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Royal Ballet 2018-19 season

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Not so long ago I had a chance to speak to Kevin O'Hare about the neglect of certain elements of the company's repertory. The area which concerned me were the Diaghilev ballets which de Valois and Ashton had secured for the company and the neglect of the major works which Ashton had created for the company. In particular I had in mind the neglect of Daphnis and Chloe which has not been seen since 2004 and Cinderella which was last performed in the 2011-12 season.

He said that the problem with Daphnis was the cost of reviving it. As far as Cinderella was concerned his immediate response was what would you do about the Ugly Sisters ? I suggested casting women in the roles of the Step Sisters for a couple of seasons which happened in the late 1950's (Gerd Larsen danced one of them): getting rid of the current costume designs  which make them look like pantomime dames replacing them with costumes which point to their characters which was how they were costumed in each previous production; working on playing them as characters which is how Ashton and Helpmann played them rather than the caricatures which they have become;working on their choreographed gestures as well as the steps and letting the  jokes in the choreography speak as each sister has choreography which neatly encapsulates her character, simple choreography for the shy unassuming sister and late nineteenth century bravura style for the dominant one. I also suggested that the characters of Wellington and Napoleon should be dropped and replaced by the tall and short partners of the original staging. This of course would mean that we could also lose the unfunny toupee joke which presumably became part of the stage business as a result of an onstage accident.

I believe that since staging the new production of the ballet for the Royal Ellis-Somes has mounted a production in Poland which seems to have entirely different designs from those in use at Covent Garden. In an ideal world of course the Royal would revert to using the original Macles designs. As to dancers there is no lack of dancers who would be able to dance the roles of Cinderella and the Season Fairies with distinction.

Edited by Ashton Fan

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22 hours ago, Ashton Fan said:

the characters of Wellington and Napoleon should be dropped and replaced by the tall and short partners of the original staging.

Agreed, Wellington was introduced as a topical joke when the Goya portrait of him was stolen and the original Wellington, Derek Rencher, was made up to resemble the great man.  Very funny at the time, less so now.

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@Ashton Fan Thank  you for the thorough answer to my Qs. Sad situation which can hopefully be resolved within the next couple of years. In retrospect, it’s somewhat amusing to re-watch my recording of the last telecast of Cinderella, ca 2002, and see the intermission interview in which the designers are self-congratulating left and right!

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As far as the future of the  Ashton repertory is concerned. If you are going to deal with a problem you have to be prepared to admit that it exits which is something which the current Artistic Director resolutely refuses to do. Comparing what Kevin O'Hare says about the  Ashton repertory with the ballets he actually programmes is quite revealing. He seems  to have convinced himself that he is remarkably even handed as far as the amount of performance time allocated to revivals of Ashton and MacMillan repertory are concerned. If he is unable or unwilling to recognise and admit that the Ashton problem exists then remedial action is not going to be taken any time soon.

The neglect of the Ashton repertory is not a recent thing. The fact that it is not of recent origin makes it more difficult to remedy as it now goes virtually unnoticed. As to what went wrong? Perhaps the rot set in when Michael Somes, who described himself as a "perfectionist" was "retired" from the company. Somes was the closest Ashton ever got to having a Hans Beck figure to look after his ballets, and while he may not have devised a training system of daily classes to maintain the Ashton performance style, he coached and staged Ashton's ballets with such great care and precision that they always looked extraordinary in performance. Unfortunately after he retired in 1984 there was no one with comparable commitment to the Ashton repertory to replace him. At the Ashton conference "Following Sir Fred's Steps" held at Roehampton University in 1994   there were reports of dancers being encouraged to "camp up" their performances of Ashton choreography. Another problem which the repertory faced in 1984 was that relations between Dowell and Ashton had cooled as a result of Dowell's plans for a new Swan Lake which involved abandoning nearly all of Ashton's additional choreography for the ballet.

