories. Such reconstructions are usually textually dubious and, more important, stylistically barren. So it was a real surprise (and delight) to find this Sylvia looking authentically Ashtonian through and through. I never saw the ballet in Ashton’s day (it was dropped from the repertory about 40 years ago), so I obviously can’t speak to this production’s faithfulness to the original, but it feels like Ashton, and that is what really counts. Bravo to Christopher Newton, who is almost singlehandedly responsible for this production.

The original Sylvia—that is, the production for which Delibes first wrote his score—was a product of the French Romantic period, and thus very different from the brilliant kind of dance-and-drama extravaganza that Petipa has led us to expect. The world of nymphs, shepherds, fauns, and dryads is a gentle, pastoral one, and you’d think that it’s a style that Ashton would take to naturally, but a curious thing about his Sylvia is that it owes much more to Petipa, specifically The Sleeping Beauty, than to his Romantic predecessors. In fact, the cues it takes from The Sleeping Beauty are too numerous and too specific for comfort. As with his first three-act ballet, Cinderella, Ashton has leant too heavily on Beauty as a model. This may be why he was reluctant to do more full-length ballets, despite Ninette de Valois’s urging: he was unable to break through this model of a formal classical three-act ballet to find an approach of his own. (The Two Pigeons and La Fille Mal Gardée are different animals, being stories about real people rather than fairies and gods; it’s the narrative that counts in those ballets, not formal structures bearing the weight of classical mime and dancing.) Ashton never had this problem with his one-act works, possibly because he had no Petipan model to inhibit him.

In Sylvia, the borrowings from Beauty occur in both the choreography and the staging. Sylvia’s first variation quotes liberally from the fairies’ variations in the Prologue. The third act consists largely of divertissements by gods and goddesses who celebrate the hero and heroine’s reunion (a bit prematurely, since they aren’t actually pledged until later in the act). There’s a frisky duet for a pair of . . . well, they’re supposed to be goats, but they behave just like the cats in Beauty. The initial appearance of another pair of gods (Apollo and Terpsichore, as it happens) is a mimed scene that looks exactly like Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. At the end of the ballet, Sylvia and Aminta pose centerstage with Terpsichore behind them, raising her arms benevolently as though she had brought them together (which she hadn’t). And the second act ends with Eros arriving in a boat to show Sylvia a vision of the lovelorn Aminta. She climbs into the boat and sails away to find her beloved. (None of this is required by the story. Mark Morris’s version, from the accounts I’ve read, is quite different.)

This is not to say that these appropriations from Petipa spoil the pleasure of the ballet, with its beautiful choreography, luscious music, and lovely and appropriate costumes and scenery, but it is a little disconcerting.

The biggest hurdle for a modern production to overcome—aside from the dancers’ unfamiliarity with the Ashton style, a larger problem that Monica Mason is trying to rectify beginning with this Ashton-rich season—is finding a ballerina who can follow Fonteyn in the title role. Reviews of the 1952 production stressed the extent to which the production was tailored to Fonteyn’s special qualities: her dramatic versatility, lyricism, and above all the overwhelming sense of purity she embodied. This purity went beyond the technical and stylistic; it was an aura that surrounded her as a person, and Ashton used this, along with her strength, to create in her a kind of icon of moral rectitude. It’s hard to think of another ballerina who possesses this. Farrell had it, but in a completely different way—there was never anything innocent about her. Kistler has it to a lesser degree, but again without the innocence. Marianela Nuñez and Darcey Bussell, the two Sylvias I saw, certainly don’t have it. Bussell was a more aggressive heroine than Ashton seems to have intended, while Nuñez didn’t appear to have any concept of the role at all. At the beginning of the second act, when Sylvia rejects Orion’s bribes of rich clothing, she looked like a petulant princess (in the negative modern sense) sulking over having nothing to wear. In the third act, she grinned nonstop, without regard to what was happening dramatically. Neither dancer has the necessary technical or stylistic purity. Bussell is physically so different from Fonteyn that the steps look like different choreography. Nuñez is a closer match physically but lacks lyricism and dramatic understanding, and looked to me like a soloist doing a ballerina’s job. This was a real disappointment, as I’d read so many good things about her. I wonder why Tamara Rojo was not cast in this; of all the Royal’s ballerinas she strikes me as the most suited to the role. In the future, Sarah Lamb, who appeared as one of Sylvia’s attendants and who danced the Thais pas de deux at the Saturday matinee, might also fill the bill. She seems to be in the Antoinette Sibley/Sarah Wildor mold, if not the Fonteyn one.

Neither Aminta I saw was especially convincing. Jonathan Cope is tall and reedy and, while muscular, is rather scrawny, giving him the appearance of a nerdy intellectual rather than a vigorous outdoorsman. Rupert Pennyfather (replacing Iñaki Urlezaga) is a young dancer who made a good stab at the role, but is as yet too inexperienced to put it over. Both Dianas, Mara Galeazzi and Laura Morera, were powerful and effective (looking forward to ABT’s production, this role has Monique Meunier written all over it), as were the Orions, Thiago Soares and Viacheslav Samodurov. I liked Joshua Tuifua as Eros; he had a dignity and commitment to the role that is rare in so young a dancer, although Martin Harvey danced it more strongly. The ensemble looked like they were making a sincere effort at the Ashton style, although I don’t know how faithful any performance can be that is not done by dancers trained in the Cecchetti method. But since few professional dancers are these days, we have to be grateful for what we can get.

More on the mixed bills later.

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I liked Joshua Tuifua as Eros;  he had a dignity and commitment to the role that is rare in so young a dancer, although Martin Harvey danced it more strongly.  The ensemble looked like they were making a sincere effort at the Ashton style, although I don’t know how faithful any performance can be that is not done by dancers trained in the Cecchetti method.  But since few professional dancers are these days, we have to be grateful for what we can get.

More on the mixed bills later.

Ari, it seems that Joshua Tuifua looks young to everybody! I was in London last year and saw him in something and I thought to myself "that's a young dancer the RB could develop". On the contrary, he's actually been with the RB for more than a decade and would qualify as one of the RB's more senior corps members. Akin to say Amanda Edge and Elizabeth Walker for NYCB.

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It was a risky undertaking, given the unavailability of any dancers who had actually performed the work to stage and coach it and the consequent necessity of using only notes (not notation), scraps of film, and memories.

I think that's a bit of a misaprehension Ari. There are quite a few dancers around who did dance in Sylvia, not least Doreen Wells who gave several performances of the title role. Alexander Grant - the original Eros - is happily still with us (just back from holiday and looking very well when I saw him last night), as is Attilio Labis who partnered Fonteyn in her last performances of Sylvia. I know a number of people who danced in that last revival who were, or could have been, contacted to teach what they could remember. I don't know if Melissa Hayden was one of them......

Please don't think for a moment that I'm trying to minimise what Christopher Newton has achieved, but there were a number of dancers around who remembered parts of the choroegraphy and gave their help.

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Donald MacLeary who coached the principals also danced in the ballet I believe. From what I remember from the masterclass, his partners include Fonteyn, Beriosova and Mason (in the one-act version I think).

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please leigh, can you explain your use of this word : 'contraposto' (in this context)? thanks (again) in advance!

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