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RB Opening in DC, 6/5 - Ashton Mixed Bill


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#1 Natalia

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 06:08 AM

The Royal Ballet is looking up! This is the best, most satisfying performance of the Royal Ballet that I've seen in ages...bearing in mind that I last saw them, in London, during the 1996/97 season. Nonetheless, I've faithfully followed this troupe -- my "first love" in ballet -- since I first saw them "live" in the early '80s. What seemed to be a steady downhill progression has been halted; I've never seen them look so splendid. Three cheers! Today's technical and artistic level of the soloists, as well as that of the small ensemble in RENDEZVOUS, definitely give me cause to smile!!

Four ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton, considered the 'architect' of British ballet in the 20th C., were performed:

LES RENDEZVOUS - Pure delight! After reading about and seeing photos of the 'daffy' new designs, I was afraid; however, sitting up in 2nd tier, the day-glo-polka-dotted dresses on the girls and striped jackets on the guys did not look *so* horrible. The flat backdrop of tall cedar trees with a huge sun-disk in the middle (which changes colours at most segments of the ballet) was OK. My only peeve with the designs is that I fondly remember the gorgeous ones that were replaced, inclding pink-and-white debutante dresses and huge gated entrance to a park. Those designs were hard to top but the new ones aren't as offensive as I imagined them to be.

Best of all was the dancing. Miyako Yoshida and Johan Kobborg captured the dainty, playful spirit of the leading couple, and tackled the quick, difficult technical demands with aplomb. The audience cheered like crazy during their respective segments of the finale (her dizzying chaine turns and such). The dancers of the zippy Pas de Trois -- my favorite segment of the ballet, since I first saw it with ABT and Saddler's Wells video -- were magnificent! Jaime Tapper, Justin Meissner and Jonathan Howells did this dance justice. The corps was adorably cute, as befits the style of this frothy piece. [Big negative: I hope that the opera house orchestra gets its act together for future performances; the drums-and-cymbals portion of the final number, in particular, was a disaster, musically! I felt sorry for the dancers trying to mark time. Thank goodness that they are well trained to "count" in their heads and can ignore the orchestra.]

With this ballet alone, I would have been 'plenty-satisfied'...but more was to come.

THAIS pdd - I was crying at the end...a sure sign that the dancers took me into their world. This was 4-5 minutes of sheer artistic pleasure...the incredible technical demands of this adagio-style pdd (tricky lifts and what-not) were beside-the-point. The petite Leanne Benjamin and the tall-blonde-handsome Adam Cooper were brilliant...and they have the "it factor" as a pair. Her feathery bourrees at the beginning and end of the piece made the audience around me gasp. The word for this pas de deux: SEAMLESS. As if floating in a dream.

SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS - Considered Ashton's abstract masterpiece -- and, to some, "the" masterpiece -- this sublime ballet was given a first-class rendering. The women are all first-rate: teen-aged sensation from Romania, Alina Cojocaru, danced the central 'Margot Fonteyn' role; the other two female roles were danced by RB superstars Tamara Rojo of Spain and Sarah Wildor of England. [I had to gasp for a moment...the newly-appointed 'upstart kid' in the central Fonteyn role...but Cojocaru certainly lived up to it!] The three men were also fine although I found the central man-- Nigel Burley--a bit too stocky for my taste. The other two men (Johan Persson and, especially, Yohei Sasaki) seemed far more pleasant-of-line and danced more smoothly.

Cojocaru seems to have no bones, she is so feathery-light. An almost-unreal, pencil-thin "ballet torso"...making Rojo and Wildor seem a bit too wide-of-torso, in comparison.

The dancing was wonderful...better than any of the casts that I saw at Covent Garden in May '96. The arm movements of the ladies were spot-on, the fleet-footed steps were in unison, etc. The sudden shift to a "sunny mood" in the last movement was done with finesses & not jarringly (as I recall from '96 and at ABT years ago).

MARGUERITE AND ARMAND - Let me get to the best part: Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas LeRiche danced and acted brilliantly. What a joy to see this magical couple with such magnetic 'real-woman-and-real-man' chemistry!

Now the bad part: What a DUD of a ballet! Lordie...the video of Fonteyn/Nureyev makes it look better...but this is (to me) so cheesy and cheap, that I find it hard to believe that it was choreographed by the same man who created the first three works of the evening. The horrendously-cheap-looking abstract stage setting (of poles and simple ornaments, with dirty-looking drapes) seems like a cast-away from some Martha Graham Greek Tragedy.

