On a balmy summer’s evening in Belfast with the backdrop of trouble on the outskirts of town, I joined some of the intrepid tourists and of course, ballet fans, who were not, by and large, to be put off by a bit of summer madness to see this exceptional evening of dance. This was not a live recording, but had been filmed in February and there were many remarkable performances and stunning in their range. If I’d forgotten why the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton is revered, this was a great evening to remind myself why and also to see works that I’d not seen before or only on the small screen.
The evening started with, La Valse, capturing the current mood for retro tea dances and sumptuous balls. The stage is filled with 21 couples waltzing with wide dresses and tails in circular formation or across the stage in rows. In ways it is familiar to see the Royal’s much lauded corps de ballet in such a spectacle but it is usually in white tutus. This piece was set to dazzle and look luscious as the dancers whirl and twirl in complete harmony. There is a lot of arms movement, in perfect timing before three couples become the focal point, the three ladies and their handsome beaux0, as the women are all romantic arms and showing them off to perfection, the men bound gallantly forth to whisk their ladies into a frenzy but in the most proper way. The setting is a grand ballroom, complete runway to promenade along, sweeping down red-carpeted steps onto the dance floor. The soloists were Bennett Gartside, Samantha Raine, Hikaru Kobayashi, Ryoichi Hirano, Helen Crawford, Brian Maloney. This was Ashton’s homage to a form of dance that, of its time, was scandalous as it enabled men and women to become closer than they’d been before. Modern audiences love the gentlemanlike and ladylike way social interaction was conducted and the romanticism.
Recently as part of the Royal Ballet’s appearance at the UK City of Culture celebrations in Londonderry, Yuhui Choe and Ryoichi Hirano danced ‘Meditation‘ from Thais, this evening, at the other end of her dancing career, recent retiree Leanne Benjamin danced with Valeri Hristov. Leanne Benjamin was a fabulous dancer, at the absolute height of her powers and did not look like someone who is nearly entering their 5th decade, what a performer, what a woman. Although Leanne had not announced her retirement in February, it was nice to share one of her final performances and feel as if we were able to say goodbye to this fine dancer. This is an unadulterated romantic showpiece but with understated strength. The male must lift the object of his affection like a prized possession and sacrifice, straight up in the air on outstretched arms. The female courus around the stage for a long time, conveying indecision, longing and giving the impression of being other-worldly. The male is more grounded and earthy but none the less romantic as he is the pursuant of his dreams. The music that accompanies is Meditation from Massenet’s opera Thais, is one of the most gorgeously romantic pieces around that helps to engage you with the story of the piece.
Choe herself then danced ‘Voices of Spring’, a work that is entirely appropriate for her beaming smile and she was ably supported by Alexander Campbell as she is propelled across the stage, at the end of his outstretched arm, leaving a trail of petals as she goes along. The piece is set to a waltz by Johann Strauss II which gives that fluid, breezy, up-tempo lightness. Then when they reach the ground, there is a lot of changes of direction and jumping in this work which must sap the energy of the dancers. This is a work that is purely pleasure-driven and this is what it brings, the costumes are of a pale green, light and floaty too and the girl wears a halo of flowers in her hair.
The next two acts are entitled Monotones I and II, works for three dancers, the first a man and two women and the second, a woman and two men. Unsurprisingly, given the title of the pieces, the dancers are dressed in single colour body suits. The only people that can get away with this are athletes and dancers. Montones I was danced by Akane Takada, as the smallest dancer, at the front Dawid Trzensimiech, another dancer who came over for the City of Culture, is in the middle and Emma Maguire behind. Monotones has a very modern feel to it though it was choreographed in the 60s. However, the 60s era may account for the rather odd costumes, or rather, the hat atop the plain coloured body suits looks like a shower cap with nodules for conducting sci-fi experiments on the dancers, although I’m sure a study of the inner workings of a ballet dancer’s brain would reveal many interesting facts about strength and perseverance.
Monotones’ are abstract in feel and mainly concerned with shapes and lines and symmetry, like statues coming to life. Monotones I, the dancers are in green with sequined bandings complete with green hat. The dancers are in a line in front of each other, they must be very controlled as there are not a lot of big movements and are totally exposed which may have accounted for a few wobbles. The whole of the body is used and a lot more arm movement than usual which is beautiful to see. I have to say that as fascinating as Monotones I was, I could tell that it was choreographed as a secondary work, Monotones II was much more captivating.
Monotones II was danced by three Principal Dancers with a wealth of experience in modern and classical roles, Edward Watson, Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish. Monotones II involved the dancers being costumed in all-white, this accentuated even more the clean lines of the piece. Both pieces gave you time to appreciate the fundamental steps of ballet and the strength and poise. I also enjoyed the non-combative nature between the male and female dancers and especially in Monotones I, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is which, except for that the women are on pointe. As opposed to present day modern ballet, for example, Wayne McGregor, the choreographer quite often does not choreograph the work, on pointe. I personally enjoy seeing a work that is on pointe as I think that the lines are cleaner and much more finished and balletic, although that is probably the intention of the modern-day choreographer, not to be so polished and a bit more incomplete. Monotones I and II are the epitome of smoothness, the rarefied air that the dancers inhabit, is rarely disturbed. The work is purposefully androgynous and is meant to be observed for how the dancer’s form can produce such beautiful movements.