Ashton died in 1988. Jeremy Isaacs, then General Administrator at Covent Garden, says in his memoirs that soon after Ashton's death he found himself in a meeting with Kenneth MacMillan and his wife. Isaacs describes the meeting in some detail saying that Lady M.did most of the talking making it clear that she thought that her husband's works should be given priority over Ashton's because he was alive and so capable of producing new works for the company. Isaacs records that she told him that Anthony agreed with this course of action. This meeting is, I suspect, as close as any of us will get to identifying the point at which MacMillan became the company's presiding genius and its greatest choreographer. Certainly by the time the company entered the 1990's it seemed that it was the ability to dance the MacMillan dram-ballet repertory which really mattered as no one seemed that concerned that not all the company's senior dancers were able to dance Ashton's choreography in a nuanced idiomatic fashion. Gradually the standard Ashton repertory dwindled to the handful of works owned by three or four of Ashton's named legatees. By the time that the opera house was closed for much needed redevelopment Dowell had far more pressing problems to deal with than the fate of the Ashton repertory as the continued existence of the company as a full time organisation came under threat. It is reported that Michael Kaiser had suggested that the company should be disbanded during the opera house's closure and  re-established on a part-time basis when it re-opened.

Mason's directorship saw quite a few Ashton ballets brought back into the repertory but as both the Ashton centenary and the company's seventy fifth anniversary occurred during her directorship it would have been difficult to have avoided staging a wider range of Ashton ballets than had become the norm. The problem is that having restored Daphnis and Chloe with its original sets and costumes in 2004 it has not been performed since and if had not been for last season's revival of Sylvia it would have seemed that under the current director Sylvia was destined to be ignored until the next significant company anniversary  rather than the commemoration of an individual occurred. Fonteyn's centenary falls next year and at present the only programmed ballet which has any direct Fonteyn connection appears to be the Firebird. It will be interesting to see what Kevin proposes staging in the 2019-2020 season and whether those choices have a sufficiently close connection with Fonteyn for them to be interpreted as a serious attempt to mark the centenary of her birth. But then it would be sad if the neglected Ashton repertory, of which there is a great deal, were only staged for commemoration purposes.

Edited by Ashton Fan

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Yesterday there was an unwelcome development as far as the Autumn season is concerned when it was announced that Ed Watson will not be appearing in the current run of Mayerling. Many people had interpreted the revival of the ballet as Watson's swan song when it appeared in the season's schedule. Watson is to be replaced by Hirano while Hirano is to be replaced by Ball. The role of Rudolf is exceptionally demanding physically and it is to be hoped that Ball, who is in his early twenties, comes through the experience unscathed and does no damage to his career long term, David Wall said that dancing the role had reduced his career by five years.

Edited by Ashton Fan

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13 minutes ago, Ashton Fan said:

The role of Rudolf is exceptionally demanding physically and it is to be hoped that Ball, who is in his early twenties, comes through the experience unscathed and does no damage to his career long term, David Wall said that dancing the role had reduced his career by five years.

Although I have the DVD, I've never seen this in the theater (although I'm seriously looking at the LA performances next July). Can someone elaborate on the physical demands that account for this? Time on stage? Difficult partnering?  Is this a problem in ballets like Manon?

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1 hour ago, California said:

Can someone elaborate on the physical demands that account for this?

It's difficult on many levels, including psychologically, but the main challenge is the mind-boggling number of pas de deux. The protagonist dances with lots and lots of different female characters, and you know what sort of pas de deux MacMillan choreographed.

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20 minutes ago, volcanohunter said:

It's difficult on many levels, including psychologically, but the main challenge is the mind-boggling number of pas de deux. The protagonist dances with lots and lots of different female characters, and you know what sort of pas de deux MacMillan choreographed.