My heart skipped a beat when LeRiche ran in with the cape...I could only think of Nureyev in the video! However -- and I know that this is close to blasphemy, so my apologies if I offend you -- Guillem made me forget Fonteyn. With young face, gorgeous feet, long pencil-thin torso (making a convincing tuberculosis patient!) and subtle masterful acting, Guillem was born to be Marguerite...only that I wish that it were some other ballet on the Traviata theme...not this hogwash.

Guillem/LeRiche salvaged M&A--the only low-note in an otherwise FANTASTIC evening of ballet.

Welcome Back to the USA, Royal Ballet!!!! :)

- Jeannie

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

#2 Juliet

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 08:23 AM

Thank you so much for the review, Jeannie--I am looking forward to the performance tonight even more, now!

Not being a M&A fan, I look forward to the dancers with great anticipation--I haven't seen Guillem in years. I share your feelings on the decor (not the Beaton costumes)--I think it is supposed to be a gilded cage, but I still don't care for it.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 11:17 AM

I was disappointed with last night. An all-
Ashton evening for me is Seventh Heaven, but....to me, the company has lost its Ashton voice, and its distinctiveness, because it was Ashton that gave it its distinctiveness. This could have been ABT (on a well-rehearsed day) or the National Ballet of Canada -- Ashton isn't its native language any more. In "Symphonic," especially, they looked as though they were thinking, hard, "have to do those whacky arm things now." Ashton's ballets are -- or were -- very tightly knit, and have a specific musicality, and except for Jamie Tapper and Johan Kobborg in "Les Rendezvous" (both of whom, I believe, were trained in systems that "hear" music the same way Ashton and the Royal once did) I didn't see that phrasing.

My sense of the audience was that it was warm and very patient (the intermissions were quite long) but I didn't hear any whooping or hollering in the orchestra. There was a slow standing ovation at the end, which Mlle. Guillem graciously accepted. (I love Guillem for, among other things, keeping the tradition of the Great Ballerina alive, right down to the "flowers? for me" byplay during the curtain calls.)

I thought the sets and costumes for "Les Rendezvous" were absolutely ghastly. They destroy the atmosphere of this slight ballet that was set in a very specific place (a park, with a fence around it and a gate, all of which were used in the choreography) and time. There's no distinction left between the couples and the four "little girls" who are too young to have dates and are rather outsiders. As noted above, I thought Jamie Tapper, in the pas de trois, and Johan Kobborg, in the leading male role were excellent. The dancing of the ensemble was fine technically, but, to me, not musically, and Miyako Yoshida was, to me, just plain dull.

In "Symphonic Variations," I thought Cojocaru was too wispy for the leading role. She's a lovely dancer, but doesn't yet have the authority for it (and could hardly expected to have it). I would have liked to see her in something else (perhaps "Thais.") I thought the six cast members danced well, and it was certainly a respectful staging, but perhaps too respectful -- there was no juice in the dancing, to me, and there were times when the changes in arm position looked quirky and jerky instead of natural. There was only one place, in the men's dance, where I thought they were in the Ashton "groove" musically. (I often think, watching Ashton danced, that it's like listening to a phonograph where the needle has slipped out of the groove, just a bit -- sometimes a whole lot, but often just a bit -- and you hear the music, but it's just not quite right, and you don't notice how off it is until the needle slips back into the groove and all is well.)

"Thais" is so associated with Sibley and Dowell, it's hard for me to imagine anyone else in it. Dowell was so "exotic" and their partnership was so magical. I wasn't caught up in "Thais" last night (Leanne Benjamin and Adam Cooper) and thought this pas de deux looked like just another number on a Tribute to Pavlova evening.

As for "Marguerite and Armand," I saw very little left of it. (Where was Liszt in the denunciation scene?) It's not a narrative ballet, but a succession of quick scenes -- the "life flashing before her eyes" idea. There was absolutely no urgency or passion last night. I hope it was just that the dancers were tired, but watching LeRiche was as exciting as hearing Al Gore discourse on agricultural subsidies. I didn't see Nureyev in this until he was 37 and he had about ten times the energy and tension. This ballet is a distillation of the Romantic Era when death was a constant thought, everyone thought they would die before the age of 25, and many did. I didn't get that at all from this cast. They just acted out pretty little "I love you" scenes. The scene between Marguerite and her father -- the kindly, implacable Michael Somes when I saw it -- looked like two people caught in a garden with nothing to say to each other. The gestures looked futile -- it wasn't a mime scene, but a suggestion, a remembrance of a terrible day.