The next work could not be more different and had so much significant baggage attached, being a short, narrative work choreographed for ballet’s most famous couple, Fonteyn and Nureyev. Add to that weight of history, this performance was performed by Tamara Rojo, returning from her Directorship of the English National Ballet to grace the stage of the Royal Ballet for one final time, taking her last bow as a dancer after many years as Principal. Tamara, one of the finest actor-dancers of her generation was partnered by one of ballet’s most infamous young dancers also returning to the Royal Opera House for one last bow after an-all-to public and dramatic departure, Sergei Polunin. Polunin obviously has so much passion and if he chooses to direct it into the appropriate role, he has the potential to ignite fireworks with whomever he is dancing, especially being partnered by one of ballet’s sparkiest personalities.
The piece starts with the dying Marguerite lying on her chaise longue, weeping for true love and a life lost. It then jumps back to the meeting of the courtesan, in full charge of her sexual powers, aristocrats and young men are fighting amongst themselves for her attention as she is at her most alluring in a roaring red dress. Armand cuts a real dash in a blue hunting jacket and quickly draws her attention away from the wealthier lovers with his dashing prowess. The characters display their love in a pas-de-deux of romantic coupling set to a dreamy score by Liszt. This is where the power of the cinema enhanced the experience as we were able to focus on the solo accompaniment on the piano by Robert Clark on the piano, a performance that is as crucial as the dancing. I loved watching the hands fly over the keys so fast that they became a blur. This built the atmosphere and the ballet performance would not have been as effective without this music.
The story is familiar having been interpreted in opera and even to Hollywood as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is based on this story and borrows many of the key elements, their poor circumstances get in the way of true love. Even though love seems to have won as they leave their torrid history behind to live out in romance, in the country. Marguerite’s story is also told through her costumes as she is now dressed in a virginal white costume. However, she cannot run away from her former life and illness is taking hold of her, she heroically, under the behest of Armand’s father, runs away to give him a better chance of happiness. She is now dressed in an alluring black dress, to find a wealthy patron, only for Armand to follow her, humiliating her, throwing money at her. It is only on her death bed that Armand learns of her sacrifice and he rushes to her side to be re-united with her, for it to be too late but the short narrative work packs as much emotion into the piece as we can get, as Armand dances with her to the death.
However, it was the real, human drama, that brought the greatest tear to my eye, the triumphant return for such a talented but temperamental dancer as Sergei Polunin and as if that wasn’t drama enough, there is probably only one woman that could fill Fonteyn’s shoes at the moment, in Britain, and that is Tamara Rojo and tonight was her final bow on the Covent Garden stage. Tamara Rojo looked sensational in the roaring red costume and matched the power of Polunin. She is a dancer and a person that has always been supremely in control of herself or would appear to be. The stage tonight was hers and it was fitting that it was a triumphant return for her to say thank-you to her adoring fans and to have Sergei at her side to thank-you to Covent Garden for accepting him back after his abrupt departure. To top it all off, Tamara was joined on stage by Carlos Acosta to give her flowers and acknowledge the many roles that they had danced together.
The success of Event Cinema has been staggering for the Arts. It started out with theatre, ballet and opera and now pop concerts and museum exhibitions are all being shown on the big screen. Of course, it will never rival or be a substitute for actually being in the auditorium and I think we are now getting to grips with the awkward, do we clap or not and just clap as if you were there, live. The focusing in on key moments can actually give you a much enhanced experience and for those of us who cannot travel to London all the time and live in a country that cannot hope to stage such lavish productions on the grand scale of the Royal Opera House, this has been such a phenomenal success. I do not believe there is any downside to this experience, although, there could be a few more in the cinema and the price, although you get more than a front-row seat, you are right in there amongst the action, amongst the feet of the dancers and hands of the solo musicians, this would cost a considerable amount of money. Ballet has also been seen by a much larger audience and sometimes at the same time across many countries, than it could possibly have dreamt of. I have not gone to live ballet performances any less than I would have before cinema, I feel that it enhances the art-form and gives you an appetite for more, it just gives us the option to see performances that previously we could only have read about. There has also been a company set up that will work, solely, in the digital medium and this will be interesting and a different format to experience ballet, not a substitute and with touring becoming increasingly difficult, this is our opportunity to see the World’s best companies with travelling a few miles to the local cinema.
http://www.roh.org.uk/news/a-tribute-sir-frederick-ashton and for in-training videos, see http://www.roh.org.uk/news/the-royal-ballet-dances-frederick-ashton-in-cinemas-this-summer and more on Sir Frederick Ashton here http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/mar/02/dance-frederick-ashton
Ashton, Fonteyn and Nureyev talk about the dance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSIz2DWZMbY