If anybody is interested the YouTube of Royal Ballet has rehearsals with Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb from Mayerling:

 

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MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet is a real slog for the dancer playing Romeo as he is on stage for most of the action of the ballet without opportunities for a break. Juliet by comparison gets let off lightly. Donald MacLeary who was very strong and an exceptional partner has said on several occasions that by the time a Romeo begins the balcony pas de deux in the MacMillan version of the ballet he is exhausted. In his account of dancing the role during the ballet's initial run in London, which was filmed for a streamed performance, he gave some insight into what it actually feels like physically to dance the role of Romeo which is not as obviously strenuous as the role of Rudolf. MacLeary said that the dancer arrives at the balcony pas de deux which ends the first act and finds himself confronted with this girl who keeps throwing herself at him. All he could think of at that point was "Why is she throwing herself at me ? Does not she realise I'm exhausted?" Well,Mayerling requires considerably more of the dancer taking the role of Rudolf in terms of partnering and acting.

As to how demanding the role of Rudolf really is, during the course of the first act he dances with his sister in law, Princess Louise; Larisch, his sister and Mary Vetsera as a child; his mother and finally with his wife,, Princess Stephanie. The ballet in its entirety is a real test of the dancer's stamina, acting and partnering skills but the final pas de deux of the first act, at whatever speed it is taken, is probably the most taxing thing that MacMillan ever required a male dancer to do. I know that on the night of the first performance the audience came out of the auditorium at the first interval wondering how the ballet was going to develop during the next two acts because the demanding nature of the acting and the choreography which closed the first act clearly removed several options for the end of the final act. I think that most of the audience were asking themselves " Where does it go from here?" Ed Watson has said that he ends the first act feeling as if he has danced a full three act ballet. I believe that David Wall who created the role said words to the effect that the day following a performance of the role he felt as if he had been run over by a steamroller. 

Edited by Ashton Fan

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All that is true and it is pertinent that Anthony Dowell never touched the role, nevertheless it has become a role that dancers aspire to.  Ivan Vasiliev in particular was keen to dance Rudolf, whether he has I don't know but I don't think he would be entirely suitable.  Ironically his namesake Vladimir Vasiliev could have danced it, so too could Maris Liepa and therein lies a paradox, is the role for a dancer with the strength to perform it or is it for a dancer with the acting skills to bring the role to life?  Royal Ballet dancers should in theory be physically stronger today than previous generations due to the great range of styles they are obliged to perform, The kind of stamina required to dance Macgregor is beyond anything required in the past.  Rudolf really needs a first class actor even more than a ballet strongman to bring the role to life.  It is telling that when Bennet Gartside, basically a character dancer, stepped in to dance Rudolf at short notice and gave the performance of a lifetime still talked about today, it proved to be a one off.   My guess is that the ordeal was too much to be willingly repeated despite receiving near hysterical applause from an audience that had actually gone to see someone else.

Mayerling is a ballet that needs a degree of research to understand who's who and what's going on, the bewildering long list of named characters on the cast sheet is daunting and I remember going to see it with the mother of an ROH employee who was so confused by all the names and relationships I spent both intervals explaining.  Clearly MacMillan never heard/chose to ignore Balanchine's famous quote about mother-in-laws.  I consider the ballet to be very much a vehicle for the male dancer though it's a work I'm fairly ambivalent about as it's on the whole an evening spent watching a bunch of very unsympathetic people.  To some extent it's carried by Liszt's wonderful music and the RB's artists work wonders to bring the ballet to life, but like Manon it is performed far too often and choreographically there is nothing in either ballet to match the artistry of any of Ashton's.

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21 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

It's difficult on many levels, including psychologically, but the main challenge is the mind-boggling number of pas de deux. The protagonist dances with lots and lots of different female characters, and you know what sort of pas de deux MacMillan choreographed.

plus he has a few difficult solos thrown in there for good measure!

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Just back from my first Mayerling of this run.  Empty seats throughout the auditorium.  They should definitely give this ballet a rest, it should be revived no fewer than every ten yeas.