Some other small details that were missing -- well, not so small. Fonteyn dug her knees into Nureyev's chest in the final scene, as though she were using his body to climb to heaven; Guillem stretched her arms. Nureyev made the sign of the cross over Marguerite's dead body; Le Riche managed a few sobs. Armand cannot bear to leave Marguerite at the end of the "white" scene; they kiss goodbye a dozen times, and she can't leave him until he's sleeping. Guillem dashed off on musical cue, and LeRiche watched her go.

I liked Guillem, although she's the wrong body for the role -- it wasn't made for a tall woman with long legs, and those legs made the pas de deux look awkward. I thought her portrayal was a bit superficial, less the innately good woman who'd found herself in an unsavory situation but kept her soul, as Fonteyn portrayed her, than a shallow woman redeemed by love, but I found that acceptable. There were other places where I can just imagine she hadn't been told what to do. Fonteyn was absolutely broken by Armand's anger, and the hobbled walk on pointe -- that seemed to take ten minutes -- showed that; I didn't get that from Guillem at all.

I found the whole evening tepid, and I hope it was jet lag. I don't think it made a good case for Ashton as a great choreographer, and that saddened me.

In past seasons, this company has gotten better with each performance, and the more they dance Ashton the more they find him in their bodies and spirits, and I'm very much hoping that's the case this time. But if they're listening to the music in ways that he did not (ONE, two, three, four-and-a-ONE....) his ballets will never take flight.

#4 samba38

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 12:05 PM

This is my first taste of the fabled Royal and I found it overall lovely -- far from perfect but lovely.

On Les Rendezvous -- The costuming -- six brights in polka dots for girls and striped jackets for men -- spent so much time in the air the effect was like decorating cupcakes with sprinkles while on drugs. For those of us who found Les Patineurs painfully slow, this was the other extreme. From the tepid ochestra audience response, I'd say I was in the minority in enjoying the pacing and the use of the arms and shoulders so often ignored by Balanchine.

But I don't think this could be ABT on a good night, frankly. I thought they had better, cleaner feet and musicality than at least the last round of ABT at KC. Yoshida was precise but flat, but the second taller solist (oops, kiddo has kept my program so I don't have all the names)had the kind of flair I thought I should expect from an Ashton dancer from what I've read.

For the Thais pas de deux -- I held my breath the entire time and found it exquisite. Now this was a slow piece in which every tiny action had resonance and immense pleasure. It may have worked in his favor (less distracting) that Cooper was far less handsome than I expected from his film work. Blonde hair doesn't work for him. Benjamin was indeed smoke in his eyes and she lingers in mine even now.

Symphonic Variations simply did not grab me as choreography. Having read that this was among his finest works, I expected to be transported intellectually as well as emotionally (the effect I get from a brilliantly performed geometrically precise 4Ts)and this just didn't do it for me. In part it was the adequate but less than confident delivery by the central man, Burley. Post performance he too, expressed disappointment. He's coming back from a bad knee injury this fall, and I suspect by Thursday night and by the Boston performances later this month that he will be at full power. The three women were mechanical. Cojoracu needs to grow up and be more than a technical whiz kid. I liked the blonde -- sorry, I don't always know which last name goes with which dancer so it's either Rojo, which sounds brunette to me, or Wilder --- not only for her dancing but for the pleasure of seeing what appeared to be an adult woman for a change, someone for whom I could only count 4 ribs not all 14 from the orchestra seats. All those bones can be distracting unless....

Unless they melt into jelly under a lovely costume as they did for the histrionic Ms. Guillem in M&A. Remember -- Like about 60% of the US adult dance audience and 100% of those under 25 (not me!), I have no visual references to Fonteyn and Nureyev or anyone else.
(Hint hint to veteran posters with a great visual memory -- I love reading about what was and having mental pictures for comparison, particularly those knees-in-the-chest images, but sometimes it gets in the way of the assessment of what is being offered now.)

Yes, I agree the choreography was skimpy and I don't know whom to blame. But it was the little family's first Sylvie sighting and we were charmed. Perhaps we are charmed cheaply -- by soap opera acting and exquisite feet (so much nicer than the Paloma arch that I find frightening and distracting)but she was a dancing storyteller, not merely a dancer in a story ballet, and it serve the whole.

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: samba38 ]

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: samba38 ]

#5 Helena

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 12:57 PM

I think that Marguerite and Armand is a ballet that cannot, and should not, be taken out of context. It was made for particular dancers in a particular place at a particular time - a "piece d'occasion", almost. I saw it seven times in London in the 1960s,and, believe me, it worked then.

Rather tremblingly, I went to see Guillem and Le Riche do it in London a while ago. I felt that it did not work at all, and I wished I hadn't seen it. I realised then that the ballet had been as much about Fonteyn and Nureyev as it was about Marguerite and Armand. Without their special chemistry, and all kinds of other resonances about them, I found it almost meaningless.

I think comparisons might possibly be made, on a different level, with Spectre de la Rose. With Nijinsky and Karsavina it was apparently sensational - I have never seen a performance of it, even with good casts, that rose above the trivial.

I understand absolutely why Dowell wanted to revive Marguerite and Armand - his memories of it must be even rosier than mine, since he was one of the original "young admirers" in the first scene, and I'm sure he wanted to re-live that experience in some way. Nevertheless, I feel that the revival was a mistake. Those who didn't see the original cast, or who have only seen the video, which is inadequate (too late, and lacking in spontaneity, as any film must be), must wonder what all the fuss was about. If you had been there, you would know!

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: Helena ]

#6 samba38

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 01:13 PM

tangential discussion on partnerships past, present, and one hopes, future, moved to it's own thread...

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: samba38 ]

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 01:23 PM

I think great couples happen. There were a lot of complaints in the Fonteyn-Nureyev era that companies were scrambling to try to MAKE great couples, which I don't think you can do.

Samba, would you object if a critic wrote that Hamlet had forgotten to do the "To be or not to be speech?" Or that pointing out that the substitution of "Like, you know, I'd like to just blow the old brains out on a day like today" by an actor is not the original text? I think a distinction has to be made between saying, "The way X blew the kiss can never be duplicated" and what's in the actual choreography. If doing so ruins, or mars, the viewer's experience, I don't think shooting the messenger is quite fair :)

I'd also suggest if we want to get into great partnerships -- which would be a very interesting topic -- that someone start a new thread. Unfortunately, while I can move entire threads to a new forum, I can't move individual posts out of a thread without cutting and pasting.

Back to Opening Night.

(I put up a web review on the main site at [url="http://"http://www.balletalert.com/reviews/r01/Royal1.html"]http://www.balletalert.com/reviews/r01/Royal1.html[/url]

[ 06-09-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#8 Natalia

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 02:05 PM

samba38 - You wrote above that you saw Baryshnikov/Kirkland's last performance? Lucky you! Those are the moments that make balletgoing so special.

Back to the topic...

Yes, the audience was quite enthusiastic up in the cheap seats (2nd tier) last night. The ovation was especially hearty for THAIS pdd (Benjamin/Cooper). I mean whoops and hollers...the whole nine-yards! I agree with Alexandra about the ovations for Guillem/M&A being less-than-enthusiastic. I seem to have missed seeing the standing ovation...didn't make it up to where I sat.

About 80% of 2nd tier (the uppermost) level was full. From my vantage point, it appears that the other levels of the house, including Orchestra, were 100% sold out. Not bad for a mid-week mixed bill by a non-Russian troupe!

I wasn't very clear, in my review above, about my feelings for the RENDEZVOUS designs. I'll take the old ones (with the gate) anytime! However, I had heard and read so many negativisms about the new ones, that I was pleasantly surprised when they did not turn out to be utterly atrocious. Also, I was sitting way up; I bet that that huge sun-disk looks awful from the orchestra seats.

History Lesson of the Day: Did you know that the beloved "gates" set and pink-and-white costumes of the old production of RENDEZVOUS were *not* the original designs of the ballet? Rather, it was the second version. The original version of the ballet, in 1933, had much darker, somber costumes and a darkish set. In 1937, new designs -- the ones everybody loves -- were created by William Chappell (who also did the 1933 version). The current day-glow-colors version is the third edition.