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I’m curiou about how Polunin performed the role of Rudolph (in Pretty sure he did) If I’m not mistaken in my assumption, did anyone see him in it and what were your thoughts? It seems like he would have been the perfect type to take on the role, maybe a little too much so.

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9 hours ago, Fraildove said:

I’m curiou about how Polunin performed the role of Rudolph (in Pretty sure he did) If I’m not mistaken in my assumption, did anyone see him in it and what were your thoughts? It seems like he would have been the perfect type to take on the role, maybe a little too much so.

He performed it with the Stanislavsky and guesting with Bavarian State Ballet. I saw him in the latter and was not terribly impressed. His technique seemed to have suffered a lot so his first solo was very wobbly. Also I just found him histrionic.

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The first new work of this season, The Unknown Soldier, choreographed by Alistair Marriot has been generally regarded as a flop and has worryingly added to the poor ratio of misses to hits at the RB.

For me the work was something of a curates egg, with some effective moments offset by choreographic clichés and a score that reminded me of a 50's B movie, the near naked young men leaping around behind a scrim in the finale has been thought inappropriate by just about everyone.  It's heart however is in the right place with a strong message about the futility of war.  There is a lot of historic film footage including moving reminiscences from those that lived through the first world war and the words of 106 year old Harry Patch had people near me in tears at both the performances I went to.  The timing of the work isn't ideal as the anniversary of the end of WW1 had passed and English National Ballet's wholly wonderful Lest We Forget programme was created to mark the beginning of that war, seen originally four years ago and very successfully revived again this year.  Wayne Eagling also created a WW! piece this year, Remembrance, based on the wartime experiences of Marie Rambert and Ashley Dukes for New English Ballet Theatre which at least had the advantage of a Handel score performed by some first rate singers.  Both casts I saw did their best to wring the last ounce of pathos from the basic boy meets girl, boy dies and leaves girl mourning storyline.

Unknown Soldier was on a triple bill with Infra and Symphony in C, with the former having two interesting new casts and the latter looking good in this latest revival.  Much comment has been expressed on social media regarding the new 'open up' policy at ROH and indeed the elderly audience for the RB does need new blood, but I was very taken aback by a comment I overheard as I was leaving the theatre from the type of young couple Covent Garden is so desperate to entice in.  (Balanchine fans look away now)

He: " I thought that was wonderful"

She:  "I hated it"

He: "Even the wonderful Bizet?"

She: "It was like Swan Lake without Tchaikovsky"

I'm still recovering from that one.

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12 hours ago, Mashinka said:

 

He: " I thought that was wonderful"

She:  "I hated it"

He: "Even the wonderful Bizet?"

She: "It was like Swan Lake without Tchaikovsky"

I'm still recovering from that one.

Well, she is in good company--John Martin of the New York Times dismissed Symphony in C as "That ballet of his, this time for some inscrutable reason to the Bizet symphony".  The second movement (which I love) is like Swan Lake without Tchaikovsky.

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What can one say? It's their loss. I once overheard a young standee at the Met in New York drawl, "I really don't like Maria Callas." Folie de jeunesse.

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In fairness, lots of people objected to Callas' voice. John Martin's opinion of Symphony in C turned out to be more of an outlier.

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,The sad thing is that lots of school students are attending  performances of the current mixed bill to see Infra because it is on the GCSE dance syllabus. They dutifully sit through Unknown Soldier, an earnest and worthy  piece by Alistair Marriott, which  again reveals his choreographic pretentions and his lack of talent. They then watch Infra and, it appears, have to leave before Symphony in C which is by far the best thing in the programme. The problem with Infra is that it is a marmite ballet you either love it because you believe that Wayne MacGregor is one of the greatest choreographers of our age or you loathe because you think that he is little more than a choreographic charlatan and you worry about the long term effects on the dancers' bodies of appearing in his dance works. Interestingly so far Mr Muntagirov has not appeared in any of his works. If it is his decision not to appear in MacGregor's works  it shows a great deal of common sense on his part and that he has the artistic clout within the company to decline the offer. Being concerned about the long term consequences for dancers of performing  MacGregor's choreography  and moving in his choreographic style using his dance vocabulary is clearly not confined to a particular age group as former dancers who enjoyed thirty year injury free careers and young choreographers working in the classical style are equally concerned. As far as that  part of the audience who stay on to the end are concerned there has been a  palpable sense of relief as the curtain has risen  on Symphony in C. One of the newspaper critics who is clearly not a fan of classical choreography  gave Unknown Soldier a fairly positive review and simply dismissed Symphony in C as a " tutu ballet " saying nothing about the cast's performance.. Presumably in her eyes Balanchine's response to the Bizet score is far too full of  joie de vivre, if not down right frivolous, to be considered acceptable company for the other works in the programme.

 

 

.

Edited by Ashton Fan

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Oh to be fair @Ashton Fan  maybe Symphony in C is too musical, geometrically complex, emotionally varied, and intertextually resonant for that particular critic’s taste.  Mileages vary as the saying goes. (That sarcasm is directed at the critic’s remarks not yours.) 

Anyone can dislike Symphony in C for all kinds of reasons and there are serious people who don’t care for Balanchine’s aesthetic —but “tutu ballet” is not worthy of a professional critic who is talking about one of the major works of the repertory. (And yes, I know they have to deal with a limited word count.)

Frankly “Swan Lake without Tchaikovsky” seems much cleverer to me and a touch more insightful too (cited above) though I strongly disagree with it as an assessment.

Just a thought, but If someone objects to classical orchestral music on principle, then maybe they should not get paid for their views on performances of Mozart's Prague Symphony. (That doesn’t mean every concert goer has to like Mozart.)

Not up to being diplomatic today...

 

Edited by Drew
Typo

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Whatever has London come to. Seems to have gone downhill. I was shocked and disapppointed by their last New York tour. They have some great dancers but their choreographic taste is awful. And Macgregor! ... not a real ballet choreographer imo. The company has wandered far afield. 

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8 hours ago, Ashton Fan said:

dismissed Symphony in C as a " tutu ballet " saying nothing about the cast's performance..

It's virtually dancer proof in my eyes, but this time around Vadim Muntagirov in the first movement was the stand out for me.    I always regard it as a special treat of a ballet.  A number of London critics strike me as happier writing about modern dance rather than ballet.  I personally find the term 'tutu ballet' implies contempt, hope I'm wrong about that.

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3 hours ago, Mashinka said:

[....]A number of London critics strike me as happier writing about modern dance rather than ballet.  I personally find the term 'tutu ballet' implies contempt, hope I'm wrong about that.

I could not agree more about the term "tutu ballet" which is why I wrote above the way I did.

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6 hours ago, Olga said:

Whatever has London come to. Seems to have gone downhill. I was shocked and disapppointed by their last New York tour. They have some great dancers but their choreographic taste is awful. And Macgregor! ... not a real ballet choreographer imo. The company has wandered far afield. 

They did bring Song of the Earth on their last New York tour which I found a magnificent ballet -- and it certainly belongs to their distinctive ballet tradition along with The Dream which they also brought. (Though I personally had enjoyed some ABT peformances of the Dream in recent years at least as much as the Royal's; either way I certainly think it's a great ballet.) But I infer you are referring to the program of newer choreography, which was more of a mixed bag and with much of the choreography presented in snippets. But I think the one week they appeared was way too short a visit for New York to get a sense of where the company is nowadays...Oh for the multi-week visits of yester-year....

It does seem odd to me that McGregor is now such a force with the company--and I am far from disliking Infra as much as others who are posting here, and Woolfworks (which I have only seen on video) holds a certain interest for me. But even so, it just seems an odd match up of company and choreographer. As you says more bluntly--he is not really a ballet choreographer. 

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Thanks, Drew for intuiting and more articulately expressing what I was thinking. 

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