One last "fun detail" which I forgot to mention earlier. As far away from the stage as I was, I could totally feel the "power" of the Guillem/leRiche chemistry...especially those "juicy kisses" during one of the love scenes on the divan..and what about that kiss on Guillem's bosom during one of the backbends? The sound really carried up to the cheap seats, my friends! ;) I don't seem to recall that move in the Nureyev/Fonteyn tape (although it's probably there...but made no memorable impact on me).

[ 06-07-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 02:39 PM

A note on "Les Rendezvous." The choreography was changed for the 1937 version as well. I believe that's when the "little girls" were added; I don't have Vaughan to hand, and that's from memory. But the sets and designs and choreography were very much of a piece in that version.

I can well understand that the designs might look different in different parts of the house. Looking down on them might show a swirl of color, and the patterns would be more clear. When they're literally "in your face" (I was mid-orchestra, left side center aisle) they really get in the way of the choreography. I've seen designs that were literally such a barrier. If the idea was to make the ballet more contemporary, I'd have preferred they come out in whatever they would wear to a park these days -- kneepads and helmets, bluejeans, hot pants, I don't care. It was adding something on the surface to compensate for something they realize is missing from the dancing.

On reaction, my sense of the audience was that it was quite patient and happy, though certainly not ecstatic (from the orchestra and from comments at intermission.) As often happens, people who had seen a lot of Ashton were less happy than people who hadn't, BUT there were also quite a few people I talked to who were comparing Ashton to Balanchine and Ashton came up One Big Loser, a position about which I cannot be objective nor particularly polite. (i.e., like hell he is.) I was the only person I talked to who did not love Cojocaru.

Helena, I think your comparison of M&A and Spectre is very apt. I've read several really angry comments -- not only by critics, but by dancers -- written in reaction to glowing reviews of later casts of that ballet and saying things like, "A ballet purporting to be Spectre de la Rose was danced last night..."

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#10 samba38

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 02:46 PM

I started a new thread on partnerships -- a better way to pursue that tangent. On the Hamlet analogy -- of course you are right and I don't mean to shoot the messenger. If Peter Martins bills 4Ts and dances only 3 of them, I'll go off like an air raid siren. Mangled choreography is important to note. But too many comparisons to dancers new viewers can never see leaves us reading these interesting posts with huge holes shot through them. One reason I so much enjoy BA reviews and discussions is that so often highly knowledgable posters are sharing with me and teach me simultaneously. I come to read the posts wondering: What was asked of these performers and how well did they deliver on their promise to the audience?

[ 06-06-2001: Message edited by: samba38 ]

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 11:53 PM

I put this on Links, too, but thought one should go here to flesh out this discussion.

Sarah Kaufman on the Royal's opening night in the Post.
[url="http://"http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33040-2001Jun6.html"]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/artic...0-2001Jun6.html[/url]

#12 Natalia

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Posted 07 June 2001 - 07:10 AM

'Bravo' to Sarah Kaufmann...she's getting better and better with each review. ;)

In retrospect, it was Miyako Yoshida's lead in Les Rendezvous that set the positive tone for the whole evening, for me. To me, there was no fault - artistically or technically. Yoshida is THE allegro ballerina of the moment, in my book! And those perfectly performed 'backward chugs' in the coda were the icing on the cake.

[ 06-07-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

#13 Sonora

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Posted 07 June 2001 - 09:18 PM

"...too many comparisons to dancers new viewers can never see leaves us reading these interesting posts with huge holes shot through them."

I would have to disagree with this perspective. Because of the ephemeral nature of ballet, much of its past, even its very recent past (i.e., last night's RB evening), must live in the minds' eyes of those fortunate enough to have been in attendance. I'm envious of those who can vividly recall performances by Nureyev and Fonteyn, for example, but personal accounts are, in many many cases, all we have left to go on. I find the comparisons helpful as well as fascinating and hope they continue!

#14 Terry

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Posted 07 June 2001 - 10:45 PM

Jeannie - I would have to agree! Yoshida was absolutely delightful tonight. I've seen her do many roles, but the simplicity, lightness, YET the sharpness, and the cleanliness of her dancing always always impresses me. Guillem's acting was touching, and Cojocaru showed so much potential. I look forward to Yoshida in Lise -- this is probably one of her best and favorite roles.

#15 Natalia

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Posted 08 June 2001 - 12:02 AM

Indeed, Terry. I'll be there "with bells on" for Yoshida's Lise. I consider myself very, very fortunate. [Thank you, Kennedy Center...]


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